... a special feature...

Duke Togo in America - A Retrospective of the Localized Golgo 13, Part 1 (of 2)

(Part 2 is right here)


None of these books are in print.

It almost defies belief, once you think about it.

I. Introducing the Assassin

Back in Japan, in the 1950’s, there was a movement going on that will prove to be distressingly familiar to devotees of the last decade’s worth of US comics: simply put, comics, which had just recently been revived, had to go.

Not the sequential art in general, of course, just... comics. Manga. The term derives from ‘nonsense pictures’ after all, and that was precisely what they were. Silly things, kids’ stuff. What was needed was comics for a mature audience! Comics that grown men and women would be proud to read! It was time to leave the childishness of (ugh!) manga behind.

It was to be a new age.

It was to be the age of gekiga, 'drama pictures,' the new form, seceded from the isle of Lost Boys, rejecting the Disney flavoring of Osamu Tezuka and his ilk. Comics for grown-ups, at last! And one of the true believers was a fellow by the name of Takao Saito. Even as the posturing and the labeling wore down, and gekiga gradually became yet another subgenre of the blanket manga form, no more than the ‘mature’ answer to the by-definition childishness of shounen (boy) comics, Saito strove forward, ready to meet his destiny, prepared to draft a grand exception to what we know today as a seemingly ironclad rule, our perceptions limited as they are.

Duke Togo debuted in 1969. By some accounts, he smiled and cracked jokes in those early stories, perhaps as a reaction to Monkey Punch’s popular Lupin III, a fellow adult-oriented character who had debuted two years prior. But there were key differences between the two. Lupin was a zany thief, always a step ahead of the law and ready to savor whatever pleasures might cross his hurried path.

Duke, on the other hand, killed people. And that was all he did.

Duke Togo is still around today. Killing is still all that he does. Along the way he became far more serious. His occasional grins have grown constantly bitter, rueful, mocking. He now acts for business, and business only, charging tall fees for the most impossible assassinations. He will work for anyone, if the cash is good and the job catches his fancy. He will act always in self-preservation. He will kill women and children if need be. He will rarely miss a shot with his custom M-16 sniper rifle. He will achieve mushin, a Zen state of detached amoral determination, total efficiency unburdened with even the slightest interior consideration. He will achieve it all the time. He will never grow old. He will never stop.

Such is the evolved form of Duke Togo, codenamed Golgo 13 (sometimes just G13), short for Golgotha, the hill on which the Christian Lord was crucified. His comic book logo will be the hunched skeleton of a very much un-risen Christ, his leering skull still bedecked with thorns. Take that, bat-signal.

II. What Do We Know About Manga?

Well, there’s a lot of big eyes. There’s a lot of closed stories with a definite beginning and ending. There’s the unmistakable mark of a single vision, at least writing-wise, with some anonymous assistants aiding with the more mundane art chores. There’s batches of digest collections. For the popular ones there’s often some anime tie-in, or maybe several. There might be cute toys and plush merchandise. There’s characters and arcs and real changes.

Golgo 13 has absolutely none of that.

The eyes, for one thing, are comparatively small. Duke’s own orbs are veritable slits, although that might simply play into the old ‘eyes are the windows of the soul’ cliché from the back way.

There is no real ‘beginning’ or ‘ending’ to Golgo 13. Like Superman and Batman, Duke is always around the age of 30. He has adventures, sure, but there’s no real progress made on an overall story; it’s purely open-ended. But don’t go comparing him to US superhero comics too much; while occasionally his adventures maintain a semblance of continuity, everything I’ve read is quite thoroughly designed to be self-contained. Any Golgo 13 comic could act as your first.

Saito runs a company called Saito Productions. He’s been known to liken himself to a director, and his assistants to his crew, and his comics as movies. Sometimes, literally all he does of direct creative impact on a given story is draw in facial expressions. Everything else from backgrounds to plot to dialogue to action is drawn by a militia of assistants, all of them uncredited, only 'Saito Productions' itself appearing as secondary creative force to its founder. Saito manages them, guides them, and makes certain all of the ingredients cohere. He retains final say over everything, so technically you can dub Golgo 13 the work of a single creative vision, but it’s not in any way what we expect from either manga or western comics.

Golgo 13 does have a bunch of tankoubon collections, sure. According to Saito’s official website, we’re up to Volume 135. I presume more is on the way, as the Big Comic (a seminal serialized anthology phonebook) webpage for Golgo indicates. There will probably be more Batman comics on the way too, though I don‘t believe the complete works or anything near to it has been compiled into trade form as of yet.

And despite having lasted for thirty-six years, there’s remarkably little screen adaptation for old Duke. There were apparently two live-action movies starring Sonny Chiba, one from 1973 and one from 1977, the latter of which is out on dvd in the Kill Chiba box set under the title Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon. There was one anime theatrical feature, produced in 1983, simply titled Golgo 13 and later westernized into The Professional: Golgo 13 (interestingly, the name change seems to have been accomplished before the conception of the similarly-executed name change of the Luc Besson film Leon). And there was a one-hour 1998 Original Animation Video (OAV) release called Golgo 13: Queen Bee. Compare that to Lupin, and his parade of adaptations.

Reflecting mature content, we get mature products, adult tie-ins. Hitting up eBay will reveal several fine Golgo 13 slot machines and pachinko tables. And maybe the holy grail of Golgo 13 collector’s items: a box of official Duke Togo condoms. I would never lie to you.

And needless to say, after that initial evolution, Duke Togo never changes.

III. So Why Should I Go Read These Books?

Because Golgo 13 comics, or at least what I’ve read of them, strike me as some of the most perfect guilty pleasures I can imagine. Granted, my personal tastes in guilty pleasures tend to run toward the violent and absurd. These little comics fit that bill in spades.

Remember all that stuff I wrote above, about mature comics? Golgo 13 is largely mature in the same way that so many US comics are 'mature': it’s a boyhood (or girlhood, why not?) fantasy of power and control writ large with cascading gore and the occasional scene of sensuality. But mostly gore; different assistants even render the ink spatters and arterial spray in slightly different ways. Somewhere in Japan there’s a Duke Togo super-otaku who can place the year of production of a story strictly by the appearance of the blood, I‘ve no doubt.

And the stories are perfectly fast-moving, long enough to fill several issues of a US-sized comic book, but swift enough to make the adventure seem positively bite-sized. Actual length varies, of course; like oh so many manga of note, Golgo 13 appears in chapter form in phonebook anthologies, and full stories range from five to upwards of twenty chapters long. And after that, it’s back to the beginning, and a new assignment. Sometimes, it can get pretty ridiculous, the twists that the story team goes through to keep things fresh. Sometimes the plots don’t totally make sense. Sometimes Duke goes about accomplishing his mission in absurdly roundabout ways to pad out the length. Sometimes Duke even wears clever disguises (like Lupin III, again), like beards and mustaches, which do about as good a job of obscuring his features as Clark Kent’s glasses, yet with just as much baffling success. Hey, it’s still comics.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, this is some extremely formula-driven stuff. Every story features a new hit by Duke, though sometimes the assassination itself isn’t the center of the story. There’s usually a tie-in to contemporary concerns, with Duke constantly getting mixed up with Oil Sheiks or the FBI or something, and a few captions are often expended on educational background (see, these comics are sophisticated!). And among the more amusing tropes, there’s always always what I like to call the ‘Duke is awesome’ statement. It’s just what it sounds like: a certain moment in every single story where some character, usually a villain, stands back and verbally reinforces for the reader exactly how goddamned awesome the lead character actually is. For example:

He’s doing enough fighting for a whole command team… and getting paid enough for a whole team too.”

Or maybe:

Idiot! You think you gotta chance with a monster like that?! I ain’t got enough lives to mess with that one!”

And my personal favorite:

B… but… in 1,000 years of Islamic history there has never been one who could surmount the Hari Dju!! What kind of man is this G13?! A creature from hell?! A demon in disguise…?!

Naturally, aside from being awesome, Duke really has no personality at all, though he’s prone to acts of seeming cruelty in the name of getting the job done, and he loves spitting in the face of authority. In a way, he’s a little like Diabolik or a similar antihero in his glamorous path of terror, beholden to nobody but himself. But Duke doesn’t even have the relative philosophic heft of anarchy; he’s purely about his job. He doesn’t even seem to like all of the money he makes; it’s just a tool to get him into places he otherwise couldn’t go, access to bigger and better hits.

Yet access is something his comics haven’t always gotten. For all of the dozens atop dozens of collections these stories have spawned in Japan, there are still only nine of them extant in the US.

Look. Saito Productions even built a little online shrine to them.

Know what I’ve told you right at the beginning of all this, that none of these books remain in print, and let us honor their memories, one by one.

IV. The First Hits

You can’t blame Saito for not trying. The first and biggest wave of Golgo 13 material to arrive in the US was a series of four deluxe books released by Saito Production Co. Ltd. itself, under the auspices of Lead Publishing, in 1986 and 1987, before the manga localization movement in the US had really gained much steam.

These, unfortunately, are probably the most difficult of the US Golgo 13 books to find, but they’re absolutely worth the search. I’m talking gorgeous productions, produced at what I believe is ‘true’ tankoubon size (as opposed to the slightly smaller US digest size) with glossy paper, all of the original color segments from the tops of various serializations, dustjackets for every volume, a fold-out Top Secret Memorandum in Volume 1, and generally sky-high production values; each book is 168 pages with an original retail price of $6.95. The art is flipped to read from left-to-right, but that’s pretty much the only presentational concession made to western audiences (well, that and the fact that the book’s in English, and fairly good English at that, plus a weird bit of editing that I‘ll get to in a second). I found three out of four of them in a stack of old manga at a local shop that had just finished cleaning up some shelves. You might run into them the same way, so keep your eyes peeled.

The books don’t accurately reproduce the Japanese tankoubon contents, however; instead, each volume contains two Golgo 13 stories plucked from all over Duke Togo history. Things get off to a rip-snorting start in Volume 1: Into the Wolves’ Lair - The Fall of the Fourth Reich, with a kick-off story of the same name from 1982. Duke is hired by the state of Israel to infiltrate a museum in Buenos Aeries which is actually the headquarters for the now-underground Nazi Party (still dressed in their 1940’s finery, btw), rescue a captured Mossad agent, and terminate der fuehrer. Page after early page is lavished on the torture of the captured agent, nails pressed into skin, multiple electrocutions, fingernails torn out, just in case there was ever any doubt that we were in for high exploitation. Duke is in rare form too, as it’s revealed that he’s not only apparently been mixed up with the Nazis in the past, but actually killed the girlfriend of his current employer on a prior exploit; naturally, he doesn’t really care (“Did you call me to go over old grudges?” sniffs Duke, sporting his best Sally Forth sneer). And hey, did I mention the references to real-life catastrophes, even working the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan into the plot (no, Duke doesn’t shoot him - but it turns out that John Hinckley was apparently a Top Secret Nazi)? Sadly, Saito kind of punks out for this US edition and draws a pair of glasses and a crew-cut on The Gipper, presumably stopping just short of throwing in a Groucho Marx mustache to cap off the feeling.

So how does Duke go about infiltrating the Nazi 2.0 headquarters? Why, by taking their secret blueprints and millions of dollars to Hollywood, California and having America’s best crewmen build him a full-scale replica of the base on a backlot, complete with working traps! Duh! This leads to a completely disconcerting subplot involving a nosy Hollywood gossip reporter who snoops around Duke’s private training grounds and gets into mischief. He’s quite a lovable troublemaker!

Duke then shoots him in the head.

Jarring scenes of seemingly discordant violence will become a recurring motif for the series, set off even more by Saito and Co.’s cartoonish character features, trapped somewhere between Tezuka and his Disney influence (just... can't... escape...) and a New Yorker-type curvy line vibe. All of which is entirely offset by the usually insane realist background detail, cities adoringly rendered, guns and vehicles drooled over, explosions lavished with the adoration usually only anticipated to trail a newborn babe. The action is fast and well-mounted, confusion a rarity, and speed-lines cleverly relegated to only the character designs themselves, the backgrounds staying solid and unmovable, heightening the illusion of swiftness in the character art. And there’s blood. Oh yes. Nazis die good.

The second story, Fighting Back, from 1980, sees a different type of Golgo 13 yarn. Here, Duke finishes his job (popping off a top Soviet officer in Afghanistan) in the opening pages. The tale then shifts to the perspectives of a force of the USSR’s finest stationed in a nearby town, looking to take down the exiting Duke Togo. They don’t stand a chance, but the shootings are well done, and Duke sports a handsome beard for much of the action.

Volume 2: Galinpero, crows on its back dustjacket flap that Volume 1 sold over 10,000 copies. For a seven dollar non-US book in 1986, that doesn’t seem all that bad. The stories within are especially good, kicking off with the title saga from 1980, in which a Brazilian villager witnesses his community’s slaughter at the hands of the titular bandit forces. He goes on a brief arrow and machete killing spree, but eventually resigns himself to contacting Golgo 13 as based on an overheard conversation between a pair of goons. How easy is Duke to find, anyway? Anyhow, the villager forks over some pretty diamonds to Duke and asks him to kill the Galinperos. “Kill them all!” Really? All of them? Kind of a broad job for a couple of diamonds, but I wouldn’t put it past our Duke.

As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, the absolute best way to go about this mission is to head all the way to the US, hijack an airplane, land it in Florida, contact the FBI, demand a million-plus dollar ransom, then fly the plane back to Brazil, parachute into the Amazon, and count on the resulting media frenzy to attract precisely the specific Galinperos who killed the poor villager’s family into a greed-fueled skirmish with the local corrupt police. Naturally, the plan goes off without a hitch, and lots of things explode. See what I mean by guilty pleasure? Yet the story goes down so smooth that you just can’t stop to think.

And never even mind the second story, 110 -The One-Ten Angle from 1983, which kind of sounds like Manos: The Hands of Fate. This one veers all over the place from a brutal sex killing in NYC to the halls of power in Saudi Arabia, with a proud Saudi hiring Golgo to find his niece’s killer, then hiring a legion of assassins to kill Golgo when he discovers that the killer is his own son. Meanwhile, there’s something about the CIA manipulating the KSA into recognizing Israel as a state, and Duke manages to take someone out by bouncing a bullet off of a mosque and into an open window in the middle of prayer time. It’s simply bananas, but utterly wonderful stuff.

And there’s two more! I haven’t even read Volume 3: Ice Lake Hit; I just want to save it for later, I love these stupid books so damn much. I’m also on the lookout for Volume 4: The Ivory Connection, the final book in the series, and a sad end to a lavish, ambitious project, releasing an impressive stream of fine comics into the US market before it was nearly ready for them.

But Saito Productions doesn’t give up so easily! There would be more tries, several more!

And we’ll get to them later this week, when this exceedingly long feature concludes.

(And now it has, so go see the rest here)


Absolute non-stop thanks to Frederik L. Schodt for writing the seminal Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, which provided much of the factual background contained above, and Carl Gustav Horn for laying out a ton of details on those US editions of Golgo stuff on this AnimeOnDVD thread. Neither of them have met me, but I think they’re awesome.