Fafner (as I will call it to save space) follows a mould that will feel like well-worn ground to any anime viewer. A slightly altered near future world faces destruction from a bizarre force that cannot be combated with conventional weapons, and so it is up to a group of teenagers who are press-ganged into being mecha pilots to save the day. Some of the pilots are not the most willing or stable examples of humanity, plus they may have screwed up domestic situations or personal lives that can get in the way. Adults are present to throw around lots of terminology (In this case, ripped from Wagner's “Der Ring Des Nibelungen" opera cycle) and foreshadow stuff. All rather normal thus far.
Fafner: Dead Aggressor is the manga adaptation of the XEBEC anime series "Sokyuu no Fafner", released in the US as simply "Fafner". In the interests of providing a transparent review, I would like to mention here that I am a fan of the anime series and have always felt that the show has never received the love and attention it deserves. Heck, it doesnt even have a formal UK DVD release. I have attempted to review this manga as its own independent entity, but wanted to mention this upfront.
Fafner starts in medias res with a fight scene - robot vs bizarre abomination right there on page three. The narration laments the loss of the pilots idyllic life, and then immediately cuts back to previous events. From here, Fafner falls on its face and stays that way for the rest of the volume, sometimes attempting to do something exciting but in the main merely flailing around with lips planted to the dirt.
The main reason for this is the manga’s complete and utter lack of tension. Events just happen with very little build-up or preamble, making it very hard to get invested in what is unfolding on the page. Pacing between panels and scene transitions is often jerky and confusing, and multiple times I found myself fiddling with the volume to see if I had two pages stuck together. Terminology is spouted and conversations happen but none of the dialogue has any weight, often feeling more like technical notes than the impassioned exclamations of a people under attack by an inscrutable foe. One key example is when an operation shouts "It's Solomon's Prophesy!" - clearly an important thing in the scheme of the plot but the panel the speech is housed in is utterly blank - no follow-up reaction shots are shown, no emotion tied to this event at all.
The fight scenes between the mecha and the abominations, called "Festum", feel equally dead - in part because the manga takes its sweet time showing you the effect of the antagonist's attacks. The Festum summon miniture black holes to destroy landscape, mecha, people. Doesn't that sound awesome? Black holes are a pretty crazy weapon when you think about it! Sadly the art in the manga doesn't do them justice, making them look amazingly dull and static rather than an ultimate, apocalyptic weapon. Fight scenes are disjointed, shockingly poorly paced and devoid of any urgency. Even when a pilot sacrifices themselves using a kamikaze attack to destroy an enemy it feels utterly pedestrian. Up until that point the character had been given exactly two clichéd character features and almost zero screen-time to get to know them and so you cant really bring yourself to care. I have to note here that this same event in the Fafner anime was a massive turning point in the show and greatly effected me, so to see it squandered in the manga is infuriating.
The characters themselves are all utterly forgettable. This is not due to personal dislike, but simply because the manga makes zero effort to flesh them out. The only details I can clearly remember are that the main character has father issues (sound familiar?) and wears a really stupid jacket. The manga does have an evil Margaret Thatcher working for the UN though, which was good for a laugh. Anything to do with personal motivations, individual qualities, or even the names of the majority of the pilots and adults I could not tell you as Fafner has done such a poor job in communicating it.
Another factor that doesn't help when it comes to engaging with the characters is the art. Put simply, the characters look poorly modelled and suffer from a distinct lack of detail. People are hard to tell apart because of this, and feel devoid of any defining features as a result. The age of the characters themselves seem to fluctuate depending on the panel due to the shifting model, a crime committed in particular by co-main character Soshi who looks almost waif-like in some panels.
This nagging lack of detail, especially in shading, also extends to all other parts of the art, in particular the mecha. While the mecha designs themselves are interesting, the sheer lack of detail present makes them look more like unpainted models than vehicles of war. Some wide shots of landscape admittedly look nice, but are the only highlight in a generally underwhelming presentation.
Overall, Fafner is an irritating read - there is a plot waiting to be found and a broad sweep of characters to discover, but the whole presentation is poorly handled to an excruciating degree. Nothing has any emotion or drive behind it, making the whole volume utterly forgettable. I therefore really can't recommend Fafner to anyone - at best this volume is forgettable and at worst, should you have already seen the anime this is based upon, you will be angered by how poorly the events are portrayed in this adaptation.