"Attack on Titan" pits a determined band of teenagers against people-eating giants, but it's much, much more than a battle manga. While there's plenty of giant-killing (and people-eating) action, the story also has a lot of depth, with intrigues, grudges, a great ensemble cast, a bit of mystery, and an enemy that seems to be evolving before everyone's eyes. The sixth volume of the manga comes out this week, and it's as good a time as any to jump aboard. Despite the sometimes awkward artwork, this series has been growing in popularity ever since the anime started coming out in English last spring. Here's what you need to know if you want to jump in with volume 6. (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)
1. Giants roam the earth—and they eat people. The giants are called the Titans, and they come in a variety of sizes. They don't talk, and they don't seem to be very bright; they just shuffle through the streets and pick people up and eat them. They don't seem to need food (even humans—it's not clear why they eat people) and their bodies are very light and flimsy. Nonetheless, they are hard to kill. If you chop off a Titan's head or other body parts, they just grow right back. The only way to kill a Titan is with a deep cut to a specific area at the nape of the neck.
2. Humans have retreated behind high walls. The walls were built about 100 years before the story begins, long enough ago that their origins have taken on a mythic quality; one local cult believes they were built by God, not humans. There are three concentric rings of walls, with small extensions where people live in special towns that are designed to be the first places Titans will attack. These towns are basically Titan bait, but they are more heavily guarded than the other areas. Our heroes Eren, Mikasa, and Armin live in one of these towns, and in the first volume, the Titans breached the wall and overran the outermost ring. Eren's mother was eaten by a Titan before his eyes.
3. There is a defense force, but the situation is hopeless. The paramilitary corps is divided into three parts. The Military Police Brigade, which keeps order within the town; the Garrison, which repairs and reinforces the walls; and the Survey Corps, which travels outside the walls to try to learn more about the Titans and possibly formulate a strategy. Eren, Mikasa, and Armin have just completed their training when they face their first Titan attack. Despite their training, and special vertical maneuvering equipment that allows them to soar through the air, the corps loses 30 people for each Titan they kill. The Survey Corps has an even higher casualty rate. The situation is unsustainable.
4. The Titans are evolving: The walls around the city are 50 feet high, twice as high as the tallest Titan… until an even taller Titan comes along and breaches them, forcing the townspeople to retreat behind the second wall. Several unique Titans start to pop up, including an armored Titan and the first female Titan. And then there's what happened to Eren…
5. Our hero is at war with himself: Eren is your typical shonen hero, determined to fight the Titans and experience life outside the walls. Mikasa is a better fighter, and Armin, while timid, is really smart, but Eren has the fire in the belly.
Then, at the end of volume 1, he gets eaten by a Titan, and you think, "What???"
Here's where it gets interesting: Eren comes back as a Titan, but an aggressive Titan who attacks the others and attempts to save the humans. He eventually becomes human again but retains the ability to turn back into a Titan. The problem is that he can't entirely control his behavior when he's a Titan, so while he wants to use his powers to help his townspeople, he also is capable of attacking his best friends.
Eren's transformation adds to the political turmoil in the town, where people are already unhappy because of the dire situation. An attempt is made to execute him, but an elite group from the Survey Corps offers to take him outside the walls to see if he can help rebuild the outer wall. He is placed in the care of the strict, and sometimes cruel, Captain Levi, with the warning that if he flips out, he will be killed. There is another wrinkle: Eren's father, who has since disappeared, told him there was a secret in the basement of his house that would help him defeat the Titans. So the Survey Corps also wants to help Eren get back to his old house.
As volume 5 ended, the Corps brought the new recruits on their first foray outside the walls. They encounter several Titans, and one of them is unlike any they have ever seen before: She appears to be female, and she also appears to be intelligent.
And that's where it stands as volume 6 opens. As the action begins, the female Titan is pursuing Armin (the smart but timid one). Enjoy!