Reading Seraphim: 266613336 Wings was frustrating. Writing this review was frustrating. I am frustrated. Let me get this out of the way first thing: Kon is a talented artist and an even more gifted mangaka. Seraphim, much like OPUS, leaves no mistake that Kon was going to have a bright future in directing. But if you told me he was going to be drawing a story about an apocalyptic future where the World Health Organization is practically the Illuminati, and people are coming down with a mysterious disease that causes them to have heavenly hallucinations all while they slowly petrify into angel-like figures--well, I would have hoped that he would be writing it too. Because that sounds like it needs the unified vision of a single writer and artist.
Yeah. Seraphim didn't have that unified vision. Written by Mamoru Oshii (famous for adapting Ghost in the Shell to its iconic first film) and drawn by Kon, Seraphim was likely a creative tug of war. And, judging by the fact that Seraphim is unfinished, everybody lost that battle: including the reader.
Seraphim is good enough such that you quickly get lost in its world and chapters start to bleed into each other. As a result, you will wish that Seraphim was not as good, because I guarantee you will get to that last chapter and react just like me: "OH, COME ON!" You know it's going to end. You know it's unfinished. But COME. ON.
I want to show a lot of love to the editor of this volume, Carl Horn, because I thought his work on putting this volume together, as well as his essay at the back of the book which put this work and the work of these two men in context was fantastic. But perhaps more than any other decision--more than the choices of what footnotes to include and what footnotes to leave out, more than all the little invisible contributions editors are usually expected to make--was something that qualifies, to me, as an artistic decision, and one which resonated strongly with me.
You see, Seraphim will come to a screeching halt for you. But where a work like OPUS gives you a breather and then launches you into an unpublished chapter, Seraphim simply ends on its last page. Instead of ending on Seraphim's final panel, where they depart for the final destination of their journey, there is what appears, for all intents and purposes, to be an additional panel, which reads:
"Seraphim 266613336 Wings left off here in November of 1995."
Like I said, it doesn't really read like text: it's placed centrally, and though it lacks a panel border, its placement and prominence makes it read as if it is an additional panel. It might just be the comics formalist in me geeking out uncontrollably, but I absolutely loved this. The end of this story--the final panel showing the dirigible departing with Melchior's words--is not really the end of this story: it's just the end of what's published. Rather than letting Melchior get the last words, the editor instead has the last words, because the end of this story is not the departure for Taklamakan, but the unfinished end of this book: the death of the project itself is the only closure we get as a reader, and the editor chose to reify that as a piece of the work itself.
Horn's essay at the back is careful to say that it's unclear exactly what Kon's input was before he got named as co-creator for the final few chapters, but at least for that period it's clear his input was likely equal in some important respects. Having someone like Kon drawing your series is unquestionably a boon: just ask Otomo. But Kon famously (perhaps infamously) refused to do any work at all on this project until Oshii answered any questions he had. At first blush, that's already a tense situation: you've got a guy who thinks about all of the details that a gifted director thinks about, and he's pressing the pause button on your vision until you address his concerns. That had to be rough for Oshii.
If you really think about it, it's even worse. Not because Kon was some kind of OCD nutjob but because Oshii's style is sort of a mess. I would be asking questions non-stop even if I had one-tenth the eye for detail that Kon has.
Put plainly, Oshii is not a writer. You know him from a lot of very cerebral work like Ghost in the Shell and though he obviously deserves credit for shaping the vision of such a special screenplay, his job with this manga is to be in charge of the plot and bare-bones art direction stuff. Manga that are this ambitious and that come from such unique creators will not be as fleshed-out as other works of sequential art, but part of the charm of Seraphim is part of its downfall: I really like the world. It's terrifying, but hauntingly curious, and that bleeds through the words and actions of the characters. I do not need to know the full life story of every character in order to empathize with them or find them interesting: this is something that Japanese storytelling often excels at over Western stuff. But if the climax of this series is going to take us to the center of this whole situation, then I need some context beyond what was given in order to feel the full impact of this story.
Of course, my concern is a moot point: this is a story without a climax. Against what either creator would have wanted, this story will be remembered as being an idiosyncratic collaboration that fell apart. And yet no ending to this story could have possibly elevated it beyond the problems that lie on the extant pages. Even if you're a fan of Kon or Oshii, I can't tell you that this book is a must buy, because the best parts of this book were the contributions made by the folks who put it together. In that respect, this Dark Horse release is undoubtedly the best way to enjoy Seraphim in English: whether or not you will enjoy it is harder to say.