Hailing from the pen of the award winning Kenta Shinohara, who cut his teeth on the mega-popular Gin Tama under manga-ka legend Hideaki Sorachi, Astra: Lost in Space is a the tale of a group of classmates taken to an alien planet as part of a school project. Following an unfortunate series of events, the group find themselves stranded over 5,000 light years from home, and must rely on their wits to survive.
As the title suggests, there's an element of the classic Robinson family space opera in here, but with the emphasis on youth and a little more genuine scientific thought put into the plot.
As a group, all the characters are very well written. From Konata, the earnest and driven young man who yearns to be captain to the bratty and privileged Quitterie who has trouble making friends, everyone has their hang ups and talents that add to the mix. Mostly everyone on board is likeable, and the first volume does an admirable job in introducing enough backstory for each to make them relate-able. While you might cringe at some of the tropes, the manga is surprisingly self-aware, going so far as to call itself out on certain story elements and play around with them.
It's also somewhat convenient that the mix of skills seem perfectly suited to the situation they find themselves in - Zack is a certified genius and Chance has an in-depth knowledge of fauna and flora. With Konata's extraordinary athletic ability, these 3 seem to be the most invaluable of the group. Others may have their uses but they have yet to be explained, which means there's probably some fodder in the mix. Yun-Hua, a busty Chinese girl, and Ulgar, a beany wearing misery, seem the most under-developed, but hopefully the author will round them out over further volumes. The reader's surrogate, lonely and eager Aries Spring helps to solve a few issues, but seems to be on the path for love interest for Konata. It'll be interesting to see if this trope is followed or subverted - it could go either way given the playfulness with narrative displayed so far.
What I enjoyed most about this book was the thoughtful and methodical way in which it deals with the issues raised regarding science and survival. Despite the group being transported away from their intended location, and conveniently finding an operable spaceship parked nearby, the characters have to deal with more grounded issues such as water supply, food and, most importantly, getting home. All the logic makes sense - having to hop from planet to planet to re-supply for each stage of their 3 month journey home will allow for a nice mix of planetary environments and problems, while giving the series a clear set of goals. It really feels like the author has thought the whole story through, and I'm very keen to see how it unfolds. The twist at the end of volume 1 is also nicely timed and will make for some interesting developments ahead.
Lastly, the artwork is excellent. Sharp, detailed and clear. There's an obvious love of environment as Shinohara unveils the planet Vilavurs, and the ingenuity of the plant-life and alien creatures is remarkable, going so far as to become major plot points. It's a great read as everything has a purpose and the story seems willing to play with the narrative to keep your attention.
With a likeable cast, intelligent setting and playful nature, Astra: Lost in Space is a terrific read which just made it onto my buy list for the foreseeable future.