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.