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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Bokurano: Ours is kinda like Ender’s Game

March 19th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

It’s not hard to see that Mohiro Kitoh’s Bokurano: Ours is going to end horribly for everyone involved. The book opens with pictures of fifteen characters, eight boys and six girls. They are the main characters of the book, the ones who will be piloting the giant robot against whatever threats care to invade Earth. Save for one younger girl, they’re all in the seventh grade.

The cast feels distressingly large. Not helping matters any is the way that the characters fade into a vague blur shortly after they each deliver personal introductions. We know their names, we know their ages, we know their relationship to each other (friends, with a sidebar for family), and that’s it. We’re instantly faced with a cast that means nothing to us.

Generally, large casts can mean a couple of different things. In the case of Lord of the Rings, a large cast is an opportunity for an author to tell several stories at once by splitting the cast into smaller, more manageable pieces. In Uncanny X-Men or Legion of Superheroes, a sprawling cast allows for serial storytelling that has a fresh, but regular, cast. In Bokurano: Ours, the cast is so large because basically all of these children are going to die.

The story should sound familiar to fans of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Fifteen young kids sign a contract to play a game with a giant robot. They soon find out that the robot is real, the threats are deadly, and the robot is powered by their lives. After the threat is defeated, a person’s life force is sapped and they fall down dead. Later, when another threat appears, another pilot is chosen and the process is repeated.

Bokurano: Ours feels like a counter-shonen comic. A lot of shonen comics, like American adventure comics, revolve around wish fulfillment. The scrawny nerd gets powers, the village idiot finds out that he’s the most important person of all, a fighter becomes the best in the world, and a dumb kid no one likes ends up being the only person who can save the world.
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Scanlations and Piracy: Cry for Justification

March 4th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Hey, let’s talk piracy!

AnimeVice published a pretty poorly written defense of scanlations, tying into a larger discussion of Nick Simmons jacking art from Bleach. It has some fairly huge issues, including some outright factual inaccuracies, but boiled down? It’s crap.

I don’t want to spend this point by point rebutting Remmell’s essay, but I will say that hinging a pro-scans piece on Viz’s “butchery” of Gosho Ayama’s Case Closed is an incredibly bad decision when the changes were requested by Gosho Ayama and the Japanese licensors. It is the real story, since the author wanted the changes. Your mom’s pound cake is your mom’s pound cake, no matter the recipe she chooses to use.

The biggest problem with the essay is the idea of justifying scanlations, and through that, piracy. That’s stupid. Here’s the truth: you can’t justify scanlations. Justifying an act requires proof that the act is necessary. You can justify a war, you can justify violence, you can justify sleeping in and missing some school. The thing is, you can’t justify scanlations. The original creator that you’re such a fan of gets no recompense from you reading scans online. No money, nothing. In exchange for that nothing, you get to read that creator’s book for free. In the end of things, that’s what happens. You aren’t supporting, you aren’t helping, you’re just leeching.

Let’s keep it all the way real. I have a Demonoid account, just like everybody else. Sometimes I hear about a movie and I want to watch it, but Netflix has nothing. Well, look at that: Fatal Fury the Anime is on Youtube. When an album I’m looking forward to leaks a week early, I download it, listen to it, and then decide whether or not I’m buying it off Amazon’s MP3 store. I follow several mp3 blogs to keep up on new singles, freestyles, and mixtapes.

In fact, real life example: I wanted to listen to A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders the other day. It’s one of my favorite albums, I was having a crap day, I figured it’d be a pick-me-up. I found out my mp3s were screwed up. They were skipping, some didn’t play, blah blah blah. This morning I remember that the songs were broken, delete the ones I had, and downloaded the album. I threw them into iTunes, synced my iPod, and got on my bike to go to work.

Now, I’ve owned a copy of Midnight Marauders for years. Several- from cassette to CD to CD after that other CD broke. I could justify it by saying that I’ve paid for the album before, so why should I pay for it again? But- no. It’s on Amazon for ten dollars. I’ve got ten bucks, I love the group, it’s one of my top five favorite albums, and there’s nothing stopping me from downloading the album from a legal venue, except for the fact that I valued my own convenience over the rights of the dudes who made the music.

Make no mistake: this is, legally speaking, piracy. I can’t defend it, I can’t justify it– under the letter of the law, I’m a music pirate. If I got my card pulled over it, what am I gonna say? “I did it because I want to purchase content, not format?”

(The content vs format debate is a valid one, but completely secondary to what happened and why it happened. I downloaded that album because I wanted to not pay for it.)

I did it because I wanted it and it was convenient. This morning, I prized myself over someone else. Nothing more, nothing less. Trying to justify that kind of thing is dumb. If you did it, you did it. At least be real enough to say, “Yeah, I did that. That sucks, huh?”

Scanlations aren’t how you stand up for Authentic Manga or creator’s rights or whatever. Scanlations are how you read books for free. You aren’t fighting the power. You aren’t sending a message to the companies. You’re reading for free. If you care that much, then the only thing you should be doing is purchasing the original tankobon from Japan and reading it yourself. That way, everyone involved gets paid, you get your authentic manga, and we’re all happy.

Pretending that scanlations are something you can justify, or something that is morally correct in any way, shape or form, is a joke. You want it, you read it. That’s what it is, that’s how it works. Be grown up enough to admit it, rather than trying to justify it.

“Be aware and be honest,” is what I’m trying to say here.

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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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My Year in Comics: 2009

December 29th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

I keep trying to do a top ten list, but I keep getting bored and wandering off partway through. It’s not that I can’t do it. It’s just that everyone has done it, and I wouldn’t be bringing anything new to the table. Sure, my list of ten books would be different from someone else’s list, and I’d probably inadvertently end up pissing off fans of Geoff Johns/Brian Michael Bendis/JMS again. What’s vastly more interesting, is looking at 2009 in terms of how my approach to comics changed. I stopped chasing the dragon this year, but that’s just half of it. I started, or re-started, a lot of things, too.

Amazon makes this easy. I can look at the 46 orders I placed in 2009 (which is completely ridiculous) and see what I bought and when I bought it. On 02/16, I ordered three books from Amazon. Jack Kirby’s O.M.A.C., Black Panther by Jack Kirby Vol. 2, and Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka, Vol. 1. I was very high on Kirby after picking up the first two Fourth World omnibuses, so that explains the two Kirby books. The outlier is Pluto. I hadn’t picked up any manga in some time before then, having stopped reading Monster when I moved to SF and already having a complete set of Dragon Ball. I’ve had a box full of manga chilling in my place for two and a half years now, with everything from Battle Vixens to Shaman King to The Ring waiting to be pulled out and reread, only for that to never happen.

The catalyst was Pluto, though. I’ve been watching anime since I was a kid, reading manga since I was a teenager. I remember picking up Super Manga Blast to read What’s Michael. Two days after reading Pluto 1, I ordered Monster 9-12, inadvertently giving myself two copies of volume 9. By February 24th, I had volumes 14 through 18, completing the series. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed Monster, and reading the end of the series in a sprint like that was a blessing.

I live about six blocks from Kinokuniya, which is easily one of the best places to buy manga in the city. Large selection, decent back stock, and they’re on top of new releases. They’ve got an enormous selection of Japanese books, too. I visited it maybe twice my first year and a half here. Now, it’s more like monthly.

Pluto led to 20th Century Boys, which in turn led to Viz Signature. Other than a brief dip into and out of Black Lagoon (Nah, y’all can keep that one), Viz Signature has turned into my favorite imprint in any comics company. I’ve picked up Dogs, Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit, Jormungand, solanin, What A Wonderful World! and Vagabond, and enjoyed all of them. I’m looking forward to reading GoGo Monster (which is a very handsomely designed book), Real, not simple, and maybe Tsutomu Nihei’s Biomega.

Viz Signature led to SIG IKKI, which led to Shonen Sunday. I rediscovered Yotsuba&!, which led to Yen Press, which has a few titles I need to try out. A friend’s recommendation led to Mushishi, from Del Rey, and a few titles out of that imprint, too.

I started paying attention to manga blogs, mainly via Brigid Alverson’s Manga Blog and Kate Dacey’s Manga Critic. That spiraled out into half a dozen other blogs, which led to more books. I started writing about manga more often, though nowhere near as often as I actually read it.

While all this was going on, I was growing out of slavishly following superhero books. David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp fell in my lap like a bomb, I fell in love with Darwyn Cooke’s Parker: The Hunter, and scored several other books. I grabbed a used copy of Usagi Yojimbo: Grasscutter II on a whim and remembered how much I dig that series. Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai coming out a few weeks later was perfect timing, leaving me ripe for more. While the special edition by Fantagraphics collecting the first chunk of stories was pushed back to September 2010, I’m paying attention to Stan Sakai again and wondering why I ever stopped.

Dark Horse’s Noir and David Lapham’s Young Liars reminded me of Stray Bullets again, Joshua Dysart and Alberto Ponticelli’s Unknown Soldier rocked. I finally read Creepy, Adam Warren’s Dirty Pair, and a gang of other books.

I read Ganges #2, my first Ganges, after some goading from Tucker. I loved it, now I’m looking out for that, too. I can count the number of books by Fantagraphics I owned before picking up Ganges on zero hands. Now, I’m keeping my eyes open.

That was 2009 for me. I found a lot of new things, I learned more about my own tastes, and I started fitting my buying habits around that. I try more things, I’m open to more kinds of books, and it’s been fun discovering things that I should’ve known about all along.

2009 was a good year for comics. At this point, I’m reading American books of all types, a few Eurocomics thanks to Marvel’s partnership with Soleil, a lot of manga, a little manhwa… is there a word for that? Omnivorous? “Comics reader?” Either way, I feel better about comics than I have in a long while.

2010 is going to be a good year.

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Solanin Movie Trailer Released

December 10th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

I saw on twitter a minute ago that the trailer for the film adaptation of Inio Asano’s solanin came out. It’s all in Japanese, and I’m pretty sure it blows something that was supposed to be a surprise, but check it out:

The casting looks really good. Kato is dead on, and while Meiko is substantially less freckled than her comic counterpart, but she looks good. The bit with her and the knit cap– that’s cool, totally true to the book. Their circle of friends looks pretty good, too.

Doesn’t this look like the perfect 20-something movie? A bunch of attractive post-college kids working out their issues and forming a rock band. It looks universal, like people of any culture could get into it.

I reviewed solanin a while back and really enjoyed it.

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One Piece: I’d Be (East) Blue Without You

December 8th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

A few days before I received my copy of Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece: East Blue 1-2-3, Shueisha announced that One Piece volume 56 had a print run of 2.85 million copies, the largest first edition print run in manga history. A couple days after I finished reading its 600 pages, a chart detailing the best-selling manga in Japan by series for 2009 dropped, revealing that One Piece sold 14,721,241 copies over the course of the year. To put this in perspective, according to Brian Hibbs’s Bookscan analysis for 2008, the total units for comics sold in America last year was 15,541,769. The top 750 sold 8,334,276 total copies.

What I’m trying to say is, even before you factor in toys, movies, other media tie-ins, and video games (though if you don’t own a Wii, it’s been a while since one of those), One Piece is an industry of its own. It’s kinda like a big deal.

It’s not hard to see why. One Piece is the story of Monkey D. Luffy, a teenager who wants to be the King of the Pirates by finding Gold Roger’s lost treasure “One Piece.” Along the way, he collects a crew of interesting weird crewmates, battles incredible enemies, leaves a trail of broken bodies and new friends in his wake, and punches so far above his weight class it’s a wonder that he doesn’t simply get squashed by his betters.

Except this is shonen manga, and like every other shonen hero, Luffy has heart, magic powers, the power of true friendship, and about thirty gallons of blood in his body. His heart comes from his drive to become King of the Pirates and live up to the expectations of his mentor, Red-haired Shanks. His friendship comes from the mutual respect between all members of the crew, even when they quarrel. The blood is a genre trope, and the magic powers come from the time he eat the Gum Gum Fruit, which turned him into a rubber man.

Luffy is kind of like Reed Richards, if Reed was good at fighting, really really dumb, but focused enough to achieve anything he put his mind to. His rubber skills range from purely offensive (Gum Gum Gatling) to protective (Gum Gum Balloon) to ridiculous (Second Gear), but they are all visually entertaining.

Oda’s style is somewhere between Dragon Ball and Looney Tunes. The proportions vary from character to character (Nami’s impossibly long stick legs [she’s like 2/3 legs, seriously], Usopp’s nose having actual bones in it, Luffy’s rubber body, Buggy’s weird face), but they all manage to look good. It looks weird, but endearingly so. Several traits that I usually associate with American animation or cartooning mix with traditionally Japanese effects, resulting in situations where characters simultaneously bug their eyes out like Ren & Stimpy while sweat drops or anger clouds (for lack of a better phrase, the swirly anger stuff usually seen around yakuza/hooligans) flood the panel.

One Piece has some great fight scenes, in part due to the weirdness of the design and art. Characters have powers that are more than just “shoots lasers” or “ninjutsu.” One guy splits apart into floating pieces, another’s made out of sand, another uses three swords at a time (Santoryu: Three Sword Style means two in the hand, one in the mouth), and still another just has an ill iron jaw and an axe for a hand.

East Blue: 1-2-3 collects the first three volumes of the series for fifteen bucks or so and establishes everything that you need to know. The piracy tends toward the fun and melodramatic, but there’s a clear delineation between fun and “We will straight up kill you.” Luffy and friends stay on the fun side, of course, but some of their villains are genuinely villainous.

Over the course of the volume, we meet the first three members of Luffy’s crew, though the third doesn’t join just yet, get all of the introductory business out of the way, and meet a gang of villains, only a couple of which are recurring characters. You get to know the weird nature of the series through the lion tamer who has hair just like his pet Richie (it’s not a mask) and Luffy’s Amelia Bedelia-esque nature.

He’s very… credulous, if I can use that word like that. He’s not too far off from Yotsuba in that sense. When an enemy, when referring to one of Luffy’s friends, says, “Maybe I know… then again, maybe I don’t,” Luffy simply responds, “What are you talking about? Are you an idiot?”

Oda created a manga that’s both funny looking and funny. It switches from hardcore action to comedy to tear-filled drama at a moment’s notice, and it never feels like a jerk from one kind of writing to another. It’s always very smooth and well-earned.

One Piece is one of my favorite manga, and it’s definitely the one I’ve stuck with the longest and read the most of. I discovered it back when Shonen Jump first started, and though I’ve taken breaks off and on, it’s one I’ve kept up with over the years.

Oda’s painted a world that’s a great storytelling engine, with enough freedom to tell almost any kind of story. Just when you think you’re going to get yet another story about pirates vs pirates, you end up with a civil war or a trip to heaven or something equally ridiculous. (Both of those happened.) Or hey, you can get a madcap escape from an underwater jail with several floors of gimmicks. It’s fresh and interesting and it’s easy to see why it’s such a huge hit in Japan. It’s childlike in a way that adults and kids can both appreciate, not very deep, but immensely entertaining.

I’ve got to praise this new 3in1 format, too. It’s a masterstroke, making it easy for new readers to get into the series or long-time readers to have handsome new volumes on their shelves. If you get impatient, you can just pick up the series where the omnibus leaves off. East Blue covers the first twelve trades, so there are three more of these due over the next few months. I’m hoping that these sell well enough to justify the next arc, and the arc after that, catching 3in1 releases. I love these. I went ahead and preordered the next three (4-5-6, 7-8-9, and 10-11-12), because, at Amazon prices, these are basically three for the price of one at full retail.

That’s a steal.

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One Piece: Strong World Sketches

November 24th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

gottsuiiyan at The Eastern Edge bought the new issue of Switch Magazine, and it’s got a feature on the new One Piece movie, Strong World. One Piece is basically the best adventure comic, so I’m looking forward to Strong World. Especially if it has stuff like this:


That mooseasaurus rex in the link looks great, too. Good to see that Oda’s Nami is still 2/3 legs, too.

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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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Pluto 6: On Man’s Casual Inhumanity

November 17th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

Sometimes, knowing a creator’s work means realizing partway through a book that yes, this guy is seriously going to take everything he’s good at, put it down onto the page, and throw it right into your face. I was a couple of chapters into Naoki Urasawa’s sixth volume of Pluto when I realized that that was exactly what was happening.

Urasawa’s proven himself to be a master of tense, emotional confrontation, believable conversation, and careful pacing. What he isn’t as known for is high impact action scenes, but Pluto 6 manages to put that notion to bed.

The first third or so of Pluto 6 follows a formula similar to the earlier volumes. Gesicht is investigating and talking to people, there are brief asides where small robots break your heart into pieces with an equal mix of adorableness and poverty, a mysterious teddy bear does something frightening, and secrets are slowly passed out.

The difference here is that the secrets are passed out like candy. We find out exactly what Pluto is and where it came from. We find out why Gesicht killed a man. We find out what it looks like when a robot is consumed with hate. We learn just how deep certain characters are, and we get to see true grief in the face of more than one person. We learn the meaning of “500 zeus a body” and it’s the saddest thing.

We also finally get to see Gesicht in hard action. I’m talking wall running, hand turning into a laser gun, fighting a giant monster, dashing through the exploded remains of your enemy action. And Urasawa pulls it off just as masterfully as everything else. It’s horribly violent and utterly tragic all at once, as Gesicht is forced to fight something that either doesn’t know any better or isn’t interested in knowing better, because the truth is too awful to bear.

Pluto 6 is paced in a way that it all feels very inevitable. Inexorable. The first scene in the book is an uneasy conversation between Gesicht and a scientist from Persia. It sets the tone. Where Gesicht was once on top of things and ahead of the investigation, he’s apparently slipped a step. He finds out something surprising at the end of the first chapter, and the hits keep coming from there on out.

Tragedy is the fuel that makes Pluto go. By the end of the volume, we realize that Gesicht, our hero and point of view, has been lied to, betrayed, misled, and hindered by forces beyond his control. All of this despite being a more powerful being than most of the populace. He has to consult a murderous robot to even find a semblance of truth. He’s a good man in a world that doesn’t deserve him.

Pluto is that book where a conversation is just as tense as two robots fighting, and the last eight pages just raise the bar. Two people, one a robot, the other a human, embrace on the border of the past and the future. They open up in a traditional Japanese garden outside of a hotel, as a high-tech city looms menacingly in the background.

Pluto 6 is the best yet. There’s really no other way to put it. It’s everything that’s made Pluto the best series of the year, but simply done better than before. That’s impressive.

Matthew Brady has a good review of this volume. He includes some scans and it’s good reading.

You should be buying this comic. Blah blah blah, I don’t read manga, it’s backwards, it’s black and white, whatever- shut up. It’s the best. You’re doing yourself a disservice by missing out.

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