Before Serial Experiments Lain was made into an anime series, writer Chiaki J Konaka and artist Yoshitoshi ABe both collaborated on the story itself, and ABe created a doujinshi based upon their idea. This was a short one-shot doujin, yet didn't get too complicated for newcomers to not completely understand.
This doujin was Serial Experiments Lain: The Nightmare of Fabrication
The concept of Serial Experiments Lain itself focuses a lot on reality and what defines it, what is God or what religion is, who we are and other things focused on identity and on communication. For those who have not seen the show, it is a very complicated and yet holds a deeper meaning that what it appears to have. And most importantly, it leaves you wondering what is going on and it makes you ponder upon your views of reality.
That's not to say that going into this won't make you feel any less or more confused. This one-shot holds the same kind of substance as the show does, but tells a different story from the one in the anime. So reading this without watching the show won't really make much of a difference in the way you react or think about it.
As explained above, this manga is very short, only around 20 pages or so, and because of that, there isn't much room for character development. That, however, does not stop this story from making total sense in the 20 pages it is squashed into. In the manga, Lain, a lonely 14 year old girl, feels the need for companionship, and reconstructs an old toy of hers so it can move a little. And from there, she imagines what else she can create. But things go awry and soon a God-like figure greets her and talks about reality and what existing really means, causing Lain to question her way of thinking and her reality. This storyline, while short, is very deep and has the same essence as the anime, meaning that it makes you wonder after you read what you think it means to exist and what reality is. However, there are a few things that really are not explained well or are left out in the open, like the mention of a person named Misato-chan, who apparently, Lain only knows exists. Its never really solved but its not too prominent, and doesn't really hinder the rest of the story.
The artist who created the character designs for Lain in the manga, as well as the anime, was Yoshitoshi ABe (known for creating Haibane Renmei later on), and anyone who is familiar with ABe's artwork knows that he has a very edgy look to his character designs and formatting. This is also presented in this one-shot, and is very well done. ABe has a good way of creating a warped atmosphere around the characters, making the experience more dramatic and creepy. Another thing that's fantastic about the art of the manga is the usage of light and shadow; it also makes everything more dramatic and eerie, using it at the correct times and making it all the more appealing. But one of the biggest and greatest things about ABe's works are the character designs and facial expressions. ABe has a very interesting way of drawing characters as a whole, and the anatomy and positioning of the bodies in the comic really make you see them as realistic. The facial expressions are, personally, one of my own favorite parts. They very clearly display the feelings and emotions of the characters, whether it's a childish smile or a look of horror and fear in their eyes, making you either happy or scared when you look at them. All in all, its very visually appealing.
This section of critique is a bit trickier for this one-shot, only because the manga is so short. The manga only focuses on two characters, at the most. The main character, is the lonely 14 year old girl Lain. While given only a few pages to really explain any backstory or emotion, you really do feel for her character when she explains her confusion with her predicament, as well as the lonliness she feels. When she's frightened, you really get the understanding that she wants to escape the complicated questions and just live in peace. Her character is very complex, especially with her way of thinking, and enjoyable. But, whether or not you can adapt to her character is up to the experience with the character; meaning, the reaction you get from already knowing who Lain is, and the reaction of just getting into anything Lain related could be totally different. But, like I explained earlier, the scenarrio in the manga is different from the one in the series, so it really may not make any difference. The other character is the God-like figure, whom you don't really know much about. This figure seems to question a lot about reality, and points out things to Lain that she cannot comprehend or remember, which confuses her. When asked if it is God, it replies with "you may call me that if you wish," giving the character more of an enigmatic background for you to decipher in your own way.
This is one of the very few manga one-shots that I have found that have small or hardly any holes in its story and structure. While it does have a few nicks here and there, its not terrible. The artwork truly is magnificent in it, and the story is very deep and complex. Even though it leaves you with a lot of questions, it does it intentional, making you wonder and creating your own conclusion as to what they were talking about. The characters are enjoyable as well, and the eerie effect to it can sometimes enhance the enjoyment of the manga. You can read it whether you have or have not seen the show; its a very interesting take on the story if you have seen the show already, and its perfect as a prequel/alternate universe story to the craziness that is Serial Experiments Lain.