January 20, 2016

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Punching the Clock in Makoto Yukimura's Planetes Omnibus Volume 1


Planetes Omnibus Volume 1
Written and Drawn by Makoto Yukimura
Published by Dark Horse Comics

The tagline for Planetes since it first debuted in English back in 2003 was that it was about garbage men in space. And sure it starts out that way but that description is horribly incomplete as the comic moves beyond the garbagemen concept and becomes about the allure of  going beyond the places we know in a world where space becomes just another workplace.  Space is where people go to do a job. And for some, that job is to be garbage men and women. Space isn’t glamorous or sexy. It’s just dirty and there are people who get the unenviable job of cleaning it up.

Hachimaki is just another kid in space. His story actually isn’t all that different than any kid; he just wants to work so he can get his own ship and have the type of freedom with having his own ride. His boss Fee seems perfectly fine where she is. It’s a job that helps support her family back home. The other crew member Yuri seems more reverent towards the vacuum of space but Hachimaki isn’t too sure why. The workday life that Yukimura shows makes Planetes a more relatable story than this would have been if it was about explorers or adventurers.

This approach makes this volume of Planetes as much a workplace as it is a science fiction tale. Even as Hachimaki begins pursuing his dream of becoming an elite astronaut on a voyage to Jupiter, the drama is more about the day-to-day happenings of this crew of spacemen and women. So much of Planetes is about what happens between the time you punch in at the job and punch out. And maybe it says something more about 2015 than it does about when this manga was originally created but the subplot of terrorism adds to the here-and-now feel of the story. As a group opposes the further colonization of space, their actions feel frighteningly normalized in today’s world in ways that it could have back around the turn of the century when Yukimura originally wrote and drew this manga. 



So as normal as a story mostly set in orbit around the Earth or on a base on the moon can be, Yukimura’s artwork normalizes everything that much more as he concentrates on the emotions and expressions of his characters. Space becomes just another setting like your office that it’s where these people spend their time but it’s not necessarily all that extraordinary to these characters. For Yuri, it’s a place of tragedy and a place to remember or mourn. For Hachimaka, it’s a step to his future and getting out of town. He dreams of getting a ship like teenagers dream of getting a car. For him, his own ship would mean freedom and seeing new things in ways that being in orbit can’t. The sense of wonder of space is minimized so Yukimura can focus on the relatability of his characters.

If anything, the characters in Planetes are almost always looking for something outside of themselves. Whether it’s searching for answers in tragedy or looking for a future, Yukimura’s Planetes is about characters who want meaning that their lives lack. That kind of a story could be set using garbage men who ride a truck up and down your street or garbagemen who orbit the Earth. By setting it in space, Yukimura also introduces a sense of isolation in these characters lives. They’re not living on Earth but they’re also not venturing to Jupiter and beyond yet. The in-between existence of these characters is so perfect for a workplace drama where the job is just a stepping stone to something different for each of the characters. These characters aren’t their job but the job is so much of who they are in this place and time that the story is about that journey through an occupation.