While working on a recent article for the Otaku USA Magazine e-newsletter, I got the chance to plug one of my favorite underrated manga titles: GREY. Yoshihisa Tagami’s comic was one of the first manga titles I ever read, and all nostalgia aside, it still holds up as a post-apocalyptic action series with great art and some staggeringly cool designs. At this point, you should be rushing out to your nearest source of old manga, but if I haven’t convinced you yet, read on:
Manga readers are well-accustomed to the never ending story. The series that starts off great, bottoms out and then never really finishes with any strength. Or worse yet, never finishes at all. The nature of manga weeklies kind of necessitates this, especially in the shounen realm, but there’s something really fantastic about a manga titles that can say and do what it needs to in a couple of volumes. That’s one of GREY’s biggest strengths.
The story itself is about a nasty dude named Grey, who fights in the army of the future city state in which he lives, under the hope that he’ll eventually rack enough enough kills and enough money to move up the rungs of his totalitarian society. Things take a turn for the worst and after finding out some truths about the world, namely that there are dozens of city states sending their lower classes off to war at the orders of a central computer with no real endgame, Grey decides to Fuck Shit Up.
There are some interesting themes that run throughout GREY, but I wouldn’t praise it for being particularly cerebral. The closest comparison I could draw, and arguably the highest praise I could put upon GREY, is that it’s the manga version of the classic R-rated action movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s smart, but doesn’t require much thinking. It’s finely-tuned and as imaginative as it is entertaining. There’s a bit of gratuitous nudity. In spirit and execution, it’s the manga equivalent of Die Hard or Demolition Man or Terminator 2.
First published in English back in 1988 by Viz Comics in an old-school issue format, GREY was a pretty slick production. The issues (all nine of them— it’s a short series) are perfect bound with thick paper stock covers and the first issue includes a foreword by Harlan Ellison. It was, to put it simply, a release targeted at people who weren’t really anime or manga fans. Keep in mind that in ’88, officially subtitled video releases had yet to arrive in the U.S., and manga wasn’t exactly showing up in bookstores. On the other hand, the late ‘80s saw an explosion in small-press comics and people seemed willing to read stories other than superhero pap, which worked in the favor of companies releasing manga. Viz Comics and Eclipse Comics were bringing over seinen titles as a result, and AKIRA showed up in color via Marvel’s Epic Comics imprint.
So, much like Mai: The Psychic Girl, Area 88 and Xenon, GREY is one of those first-generation English translations that’s been lost to history, though not unexpectedly. Lots of those early manga releases, AKIRA being the notable exception, weren’t exactly the kind of titles anime fans of the era were clamoring for. That’s why Area 88 was never finished but we got three thousand issues of boring Dirty Pair pseudo-manga drawn by Adam Warren.
Curiously, while the 1986 OVA, GREY: Digital Target, would eventually see a translated release from Viz years later, the first issue of GREY in 1988 advertised copies of the Japanese release, sold through Viz. These were (obviously) untranslated Japanese-release copies of the film, available in VHS or Beta, for the princely sum of $119.95.
So, we’ve established it’s old. The art style definitely shows its age, but not in a bad way. Buildings, machinery, weapons, and robots are drawn with an attention to detail, while faces are loosely sketched and feature unusual eyes and noses. The noses, bizarrely elongated in profile, were something of a Tagami trademark. He draws eyes huge and saucer-like; one could almost say they were shoujo-esque, if not for that fact that they all his characters look dead inside.
Tagami also does a particularly good job of blending real world technology in an increasingly outlandish world. The technology escalates along with the plot, from recognizable modern firearms and jeeps to giant robots and cybernetics. There’s a reason for this in the story, but it serves to underline Grey’s actions putting him into contact with increasingly unfamiliar parts of his world. Tagami laboriously illustrates MG 42s and Russian motorcycles, and then surprises us with absurdly fantastic sci-fi designs. Giant moai gunships, vaguely Orguss-esque bidepal robots, and a gigantic airship in the shape of a Buddhist statue are some of the more memorable designs that Tagami trots out.
GREY also succeeds on the strength of its brevity and focus. Characters exist only so much as they interact with Grey and Tagami wastes little time on side-stories or filler. The few times he does resort to expository dialogue, it’s usually against the backdrop of combat. Because why wouldn’t you explain the downfall of human society while riding in the back of truck dodging gunfire?
At only nine issues, the series isn’t particularly difficult to pick up used. It was also re-released by Viz in a two volume collection, but I’d really encourage you to track down the individual issues. Flappy issue manga is pretty stupid, but given the presentation and short length of GREY, it’s excusable in this case and an interesting look at the U.S. manga market of 25 years ago. The OVA, Digital Target is good, but ditches Tagami’s unique character designs for a much blander look. Production is about as you’d expect for a manga tie-in from the late ‘80s, but it’s surprisingly watchable. I reviewed it way back in 2009.
Go read GREY.