The set of Xenon collected editions I stumbled across at local comics shop got me to thinking about other translated manga offerings from my teen years, and whether they’d also received the trade paperback treatment. Back in those less enlightened times, “flipped ‘n’ floppy” was the norm for localized releases, with a handful of “prestige” titles getting a slightly more upscale squarebound variety of trade dress. The familiar digest format didn’t become a thing until after I drifted away from the scene, and wouldn’t become the ubiquitous standard (alongside keeping the right-to-left formatting of the Japanese source material) until around the turn of the millennium.
As a cash-strapped punk rocker who owned full runs of the individual issues, I viewed collected editions as a needless extravagance for the sake of minor convenience. As an adult with a steady source of income and a surplus of nostalgic longing, I realized they’d be easier to read, look better on a bookshelf, and pose less risk of accidentally getting crushed beneath a precariously balanced stack of longboxes while trying to locate my original funnybook copies.
Of the twenty or so manga titles I followed in the late Eighties and early Nineties, there were only a couple I felt any real urge to revisit — and Yoshihisa Tagami’s Grey sat at the top of that short list.
The series was one of Viz’s first releases as a solo publisher — its previous localized offerings were done in partnership with Eclipse — and sported fancy squarebound binding and some striking cover design. It was also pricey, running just shy of three bucks per issue at a time when a copy of Justice League International #18 sported a seventy-five cent cover price. I was mark for it from the moment the promo flyers hit the windowsill of my local comics shop and restructured my meager finances to afford it, but the upscale formatting and lack of ads made it feel like money well spent.
The series takes place in the semi-distant future where an apocalypse has all but destroyed Earth’s ecosphere. Most of the surviving human population live in numerically designated “towns” overseen by cyborg sub-nodes of the mythical “Big Mama.” Life in these communities is squalid and governed by a rigid social hierarchy. At the bottom are lowly “people,” whose sole means of upward mobility is joining the ranks of the town’s “troopers.”
By participating in life-fire combat exercises against other towns, troopers earn credits to progress through a role-playing game series of letter ranks. Upon hitting “A-class,” Troopers become “Citizens” and are allowed access to the mythical “City.” Attrition is high, with most troopers getting killed before progressing to D-class and the few who progress to C or B opt for a lengthier-but-safer path upwards by taking supervisory roles. No one can recall anyone who has ever made it to A, but it doesn’t stop the desperate “people” from trying.
Grey is his town’s most likely candidate to hit class A, thanks to a knack for survival that does not extend to the other members of his various squads, leading to his nickname of “Grey Death.” Grey’s girlfriend Lips died on her first exercise in paramilitary upwards mobility, inspiring Grey to enlist in order to discover exactly what she had died for. He does so with a single-minded focus and a sense of self-preservation that betrays no sentimentality towards his comrades.
Over the course of his journey, he staggers, shoots, and stumbles his way towards the truth, conveniently encountering various individuals capable of explaining the bigger picture.
The story is one of existential absurdity unfolding around a surly anti-hero, a manga Mad Max with the weaponized hot rods swapped out for gorgeously rendered war machines pulled from WW2 tank model kits, Easter Island statues, Eighties mecha designs, Japanese culture, and medieval European suits of armor. I was already susceptible to that siren call before my mom’s death (which happened a couple weeks after the first issue hit the stands), but that event transformed Grey into a transcendent experience.
A dude with poor social skills responds to loss by grinding his way toward some semblance of an answer? And he doesn’t care who gets hurt in his wake? And the only thing that ends up sustaining him is pure spite? Grey made me feel, as they kids say, seen. I’ve (hopefully) moved past that kind of thinking these days, but it clarifies why Grey resonated with me the way that it did, and how its release aligned perfectly with the moment in my life where I’d be most receptive to it.
The series was collected into a two volume set of digests a couple of years after its original North American release, and neither were very easy to track down. I started sniffing around the usual places right after picking up the Xenon books in 2017, but the asking prices were astronomical for an early Nineties collection of a late Eighties manga series that maybe a dozen people still remember. Every couple of months since then, I’d run a few searches and get the same extortionate results. It wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I lucked out and found both volumes for close to the cover price through the Amazon portal of a Goodwill somewhere in the Midwest. Both volumes are a little sun-damaged and have a couple of loose pages, but they only set me back a fifth of what the usual asking price would’ve been.
It’s not the promise of citizenship in a bullshit honeytrap offered as incentive by a rogue AI to commit violence as a form of population control, but it will do.