Imagine a world where steam-powered robotics, cybernetic body parts, and extreme fighting combine. This is the premise of Haruhisa Nakata’s breathtaking alternate history, Levius.
The book is the first installment of a promising new series that reads more like a futuristic dystopia than a post-World War I saga. Central to this steam punk-infused story is Levius, a mechanical martial arts (MMA) fighter, whose biggest battles may arguably be post traumatic stress disorder from a harrowing war, a revolutionary father whose actions devastate his family, and a gravely ill mother.
That’s not to say Levius is not feeling the pressure from his violent livelihood. In fact, the stakes are at an all-time high when a spot opens up among the top tier of elite fighters. With his cybernetically augmented arm, Levius has the chance to win big if he can claim victory over a series of deadly opponents in a tournament that captivates the war-torn world.
Throughout this war orphan’s trials and tribulations, we meet a strong cast of characters, including an uncle with his own checkered past, a grandmother whose wisdom is matched only by her distrust of all things robotic, a brilliant engineer, and a motley crew of part-mechanical/part Roman gladiator MMA fighters who are more than meets the eye.
Thematically, Nakata’s characters embody big ideas. We have AJ and Hugo, MMA competitors who reveal the fine line between friend and foe, ally and enemy. AJ’s backstory is heartbreaking, while her actions are violent and brutal. Hugo also appears ruthless and merciless, but as the action unfolds, we begin to see him through a different lens. In fact, it is the careful reveal of more information through strategically placed backstory that gives the book its complex layers.
Additional characters, such as Uncle Zack, who helps train Levius; and Bill Weinberg, the military engineer responsible for the young fighter’s robotic parts, also become increasingly dimensional the more you read. We see Zack struggle with self-blame for letting his brother destroy his family, while Bill must pay the emotional cost of combining man and machine and the pain and suffering it causes. Nakata is most definitely a master at creating real and powerful characters that counterbalance the brutal nature of the sport and the post-war world.
The only glaring weakness comes in the form of the evil clown behind the story’s main conflict. It is Dr. Clown Jack Pudding’s shallow character and seemingly unwarranted evilness that give the book a hollow feel. While it is true the clown works for Amethyst, a clandestine military organization that sees MMA as a tool for political and economic gain through the creation of a new war, his sadistic nature and sexual perversion make him border on ridiculous. AJ could have been a really strong female character, but Pudding’s domination over and sexualization of her diminishes her role exponentially.
The artwork is absolutely masterful in fusing the futuristic with the past; the very public with the very intimate. Despite the extravagant cybernetic augmentations and human body parts-turned-weapons, the images lend a much-needed sense of realism through Nakata’s detailed lines and exquisite shading. They help readers visualize the robotic modifications to the human form in addition to bringing the quirky characters to life. Movement practically jumps off the page thanks to the juxtaposition of blurred and sharp, infusing battle scenes with action and intimate encounters with emotion. As a 600+-page manga, the domination of image over text also speaks to the importance of the visual medium. The story is told through pictures, with support from the text. Unfortunately, this can make for some confusing passages. The images can be hard to follow, especially during fight scenes, which I found myself skimming over quickly in want of some text to add context to the whirlwind of shapes and objects coming my way.
Overall, I think Levius is an impressive combination of art, time periods, futuristic science-medicine fusions, and extreme fighting. It is brutal and dark, yet offers moments of compassion and human redemption. Nakata takes readers on a meditative journey that covers the nature of war, humanity, evolution (or devolution?), and the big question of whether or not all scientific progress is necessarily “good” progress. I loved Levius’s grandmother, one of the only characters without mechanical alterations. Nakata often places her in frames that include birds and other animals to reinforce her thematic connections to nature. She alone raises the questions at the heart of the story: “In the right future, would man and machine have fused?”
This book is most appropriate for an adult audience due to its violent and sexual content as well as the nonlinear structure and complex subject matter.
By Haruhisa Nakata
VIZ Media, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: Parental Advisory, T+ for older teen, ages 16 and up
Series Reading Order: https://levius.fandom.com/wiki/Levius_(manga)
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)