Bob's Comics Reviews April 1999 Arrows


Masamune Shirow: Ghost in the Shell
Crazed gorilla-babe Motoko I picked this up because I'd recently seen the anime, and I wanted to know if the manga was just as bad. Fortunately it' s not.

Ghost is set in a near-future Japan which owes much to William Gibson (unless this aspect has been played up by the translators). The lead character is Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg-- only her brain and spinal cord are the original wetware-- who leads a high-tech attack force. So, most of the book consists of various high-tech attacks, interspersed with glimpses into the interactions of Kusanagi and her men-- Batou, who sports a military crew-cut and a puppyish devotion to Kusanagi; ex-cop Togusa; Ishikawa the tech guy; and her boss, Aramaki, better known as "old ape-face".

Shirow carefully explains the politics and backstory for the ultraviolence, but the stories are mostly half-incomprehensible anyway. Which is not necessarily a flaw, as Jaime should have taught us-- we just want an excuse for all the gorgeous scenes of high-speed chases, infiltration, and shooting, don't we?

Yes and no. In the anime about all we get is action, and it's deadly dull. The most enjoyable parts of the book are the asides-- the team or passersby griping, complaining, or joking; the men calling their boss a "crazed gorilla-babe"; the byplay with the fuchikoma, the suit/vehicles which have a little too much AI for anyone's good. The art goes cartoony at such moments, and in general Shirow takes advantage of the expressive plasticitiy of manga characters. Kusanagi becomes a little demon when angry, a doll-like little girl when amused or playful, gets a a Charlie-Brown-like jagged mouth when frustrated, and so on.

(An intriguing oddity: the first few pages of each episode are in color; the rest in black & white. In the last panel or two of the color pages, the color fades out.)

Even more charming, perhaps are Shirow's asides: absurdly pedantic technical asides ("This is not a light fixture but a special device that ensures the micromachines are deposited uniformly"), or notes about cartooning ("After this, there's a scene where Motoko takes over the driving and Togusa checks his gear and puts it on, but it was too much of a hassle to draw so I left it out..."). And there's an "Author's Notes" section at the back with further explanations, excuses, and pointers to good books... most of them available only in Japanese, but that's not his fault.

The title refers to the spirit-- the only thing, in this world, which distinguishes humans from robots. Toward the end Shirow disburses some pantheistic ruminations on the origin of consciousness. It doesn't quite come off, I think because Shirow's focus rarely extends beyond how cyborgs and robots work-- and even that is usually at the level of creating pseudo-technological explanations of how they're made.

There's a bit of desultory speculation on what cyborgs would mean to society. One episode focusses on children being kidnapped and their souls copied into robots; others imply that everything is so mechanized that the factories have no human workers. But it's never explained what the 'ghost' adds to a robot, nor how such a high-tech society can exist without, apparently, any jobs in it. Kusanagi's body is described as "expensive"... is it really cheaper to use robots and AIs than humans, who after all are pretty cheap to grow and maintain?

And there isn't much exploration of what it feels like to be a cyborg, how it's different from being a conventional human being. For example: Shirow carefully explains that a cyborg has particularly sensitive membranes on the face, tongue, fingers, and genitals. This obviously imitates life, but why exactly? (To pass for human, I suppose... but why limit the enhancements to those areas, then?)

He does suggest (in a note) that the cyborgs eat, mostly "for psychological reasons". Do they even have a digestive system, then? Does anything happen to them if they don't eat? And what about those genitals? Surely they can't reproduce; they're described as being made in factories (apparently by nurses in skimpy outfits). Kusanagi has a boyfriend for awhile... how does their sex life differ from ours? Do they use WD-40 for lube? Stanislaw Lem never neglected this sort of thing (although he had the advantage that in comic fantasy you don't have to be consistent or even plausible).

I know, I know, it's like asking Star Trek to be real science fiction. Well, why not? If you're going to spend the time drawing these gorgeous cityscapes and assaults, why not spend a little extra time working out a really coherent world?

Terry LaBan: Unsupervised Existence
Now I understand why some folks on the Net hate Cud-- it's different from LaBan's old rag, Unsupervised Existence, from which two graphic novels have been published: Love's not a Three Dollar Fare and International Bob . Unlike Cud, the series was more or less realistic, following a bunch of young urban types, whose preoccupations (finding mates and jobs) and economic marginality have twentysomething written all over them.

The eponymous Bob starts out linked to quite a few characters, but after breaking up with one of them, Anna, in as self-dramatizing way as he can, he buys a one-way ticket to Europe. Meanwhile, Danny writes bad poems, Suzy looks for direction, and Anna goes from a bad relationship with Bob to a bad relationship with a woman folksinger.

It's good and ambitious stuff, eager to tell "real" stories about "real" people without forgetting to be entertaining. And LaBan can draw; I especially admire the variety of his cartooning-- he can draw an immense range of human types.

Yet I'd maintain that he's at his best in Cud. The characters in UE are just a little too wacked out to be completely satisfying-- it's not as realistic as Love & Rockets or Artbabe, the characters don't draw me in very well, and for a depiction of the going-nowhere 20s Hate is just as dead on and lots funnier. LaBan's real forte is not slice-o-life but over-the-top. There's moments here-- the cabbies' writing workshop, for instance-- but it pales besides Eno the sperm donor, or Muktuk Wolfsbreath.

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