Complete Run (Volumes 1 to 27)
Synopsis: Excel Excel (codename), a desperately poor but energetic young lady, ekes out a living in F City with part time jobs, all the while keeping her true allegiances a secret. For, in truth, she is the 2nd in command of ACROSS, a secret society staffed by two people and a dog with grand ambitions to take over the world!
Excel Saga is the series that got me "into" Manga, so this series is at fault for everything that has followed. As such a dispassionate review is impossible. I love it dearly, from the bottom of my heart.
I love the characters - All of them are sharpened and focussed to an undeniable point. Everyone presented is boisterous and demands your full attention whenever they are in-panel, even if they are the retiring kind. The entire series has these characters bashing off of each other like LHC particle collision events, constantly throwing out chaos and funny faces. An admission here: Excel Excel was, and very much still is, my favourite character in all of media. Perhaps you might even use the overused "w" word - my first and only.
I love the irreverent tone the series takes, especially as the core of its overarching story is a combination of hackneyed tropes (Ancient civilisations and over-technology, secret societies both within and outside of government) that it gleefully rakes over the coals and mercilessly mocks even while weaving more and more layers on top. Hell (and I hope this isn't apocryphal), the series has its roots in being a satire of local government, something which remains throughout the entire run even as the stakes grow and shrink time and again. By the late teen volumes you start to need a notepad to keep track of your own theories about what is actually going on, and if the obvious hidden truths are themselves just a coverup for something else even more shocking underneath. Waiting the at times literal years between volume releases was a particularly maddening situation to be in!
Thankfully the comedy keeps the whole thing moving along at a rapid pace even when developments are sluggish and answers are slow in coming. The main cast torment themselves and each other constantly trying to get anything done in a world that has it out for them while secondary characters get sucked into and torn apart in their destructive orbit, adding more chaos and debris as they also struggle to make sense of everything that is happening. The one angle on the comedy that has not lasted well (especially as I have gotten older) is the use of "poverty moe", where being literally homeless and destitute is a crutch for the comedy. It gives rise to some good humour and dire straights for the cast to work against, but still feels exploitative and gross due to how often it is leaned on.
I love the art, which packs an absurd amount of detail onto the page and yet still manages to maintain a flow across the page for your to follow, but also knows when to pull off something special to stop you in your tracks. The composition is always dynamic and even expository conversations have an abundance of kineticism to them, keeping you along for the ride. A number of the cast have elaborate and/or large hairstyles, and you have to imagine that everyone involved in the series must have haaaaaated these designs before long because of how much labour they entailed. There are also lots of nice explosions.
Finally, the localisation of the series is outstanding. The translation feels pitch-perfect to enhance everything that is happening, and has some outstanding choices embedded within. My favourite of these is the decision to make Sumiyoshi, a character with a strong Osakan accent, speak in a Geordie dialect. It's an inspired choice. Each volume has a fascinating "Oubliette" section at the end helmed by Carl Gustav Horn, who is clearly 1) obscenely smart, 2) intensely dedicated to the series and 3) has a healthy sense of humour which comes through in these little "Editor's notes and musings" portions. It makes reading the series feel like more of a community, like you are talking it over with someone after reading a volume, rather than hunching over it and then putting the book straight back on the shelf afterward.
The greatest shame with Excel Saga is that availability is, and always has been, a colossal pain in the backside. At 27 volumes long released over a decade and a series that has always felt like a weird passion project some volumes are invariably going to be hard to find, although from a quick search it appears that thanks to additional printings we are no longer in the hideous era of volume 8 commanding a £45~ price tag. Although I say this for every series I wish it was available digitally so I could have the series in a form that I could take everywhere with me
and so I could forcibly gift it to everyone I know.
Rating: The greatest Manga ever created. Hail Ill Palazzo.