Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Monday, July 21, 2014

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Monday, July 14, 2014

It's another resurrection and a third lease on life for North America's newer, tougher manga sweetheart



Man do I love that mid-'90s ad copy.

Volume 6 of Battle Angel starts the Tuned arc, the final major status quo that lasts until the end of the series. Alita is working for Tiphares now, unsuccessfully hunting down Nova for "many years" since the last time we saw her.  The book finally moves outside the Scrapyard proper, and while it's all Mad Max desert and punked-out raiders, it does at least confirm that people do live out there (the notes at the back of the unflopped edition even explicitly spell out the exact supply chain between the outlying areas, Scrapyard, and Tiphares; the Scrapyard and its Factories are parasites on the surrounding farms, and of course Tiphares is a parasite on the Scrapyard). This volume has a great blend of humor and action, compared to the fairly melodramatic last one.

A big part of that is getting to meet the non-cyborg martial artist Figure Four, who's a bit of a buffoon, but easily the most well-adjusted character in the series.  He doesn't have any messy Oedipal issues like Ido, he isn't a bitter opportunist like Hugo, and he has real good chemistry with Alita, kind of a buddy-cop vibe.  It seems significant that Figure is neither from the Scrapyard, nor living in it (he's a drifter-- in the karmic framework of the series, someone unbound by attachment).  Maybe that's why his moral center is still intact.


(Figure says his hometown is named Alhambra, so maybe he's from Spain?  Does that put the Scrapyard in Europe?  Kishiro, you're killing me. Also, there are giant fucking sea serpents now?  The coastal village thing in his flashback seems like the seed that grew into Aqua Knight)

Figure is pretty much the first male character who isn't either a criminal, victim, or casual killer (I was a little shocked that he let that guy live).  Ido tries hard to be a good person, but is ultimately dragged down by his flaws (and/or worn down by the Scrapyard).  Jashugan was our previous top contender for vital masculinity, but we met him at the end of his life, while Figure is still in his prime.  

That said, Figure is still an underdog; he's a fully flesh man in a world where cyborgs are at the top of the food chain.  He can hold his own against random cybered-up yahoos, but he has zero chance against professional killers like the Barjack or Alita.  It's probably this relative weakness and awareness of his limits that keeps him from becoming a monster like Makaku, Zapan, and all the other cyborged "supermen" who became strong enough to claw the world out of their way (and speaking of that recurring Nietzchean undertone, Kishiro explicitly foregrounds it in a lot of Yolg's dialogue, but offers no more comforting answer than "the weak shall remain weak").  Figure's martial skills are impressive, but it's really his unflagging will and grace under pressure that mark him as great.



Those traits also let him pull Alita back from the moral brink.  Kishiro sort of turns back the clock on her character development between volumes-- just like the last time a loved one died, she runs off to become a compassionless killer, and is frankly kind of wallowing in the melodrama (this is also some distressing foreshadowing for the way Last Order played out...). Figure calls Alita out on that budding superiority complex I mentioned before; Alita is, basically, fortunate enough to have lucked into kung fu training and a series of high-test cybodies, so it's pretty hypocritical of her to look down on people without the same opportunities.


Similarly, the Barjack are another set of brutal fighters who started out with something resembling principles-- they start out looking like wilderness raiders, but turn out to be a fairly disciplined group of revolutionaries.  It's easy to sympathize with their anti-Tiphares agenda, except for that pesky "any collateral damage is an acceptable loss" thing.  We'll come back to them and their leader Den soon.

The fights in this volume are interesting; against both the Barjack and Figure, Alita is in complete control and just dominates her enemies in a way she hasn't previously.  It definitely plays into the motif of her becoming closer to the monsters she's been fighting against, especially with the demonic facial expressions Kishiro draws on her.  He also seems to be having a lot of fun drawing her hair whipping around during the constant high-speed movement.




This may be the cartooniest volume of the series yet, actually.  Kishiro has always had a clear fondness for grotesque, cartoony caricature, but I think Yolg is pretty much the first so-designed character who doesn't die immediately, and he has a lot of fun drawing his expressive, hangdog gargoyle face.  There's also Alita's ridiculously cathartic relief during the famous "miracle" rainstorm in the desert (which comes after another amazing-looking high-contrast sequence wandering through the dunes)...which I'm not quite ready to talk about yet, but there will definitely be an appropriate time to discuss divine grace, given what I remember of the final volume.

Brain count this volume is an astounding sixty-two, but almost none from violence-- one of the recurring villains actually has a brain-in-a-jar for a head.  And as is Kishiro's wont, there's an extra brain on the unflipped table of contents.  I suspect we have reached Peak Brain.

Volume 6 doesn't move the story forward as dramatically or decisively as the fifth, but it is a satisfying read (not least because Kishiro's art and composition are especially strong) and introduces some great characters, even if only in passing.  The final leg of the series is off to a good start.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Men Are From The Scrapyard, Women Are From Mars

Back to Battle Angel 5, but before I get to this volume's big villain, I want to talk about a little one I've been wanting to mention for a while.  Eelai is one of Nova's henchmen, and a pretty minor character overall, except for one thing: she may well be the only genuinely evil woman in the entirety of Battle Angel+Last Order. 




Alita has a few other female opponents like Takie from Motorball and the Guntroll crew in Last Order's ZOTT, but they're competitors and rivals at worst; none of them show the cruelty and violence against the weak that characterizes Kishiro's male villains.  Eelai also seems to be an intentional mirror image of Alita; they're both pale, dark-haired martial artists rebuilt by (mad) science, but Eelai is fully flesh and blood, sadistic and earthy compared to our relatively chaste, Joan-of-Arcish lead.  All of this makes her very striking, but there's not all that much to actually say about her; she barely appears in the series (I think she turns up in maybe three chapters) and when she does, never rises above hackneyed evil dominatrix schtick.

Maybe she seems disproportionately interesting because there are so few women in this series at all; I've already talked about the disappointingly flat Takie and Shumira (one of whom I forgot even existed before this reread), and if I recall correctly another three fairly important women show up by the end (depending on how you count... we'll get to that when we get there), but overall BAA is a real sausage fest, an endless procession of virile rivals for Alita to test herself against, monsters to slay, and would-be father figures to resist.  It's hard to get a similar read on the women; it's tempting to pick up on the book's occasional Western motif and identify femininity with passive nurturers like Sara and Shumira, but there are also cold fighters like Takie or Eelai.  None of them get tremendous amounts of panel time, though, so it's hard to say that women are pigeonholed into specific roles because they're so rarely taking ANY role.  Maybe the anime staff were onto something when they made their original character a woman. 

It feels wrong to say the series marginalizes women when it stars and is named after one, but Alita is often the only woman around, and given the many, many hats she wears it's hard to say how many, if any, her gender plays a role in.  Ido tried to simultaneously contain and feminize her back in volume 1, but was her becoming a hunter-warrior a rebellion against gender roles, or does she just get to violate social and power boundaries because of she's the main character in an action-adventure series, no different than Goku or Luffy?  It gets hard to read the intentionality of these things, especially across cultural and translation lines.

(and I will raise the question of what sex, gender, and societal roles of same even mean to someone whose only remaining human part is a brain... and immediately drop it again)


The other reason I'm on this topic is that this volume actually does in large part center around another woman, but not in an especially great way.  Sara isn't any more nuanced than Eelai; she's barely a character at all, since she spends her small panel time as a saint on a pedestal, and immediately gets martyred to give her boyfriend and father some motivation. 

(and I use that terminology pointedly; Sara doesn't wear a cross as I remembered her doing, but when you combine her general vibe with a direct quote from Leviticus in one panel and all the demonic/angelic imagery surrounding Zapan and the climactic fight, there's definitely some Christian subtext jostling against the Buddhism and Nietzschean-atheism I mentioned last time)

Much as I love this volume, I can't ignore that this looks like a textbook case of shoving a woman into the refrigerator. Or is it?  One of the earliest and most consistent rules of BAA is that life is cheap in the Scrapyard (and until this volume it was almost impossible to find anyone who wasn't a victim or abuser); Kishiro kills off an awful lot of people mere panels after introducing them (Sara has plenty of company in this volume alone), the main difference with Sara is that her death actually affects other characters instead of just being a sight gag or proof of the villain's depravity.  She definitely gets more characterization than the other walk-ons Zapan kills, even if it's postmortem.


I go back and forth on how gratuitous her death is, and I'm really not sure what conclusions to draw from Kishiro's treatment of women overall, but like the race thing during Motorball, I just can't not see it at this point, and I suspect Kishiro may feel the same, considering that women are much more prominent in Last Order.

But enough of ladies' night for now, let's talk about the man of the hour, Zapan.  Despite being the driver of all this volume's pain and violence, Zapan is depicted with a surprising amount of sympathy.  We never get much of his history (and now I think about it, we don't get much backstory on anyone but Alita and Ido), but his previous appearances suggested he was driven by an easily wounded pride.  This time, he's motivated by pain.  Despite all his bluster, Zapan was basically too weak to handle the world he lived in.  After his literal loss of face in volume two, he did try to get his life together and live with compassion, but he just couldn't hold the crazy in.  I can sympathize, in a Crime And Punishment kind of way (this is not the last time the series will stop to humanize a character who could be considered fairly monstrous, either).

Zapan seems to be a more effective shadow self for Alita than Eelai, actually; they're bound together by tragedy and hatred, but she seems more able to bear their karma.  She isn't happy to see him turn up again, but having already gotten her revenge on him she seems to have moved past anger (hell, she doesn't even think about his role in Hugo's death), while Zapan's inability to do that is his entire problem.  She is also consistently extremely graceful and controlled, whereas Zapan's inability to wield his monstrous strength with precision and mindfulness tips the whole thing into disaster.  He then goes on to reenact her origin of being fished out of the trash and rebuilt by a passing scientist (using one of her old bodies to boot), absorbs her during their final fight, and she saves herself by sprouting a pair of angel wings contrasted with his moth-like pair. 

Interestingly though, Alita herself lashes out blindly at those she thinks have wronged her, just like Zapan; Nova hasn't even implicated himself in any wrongdoing when she kills him and his sidekicks.  Perhaps Zapan is less a road not taken than a warning, especially since she loses another loved one in this volume.  Kishiro will come back to the "evil twin" motif in another couple volumes, and even more prominently during Last Order.


Reading Sarah Horrocks' blog has shamed me a bit about spending so little time talking about the art in this series.  I'm going to try and be better about that, especially since Kishiro's visual storytelling is also pretty great-- he doesn't need to explicitly say Alita hasn't done any bounty hunting in a while, this page of pulling her Damascus blade out of a dusty bundle tucked away behind some books does it all AND it's a delight to watch her cyber-parkour through her house AND reinforce the domestic backdrop with the banter with the neighbor.  Fun stuff.


He also abruptly lays down some really high contrast chiaroscuro blacks to highlight Alita's sudden, shocking emotional trauma in this POV shot where Nova passes on some really, really bad news.  It's an interesting look that he comes back to later in Ashen Victor.



And on a general art note, I hadn't realized until flipping through this that Alita hadn't fought anyone gigantically larger than herself since Makaku way back in volume 1.

The brain count for this volume is an astonishing 25 (one of those is a dog's brain, but I'm counting it... and the unflopped version adds a 26th brain on the table of contents), largely thanks to Nova's experiments, reaching a new record brain density of six on one page, five of them coming from one panel alone. Flopped edition extras are just some chat about nanomachines and a gag strip about Nova's version of a gray goo incident involving flan (and the cover uses an actual Kishiro piece), but in exchange for that you get some really poor reproduction, my copy has crazy moire patterns all over every dark panel.

At the end of volume 5, Alita is rejected by her community, homeless, and even missing most of her body.  This is as near a blank slate she's been since the beginning.  What happens next?  Can one really live free and untethered by karma, unshackled by what's gone before?  Well, we'll see.

Friday, May 2, 2014

How To Sell A Contradiction

And so, back to Battle Angel.  Continuing its desperate quest to avoid falling into a rut, Battle Angel Alita volume 5 picks up two years after Motorball, with Alita retired from the circuit and living quietly... until Zapan from books 1&2 comes back to kick over the anthill.  The supporting cast takes a beating, the status quo gets blown up again, and most importantly, Desty Nova finally makes his debut.  His obsession with karma defines the series from this point on... but in hindsight, it's really just foregrounding themes Kishiro has been toying with since page one. 

Before I started rereading the series, I remembered this was where it went from a book I liked to one I loved, and it turns out a decade away hasn't changed my feelings. 


(Interesting that Viz went with some cross-promotion with ADV's anime release on the flopped release; that's a Nobuteru Yuuki promo piece for the anime, and with all the feathers and pointy noses, it's halfway to being Escaflowne art)

The big thing that struck me this time out is that the book starts out looking like an epilogue.  BAA is so defined by the quest for self-knowledge (by way of cyborg violence) that it's kind of shocking that Alita seems to have found whatever answer she was looking for in last book's fight with Jashugan.  I'd love to know how much of this series' constant reinvention comes from Kishiro or his editors; I remember reading a comment from him to the effect of "My editors kept asking questions like 'Can she be a cyborg instead' or 'can you work in some martial arts fighting?', and somehow it all turned out all right," but by the time of Last Order he seems willing to stick to his guns over even the smallest point of principle.

Regardless of whose idea it was, Alita's Motorball career seems to have gotten violence out of her system, and she's spent the last two years catching up on her reading, teaching martial arts, playing music at (New) Bar Kansas, and doing a little gardening.  If she had her druthers, she might have just done that for the rest of her life; at this point, she's actually spent more time at peace than fighting, as the gap between this book and the last is longer than the entire preceding series.  It didn't occur to me the first time I read this, but this volume is pretty much a Western, specifically the kind about the past catching up with a retired gunslinger. Maybe that's why it's called Kansas...

Shumira is still around too, waitressing at Kansas. Kishiro is pretty good about keeping tabs on minor characters' changing lives as they drop in and out of touch with Alita, which gives a very clear sense of time passing, pretty rare for a fight manga (see also baby Koyomi from volume 1 toddling around and talking).  This makes the fairly radical shifts in premise read more naturally, especially since every change in the status quo broadens the scope of the world a bit and makes it feel a bit more lived in. There were a lot of times earlier where I wondered how anyone managed to stay alive in such a ridiculous hellhole, but at this point the series has gotten downright domestic.  The Scrapyard feels more like Alita's hometown now... until she gets her ass tossed out when the neighbors who aren't unstoppable masters of space karate first try to sell her out to Zapan, then beg her to stop him.  Which is a dick move, but on the other hand, Alita is a little unrealistic in expecting everyone in the Scrapyard to stand up and fight the cybernetic monster head on.


In fact, she seems unusually contemptuous to people she considers her lessers, compared to the starry-eyed idealist who eagerly jumped into a pit to save Koyomi, but ultimately she does go out and fight Zapan for their sake instead of telling everyone to go screw.  The authorial voice seems to be a little more merciful than Alita's; Shumira despairs over her physical weakness, but is immediately comforted by the thought that she can still show strength through compassion and caring for the injured. BAA can be surprisingly sentimental at times, particularly in this volume, and the dialogue is never far from melodrama, but I kind of love it for that.  I want to talk more about the tone shifts in this series, but for now, I'll just say that Battle Angel is by no means a subtle book, but it's not a stupid one either.

Case in point, Doctor Desty Nova, both the series' most cartoonish character and most prominent font of philosophy. It's easy to gloss over his mentions of karma, and I kind of did in my original go-through, but it reads a lot differently now that I know more about Buddhism.  Like most mad scientists, Desty Nova is playing God, but the specific God he is playing at is Buddha.



In the Buddhist context that I (and I presume Kishiro) am most familiar with, karma doesn't really relate to sin or even morality; at base, it's a statement that actions do not occur in a vacuum, and the repercussions of decisions and events in the past inevitably affect the present day.  If you get involved with something, you get entangled by it.  That said, imperfect human nature makes it hard to avoid giving or receiving harm; it's kind of a film noir view of the universe... and one that crashes right into BAA's ongoing will-to-power theme.  How strong do you have to be to truly call yourself master of your own destiny?  Nova will apparently keep turning people into super-cyborgs until he figures that one out. 

The issue of karma is particularly interesting in a series about an amnesiac, someone with will and agency who is nevertheless (theoretically) a blank slate free of entanglement.  It's no wonder Alita becomes Nova's favorite lab rat, although really, this volume seems to argue against her freedom from the karmic cycle; she's lived mindfully and done everything as best she can, but Zapan still came back out of the shadows to claim revenge he thought he was owed.  Sometimes, life just sucks.

I don't have enough firsthand exposure to Nietzsche to talk out of my assspeak intelligently on that topic, but I think it's interesting that Kishiro seems to be contrasting the superman approach with the Buddhist compassion-based one, and honestly has been since the Alita vs Makaku fight in volume 1.  That said, it might well be a false dichotomy since this is a battle manga, and ultimately moral victory is always joined by physical victory, but at least it makes a more interesting than usual justification for the constant fighting.  The Buddhist reading is extremely relevant to my take on the series' ending, so we'll come back to this later.


As a usurper of the Buddha, Nova's nanotechnology lets Kishiro more explicitly play with reincarnation & rebirth motifs.  This volume in particular is all about metempsychosis; death and rebirth, transfiguration, all that kind of stuff.  Nova and his underlings just won't stay dead, Zapan, named after a demon (and marked by the cult of the blue oyster), comes roaring back out of Hell as a prog-rock-album-cover nightmare, cyberdog handler Murdock visibly "resurrects" from complete decrepitude once Zapan makes his comeback, and of course, Alita has been constantly reinventing herself since we met her, physically and mentally.  Actually, between the amnesia and the body-swapping, she kind of has a Ship of Theseus thing going on...

All that and I've barely even talked about the actual villain!  Zapan and Sara deserve their own post, so let's stop this one here.