There’s something undeniably satisfying about holding a well-crafted hardcover book in your hands, and Yen Press’s release of Aki’s one-shot The Angel of Elhamburg is easily the most well-crafted manga I have ever seen. When I unwrapped this volume and saw the stunning art on the dust jacket, the deep red hardback cover with gold foiling, and two full-color glossy watercolor prints inside, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. Dear manga publishers: can this please be our new normal?
The Angel of Elhamburg follows High King Madeth, a charming newly-minted royal, and Sir Lalvan, Madeth’s childhood friend and commander of his army. As the story opens, we learn that Madeth’s forces have recently captured the lands surrounding Elhamburg, an ancient castle that brings with it the legend of an angel that blesses and protects the castle’s inhabitants. Despite the fact that Lalvan is the only person who can see the angel, the angel shies away from him, instead preferring to hover near Madeth at all times. Lalvan reveals that he has always seen spirits, but believes he is cursed never to receive their blessing.
While Lalvan has worked hard to achieve what status he has earned, Madeth appears to coast through his life on sheer luck. Madeth leans heavily on Lalvan—who, he asserts, is more talented than him in almost every aspect of life—but Lalvan deeply resents Madeth’s seeming unwillingness to apply himself to anything. At first, their squabbles seem like the good-natured ribbing of old friends, rather than anything sinister. However, as we follow Lalvan and Madeth over the course of their lives, it becomes obvious that their mutual envy is the fatal flaw that will cause their downfall.
At its heart, The Angel of Elhamburg is a tragedy about the slow, painful death of a friendship. Over the course of the story, what began as a kernel of jealousy sprouts and consumes both men to the exclusion of all else. Their inevitable mutual destruction is both emotionally raw and deeply tragic. Unfortunately, while the story is Shakespearean in scope and could easily have been phenomenal if spread over several volumes, The Angel of Elhamburg fails to deliver as a one-shot. The Angel of Elhamburg covers over thirty years of Madeth’s and Lalvan’s lives, and because of the limited space, Aki liberally uses time-skips and completely drops some threads of the plot. There are characters who are mentioned, such as Madeth’s beloved younger son, that the reader is supposed to know and remember, but they are never shown “on-camera” over the course of the story. Ultimately, though the story is emotional and hard-hitting, I had to exert a concerted effort to follow the disjointed plot; that made the volume less enjoyable than it could have been had those threads been connected and fleshed out over multiple volumes.
Despite the story’s initial promise eventually falling flat, the volume’s artistic mastery makes it a worthwhile purchase for art-lovers. Seasoned mangaka Aki (Olympos, Utahime: The Songstress) is known for her chic, impeccably-detailed character design, and she does not disappoint in The Angel of Elhamburg. Each character’s outfit changes when the scene does, and each item of clothing is clearly thoroughly considered and purposefully designed. Aki never shies away from giving an item of clothing the level of detail it warrants: royalty and nobility wear opulent cloaks, ornamental armor, and jewelry, while peasants wear simple tunics. No matter how detailed the outfit, each item of clothing makes sense from every angle and remains consistent from panel to panel. Any art- or fashion-lover could spend hours looking at Aki’s drawings.
If there can be one complaint about the art, it is that the cast is almost completely homogeneous. Every character is white (though this does fit with the vaguely European fantasy setting), conventionally beautiful, and thin, and there is only one woman who is involved in the plot at all—a scheming would-be adulteress, naturally. Still, the manga is such a pleasure to look at that it’s hard to complain.
Yen Press categorizes The Angel of Elhamburg as Teen in their rating system, but adult readers could certainly enjoy this volume as well. There is little content that conservative communities would find objectionable, though there is one scene where Lalvan calls Madeth’s wife a “whore,” and a plot thread dedicated to Madeth’s suspicion of his wife’s adultery, which is never discussed or shown explicitly. Middle school readers and struggling readers of all ages may find that the emotional payoff isn’t worth the effort it takes to follow the story, but anyone who wants to experience phenomenal manga artwork should certainly pick up The Angel of Elhamburg.
The Angel of Elhamburg
Yen Press, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: Teen (13+)