Pre-release review (Direct Market division)!

*By which I mean this is only a pre-release review if you’re looking to get it in a comics shop; if you’re a chain bookstore shopper, you might as well start scouring the shelves now, since they’ve got it all ready to roll.

Golgo 13 Vol. 1 (of 13): Supergun

I’ve written a bit on this series in the past. Begun way back in 1969 and still ongoing today, Golgo 13 follows the exploits of Duke Togo (the title is his codename), world’s greatest assassin-for-hire, as he travels the globe performing amazing feats of killing, usually via a single sniped shot from his custom M16. He is beholden to no nation nor political affiliation - he kills for pay, though money doesn’t really seem to interest him. All that matters is the quiet satisfaction of pulling off the most complicated missions; he is amoral, utterly intent, and perfectly willing to kill total innocents who happen to witness one of his exploits. He has virtually no personality, he rarely speaks (“…..”), his character does not ‘develop,’ and (much like Superman or Batman) he seems perpetually locked into the present day while never himself aging. There is occasionally some measure of continuity maintained between stories, though every adventure stands alone. And there’s been a lot of adventures, as you can surmise from the dates provided above. In all, Golgo 13 is one of the seminal manga series, and the title character’s likeness has graced everything from Pachinko tables to official condoms. And of course, there’s the place where so North Americans like myself first caught wind of his presence - the 1987 cult classic NES game Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode (or maybe its lesser 1990 sequel, Golgo 13: The Mafat Conspiracy).

And yet, despite the character’s immense, enduring popularity in his native land, the actual Golgo 13 comics have never quite caught hold in the US. I explain things further at the above link; for purposes of brevity, I’ll simply note here that this new series from VIZ, part of their new VIZ Signature line, is the fourth attempt (and VIZ's second in a row) at releasing parts of the original Golgo 13 in the US, and perhaps the most openly ambitious of them all - a localization of a Japanese release collectively known as The Golgo 13 Gaku, this thirteen-book series strives to offer an overview of the character’s standout excursions, skipping back and forth through time as only a compilation of cherry-picked standalone stories can. “13 volumes of Golgo 13’s greatest hits!” screams the back cover, proving that some puns are just too much for anyone to resist. But the actual set-up of this particular book will be familiar to those who’ve had experience with the very first Golgo 13 release in America, Lead Publishing’s original four-book set: as with that prior release, VIZ’s book features two stories, one long, the other short, from divergent time periods. The new book is lacking the original color sequences that Lead would present, and there’s nothing in the way of dustjackets or anything, but otherwise it’s quite a cozy set-up.

It’s also a very smart book in other aspects of its presentation - if you click on that link up top, and scroll all the way to the bottom, you’ll find me thanking Carl Gustav Horn, who made a few extremely information-rich posts on the AnimeOnDVD message boards that I used for the purposes of placing stories with dates. That same Mr. Horn serves as editor and English adaptor for this book, and things are just as organized and in-place as one would hope - apparently, each and every story in the Golgo 13 library has been numbered and dated, providing for easy indexing and cross-referencing, just the touch that a series of this breadth needs.

Even the cover displays a careful touch - note the “Created by Takao Saito” credit. Nowhere in this book will you find a “Script by…” or “Art by…” credit, though you will note the legal indicia’s mention of Saito Production (which is sometimes colloquially abridged to ‘Saito Pro’). This is evidence of creator Saito’s approach to comics creation; obviously, many manga artists employ uncredited assistants to aid them in completing their work, but Saito takes things a bit further by heading an extensive staff of writers, researchers, and artists. Likening himself to a film director, Saito guides the production process and retains final creative say over everything, but sometimes provides very little original story or art contribution to the completed work (Frederik L. Schodt notes in his Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics that Saito’s direct contribution sometimes consists only of story discussion and the penciling in of character faces). All of these staff members go unnamed, crowded under the Saito Pro banner - still, it would perhaps be inaccurate to credit Saito himself with story and art, and thus we have the entirely correct “Created by…” notice.

As for the stories themselves, well, first, I should note that I have no idea if VIZ was bound to conform to some sort of story-by-story release pattern as per their license of the Gaku material, so it could be that the actual ordering of the stories here was out of their hands. But nonetheless I found it a bit striking as to how little the title character appears in this book, which is after all the debut edition of his latest reintroduction to the North American comics world. Quite a low-key return, though it’s understandable in two ways. First, it gives the new reader a good idea of how exactly the series has lasted for nearly forty years with a largely static, nigh-unstoppable lead character: often, stories are more about how other (more pliable) characters react to Duke rather than what Duke is actually doing. Or sometimes, stories immerse themselves in historical detail and globe-spanning intrigue, tense conversations in boardrooms as vital as battlefield confrontations. And naturally, there’s always the friendly old technique of throwing Duke into increasingly impossible, even ridiculous situations, and seeing how he gets out. These options are not individually exclusive: the best Golgo 13 stories I’ve read feature all of the above, in careful proportion.

The first story here, The Gun at Am Shara (Story #364, May 1997), is quite heavy on the middle option, the historical detail. Weighing in at 126 pages, it spends a lot of time on scene-setting, political maneuvering, and history-loaded backstory for some of the major players (both real and fictional). This does lead me to the second understandable reason as to why this book is what it is, however - the plot deals with the US government hiring Duke to head into Iraq and foil Saddam Hussein’s fiendish scheme to fire a rocket out of a Supergun (see the book’s title), with the projectile soaring all the way from Iraq to the US, the White House itself the target.

The margin of error… is about fifty or sixty yards… that may not sound impressive, but from 6200 miles away… you might as well call it a sniper rifle, Mr. President…” So says Presidential advisor and exposition specialist Professor Doskin, drawing a cute parallel between predator and prey. But this is more than mere comics tomfoolery - Hussein really did pursue the development of an ultra-long range cannon, it really was called Project Babylon, parts really were shipped from the UK, and UN inspection teams really did dismantle the whole thing in 1991. This story (which takes place in the then-present 1997) acknowledges some aspects of those historical events, and moves other bits farther up in the timeline. It also substitutes both a fictional scientist, Mikhail Volto, and his sinister protégé, Izumi Murai, for Gerald Bull, the actual engineer who developed the applicable technology - Bull died under mysterious circumstances, with rumors of hired assassins abounding, thus pretty much locking in the material as perfect fodder for a Golgo 13 epic.

I mention all of this to highlight the level of research that often goes into the longer stories, and to make plain the appeal (curious or otherwise) that this particular saga might hold for a US reader. There’s even a sequence in which characters anxiously discuss what the possible American reaction might be should a US landmark ever be taken out by a foreign enemy; they settle on nukes flying, which perhaps adds an additional layer of fascination to the piece, given both the intended audience (adult Japanese males) and the ultimate course of recent history. However, the story maybe errs on the side of detail, with page after page of confidential meetings, the drawing of things on chalkboards, and jets flying around. It was ok with me, as I like this sort of thing, though some readers (especially new ones) might get antsy over the fact that the title character appears rather briefly (if at nice, constant intervals). Whenever Duke is on-panel, however, he does indulge in all of his famous activities: wearing world-class disguises (aka: fake mustaches and hats), leaving the ladies satisfied (here, an American field agent who really serves no other vital purpose), commandeering vehicles (a canoe), and pulling off one of those amazing feats of marksmanship, to the appreciative exclamation of some minor character. I call that last bit the ‘Duke is awesome’ statement, and there’s at least one in every story.

“…all he needs… is one shot.”

A little dry (my favorite Golgo 13 stories tend to revel in absurdity, with Duke hijacking airplanes, or undergoing intense training in ludicrous surroundings, or dropping chandeliers on aphrodisiac-plied targets), and the art gets kind of sloppy at times (not only is the Bill Clinton caricature rather poor, it often wobbles in simple visual consistency), but I was still fundamentally pleased. Better is the second story, the 45-page Hit and Run (Story #144, April 1979), which is basically a story-length ‘Duke is awesome’ statement (as some of these shorter works have been in the past). A cruel mobster strikes a private eye’s girlfriend with his car, killing her. He thinks he’s above the law, but when he hears Duke Togo has been hired to take him out, his life falls to bits. So awesome is Duke, the mobster becomes uncontrollably nervous and paranoid (Duke never misses!). So awesome is Duke, none of the mobster’s connections will do business with him (any man Duke is after is as good as dead!). So awesome is Duke, the mobster’s henchmen abandon him en mass (no mere gunman can stand to Duke!). It’s a fun tale, loaded with vintage ‘70s interior design and those rad bullseye-pattern tones for facial close-ups. I’m not totally sure if such a story is a bad or good pick for the first volume - it nicely conveys the depth of the title character’s impact, and transmits a lot of his appeal, though there’s still very little actual on-panel presence by Golgo 13. It could go either way.

Also included is eight pages of exhaustive trivia and background detail, styled like a dossier. There’s long lists of fake names that Duke has used over the years (though 'Duke Togo' itself isn’t his real name), indexes of things like which hits have involved pigeons over the years, multiple theories as to what the codename ‘Golgo 13’ actually means, and certain instances of way too much information in the Physical Observations section: “Lures all the women in the world to the ‘height of ecstasy’; at any rate, an amazing penis.” But too much is rarely enough when Golgo 13 is involved, and even the possible shortcomings of this particular volume leave one certain that more, much more, will soon be arriving.