Manga (Black) Friday: Three Books of Revenge, Death, and War
I’m writing this late on Thursday evening, full of turkey and stuffing and good will toward my fellow man. And I’ve been thinking that I don’t have any theme to unify them – I almost had three books starting with “G” and then almost had three volume twos — but a theme just jumped out and poked me. Today is Black Friday, and these three books all fit that theme: they’re all pretty black. (Yes, I know that’s not what “Black Friday” means, but humor me.)
Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, Vol. 1
Manga by Mahiro Maeda; Scenario by Yura Ariwara; Planning by Mahiro Maeda and GONZO
Del Rey, November 2008, $10.95
Gankutsuou is the least dark, at least at this point, but it clearly is going to get darker and bleaker. For one thing, it’s explicitly a retelling of Dumas’s novel The Count of Monte Cristo (“Gankutsuou” means “The King of the Cave,” and was the title of the first Japanese translation of Monte Cristo), which is not a tale of sweetness and light. And, second, our young hero Albert is the son of one of the men who schemed to put Edmond Dantes – surely you remember Edmond Dantes? – away for good, and, even worse, he’s the son of Mercedes, who was supposed to be Dantes’s wife.
Gankutsuou updates Monte Cristo to the kind of unlikely aristocratic interplanetary future that we don’t see much of any more; it never made a whole lot of sense as a setting, but I must admit that I missed it, and so I’m happy to see it come back here. Monte Cristo is a story that must be told in an aristocratic society – the Count himself only makes sense in such a world – and so it works; it’s a big, gaudy world, with extremes of wealth and poverty – just like the world Dumas wrote about.
This first volume is mostly set-up; we start with Albert and his friend Franz in the midst of a Grand Tour of sorts – of the major planets of our solar system, apparently. They’re just coming to Luna for its fabled Carnival, where the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo meets, befriends, and helps Albert. (Albert, in that all-too-typical manga style, is an overly innocent, puppy-dog-ish young man with boundless enthusiasm and utter lack of guile. I’m afraid he’s in for it, and equally afraid that Gankutsuou’s creators have been utterly innocent of the knowledge of real young aristocrats to think that type is even possible.)
By the end of this book, we’ve learned how Villefort – then a prosecutor, now a judge – and Albert’s father, General Morcef, and the banker Danglars all schemed together to send Dantes to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. And we’ve seen a bit of how ruthless Monte Cristo can be now – and, of course, learned who Monte Cristo used to be.
In the next book, I expect we’ll see Monte Cristo’s vengeance start to take shape – and the happy-go-lucky Albert might not have as much to be so happy about. Gankutsuou is a fine retelling of one of the paradigmatic stories of the last few centuries, a strong take on the perennially popular themes of betrayal and revenge. It might be based on an animated series, but it’s enough of its own story to build serious power and force by the end of this volume. I look forward to the second book eagerly.
Gantz, Vol. 2
By Hiroya Oku
Dark Horse, October 2008, $12.95
And, speaking of second books, here’s one now! I didn’t see the first volume of Gantz, but it gets summarized quickly near the end here: a motley group of people – who may or may not have just died and been brought back in new bodies – were sent into some sort of virtual reality simulation (or an overlay onto the real world, maybe) to battle nasty creatures and either die or survive.
The main character is yet another teenage boy with floppy dark hair – they must grow them on a manga farm somewhere in Honshu – named Kei Kurono. His friend Kato – larger, stronger, quieter – also got dragged into the room, as did a girl of about the same age named Kei Kishimoto. And there’s another boy, who doesn’t give his name – he’s been through this many times before, and does it on purpose now, building up points – assigned by the Gantz machine, which apparently runs this simulation – for some unknown purpose.
But that all makes Gantz sound like a thoughtful book, and it’s not: this book is a high-speed, action-packed chase and fight scene, in which the “large onion alien” starts off by killing several people very gorily and quickly and everybody runs around frantically from that point. Most of this book is action; there’s only a little talk at the end to make a bit of sense out of it and explain a few things, slightly.
The art is in a very clear, crisp, “Western” style, a generation or three forward from creators like Ryoichi Ikegami. It’s precisely the kind of style to make a gory, fast-paced story like this work for American audiences – and for Japanese readers, as well, I’m assuming. This story is dark as well, but I’m intrigued: I want to know what the Gantz machine is, and what are the ends of its manipulations. I may well be back for the next volume…
Dorothea, Vol. 2
DC Comics/CMX, July 2008, $12.99
And last this week is something equally dark, but in a different direction. Dorothea Eissenbach is a young woman in medieval Germany – in a world just alternate enough that a tough, capable young woman would be allowed to join a mercenary Landsknecht company, but not so alternate that she isn’t looked on with suspicion. (She’s an albino, and – for that and other reasons – there are rumors that she’s a witch.)
Dorothea learns some of the hard truths of army life in this book: the enemy tries to kill you, sometimes with nasty booby traps and tricks. When your side conquers a city, your fellow soldiers loot and rape and pillage. And the generals and leaders on your side don’t have your personal best interests at heart, and might not have any even mildly pleasant aim in mind.
In other words: war is hell. Dorothea is finding that out, but also – since she’s a manga protagonist – trying to stop war from being hell. (She seriously attempts to stop her fellow soldiers from looting near the end of this book, even when she learns that they mostly loot for money to pay the whores that accompany the army – and the joke is made that the men just might accept a trade on her part.)
Meanwhile, back at home in the subplot, the evil leaders are trying to get rid of the leader of Dorothea’s people by accusing her of being a witch. And a gambit at the very end of the book to use Dorothea as bait may have its roots in the same plot – this is a world where the accusation of witch carries a lot of weight, and very often leads swiftly to a death sentence.
Dorothea means well, and it does have plenty of energy and style, but it is essentially a Cliff’s Notes version of war. It’s trying to be deep and profound, when no one would ever be in Dorothea’s position to begin with – not least because she’s a woman to begin with, and women just didn’t become common soldiers in 15th century Germany. (There are a couple of references to Jeanne d’Arc – and, of course, what’s most important about her is how utterly, and entirely uncommon she was in everything.) Dorothea is nice, but there’s something unfortunately lightweight about it; it can’t stand up under the weight of its own presumption.
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.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.