“Get excited!” This catchphrase from a teenage phenom is fitting advice for a new manga series that makes science cool. (Not that it wasn’t already.) Add a little adventure, mystery, sci-fi, and romance, and you have the ingredients for writer Riichiro Inagaki’s and artist Boichi’s Dr. Stone saga, which follows the sole survivors of a pandemic responsible for turning the world to stone.
As a post-apocalyptic tale that pits the last remnants of humankind against a hostile wilderness, Dr. Stone, Volumes 1-3, introduces us to young scientist Senku and his best pal Taiju, who team up after reviving from a 3,700-year state of petrification caused by an unknown agent. Clearly, their task is a big one; solve the mystery of this strange pandemic, bring all of humanity back to life, and manage to stay alive in the meantime.
Within Volume 1, Stone World, Inagaki provides the necessary back story, develops the characters and establishes the main areas of conflict that our dynamic duo must grapple with. The team, comprised of science-savvy Senku and powerhouse Taiju, must rely on their own wits to tackle this lonely new world, rife with dangers in the form of hyper-intelligent wild animals and the unforgiving terrain of dense forests and craggy hillsides. As the childhood friends try to figure out how and why they were able to revive while others did not, things only get more complicated when they use the power of science to develop a life-giving elixir.
Unfortunately, the more people involved, the more problems develop. New addition Yuzuriha means Taiju must face his long-hidden feelings to try finally to end the pangs of unrequited love. The evil ambitions of the character Tsukasa, aka “history’s strongest primate high schooler,” also complicate matters when his plans to create a “pure” society run sour. Such population control doesn’t sit well with Senku, who believes everyone should be given a chance at rebirth, and the race is on between the two to gain the competitive edge in their research pursuits. Throughout, there is plenty of intriguing science talk and experimentation.
Volume 2, Two Kingdoms of the Stone World, then revisits the content of volume one, adding more detail to the storyline and characters as well as hinting that there may be more survivors than originally thought. The quest is on to find out who is responsible for the smoke rings that loom large on the horizon as well as to continue developing a science-based defense against Tsukasa. In this second installment, wild animals also play a greater role, with the point of view expanding to include a group of wise-cracking monkeys whose sharp and often cutting remarks offer a running commentary throughout. Interestingly, in this “Zoo 2.0,” people are now the specimens under observation, reflective of the new dynamics between nature and human. The appearance of a mysterious female warrior at book’s end also serves as the perfect cliffhanger to keep readers curious.
The third volume, Two Million Years of Being, continues the momentum with the introduction of a city seemingly untouched by the petrification process. Senku, solo while his compadres are busy with another mission, must try to win over an eclectic bunch of villagers to populate an army designed to stifle Tsukasa’s thirst for world domination as well as find a cure for the mysterious illness that plagues the town’s shaman. The power of knowledge is again at the forefront, and readers should enjoy the crash courses in science and history that Senku provides to educate his less-brainy sidekicks. Presented this way in all three volumes, explanations that could verge on the dry and dull remain fast-paced and fun.
Thematically, the series covers a lot of ground. Each volume dips into our past, starting from the Stone Age forward. History repeats itself as the characters must first secure basics like food and water before tackling more complex needs like weaponry and tools. However, thanks to Senku’s intelligence, diligence, and knowledge of our collective past, he manages to speed up the evolutionary process to a mind-blowing race through the ages. By the end of the third book, an invention quite literally blinds the natural world, leaving animals in the dark and perhaps foreshadowing things to come.
And the animals are not the only ones threatened by the new arrivals. The series touches on serious issues related to society, ethics, and subjugation. From the get-go, the main conflict develops once Senku revives Tsukasa only to learn he wishes to thin the herd by bringing back a select few to populate his army of tree-hugging soldiers. This includes eliminating adults altogether, which makes me wonder what happens when the young grow older. The evil primate teenager also contemplates the possibility of conquering and enslaving the inhabitants of the newly discovered village because he deems them inferior to those who have undergone the petrification process. It is all too evident that power and narrow-minded thinking can make even good intentions, such as protecting the environment, turn bad.
Equally important in telling the story are the detailed illustrations, which infuse the text with vitality through the emotion, humor, and suspense they convey. The visually expressive characters draw readers in, and Boichi makes the interesting choice of veering from the stereotypical science nerd persona to portray Senku as an ultra-cool guy with muscles worthy of admiration. The only clues to his more academic nature come in the form of his “mad scientist” hair and an algebraic equation displayed prominently on his chest. Science is his guiding force, and a force to be reckoned with he is. As for Senku’s arch nemesis, Tsukasa, Boichi also gives him his fair share of muscles, rendering him in hard lines and dark shading that hint at the murkiness of his character. His body often dominates the frame with massive arms, legs, and hands covered by animal skins that connect him to the natural world he works so hard to protect.
Boichi also has a deft hand when it comes to incorporating important plot points, such as the carefully placed cracks on the faces and bodies of those revived from stone. These scars help readers differentiate between current times and backstory, which is especially helpful since Inagaki does jump around a bit between past and present. The cracks also help differentiate those who are immune to the petrification process from those who were turned to stone and subsequently rejuvenated.
The images also are stylistically strong, using more simplistic cartoon figures to reveal basic emotions while jagged and often clashing diagonal, horizontal and vertical lines suggest action, danger, and speed of movement. The result is an action-forward story that still pays attention to the emotional side of things thanks to the artist’s attention to facial expressions and body language. One only has to glance at Gen Asigiri, a hack psychologist author introduced in volume three, to see that the lack of shading in his blank eyes reflects an emptiness that makes us immediately distrust him. Enlarged and emboldened text, such as a loud “KABOOM!” during an action scene, provide auditory cues that create an even more sensorial reading experience.
In addition, the illustrations at the beginning of each chapter serve as a concise and handy recap of events while visual montages throughout relay action and provide backstory efficiently to keep the momentum moving forward. Even in panels where the action is not the main focus, Boichi manages to convey a sense of movement through sweeping panoramas that capture the immensity and power of the natural world. Images of ancient trees grown large and unkempt, foliage and lichen brimming off the page, craggy hills expanding to the horizon, and wild animals roaming freely accentuate the absence of people and their cityscapes. Clearly, this is a world that belongs to the wilderness, and fittingly, the characters are often drawn as tiny specks engulfed by their surroundings. Close-ups of human faces then zero in on important story elements, heightening impact by eliminating the distraction inevitable when filtering or decoding text.
Overall, the series is off to a strong start with plenty of mystery, action, and personality to keep me reading. I particularly enjoyed learning about the origins of the book’s title, Dr. Stone. As a moniker for our leading science whiz, its meaning is clever and nuanced, but I will avoid further detail in fear of giving away too much. Additional standouts include the pictures with brief bios at the beginning of the book, which helped me keep all the characters straight as I moved further into the series.
The dialogue between the two main characters also had me laughing thanks to its witty and quirky tone. The comic relief offers balance to an otherwise intense storyline, and readers should enjoy watching Senku and Taiju play off one another, including lighthearted repartee that spans the gamut from the laws of physics to Genesis. In fact, one of my favorite lines is Taiju’s somewhat silly question, “How can two dudes be Adam and Eve?” On a side note, those with a knack for analysis should be sure to keep an eye out for the subtle biblical and religious references scattered throughout the first three books.
I also am happy to say that the series features a few strong female characters who hold their own and have much to contribute. Yuzuriha, a classmate revived early in the first volume, uses her background in arts and crafts to aid in everyday survival while Kohaku, introduced in Volume 2, stands out for her superior martial arts skills and fierce attitude. However, I was less satisfied with the overly sexualized images that revert to eye-rolling representations of the female body in compromised positions with extremely tight and scant clothing. I would imagine they get quite chilly facing the elements with little more than a loin cloth to keep them warm.
I also was disappointed with the ongoing joke about Taiju’s small IQ. While I realize the term “big oaf” is used with affection, I think the nickname and other such put-downs still hurt. And despite popular opinion, I would argue Taiju is actually quite clever, coming up with out-of-the-box solutions despite his own self-deprecating comments about his lack of intelligence. Senku, too, is more than just an adherent to rational thinking as he often reveals a soft spot for those he loves.
I would recommend this book to teens in particular as the absence of adult characters means the full brunt of responsibility for solving the world’s problems falls squarely on the young adults. Talk about empowering, if not a bit scary! Adults also will enjoy the book’s crossover appeal.
By Riichiro Inagaki
Art by Boichi Nelson
vol 1 ISBN: 9781974702619
vol 2 ISBN: 9781974702626
vol 3 ISBN: 9781974702633
Publisher Age Rating: ages 13 and up