written by Masaharu Takemura; art by Sakura
published by No Starch Press; $19.95 US
The latest Manga Guide to science covers Molecular Biology, the study of cells, genes, DNA, and their behavior. It’s an intimidating subject, treated in a fanciful way to make it more comprehensible.
The framing premise follows Ami and Rin, two college students about to flunk their molecular biology course because they never go to class. Their professor sends them to make-up classes on his private island (must be nice!), where they use a virtual reality machine to “travel” into the microscopic world.
(This island, which he refers to as his “real lab”, was built with “income from his inventions and patents.” Which is supposed to make him seem like a genius, I think, but had me wondering who he was skimming from. Rin asks, “Did he do it all on his own?”, a good question that never gets answered. I would think the assistant would be especially curious about how the professor answered that query.)
The two girls are a study in contrasts. Rin looks like she’s about to go clubbing, wearing shorts and ankle-strap heels. Ami looks like she goes to primary school instead of college; she’s short, with long blonde hair and little-girl dresses. Their guide is Marcus, the professor’s cute assistant, while the grumpy instructor mostly talks to them through computer screens. The students are frequently idiotic, which provides both the relief of humor to lighten the science and comfort to the reader, who cannot be as dumb as they are. The style varies from panel to panel, sometimes taking a scratchy, unpolished approach and other times anchored by heavy ink lines.
Some topics are necessarily simplified to increase understanding, and the book only aims to cover the basics. Even so, there are lots of concepts and terms to take in. The chapters are:
- What Is a Cell?
- Proteins and DNA: Deciphering the Genetic Code
- DNA Replication and Cell Division
- How Is a Protein Made?
- Genetic Technology and Research (a glimpse at the future, in mostly text format)
The visual format allows for lots of images and diagrams to clarify and illustrate the instructional points, and the virtual reality concept means we’re seeing cells and their contents close up. Also, plenty of metaphors are used to compare the processes to things readers might be more used to, as when a gene is referred to as a protein blueprint or a “nuclear localization signal” is called a “ticket to the nucleus” or cancer cells are treated as gang members, disrupting the cell society. Some of the comparisons are wonderfully silly, as when they explore how the liver processes alcohol as a battle between Drinkzilla and Enzyme Man (with his dog sidekick). I wish that level of information had been used more often throughout the book; it got a little tiresome seeing line diagrams of amino acids to represent DNA and RNA, with little visual flair.
Typical of the series, text pages are interspersed to cover heavy concepts or elaborate in more detail. They’re often presented as conversations (or lectures) among the characters. Marcus’ explanations in a comfortable tone reassure both the characters and the reader that they can learn all this. He repeats key concepts when needed, or he even sets the virtual reality machine to “easy mode”, which makes the cartoon drawings very simple and friendly-looking.
There are preview pages available online. A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher, No Starch Press. Right now, they’re running a special offer: get all six of the Manga Guides for $75, or over a third off of cover price. That’s even better than Amazon’s 32% off!
I hope this isn’t the last in the series — no further volumes have yet been announced. Although I have quibbles about them, the Manga Guides remain entertaining supplementary reading for tough subjects.