The latest issue of Attack on Titan confirms what many have suspected for a long time: the protagonists of our setting are fighting in a false post-Apocalypse. The monsters they resist are agents of human dominance, not human extinction. They exist to keep the citizenry ensconced within the walls of the ruling family, ignorant of the world of luxuries that waits outside.
It’s not an unfamiliar parable, but the reveal is well executed. For years we’ve watched our protagonists struggle against the Titans, risking life, limb and sanity to preserve the human race. On the eve of their more hopeless battles they’ve abandoned any dream of actually saving humanity, instead fighting for the sake of knowing we didn’t go down without a fight. Now, the struggle is smaller, more complicated, and less existential. The human race was never on the line. So what have the members of the Survey Corps been dying for?
The series is still ongoing, and more remains to be revealed. What we do know is that the royal family seems to be actively colluding with the titans for social control, sacrificing the bravest and brightest of their citizenry into an absurd, hopeless war. Any revolutionary impulse has been effectively diverted outwards, compromising attempts at social progress.
In the past Hajime Isayama has indicated that aspects of the work were inspired by Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a claim well supplemented by the secret in the basement. Just like the royal family of Attack on Titan, Moore’s Adrian Veidt secures social order by concocting an overwhelming alien threat. When he asks the omniscient(ish) Doctor Manhattan whether he did the right thing, the doctor replies, “nothing ever ends.”
We might read Attack on Titan as a depiction of the limits of the Ozymandian worldview. Ozymandias believes he is creating peace, but war only exists because we cannot agree what version of peace is most desirable. In Attack on Titan, we see a version of peace that is maintained with lies, manipulation and murder. We see a fragile society cowed into taking the shape most desired by its masters.
But as the doctor says, nothing ever ends. This peace cannot last. The revolutionary impulse cannot be stymied forever, because the engine of the world is entropy, blood and evolution. At the end of Watchmen we see the first fault-lines emerge in Adrian Veidt’s carefully constructed peace, when the violence and secrecy that peace required are revealed to the public.
In Attack on Titan, we’ve just witnessed the beginnings of a similar unraveling. The protagonists’ definition of humanity has been radically shifted. No longer is the human race contained within their walls- instead, the vast bulk of humanity is implied to lie far outside their current understanding. This corresponds with their shifting understanding of the nature of the Titans. Like shadows, the monsters appear as a distortion of our image, demonstrating our negative space. They are the boundary of what we may be. Like all such mechanisms, they are wrestled with, pushed back, and redefined.