Bizarro Back Issues: Eat-Man Eats, Is A Man (1997) [Sci-Fi Week]
I don't want to sound even older and grumpier than I actually am, but when it comes to getting access to anime and manga, you kids today don't know how good you have it. There are streaming services, digital comics that you can get access to 24/7, countless artists working in webcomics who are influenced by that style and storytelling, and massive sections in pretty much every bookstore.
Back in the dim and distant times before the manga boom at the turn of the century, I can assure you that things were a whole lot different. If you wanted anything that looked even remotely like Japanese comics, you had to hunt through long boxes and hope that you could track down a whole story.
But like a lot of inconvenient things from the '90s --- like, say, VHS tapes --- that's an experience that I have a lot of nostalgia for, and the last time I was digging through dollar books at a con, I thought it might be fun to replicate what it was like to go into some random '90s manga completely cold. That's how I ended up with a copy of Eat-Man #1, the story of a man who eats things --- and based on this one issue, I think it might be my new favorite manga.
The series was originally created by Akihito Yoshitomi in 1996, but this particular issue comes from 1997, when Viz published it as a single-issue comic --- and while I didn't know it going in, that actually makes a lot of sense for this one. Most manga that's adapted into American-style single issues doesn't fare all that well, since manga stories tend to be divided up into shorter chapters that tell longform arcs, making them far more suited for the paperbacks that would explode in popularity just a few years later.
Eat-Man, on the other hand, is apparently a series of shorter, more episodic adventures --- or "Meals," as they're billed here on the title page --- that are slightly better suited for the format. And I do mean "slightly"; it all fits into a single issue, albeit one with 33 pages of story that spills over onto the inside back cover. But really, the physical structure of this issue might be the least weird thing about it.
Our main character, the eating man of the title, is one Bolt Crank, an explorer and mercenary with the round sunglasses, popped collar trench coat, and brusque attitude that they pretty much just hand you when you get the job as a '90s manga protagonist.
And as is befitting a quirky explorer in what is basically the standard issue manga setting of a sci-fi/fantasy kingdom where airships and feudalism exist alongside each other, he starts off with a pretty basic first-level Dungeons & Dragons quest: Delivering a sacred artifact to someone named "The Devil King."
And on the off chance that this wasn't enough painting by numbers, he's also given a plucky young sidekick named Roan who develops a crush on him almost instantly for zero reasons.
The one thing that Bolt has to set himself apart is that he's spending the entire adventure snacking on a handful of screws that he keeps in a belt pouch. They are, by all appearances, his favorite snack, to the point where after tossing a handful of them at a gang of baddies, he makes sure to pick each one back up and put it back in his pocket for more secret eating.
And later, when Roan pulls a gun on him after he threatens to leave her by the wayside while he completes the mission himself, he eats that, too.
Truly, he is an eat-man of the highest degree. As for Roan, she tends to alternate between hapless, useless, and occasionally topless. But don't worry --- she has a secret, and that's almost like having a character, right?
Eventually, after Roan crashes their airship, wanders into a gang of knife-wielding villains that would have to go through significant character development in order to qualify as cartoonish, shoots up a bar, and takes a bath, she and Bolt finally finish their journey and meet up with the Devil King. And honestly? He is exactly what I want to look like when I'm, like, 65.
Just a twelve-foot half-robot Gandalf with a goofy hat and some radical shades.
Unfortunately, the Devil King's attitude isn't quite as cool as his look. When Bolt tries to offer him the Silver Crystal Orb --- not to be confused with the "Legendary Silver Crystal" --- it turns out that he hasn't been extorting the kingdom for their national treasures at all. Instead, he wants something far more precious: the blood of a princess!
Oh, right. Roan is a princess. That was the big secret. That, and the fact that she secretly has long hair.
But it turns out that Bolt has a secret, too. See, coming at this story with Legion of Super-Heroes as my frame of reference for digestion-based superheroes, I assumed that Eat-Man's power was just, you know, the ability to eat things, and while that's true, it's only half of what he can really do. Bolt doesn't just eat things, he can reassemble them within his stomach and then pop them out into his hands at will.
Like, say, Roan's gun.
And if you thought that was amazing dialogue, you haven't seen anything yet.
As it turns out, the screws weren't just for snacking. They're actually the last parts of a much, much larger gun that Bolt's been steadily gnawing on ever since he got the job, an amazing bit of preparation that leads to what is not only the best line in the comic, but possibly the best line in any comic, ever: "It took me ten days to eat for this, but it's only gonna take you one second..."
"To eat this bullet!"
With that, the Devil King is pretty much obliterated and Roan is freed from her obligation of handing over an inadvisable amount of blood to a gigantic bandit.
Eat-Man would go on for another five years before Yoshitomi finally ended the series in 2002 in a chapter that, according to Wikipedia, reveals that Bolt may in fact be God Himself. That, I think you'll agree, sounds remarkably intriguing, but I don't know if I'm going to ever read another chapter. This one's already kind of the perfect back-issue experience as it is.