Jormungand 3: “To promote world peace.”

June 25th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

I’m going to be completely honest for a minute here. My favorite genre isn’t crime. It’s “violence.” I like my violence stylish and casual. You can’t work that hard at it, unless you’re John McClane, and even he makes it look effortless. I’m talking about single bullet in the head, hard jerk, splash of blood on the sunglasses violence. We gotta kill every rat-bastard one of them violence. No-look pass violence, where the hand that holds the knife moves so quickly and smoothly it’s almost independent of the body. Fade to black, the tip of a cigarette goes bright orange, one gunshot, and that’s all she wrote violence. I’m talking about the fact that bullets cost about twenty cents a piece, so your life is much, much cheaper than you think it is.

My most recent fix for that is Keitaro Takahashi’s Jormungand. I’ve written about it before, but I think I spent a lot of time introducing it, rather than actually talking about it. Its premise is fairly simple, which is the weird part about the lengthy introduction I wrote. A child soldier who hates weapons joins an arms dealer and people die. That’s it. There’s subplots involving vain crushes and revenge and all, but that’s flavor.

The second volume ended with Jonah, the child soldier and theoretical focus of the series, going into a suicidal rage and attacking a man named Kasper, brother of his boss, Koko Hekmatyar. The first chapter of Jormungand volume 3 reveals why he hates him. Three months ago, in an unnamed country in West Asia, most likely Afghanistan, Jonah was sent to support a military unit. Present in the camp are a group of local orphans. Jonah befriends them and protects them. Halfway through that first chapter, a vile arms dealer takes two of the orphans and goes out looking for the US military ordnance that he was planning to turn into profit. When he accidentally triggers a landmine, he uses the body of Malka, a young girl, to shield himself. She dies. He doesn’t. Jonah has a very reasonable reaction.

“I can’t accept that Malka died and not that bastard. I’ll personally send him to hell.”

By the end of the chapter, every soldier in the base is dead and the the arms dealer has four new holes in his face.

Jormungand is primarily an action manga. Its primary focus is strictly on entertainment. Bullets are expended by the dozen, each member of the cast has their specialty (sniping, tech, knife fighting, alertness, a willingness to murder), there’s a hopeless romance, fanservice, goofy comedy, and a quirky/wacky character. With that said, it isn’t completely empty of meaningful content. Jormungand is about violence. It’s about the application of violence, its beauty, its ugliness, the way it twists and distorts people with its pressure. It’s about the necessity of violence.

After his… temper tantrum, Jonah becomes a bodyguard for Koko. He hates weapons, and the people who make and use them, due to the fact that his family was killed as a direct result of arms dealers prizing profit over basic human decency. Due to his situation, and his history, Jonah is sullen and withdrawn, and not at all eager to open up and soften his facade. Which, of course, means that people are eager to talk to him and they talk at him. The cast discusses weapons and violence with him a couple times in each volume. In volume two, Koko discusses the UN’s Millenium Development Goals with Jonah. She tells him that nearly two hundred countries pledged to raise twenty-two billion dollars to genuinely improve the world. She says, “But that figure was recently surpassed by the average annual amount of money spent on weapons in regional conflicts across the globe. Can you believe that? Clearly the world likes war a lot more than it likes little kids!”

She goes on to ask him who owns most of the guns in the world. Military? Police? Private militias? Terrorists? No. Civilians own sixty percent of all the guns in the world. Less than one percent are owned by radical militias. This PDF link to “Transition to Peace: Guns in Civilian Hands” suggests that her figures are accurate. Finally, Koko says, “It’s a world where it’s easier to find a gun… than to find kindness for a stranger.”

You know what I like in my action comics? Actual facts that are more depressing than anything in the world.

Violence and weapons, they’re like a genie that’s come out of its bottle. They are not going to go away. The best you can hope for is to minimize the damage. One thing that comes up again and again in Jormungand is what it takes to defend something. Koko is of the opinion that the guns, in and of themselves, hold no values. What matters is why you use them and what you believe in. Jonah is disgusted by weapons, period. They exist only to hurt and to kill. They took his family from him.

At the same time, the necessity of them drives a lot of his actions. He is in danger simply by existing, and especially due to who he associates with. He’s a bodyguard, and you can’t defend someone with pacifism. For Jonah, weapons are a necessary evil. He can’t escape them. He knows that he needs weapons to get the job done. Early in the first volume, Jonah and Koko have a one-sided conversation about killing arms dealers. “Can you really give up the gun?” Koko asks him. She answers for him, saying, “No, you can’t. You’ll never be able to walk away from weapons. You may hate them more than anyone… but you know better than most how powerful you are with a weapon in your hand.” Simply put: you can’t bring a knife to a gun fight, and every fight is a gun fight.

Lehm, the old thrill-seeking mercenary of the group, emphasizes the importance of a cool head. He tells Jonah that the violence they engage in is just business and that they do not get into feuds. Control is what separates the men from the boys. One kind of violence destroys both sides. With control, only one side goes down. When another man describes a gunfight as “symphony,” Lehm tells him that he’s wrong. A gunfight is “a farting contest. Something awful, ugly, messy, and most of all, shameful!” Lehm thinks that a gunfight should make you apologize, and, after killing a young woman, he does exactly that to a teammate. It was necessary to kill her to protect someone’s life, but Lehm regrets it regardless.

Valmet, the eyepatch-wearing knife-wielder, prizes efficiency and emotion over all else. She believes in doing just enough, and doing it for a good reason. She has a cartoonish crush on Koko, the kind that’s obvious to everyone but Koko, but it also means that she’s fiercely loyal. While she has a certain amount of flair, since this is an action comic after all, she’s very straightforward. No flourish, no tricks, just doing what needs to be done.

Mildo, a member of a rival group, considers Valmet the big man on campus and wants to make her rep by beating her. She provides a nice contrast to Valmet. She fights because, after a while, all of the violence and death makes you empty on the inside. You take up a gun to protect your family or fight for your country, but after a while, all of that just becomes a rationalization. Mildo does it because she wants to be the best.

I find Jormungand so interesting because there are all of these questions and motivations swirling around. Every character, including Jonah, acknowledges the fact that, at a certain point, violence is a necessary evil. Jonah knows that he can’t get justice without weapons. Koko has used her position as an arms dealer to gain a greater appreciation of the way the world works. Lehm is a mercenary because it’s exciting, but he knows how to control the more unpleasant aspects of it.

I don’t know if this is making any sense. I have this theory that the stuff people describe as mindless entertainment, or popcorn movies, or whatever–none of that is worthwhile. It’s the entertainment equivalent of treading water or ten cent ramen noodles. It’ll kill some time, and you won’t come out of it angry or anything, but it won’t make an impression, either. The stuff that people remember and talk about and genuinely enjoy tends to have something beyond lasers and cool fights. It’s got to have something for you to latch on to. Jormungand is an action comic with something to say. There’s a lot of action and several exciting gun battles, but between all of that are the conversations and arguments that give context to all of the violence. It’s kind of like having your cake and eating it, too.

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Fourcast! 33: Last Week in Comics

February 15th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

-6th Sense’s 4a.m. Instrumental for the theme music
-Oh snap, comics reviews!
Batman & Robin #8? Good stuff! Cameron Stewart drew a great fight scene, Grant Morrison writes a fun Batwoman (“I have to die.”) and the British stuff is pretty fun.
-Esther wants Damian to disappear, though. That sucks.
Amazing Spider-Man #620? Pretty good, with a great Mysterio bit and amazing art from Marcos Martin and Javier Pulido.
Secret Six #18? Blackest Night crossover, Amanda Waller runs things, and Deadshot shoots dudes.
-Fact: I cannot say “Deadshot” without saying “Deathstroke” first.
-Fact: Deadshot’s miniseries from a while back ruled.
Jormungand volume 2 from Viz features a child soldier who goes into two separate suicidal rages in this volume, a wacky arms dealer, and the hijinx they get into. David likes it because he probably has a gun fetish. Good stuff!
-See you, space cowboy!

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Jormungand 1: Peace Through Superior Firepower

November 18th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

Two things surprised me about Keitaro Takahashi’s Jormungand 1 after I finished it. The first was just how much I enjoyed reading it. The second was the fact that Kate Dacey (review on MangaCritic) and Danielle Leigh (review on CSBG) didn’t like it. I usually agree with their reviews, and if I disagree with one writer, then I agree with the other. To have both of them dislike something I dug feels weird.

Regardless! I don’t think I can explain why I like Jormungand without explaining my experience with Black Lagoon. I’d had Black Lagoon recommended to me by several people who thought I’d dig it. It hit a lot of my interests, but never clicked. The script was a little too Tarantino, the dialogue a little too consciously gritty and vulgar, and the action a little too Matrix. Revy’s portrayal felt overbearing. Guns akimbo, booty shorts, bad attitude, and tragic past do not a compelling character make. I think I quit the series seven or eight episodes before the end, just due to being tired of the entire affair.

Jormungand, though, hits the spot in a way Black Lagoon didn’t, but should have. I think that the secret is in its approach. Where Black Lagoon reveled in its excess, Jormungand manages to tone it down a little, but still be fun. Koko Hetmatyr, the leader of an arms-dealing firm, is (and I’m being 100% serious here) a blend of Misato Katsuragi from Evangelion, Sailor Moon, and Sir Integras Hellsing poured into the mold of an arms dealer. Excitable, and seemingly immature, but very, very good at her job. Kate describes her as “garrulous and profane,” and that’s on the money. Rivals underestimate her because she just seems like a young girl in over her head. And then the rivals get shot in the face, because whoops, she knows exactly what she’s doing, and she’s better at it than they are.

Koko’s newest hire is Jonah, a very young kid and experienced child soldier. Takahashi dances in and out of the real tragedy of being a child soldier, picking and choosing what can make a solid story. Jonah doesn’t sleep in a bed. He sleeps in a corner, wrapped up in a blanket, and with a gun in his hand. He’s quiet and withdrawn, almost sullen, and rarely asks questions.

At the same time, he’s very good at his job. He carefully watches possible enemies, delivers that info to his team, and isn’t afraid of pulling the trigger with a detached facial expression. He hates weapons, due to his parents being killed in a war, but he’s good at using them and joins Koko’s company of his own volition. There’s something bubbling in the background there, like Jonah is looking for the people directly responsible for killing his parents, or revenge, or something. There are a couple of brief interludes that seem to suggest as much.

The rest of the team are a motley crew. There’s the old guy who is probably a little washed up, but thinks higher of himself than he really deserves. There’s the girl with an eyepatch and a crush on Koko, who is apparently the best of the best. Think Sakaki from Azumanga Daioh with a knife and one eye. The rest of the cast is a little undefined, but undefined in a way that makes me assume they’ll be fleshed out in the future. They behave like a family, rather than a company, with gentle ribbing, bad cooking, and ridiculous jokes (“A mummy!”) being the order of the day.

The art does one thing I don’t know that I’ve seen in a book before, but really enjoyed. When time passes, the last panel on the page before the change or the first page after has a portion of it cut out and shadowed, kind of like a fade-in/fade-out effect. It isn’t 100% successful, but it is an interesting way to show the passage of time. The art is enjoyable, though it waffles between mostly realistic and anime/manga cliche exaggeration a little too often for my tastes.

Takahashi gets the hardware right, though. There’s a great shot of anti-air equipment, the guns look great, and the BDUs are believable, but still cool looking. The combat only gets overly flashy a couple of times, but when it gets down to brass tacks, it’s very straightforward. And hey, people practice trigger discipline, which is always nice to see in books. Takahashi did his homework. Not quite to the extent that Kenichi Sonoda did with Gunsmith Cats, but close enough for government work.

I liked Jormungand 1. I can see why Kate and Danielle didn’t, but something about it just worked for me. It feels a little like Gunsmith Cats with the gun fetish and light humor, which I am 2009% okay with. The casual approach to violence (the full page dedicated to Jonah using a handgun in the second chapter, the knife fight in the woods for seriously no good reason [as acknowledged by the fighters]) is something that’s morally reprehensible but, pretty entertaining. If the quality of the plotting and characterization picks up, this could be something very cool. As-is, it’s a shallow romp, but a fun one.

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