Attack on Titan had already been developing momentum, but it avalanched into an absolute sensation when its anime was broadcast last year. It brought a novel setting, cinematic scope, dizzying 3D sequences and dramatic focus to tread its own path, and there wasn't a high school in sight. Its boldness was rewarded by over 60,000 Blu-Ray and DVD sales per volume, and the manga publisher Kodansha attributed Attack on Titan as responsible for its first revenue upswing after eighteen years of contraction - the Japanese release of manga volume twelve has been the only tankobon in history (after One Piece, let's not get too confident here) to have a print run of over two million copies. With videogame spin-offs and even a live-action movie version slated to begin filming this summer, much like the Titan-shifters in its story Attack on Titan has found itself explosively transformed into a towering franchise.
Attack on Titan has also had the vigour to break down the walls of our own ghetto. Manga volumes have not just reached the top of the manga bestseller lists but in October 2013 Nielsen Bookscan identified volume one as the bestselling graphic novel of any genre in America, and four other volumes of the series were present in its Top 20 leaderboard at the same time. This achievement is even more impressive when you consider that Bookscan gathers data from major US high-street chains like Barnes & Noble and does not record sales from the specialist audience of established comic-readers at comic book stores - the point to take from this is that Attack on Titan is not just a relative success within our small niche but is having genuine success and a real and potent impact on the general reading public too. Widespread commentary agrees that, if you'll pardon the phrase, it's got Ordinary People chattering about anime again. Revitalising curiosity amongst newcomers and inspiring excitement amongst fans, Attack on Titan could well be The Next Big Thing.
Quick to recognise that they've struck oil, Kodansha Comics have have been pumping out manga volumes at a very quick pace. Also, while normally it's hard for Western readers to get hold of all the extra materials associated with a title, Kodansha is also bringing across all of Attack on Titan's spin-off manga too. Attack on Titan: Before the Fall accompanies the comedy Attack on Titan: Junior High and the upcoming Attack on Titan: No Regrets which will exploring the backstory of major characters Erwin and Levi. Will it heighten Attack on Titan's presence, or should we remember that the bigger they are, the harder they fall?
Attack on Titan: Before the Fall is an indicator of the franchise's new size just by itself, because it's a spin-off at two removes, being a manga adaptation by Satoshi Shiki of a light novel series originally written by Ryo Suzukaze, with Shiki's art informed by the light novel's illustrations by Thores Shibamoto. It is a prequel story set long before the events of the main manga, going back seventy years in the timeline. Mankind remains trapped behind the walls that have been throw up to protect them from the marauding Titans, the monstrous giants which have sprung up and crushed all civilisation in the world beyond the walls. In this time period though the Titans are even more awful and horrifying than we knew them - while during the era of Eren Jaeger mankind at least has the chance to reclaim his land from Titans, but this past is before the development of the 3D Maneouvre Gear, and even before those living within the walls have recovered enough of an industrial base to even reliably manufacture cannon. There is literally no way to fight back against the Titans - the human race within the walls are no more than rats in a cage.
The unassailable power of the Titans makes them seem almost divine - a force equally unknowable and unstoppable as a terrible and vengeful God - and doomsday cults are springing up, demoralising the population with apocalyptic soothsaying. When one group opens the wall gates to let a Titan in, the carnage that ensues is appalling: and the Titan does not only kill people, it kills hope too - for a survivor is no cause for celebration. From the belly of a half-eaten pregnant woman vomited back out by the Titan, her still-living baby is cut open - ripped into life in madness and pain in no natural way, the hapless infant is seen as a grotesque, a "son of the Titans", and is hated and reviled by people, growing up feral inside a cage. The boy, called Kuklo by whatever handler was goading him, comes into the possession of one of the human world's wealthiest merchants to use as a sideshow freak for his guests to gawp at during dinner parties - and as a helpless punching bag for his son Xavi, who he has ambitions of putting into high military office, so that he can "build his confidence" by "fighting a Titan's spawn". Kuklo is no mindless shambler, though, and he's remembering every kick. Kuklo is not a Titan... but he may be a monster.
The first difference from Attack on Titan to strike you when reading Before the Fall is this new manga's art. It must be said that, while he's certainly improved as the years have gone on, Hajime Isayama is an indifferent artist and Attack on Titan is enjoyed more for its scenario and plot than its artwork - in my review of the early manga volumes I even said that there was no real reason to read the manga when the anime gave you the same content in a much better-looking form. I couldn't be nearly so dismissive of Before the Fall, which immediately makes its own mark with great artwork.
What immediately stands out is how Shiki realises the Titans. In the original Attack on Titan, at times the misshapen Titans could look inadvertently clownish and comical (the anime version was also guilty of this - notoriously one of them with big "kawaii" stereotypical anime eyes during the Battle of Trost arc which led to a lot of schoolgirl-Titan edits on the Internet). The Titans of Before the Fall though are truly, blood-chillingly terrifying - masses of slick marbled flesh with shadows sliding off them and pooling in every fold and sinew, crumpled eyesockets with bullet-hole pupils, the camera swaying drunkenly in insensible horror around wide, leering grins, stumbling down and dropping into yawing maws, their enormity filling the page and seeming to expand out further as the camera zooms in to impress us with their scale even more. You can see why a girl faints at the sight of one as it just seems to rush up into the camera with delirious vertigo. Before the Fall crushes us with gruesome and hideous monstrosities and we can appreciate the fear that these creatures inspire better than ever before. It's a stand-up triumph of Before the Fall.
Shiki hasn't let everything else drop by the wayside for the sake of focusing on the money shots, though - the art of Before the Fall remains strong throughout. Backgrounds and environments are well-detailed, and whereas the difficulty of distinguishing a cast with "same-face" may be a problem with some weaker manga, every character here as a distinct and vivid personality in his changing dress (Xavi's high-class costumes especially), mood, and expression. The camera moves dynamically in action sequences and frames shots atmospherically during dramatic scenes.
There is one significant problem though, in that the design of the Survey Corps soldiers feels lazy. It's a shame, because they only have a short role in this volume, but it does have an unfortunate effect on the whole book. Other than the absence of the 3D Manoeuvre Gear and the use of proper swords instead of their oversized boxcutter-blades, they're completely identical to the "modern" soldiers - their cloaks, their symbols, their short jackets... even the boots are indistinguishable. Keeping the designs familiar might just be a quick visual shorthand to allow a manga reader to more quickly identify who's who within a limited number of panels, but still it feels like a missed opportunity. A contrast in designs would have been a great chance for economical worldbuilding - one of the main manga's strengths - just one image could have allowed us to interpolate and visualise generations of development and change between Before the Fall and the present day (compare a soldier from the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign to World War One for a comparable timeframe), and even been a springboard for our own imaginings, enhancing our investment in the story. As it is though, the over-familiarity harms the reading experience, taking the reader out of story with the suggestion that the Titans appeared, the walls were raised and then nothing - that mankind just sat around twiddling their thumbs for a century waiting for Eren to show up and the plot to kick in. It unfortunately reinforces an impression that Before the Fall isn't so much an expansion to the canon as a derivative spin-off made to cash-in a quick buck, and it leaves a sour feeling.
While beyond that direction decision the artwork of Before the Fall is excellent, the story it depicts is more by-the-numbers. Individual characters work well - Xavi's abusing of Kuklo is the right blend of self-centredness and unconcerned cruelty, and his sister Sharle's first approach to Kuklo is also well-handled: she doesn't immediately feel ministering-angel sympathy for Kuklo, she's absolutely terrified of the Titans and wants to kill the one that's infiltrated her home - that she doesn't go through with the deed is not due to a sudden revelation but a believable mix of her panic, clumsiness, and a surprising link between her and Xavi's words. However, the story in which they move is rote and predictable. Plot points are painfully, excruciatingly, obviously telegraphed - I live in hope of being proven wrong, of course, but I'll take no bets against Xavi's inflated bravado getting punctured and him completely going to pieces the first time he has to fight an actual Titan in a future volume. The moment Sharle mentions that she's being married off by her father you've already narrated to yourself a mopey gilded-cage "I'm trapped behind walls/I'm a prisoner too" speech, and so it comes to pass. Oh, you poor dear, laden heavy with sorrows while tucking into your banquet - spare a thought for the actual prisoner living off apple-cores in your dungeon, and count your blessings!
This brings us to consider Kuklo himself. Despite everything, he has a rather convenient life - surprisingly fit for a boy chained underground who lives off of table scraps and literally has to lick moisture off the floor for water; and for someone whose only interaction with other humans for years has been a daily beating I'm surprised at how quickly he trusts Sharle and how quickly he picks up the education she tries to give him too (and the jungle-savage dialogue he develops is hilarious - I'm surprised he doesn't go "Me Tarzan! You Jane!"). Not nearly enough is made of his status as the "Titans' son". Given the all-consuming fear in which Titans are held, that a "son of the Titans" would just be kept as an ornamental circus-freak as a dinner-party conversation-piece is hard to credit. Wouldn't this impossible, unique being have been the immediate attention of the government and military? I could imagine him living well from a sort of fearfully reverential awe, as we were once told to fear God; given the Titan-worshipping cults that the Before the Fall opens with, his existence could well have inspired a religious revolution with him being hailed as messianic proof that the Titans are agents of phoenix-like rebirth. There's even the smaller-scale, personal question of what inner demons the people who found the infant Kuklo had to fight with to spare the boy instead of just dashing out the grotesque aberration's brains out with a rock then and there. There are many interesting stories that could be told, which the manga squanders uselessly, ignoring them all with a thirteen-year timeskip to put the teenage Kuklo in a cage in a cellar and a desperately conventional story of a slave learning how to fight back for freedom. This story could be told in any one of a hundred different titles and it's a complete waste of the setting. If this will be the focus of Before the Fall I feel rather cheated because it doesn't seem to have all that much to do with Attack on Titan.
Better use of Attack on Titan is seen in the ancillary materials. This volume also includes a short side-story - a "trailer comic" published in a magazine - showing a draft version of the Titan's attack in the first chapter. It also has an excerpt from Attack on Titan: Junior High, the aforementioned comedy spin-off recasting the characters of Attack on Titan as schoolkids where the Titans are not civilisation-destroying monsters but the playground bullies. I really enjoyed this segment - some of the humour is a bit referential ("you're worse at apologising than Shia La Bouef"), but a lot of it is entertainingly self-aware and self-deprecatory - Eren's characteristic broodiness is something he puts on to seem complex and profound and he gets frustrated when a girl doesn't come to comfort his tortured soul. It's an excellent advertisement for the new manga and I'm genuinely interested in following it further.
Attack on Titan: Before the Fall is something of a curate's egg. Much of it is very good, especially its artwork, but it is shot through with poor features, particularly its simplistic plot and implausible hero, which unfortunately can't be seen in isolation and contaminate the rest of the book. Its heart is in the right place and it even realises the horror of the Titans better than the original manga, but good intentions don't reach out into an effective final product.