EVOL: Kaneko Atsushi

I picked up volumes one and two of EVOL not long after they were released simultaneously last year. I read volume one. Then I sort of sat on the series. I’d planned on writing about it here, if only because I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything Kaneko’s done up to this point and I figured I’d have Things To Say about his latest. Except…I didn’t? I definitely liked volume one and I had a lot of Thoughts, but somehow, I couldn’t manage to pull them together into anything coherent. So I read volume two, confident that this would be the volume to make all my Thoughts make sense. But I mostly just had more Thoughts, swirling around in the expanse of my brain. When volume three came out, I felt like, “This time for sure!” And as you may have already guessed, that time was not it, either. Which means that here I am, a couple months out from reading volume four, still wanting to write about the series, still not exactly sure what it is I want to say about it. 

I mean, there’s the obvious stuff to say about plot and characters, and we’ll get to that. But I feel like Kaneko’s trying to do something bigger here, and I want to do him the service of meeting him halfway and digging deeper. Even though this comic, like the rest of his work, takes place in a reality slightly shifted from our own toward the fantastical, EVOL feels so much like a comic of our time in ways that his previous work hasn’t, like he’s giving capitalism and colonialism and the general state of the world a giant middle finger. And if you’ve seen the state of the world lately, you can probably guess that this series contains a whole lot of violence, including some of a sexual nature, and suicide is also a big plot point. So take those grains of salt before you continue down this rabbit hole. 

The whole thing kicks off with a chapter called “Life Sux”, an accurate encapsulation of what is to follow for the next four volumes. The beginning is particularly brutal with masked men in some desert country, wielding some serious weaponry against a young woman as they prepare to punish her for attempting suicide, a crime against whatever god it is they believe in. When she resists, she somehow blows the head off of one of the soldiers. And then another. And another until all of them are dead, and she is left alone, sobbing and staring in confusion at her own hand. 

We then cut to our teenage heroes in a mental hospital, in group therapy after attempting suicide. Akari is the school weirdo and daughter of the local police chief, Sakura is a cheerleader and daughter of an immigrant, and Nozomi’s a skater and son of a single mother. They all have their reasons for ending up where they are, but these essentially boil down to being bullied and ostracized for who they are. But they also have something else in common: they all have a strange new power after their suicide attempts. Because people have powers in this world. Although they’re generally inherited. This is a world of superheroes.

The superheroes protecting this particular city are Lightning Bolt and Thunder Girl, adored by the residents who purchase their action figures and excitedly report sightings, as the mayor gives them the key to the city. But naturally, there’s more to this super hero thing. Power corrupts and all that. So we end up with a villain-becoming-the-hero kind of story. Except the villains are still pretty villainous. Which seems like the perfect story for our times. 

Kaneko doesn’t explicitly mention all the crises we face, but I can’t help but feel that they were a serious driving force in the creation of this series. This is a work about despair and where it can push a person, and what you have when you’ve lost everything else, what you can do in the face of an unjust world that doesn’t care if you live or die, when the system is in fact out to get you. And it feels so, so much like a commentary on the climate crisis and the housing crisis and the general late-stage capitalism crisis that is pushing people all over the world to the brink. And a commentary on all the people with so much money and power who choose to do less than nothing, who choose to actively make the lives of so many people so much worse. 

EVOL is an anti-superhero book that is definitely reminiscent of The Boys (or the TV show, anyway. I haven’t read the comic), and Kaneko’s pacing is fast and bold like an action-packed capes comic, but coming from the other side of the equation. Our young anti-heroes have flashbacks, pick out costumes, and come together around a shared mission: to destroy the world. The flashbacks are truly haunting in the most incredible ways, like Nozomi’s memories early on of a boy with curly hair, exposed wiring, a woman screaming, things that all come to mean something to readers later, but which are only strange, atmospheric moments in the first volume. 

As with his other series, Kaneko relies more on art than text to get his story across, so although each book is much heftier than your average manga volume, I devoured them in no time flat. His work is so cinematic, relying on shifting camera angles and perfectly timed cuts to propel his readers through this action-packed story. But he also slows us down every so often with splash pages and wordless spreads to make us sit with the reality he’s creating for us.  

EVOL paints a bleak portrait of a terrible world, but also shows us people fighting back, refusing to disappear and toe the line. There’s also some excellent “fuck the police” rhetoric, and you know I love that. (ACAB, pals!) But mostly this is a book about the kids being all right. So far. The last scene in the fourth volume has me wondering where Kaneko is taking this wild ride. I’ll stay on until the end, though. Not a lot of artists working right now are as compellingly readable as he is. 

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