From the stack: A Certain Scientific Railgun vol. 1

The art is crisp and attractive, giving a reasonably clear rendering of events that range from stopping for a snack to frying a gang of thugs. Character designs are on the serviceable end of the spectrum, but they’re appealing enough.

Wait, I’m sorry. I started in the middle, and you don’t really have any idea what I’m talking about, do you? Isn’t that annoying? Let’s hit the reset button.

A Certain Scientific Railgun (Seven Seas), by Motoi Fuyukawa, is based on a side story from a very popular light-novel franchise, A Certain Magical Index, written by Kazuma Kamachi. There’s nothing in the way of publisher’s notes in Railgun to indicate that, but there are plenty of gaps in the story to suggest that you’re missing something. Characters and components of the fictional world have weight more by implication than by content which, let’s face it, is a lot less persuasive than it might be.

Railgun could be interesting on its own merits. It’s about a group of psychic schoolgirls who help keep the peace in their corner of a futuristic Tokyo. Some of them are on the law enforcement track, but the lead, Mikoto, is not, even though she’s one of the most powerful psychics in the city. This is never actually explained, and it never stops Mikoto from intervening, so the plot point hovers on the story’s fringes as a needless distraction. It’s hard not to like Mikoto for her toughness and independence, but it’s hard to care much about her adventures.

This is because Fuyukawa and Kamachi don’t seem to have much of an attention span for their actual story. Promising subplots and mysteries are put on hold for not-particularly-interesting slice-of-life sequences. I’m all in favor of manga where the heroines can both blow things up and take time to buy a new pair of pajamas, but these individual components actually seem to leech energy from one another rather than create an engaging or mutually supportive contrast. There’s an overall aimlessness that individual high points can’t overcome.

There are also bits of fan service that are both completely gratuitous and unimaginatively repetitive. The first time a classmate sneaks up on a scantily clad schoolgirl to feel her up, it’s jarring. The second time, the virtually identical staging makes me both irritated at the pandering and at the laziness. There isn’t a pervasive undercurrent of fan service, which makes these instances seem like somebody got a memo from the editor: “Our reader poll numbers are sagging. Throw in a girl-on-girl groping scene in the next chapter.”

Again, though, the real problem is that Railgun feels like a piece without a puzzle. If you squint (and search online), you can find the box with the picture, but that doesn’t improve the reading experience. I’d liken it to collecting one or two Marvel or DC comics that periodically get dragged into a major franchise event and have neither the time nor the inclination to fold that event into the narrative in an organic fashion. And that isn’t an experience I’m eager to repeat.

(Thanks to everyone who voted in the dubious manga poll that resulted in this review.)