Buy This Book: Shimizu and Shimoguchi’s ‘Ultraman’ Vol. 1
If you're looking to get into Ultraman, Eiji Tsubaraya's long-running, world-famous tokusatsu franchise, now seems like a pretty good time. There's Ultraman X, of course, which just became the first ever toku series to be broadcast simultaneously worldwide via Crunchyroll, but for those of us who prefer our superheroes on the printed page rather than live action, there's something else, too: A new manga from Eiichi Shimizu and Tomohiro Shimoguchi.
Billed in bold type right there on the cover as 'THE BEGINNING OF A NEW AGE', the first volume dropped digitally this week from Viz Media, and while there are parts that read like a pretty standard superhero reboot, it's well worth checking out --- if only so that you can get to the awesome ending.
In a lot of ways, Shimizu and Shimoguchi's Ultraman is full of exactly the kind of warning signs that tend to turn me off of most superhero reboots. There's the updated costume that seems needlessly complex and overly detailed, a slow; decompressed process of a new hero discovering his abilities and spending a hundred pages battling a single supervillain; and, of course, at least one bit of over-the-top "realistic" violence to make things seem a little more real than just a giant dude crossing his arms and shooting out a laser beam that blows up a kaiju. And really, for a lot of the book, that's exactly what they're doing.
The best part about that stuff is that it's done well, and it actually serves as a pretty great (re-)introduction to the character, which is something that I definitely needed. Ultraman, after all, has neither a dirtbike nor robot dinosaurs, so he's never been my preferred toku hero.
The basics --- Ultraman came from space and fought a bunch of alien monsters and then peaced out 20 years ago --- are all covered in a text info-dump on the first page, but the story begins with one of the more interesting pieces of the aftermath. When Ultraman leaves to go back to the stars, Shin Hayata, the member of the Science Patrol that was bonded with Ultraman and became his secret identity on Earth (in what seems to be a tokusatsu Shazam situation), was left with no memory of Ultraman's time on Earth.
What he was left with are superpowers.
And it's not just him, either. It turns out that both Hayata and his son, Shinjiro, have inherited the "Ultraman Factor," which basically manifests as the standard set of super-powers --- super-strength, invulnerability, you know the deal. And while Hayata has done a pretty good job of keeping it a secret for the past two decades, Shinjiro isn't quite so lucky. The first tip-off that something might be up comes when he falls three stories as a child and is completely unharmed. When we skip ahead to when he's a teenager, he accidentally pulverizes a young ruffian's leg when he's intervening in some street crimes.
The thing is, there's something else going on during those intervening twelve years. The Science Patrol --- which is an amazing name for a group of good guys, and raises a lot of questions about what kinds of science requires regular patrols --- never actually disbanded once the aliens left, and they've spent the time since getting ready for them to come back. Which, considering that they tend to be large, rubbery, walking disaster areas, is a pretty solid plan. And that's where things get really fantastic, and where Shimizu and Shimoguchi really start playing with the formula. (This is where things are going to start to get spoilery, so be advised before we continue.)
From the moment the story starts, it's clear that this is going to be about a heroic role being passed down from father to son, and again, that's a story that we've all seen about a million times. But right from the start, it's weird --- it's a father who doesn't remember that he was ever a hero and a son who's clearly not ready for it, and those are the twists that make it interesting.
And when the action finally starts, when an alien monster shows up to challenge Shinjiro, dropping the knowledge that he's wielding power that was never meant to exist on Earth, it's not just a moment of Shinjiro stepping up to the plate and becoming the hero. It's about Hayata taking up the role for what is technically the first time --- and that part is not only exciting, it's also hilarious.
That was the moment that got me hooked on the story. I think it was the combination of hyper-detailed power armor and wire-framed old man glasses that did it. It's like that scene in Batman Beyond where Old Man Bruce shows up in power armor to help out Terry, but with the added hilarity of seeing a dude who definitely looks like someone's dad get ready to throw down with a jagged, redesigned alien monster named Bemular. It hits that perfect sweet spot of action, comedy, and just plain weirdness that really picks up at the end of the volume.
And they even work in Ultraman's signature move, although to be honest, that was downright mandatory.
The best bit in the entire thing is the very end, when things take a left turn into being surreal and creepy --- although I suspect it might seem a little more familiar than anything else if you're already a fan of Ultraman - and that's what saves it from being just another decompressed superhero reboot. They take a while to get to it, and there are certainly spots where it feels like a long and familiar road, but once it becomes a book that starts asking questions, it gets really good.
It's worth noting that while the main story is certainly enjoyable, the book also includes a backup about Shimizu and Shimoguchi getting the job and taking a tour of Tsubaraya productions that makes me really wish they did a full-length manga about just being two people who were really into Ultraman:
But in the absence of that, I'll take more alien fights. I guess.