Friday, October 31, 2014

This is supposed to be Kazuo Umezu, right?

I suppose you could consider this a hat-tip to Drifting Classroom.  And actually, that kind of puts Magical Girl Apocalypse into a different context for me; a lot of people are calling it a zombie outbreak series wearing more lace and ruffles, but its heart seems to be a lot closer to Umezu's senseless outbreaks of cruel surrealism.  The opening chapters do remind one inevitably of Highschool of the Dead (and both series have no idea how breasts work) or even Deadman Wonderland, but by the end of volume 1 we seem to be moving closer to a general breakdown of physics and sanity. We'll see how things develop...

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Actually, context doesn't help with this one

Life has been getting in the way of writing anything substantial lately, but filler posts are forever.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Friday, August 1, 2014

I was going to save this for next week, but then I realized today was 8/01

I can't help but think these panels from Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy! are pretty much the genesis of What Did You Eat Yesterday?  By which I mean, Fumi Yoshinaga seems to be going out of her way to write a story about a gay couple that avoids pretty much every staple of the yaoi genre.

In fact, they're kind of a dull couple!  Shiro and Kenji are pushing forty and just flat-out done with having drama in their lives.  Theirs is not an especially affectionate relationship; the honeymoon is well over, and there's a lot of intimacy, but no romance (in fact, in three volumes I don't think we even see a kiss).  In some ways, they don't actually know each other very well at all; there are some pointed minor revelations in v3 especially.  To a certain extent, they've kind of settled for each other and are happy enough with the way that's working out.  As the mighty Shaenon Garrity says, "most BL is about horrible screwed-up relationships: they have the unfortunate tendency to be more exciting."

A lot of this is Shiro's fault; he is pretty much Yesterday's straight man (no, I couldn't figure out how to avoid saying that) and just not a vivacious kinda guy. He's not unlikable, but he is a much lower-key protagonist than you may be used to, especially since much of his internal monologue is about food, his one true passion.

That's the other thing about Yesterday; fundamentally, it's an illustrated recipe book.  The centerpiece of every chapter is Shiro bustling about in the kitchen for several pages, narrating what he's doing and what the ingredients are; the human drama elements of the series are frankly there as seasoning.  I see a fair amount of complaints about that from people expecting this to be more of an ongoing story; for the most part, chapters are standalone vignettes of Shiro working as a lawyer, dealing with his family, and shopping, then he and Kenji come home and eat.  I'm actually fine with the pacing; Yoshinaga is sort of cheating the way the Astron-6 crew do by shooting trailers they never intend to flesh out into movies, and her stories here tend to be snapshots of awkward moments or part of a particularly juicy case, without any real buildup or denouement.  I think what's there is interesting reading (Yoshinaga has a surprising amount to say about Japanese law and social custom, especially as they relate to the gay experience), but it is slight and there's not much you could really call forward motion.  It's pretty much a bunch of character sketches, but Yoshinaga is very good at those.

Unfortunately, what she isn't very good at is drawing the food!  She's excellent with facial expressions and body language, but everything else is basically workmanlike (there are some serious Giant Yaoi Hands all up in this), and most damningly, she just does not make the food look appetizing at all.  Kaoru Mori makes me hungry every damn time I read A Bride's Story (oh god all that fried rice), but I may as well be reading the phone book here.

This is actually something she was much better at in Delicious Foods; the food didn't look any better, but there was tons of nigh-orgasmic dialogue from everyone savoring the chow, which was way more my speed.  I am not so much a foodie or gourmand as a hedonist; I love me a good meal, but when I'm hungry I get too damn impatient to spend time doing anything elaborate.  The way Yoshinaga structures the story, Shiro and Kenji spend like six pages making the food and then about two panels enjoying it, and that is some serious cuisine interruptus as far as I'm concerned.

Delicious Foods is actually a much grabbier book than Yesterday in general; I picked it up looking for those panels to scan, then ended up rereading the whole thing in one sitting.  It's basically a farce, which puts her wit and strengths as an artist to much better use than the dryer and more naturalistic material in Yesterday.

So I guess, to end on an unavoidable food analogy, What Did You Eat Yesterday? is an acquired taste.  Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy! or Antique Bakery are more obviously crowd-pleasing intros to Yoshinaga's work, Ooku has a more original premise and stronger drama, and you'll probably get more quiet amusement if you've read enough yaoi to notice all the genre tropes and weird power dynamics she's going out of her way to avoid in Yesterday (or at least I do), but it's an enjoyable series on its own merits.  It's not flashy or obviously hooky, but I'm not reading anything else quite like it and I've enjoyed every volume so far.

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.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Signal Boost

Sorry about the interruption of service; I was out of town for a bit, and when I got back I started agonizing over the next Battle Angel review, because it's my favorite volume of the series and I really want to do it justice. I'm tempted to just stay quiet for the next couple weeks and build up a posting buffer like I should've done before restarting.

In the meantime, I wanted to point everyone at Sarah Horrocks' blog.  I tend not to talk about art because I have pretty much no critical vocabulary there, so I'm really glad to find someone who does.  I especially love her posts on Blade of the Immortal, and this bit on Jiro Matsumoto is also choice, but it's pretty much all great stuff.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Friday, February 21, 2014

Monday, February 17, 2014

This was my second choice for Friday

From Stone, the community gives thanks for the bounty freshly ripped out of a monster penis-whale.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Presented in Mangascope

DigiKerot's review of Hells during my hiatus reminded me that I'd been meaning to post about Shinichi Hiromoto's Stone since forever, but now that I reread it, I'm finding myself short on things to say.  There's something here, in these two volumes, let's see if I can put my finger on what.

First off,  that's a hell of a thing to put in the front of a book.  Stone is certainly a fairly low-calorie piece of pop genre trash (and I mean that fairly lovingly), but having your own publisher flat-out call it derivative is just too harsh.  That's what reviewers are for!  To be honest, I feel kind of bad even grading Stone on its story because I get the feeling everything about it came about because it would be cool to draw.  If I can accept the weirdness of Jodorowsky and Brandon Graham comics as part of the spectacle, I feel like Hiromoto deserves the same courtesy.  There's definitely some work and love put into this book, but it's fair to say that most of of it went into the visuals.

Hiromoto doesn't have much work in English (just the two volumes of this, and an adaptation of Return of the Jedi), and I actually don't know much about him, but he's got an interestingly sketchy, expressionistic art style.  For some reason it makes me keep thinking of Tsutomu Nihei, but maybe that's just because this book is full of industrial ruins, cross-hatched monsters, and people in leather jumpsuits fighting them.  I also feel like you can visibly see him improve as an artist; he has a consistently interesting eye for composition, but his storytelling starts out a lot shakier, he straight up just does not know how to do panel transitions or show motion until about three quarters through the first book.

The parts where Stone leans into its post-apocalyptic setup are the most fun, I dig the scenes with pockets of humanity living on the top floors of skyscrapers and beached aircraft carriers jutting out of the sandsea.  It kind of peaks early though, Volume 2 is mostly funky-looking pirate ships shooting at each other across seas of nothingness. The occasional boring background aside, Hiromoto usually doesn't skimp on the detail, and while perky young tomboy Zizi is front and center, he can draw a pretty good craggy old bastard too.

As far as the actual story...  There's a lot of attempted profundity kind of groping along under the surface that never quite comes together, most notably a fertility/fecundity motif-- we have the world covered in sterile white sand and a skull-face on the moon, contrasted with super blatant phallic and yonic symbolism, psychic bat mitzvahs, taboos about killing pregnant monsters, weird womb communion, and the whole thing ends with the birth of a child ending a gory war. Frankly it feels like this got cancelled, it ends pretty abruptly without really concluding anything.

Considered as a kind of crazy daydream, Stone is fun.  It's not great fiction, but I enjoy it as the trifle it is, and I'm interested in checking out Hiromoto's other work-- I actually picked up those Star Wars books of his, and I'm looking forward to seeing that movie refracted through his prism.  Speaking of which, I'd really like to know just how accurate this line is...

Sunday, February 2, 2014

They deftly maneuver and muscle for rank/Fuel burning fast on an empty tank

Sorry this is late, but... I can't believe I ended up writing this much about Motorball.

Volumes 3 and 4 of Battle Angel Alita cover the Motorball chapters.  After last volume's heartbreak, Alita decides that caring hurts too much, and the series shifts gears again as she runs away from home to get involved in mechanized bloodsports, and ends up dueling the dying champion, Emperor Jashugan.  I recall this arc being a little divisive back in the the good old days before Last Order, when people complained about a mere two-volume-long fighting tournament...  Clearly we had no idea how good we had it. 

This arc is pretty much a sports manga, driven by the drama of testing yourself against worthy rivals, getting sponsorship, training under a hard-bitten, terminally ill coach, etc.  That said, since everyone competing in Motorball is a martial-arts cyborg on wheels, the rules are made up and the points don't matter, as it usually boils down to last mech standing wins, which means lots of lengthy fight scenes that don't advance the plot, which is why I'm covering both volumes in one post.  In hindsight, it's impossible not to read this as a dress rehearsal for Last Order's Zenith Of Things Tournament, what with the increasingly odd Motorball contestants calling out special moves and bragging about their martial styles.

Mind, the fights are beautiful; Kishiro's art was good from the start, but this is where the series starts looking exactly the way I remember, riots of motion blur and excessive levels of clean-lined detail on lovingly rendered cyberchassis.  The wordless eight-page-sequence in the final chapter with Jashugan just going to town on everyone is fantastic. I would hazard a guess that this is around when he started drawing digitally. 

We do get some important character development between fights, though... at this stage in Alita's emotional development, she's basically a young adult leaving the nest.  Leaving to find yourself is more literal than usual in a story about an amnesiac (while she does know that she practices a martial art from Mars, and recovers memories of training on a big red mountain, she does not put two and two together yet), and it's interesting that while she cut ties to the point of not telling anyone where she was going, and was apparently even willing to throw away her gender by taking a non-feminine body (which reflects interestingly on Sechs in Last Order), she does keep the name Ido gave her (even after recalling her original one; I didn't remember that happening this early).  Her relationship with Ido also evolves significantly; he acknowledges himself as her father and feels tremendously abandoned at first, but after some amusing pettiness from both of them he finally recognizes her as an adult and peer.

(also, without his hat it is incredibly obvious Ido is straight-up cosplaying as Rick Deckard, hilarious)

This arc also returns to the personally-affirming nature of violence (or at least, dedication to the martial arts, but this is a battle manga, nobody's going to learn kung fu without using it on someone), which is kind of odd, since last volume was fairly consistent about depicting violence as just a symptom of the Scrapyard's dysfunction, and in these ones Kishiro makes a point of showing Motorball as an unhealthy bread-and-circus spectacle.  Our introduction to the "sport" paints it as bringing a mediated catharsis to the masses (manifested literally, as virtual-reality connections to the fighters; Kishiro comes back to this in the Ashen Victor side-story, which I'll get to at some point), and just in case you missed it, at the end Ido explicitly says Tiphares bankrolls the whole thing to let the citizens blow off steam.  Which I'm not sure it's doing that great a job of, since violence breaks out in the stands more than once, and even Ido is moved to crack people upside the head just for being insulting.  Ido is actually striking me as a surprising hypocrite during this reread, but I don't think I can seriously talk about that until certain events much later on...

Anyway, even if Motorball is a corrosive force on the spectators, Kishiro seems to respect its effect on the racers (possibly symbolized by Alita quitting the sport, but keeping the Damascus blade her coach gives her as her signature weapon from here on).  This is also where the series starts to get spiritual, in its curiously materialist-existential way; on the one hand, Jashugan, his martial arts master, and apparently Alita's forgotten master are striving toward a sort of alchemical reification of the self, believing that spiritually, a metal body is just as worthy a container and conduit to the cosmic All as natural flesh (and Jashugan apparently attains this, right at the end), but in contrast to this notion of a purely spiritual awakening, the concept of chi has been analyzed and defined as a measurable and physical phenomenon. (also, compare this sudden holism with detachable-headed Makaku's personality being affected by the bodies he wore back in volume 1).  This kind of applied metaphysics becomes a hallmark of the series in later volumes, largely thanks to the still-mysterious Desty Nova, who finally makes a second appearance halfway through volume 4, once again in a shadowy flashback.  It's hard to believe he's basically not in half the series, considering what a scene-stealer he is. 

On a related note, there are actually a couple panels in here of cultists praying to Tiphares swaying overhead, which I did not remember and is really interesting given how very few characters in the series actually mention a specific belief in any god.  And I suppose at this point it's worth mentioning that the English title Battle Angel is more specifically religious than the original Japanese Gunnm (Gun Dream).  Under whichever name, the series gets increasingly spiritual pretty much as soon as next volume, but again, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Let's talk a little about race instead.  The Scrapyard seems to be a melting pot depository of everyone who wasn't cool enough to go live in space; at this point in the story we don't even have any confirmation that there IS anyone alive outside the Scrapyard or Tiphares.  I don't think we ever get a real answer on where the place even is; there's a bar named Kansas, but that doesn't mean anything, and interestingly, there's Korean text on one Motorball arena, and Arabic on another!  Nobody in the Scrapyard seems to have a clear ethnicity, either; going by names doesn't help much (especially since Viz changed a few), since a couple people have unmistakably ethnic Japanese names, but most go by unrecognizable fake future handles.  The Motorball arc is full of characters boasting about knowing specific ethnic fighting styles, but pretty much everyone is drawn with the usual manga lack of obvious racial markers (Ido and Zapan's prominent noses might be a specific indication of Caucasianness, but Ido's first name is Daisuke, so whatever)... and I really shouldn't let it pass without comment that the first notably dark-skinned characters in this series were a kingpin and his assistant, and the next three are a pair of professional athletes and one's little sister (also, I totally remembered coach Ed's weird character design as being way more Mr. Popo than it actually is).  I'm not going to say Vector and Jashugan are bad characters, but I can't really un-see this either.

Jashugan's sister Shumira, on the other hand, is a very bad character, embarrassingly so since she's only the second woman to appear in more than one chapter (Alita herself being number one).  She's pretty much just a teddy bear wearing short-shorts... and I really shouldn't leave it at that, since this series is actually nutty enough for that to be a character's literal physical description (once again, I am specifically thinking of something from Last Order). Shumira is sort of ahead of her time, tragically; she's a big-eyed little sister who can only speak in the third person, dresses revealingly, lives to cheer up her big brother (until he meets Alita, she is literally the only thing keeping him alive) and is either fixated on or manhandled by pretty much every man she meets.  It's actually to Ido and/or Kishiro's credit that Ido does not take Jashugan up on his offer to marry her, given his Henry Higgins tendencies.  Still, at least she gets a speaking part; Takie is barely a character at all, since she's pretty much just Grace Jones as Robocop.  For all the bagging I do on Last Order, I will say that it does end up with many more important women and/or brown people in it than the original series.

I also want to mention Jashugan's stereotypical American-comics-style promo poster.  Kishiro is one of the relatively few manga artists I know of with an evident interest in American comics; it's more prominent in Ashen Victor, which borrows visuals from Sin City and Sandman (and there's an even more, ahem, direct Frank Miller tribute near the very end of BAA proper), but the specific use of US superhero artstyle for propaganda purposes comes up again early in Last Order.

Moving to another recurring theme, in this arc Kishiro begins to stretch himself as an artist and lovingly depict certain brains from multiple angles, as opposed to his previous habit of devoting one panel to each specific brain as a sort of memento mori before it got smashed or the scene changed. 

Under this new regime, volume 3 contains 4 exposed brains, and volume 4 has 6 (one almost totally ruined).  This is after disqualifying any brain so totally liquified that no characteristic brain lumpiness is discernible; we're just counting nice clear gyri and sulci here.  As befits the king of Motorball, 40% of the brains depicted in these two volumes belong to Emperor Jashugan.  Uh... I actually can't recall if we've seen Alita's brain yet!

The flipped and unflipped printings' chapter counts finally synch up at the end of volume 3.  Hurray!  V3's unflipped extras are two pages on the rules and regulations of Motorball (which are totally irrelevant), but V4 sports a few gag strips, including one about Alita's cyberbody still needing to poo.  Essential content, surely.

So overall, Motorball actually isn't that bad!  Part of that was because reading two volumes back to back wasn't enough to outstay its welcome.  Will ZOTT treat me so kindly on the reread?  Tune in and find out, in, um, a couple months, at this rate.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Valentine's Day comes early

If I'd had any foresight I would have timed this for Valentine's Day, but I really do want to get cracking on the Battle Angel reread, so let's just pretend I posted this about a month later.

Alita's amnesia left her with a grasp on all the fundamentals of walking, talking, and so on, but her emotional development is pretty much reset to zero.  In volume 1 she relearned how to fight, and in volume 2 she relearns how to love.  Alita and local odd-jobs guy Hugo meet-cute during one of her bounty hunts, but can two crazy kids make it in a cyberpunk dystopia?

No, no they can't.

This volume is our first indication of how chameleonic Battle Angel will get; the series kind of shifts premise every so often (opinions may vary on how organic this is; I always thought the transitions were very natural) and this is a pretty surprising break from the sustained martial-arts violence of the first book; there's no big set-piece fight, it's much more about drama and worldbuilding. When fights do break out, it's not an acrobatic kung fu spectacle, just messy murder. It's hard to say Hugo actually deserves his fate, but he was in fact a clear and present danger to the public, being perfectly willing to mug random people and pry out their spines.

And yet, in the ridiculous dystopia of the Scrapyard, where life is so cheap Zapan kills at least two people for no other reason than feeling embarrassed by Alita, he's still more sympathetic than pretty much anyone but Ido.  Hugo lives in the gutters, looking up at the stars-- but Tiphares is blocking the view, literally and metaphorically looming over everyone.  We still don't know much about it by volume's end, but we do learn just how its policies make the Scrapyard the horrible place that it is.

Hugo's childhood didn't turn out so great, but Alita's second one is coming along all right. At this point we have zero idea what mental age she "should" have, and we won't get an answer for quite a while. Her amnesia really isn't a mystery to be solved, it's more a device to make the series a coming of age story, and it ends up covering quite a lot of character development. At this point, she's a love-struck teenager, sitting around sighing, and trying really hard not to come on too strong (literally; she has a whole Clark Kent routine going on trying to hide the fact that she's a combat-spec cyborg). It's worth noting that Kishiro dials back the detail of his style for the goofier moments in this volume; I don't remember him doing this again later, but then I didn't remember it happening here.

Speaking of character development, Zapan showed up briefly in the first volume, but he's much more central to this one.  Despite his petty, vicious thuggery here he actually ends up being one of my favorite characters, but I'll come back to that in a couple volumes.  For now, I just want to note that Kishiro is very good about unexpectedly making minor characters important. 

Let's close out with some random thoughts.  This lorem ipsum text appears to be in Hebrew, which is interesting considering the Jeru-Zalem naming scheme that the English translation replaced with Kabbalah.  I don't think now is quite the right time to talk about the religious references in the series, but while I'm thinking of it, "Zapan" is meant to be "Xaphan", I think.

The anime adaptation stops at the end of this storyline.  It's been quite a while since I watched it, all I recall are the changes they made to be more self-contained.  Poor Zapan is pretty much just a cameo!

The word "Lycanthropazine" has stuck with me ever since I read this volume.  (It also reminds me of a certain part of Samurai Flamenco...)

Exposed brain tally: 2 smashed, 2 intact (1 extra intact one on the unflopped's table of contents!)

Edition changes: The unflopped rerelease again has a handful of rough sketches, a page on the laws of the Scrapyard, and another one diagramming the law enforcement Netmen.  More importantly, it starts with the end of the Makaku battle, and ends on a cliffhanger, with one chapter of Hugo's arc still to come (a chapter which ends up missing quite a few sound effects that were in the flopped version, during the climb).  I pity anyone who came into this series late and ended up with a mixed set of books...