The hits keep on coming.

Golgo 13 Vol. 2 (of 13): Hydra

Arriving without warning, much like the title character himself, this new volume caught my eye by chance as I stumbled around Borders with one of those 25% off coupons they keep sending you after you sign up for that Borders Rewards card - the ADV selection at Borders (at least the two locations by me) tends to be skimpy, so I haven’t even seen Anne Freaks or the newest Cromartie High School, but those $7.50 manga keep me coming back to that particular chain, which is obviously the point of thrice-monthly coupons (and next time I also get a free cookie if I buy a drink - wheeeee!). Do note that vol. 2 of Naoki Urasawa’s Monster is also out now at Borders, since that and Golgo 13 appear to have become release date best friends via VIZ’s scheduling. Duke Togo always comes first on this site, though.

For those still puzzling over the oddly limited G13 presence in the debut installment of his big US revival, there’s a bit more of the title character to be found here. The stories are also more even in length, both running roughly 90 pages. They still remain greatly spread out through time, however, and serve to run the gamut of possible approaches to a Golgo 13 story - creator Takao Saito and the anonymous rolling script/art crews of Saito Pro(duction) haven’t sustained this series for over 35 years by just doing the same thing over and over, after all, and part of the beauty of working with as stripped-down a main character as the emotionless Duke is that he allows for easier attention to be paid to everything else going on around him. He can be plugged into all sorts of situations, so free is he of the incompatibilities that rise from depth or shading, and so broad is his ultimate mandate - killing people for money, the end.

Therefore, there’s room for things like this volume’s first story, The Deaths of June 3rd, which is basically Saito Pro’s consideration of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The story is dated October 1990 (#290 in the great G13 bibliography), placing its completion little over one year after the 6/3/89 event itself; unlike the current Punisher MAX story I mentioned yesterday, letting Frank Castle loose on an Enron-like corporation through the distance of nostalgia, this is a fairly direct artistic response to the killings, with few names changed. And feel free to query whether a storyline in a super-assassin comic is necessarily an appropriate venue for paying tribute; I asked myself the same question as the tale began and the intent became obvious, but I think it’s pulled off with about as much grace as one can reasonably expect from something that must also operate as a Golgo 13 adventure.

An awful lot of G13 stories are stuffed with historical information and general trivia (early Saito Pro writer Kazuo Koike tends to do the same thing with his books, like Lone Wolf and Cub - I wonder if it’s the chicken or the egg that came first?), and this tendency is marshaled to good effect here; basically, we’re given a documentary-style ‘countdown’ of the days and weeks leading up to the event itself, the story’s viewpoint bouncing between various locales and characters. The cast includes assorted Chinese students, a radical advocate for a free Tibet, an undercover agent of the Ministry of State Security, an elderly MI-6 operative retired to London, and an exiled head of the Tibetan government, who has hired Duke Togo to travel to Beijing for reasons unknown. Speaking in G13 terms, it’s a classic set-up - suspense is created from our not knowing what Duke is doing, though we always know he’ll succeed in whatever his mission is.

But in a wider sense this story is all about the politics and emotions flaring around the situation, as glimpsed through various characters, and Saito Pro does a pretty good job of it. There’s an admirable amount of subtlety to be found in the motivations of the undercover agent and the Tibetan radical, particularly in their ultimate feelings toward each other, and there’s little demonizing of the military-sympathetic characters - there’s no doubt as to where Saito Pro stands on all this, but they trust the ultimate power of the event itself (and maybe a few well-chosen direct quotes, provided via caption) is enough to lay blame on those responsible, with anything more threatening to veer over-the-top. Duke himself offers no comment on the situation (“…..” pretty much sums it up), existing outside the boundaries of morality and nationality as a whole; his presence is so rarely glimpsed, yet so charged with inevitability, he seems like almost a supernatural figure here, a mythic god descending from the sky to usher mortals along in their tragical play. Fitting then that the story ends on a bloody, meditative note, considering the futility of religious peace in a world so charged with murder. It’s downbeat, even depressive work, yet genuinely effective in adapting its well-honed suspense mechanisms to something of greater weight.

The second story, Hydra, is very much different. Hailing from October of 1974 (storyline #88), it’s a first for this new round of G13 books: a story in which Duke is actually the primary character. Perfectly straightforward stuff, as Duke is hired by Mexican drug enforcement officials to travel to Marseilles and kill someone by the name of ’Doctor Z,’ who’s developed a type of super-heroin that threatens to hook the world. Needless to say, identities are assumed, shots are fired, crosses are doubled, Duke strolls around in his tighty-whities after sex with a crime boss, and miscellaneous mayhem ensues. I won’t spoil too much of the batshit insane acid flashback-as-deus ex machina finale, teetering on the very brink of incomprehensibility, but let’s just say it embodies the spirit of the more typical Duke Togo exploit - action stirred with nonsense into a compulsively drinkable refreshment.

The book closes with another installment of the entertaining yet somewhat frightening File 13, presenting eight big pages of completely obsessive trivia and background information. “Golgo’s erection is so powerful that he has been observed to maintain it even when interrupted by the police mid-coitus.” Too much information in every sense of the phrase, yet I’m somehow glad it’s here.