Do you remember that moment in your manga-reading journey when you discovered that there was a manga about golf? Or pachinko? Or train station bento boxes? I do: I’d just read an entry in Shaenon Garrity’s Overlooked Manga Festival, and was astonished to discover that someone had written manga about Cup Noodle and 7-Eleven. I hadn’t been curious about the origins of either instant ramen or convenience stores, but the possibility of learning about them from manga was so irresistible that I tracked down copies. Neither manga were good, exactly, but I found them oddly compelling, both for their sincerity and their attention to small but interesting details.
I had a similar experience with Heaven’s Design Team, a new edu-manga that explains how different animal species are uniquely adapted to their environments. Its creative team has taken a bolder approach to their subject than Project X‘s, opting for humor over straightforward dramatization. The basic mode of storytelling, however, reminded me of Cup Noodle and 7-Eleven, relying heavily on talking heads to impart information.
Heaven’s Design Team has a faintly blasphemous premise: God is so busy running the world that He’s outsourced the creation of new animal and plant species to a crack team of designers. God still has a hand in deciding whether unicorns go into production or not, but He’s largely an invisible presence in the story, while the motley crew of consultants take center stage. Each designer has a signature animal — a horse, a cow, a snake, a bird — that he or she is trying to improve, and one well-defined personality trait — say, a fondness for lethal predators — that puts him or her into conflict with other team members.
That’s an imaginative strategy for teaching readers about the quirks of animal anatomy, but Heaven’s Design Team never quite finds its groove. Part of the problem lies with the authors’ dogged adherence to formula; at the beginning of every story, the design team fields an order from the Big Guy for an “adorably uncute animal” or “an animal that can eat tall plants,” then bickers their way to creating an actual species like the common egg snake, the giraffe, the armadillo, or the narwhal. Their design process yields nuggets of information about the creatures they’re envisioning that, at chapter’s end, turn out to be real attributes of real animals. So many of these factual tidbits are related through talking-head panels, however, that the manga often feels more like a PowerPoint presentation than a story, despite the authors’ attempts to make these info-dump conversations more animated with facial close-ups and dramatic poses.
From time to time, however, Heaven’s Design Team drops a joke that’s so weird or so well executed it earns a real laugh. In one scene, for example, two unicorns accidentally bump into one another, prompting a terse exchange straight out of Goodfellas. In another sight gag, Shimoda, the team’s most straight-laced member, visits the Insect Department, a division populated entirely by
drones young men with identical haircuts and glasses. These moments last only a panel or two, but they hint at what the series might have been if the authors hadn’t suffered the same repetition compulsion as their characters. Your milage may vary.