Let's start this month off with a manga about a subject manner that will be all too familiar to many of us: dealing with infectious diseases!
What? That's a perfectly normal subject for a comic, what are you talking about? Read on, it'll make sense soon enough.
CELLS AT WORK! (Hataraku Saibo!), by Akane Shimizu. First published in 2015 and first published in North America in 2016.
It's just another day inside the body for Red Blood Cell AE 3803. She travels back and forth within the body delivering nutrients, trying her best to not get lost again, and forced to deal with everything from an invasion of pneumonia bacteria to hay fever to a scraped knee. Luckily, she can rely on a particularly grim white blood cell for protection, along with all the other defensive cells within the body.
Cells At Work! works far better than it really should. If I told you previously that a manga that's all about blood cells and immune responses could be entertaining, you'd rightfully look at me like I was insane. Yet here I am, fully ready to write about a manga that's precisely that.
I've seen a lot of reviews comparing this to Moyashimon. I can see where they're coming from with that angle, but it's not quite a perfect match. Moyashimon does talk a lot about bacteria, but its primary focus is on the eclectic collection of humans that study and cultivate them. Here, the story is very literally about various sorts of cells and bodily processes and they're all pretty basic as far as personality goes. The red blood cell is spunky and ditzy, the white blood cell is stoic, the t-cells are tough, and so on. It works well enough for comedic (and occasionally dramatic) purposes, but this won't be the kind of manga you pick up because you love the cast so much.
The real cleverness comes from how Shimizu turns ordinary immune responses into plot. She turns everyday forms of staph bacteria or cedar pollen into fantastical monsters. Immune attacks turn into tense chases that usually end in bloody punches. Even the way she adapts the looks and personalities of the various cells based on their functions works really well. She also goes out of her way to throw in explanations for the various cells and functions on display. Unfortunately, all the cleverness of the concept never really translates into true humor. The characters are too simple and the plots too action-heavy to be comedic, but they aren't really serious enough to be truly gripping either.
Shimizu's art style is much like the story itself: pleasant, but not quite remarkable enough to stand out. For once, though, I can't complain that all the characters look alike. It's part of the joke that all the different cell types look more or less alike. They're also very mundane looking. While their faces are generically attractive, they mostly wear uniforms that reflect their duties. Thus, the immune cells wear uniforms similar to soldiers and police, the red blood cells wear courier uniforms, and so on. She gets more creative with the bacteria. They're a mixture of human and insectoid features that looks just alien enough to be threatening, but there's also elements that suggest the actual look of the respective bacteria. It's one of the few scientific reference that isn't explain, so it's a nice little bonus for well-versed readers.
That mendacity also translates to the backgrounds, although again that's part of the joke. There's not much to identify areas as different parts and organs of the body. Mostly it just looks like an endless array of hallways and lobbies with only signage distinguishing what is where. At least she's got a good grasp on action. She lets the angles get really dramatic once the fights starts, and it's at those times that the art really comes to life. She also doesn't shy away from the grosser stuff, such as the immune cell consuming their prey to 'learn' about them or the punches of the white blood cells turning their opponents into dark sprays of blood. That being said, the crowd scenes can get kind of chaotic. Sometimes this is done on purpose to convey a sense of chaos or large-scale destruction, but other times the panels are simply just too busy. She doesn't slack on the details for both the characters and the backgrounds, but here she needed to reign in either one or the other to keep some sense of balance and thus make the book more attractive.
Cells At Work! is clever in concept, but cleverness alone isn't quite enough to make this anything other than an enjoyable diversion.
This series is published by Kodansha Comics. This series is ongoing in Japan with 3 volumes available. 1 volume has been published and is currently in print.
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