Manga Friday: Wandering Assassins
Manga are just as full of fossilized genres as any other popular media, as I’m coming to discover. A case in point is this week’s haul: three series, all from the same publisher, all of which can be vaguely characterized as being about a wandering assassin.
Gin Tama doesn’t take itself all that seriously; it’s clearly a historical story (set in the Meiji period, more or less) moved bodily into a SF setting, with only minor changes to make things fit. And, like a lot of comics, it’s easier to enjoy something mildly silly if it knows that it’s silly – Gin Tama is quite aware that it’s quite generic, and quite hard to believe, but it’s ready to entertain anyway. I appreciate that, even if I find the winking at the audience and obvious melodrama a bit much. This isn’t the greatest samurai comic out there, but it’s a fun samurai comic that I don’t expect will ever get terribly serious, and there’ll always be a market for that.
Now, Black Cat, on the other hand, is a former assassin. He’s reformed, you see. In a world much like our own, only with utterly different names to avoid slandering any place or ethnicity, there are apparently scads of assassins running around free, many of them serving the secret overlords of the world. (Isn’t that always the way?) His real name is Train – no, seriously, his name is Train, I couldn’t make this stuff up – but his secret way-cool killer codename was “Black Cat.” He of course tired of the assassin’s life, faked his own death, and now works, with his green-haired partner Sven, as a freelance bounty hunter, or “sweeper.”
Either the original creator, Kentaro Yabuki, or the translators have a tin ear there, and I’d be willing to bet it was Yabuki – I’ve seen similarly bizarre names in other manga. (It may be the Japanese way of getting back at Westerners for what we’ve done to ninjas and feng shui.) Anyway, once you get past the names, this is another adventure story set in the kind of territory familiar from action movies. It’s a bit more serious and bloody than Gin Tama, but it’s still a popular melodrama; I never got a sense that the main character is ever going to be in any serious danger. (And, oddly enough, this two-man team also picks up an attractive, tough female partner mid-way through the first volume – is it possible that Shonen Jump has some formula that these stories have to follow?)
Anyway, Sven and Train travel the world, capturing various malefactors and turning them in for the reward money – though, of course, their luck is generally bad and they never have much money. (I will grant Black Cat one large point for never having either one of them claim that he is too old for this shit.) They get mixed up in larger plots as well; one is unfinished at the end of this volume. Black Cat is a manga for people who like Bruce Willis movies; that’s a large demographic, so I expect it will do well.
Last this week is the first volume of a new collection of Golgo 13 stories. There are planned to be, appropriately, 13 volumes, and the last one will be out in a month or so. Since Golgo 13 has been published for nearly forty years now (the main story in this first volume is #364), this is clearly a “greatest hits” compilation, rather than any attempt to reprint the entire series.
Golgo 13 is the world’s greatest assassin, a secretive, mysterious sociopath who can go anywhere in the world to carry out his assignments. He, of course, works only for pay, but has a personal code of honor. (Though it mostly seems to consist of various ways of saying “don’t screw with me, and I’ll probably let you live.”) Since he is defined as the world’s greatest assassin, he can infiltrate any installation and get anywhere…and he only requires one shot to do his job, whatever that particular job is.
This book is credited “created by Takao Saito,” which as good as admits that Saito had nothing at all to do with these particular stories, and Viz (or Saito, perhaps) is not going to admit who actually did write and draw them. That’s unfortunate, since these are well-plotted, cleanly drawn thrillers that are a testament to the professionalism and abilities of whoever it was that actually did them.
This volume has one long story – “Supergun,” from 1995, in which Golgo is sent to destroy a secret Iraqi terror weapon – and a shorter story, “Hit and Run,” from the mid-‘70s, in which the assassin plays a smaller part. If the whole series has a range like that, I might well be back for more. Golgo 13 isn’t great literature, but it’s at least as tough, exciting and fun in its own form as Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels are in theirs.
Gin Tama, Vol. 1
Viz Media, 2007, $7.99
Black Cat, Vol. 1
Viz Media, 2006, $7.95
Golgo 13, Vol. 1: Supergun
Created by Takao Saito
Viz Media, 2006, $9.95
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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