Sometimes, the comics themselves seem secondary.

Ghost in the Shell 1.5: Human-Error Processor #1 (of 8)

It’s seriously pretty bizarre seeing a pamphlet sitting on the shelves in Authentic! Manga! Format!, all right-to-left in the way you don’t expect floppies to be. Maybe the rise of Japanese comics’ popularity has conditioned us to expect certain formats so much that a deviation from the norm hits us like the shock of the new all over again. Regardless, I think it’s a bit funny how Dark Horse wants so bad to have it both ways, servicing the true blue unflopped-or-bust manga fan while doggedly sticking to the 20-pages of story for $2.99 setup that the Direct Market has come to know and love. The cherry atop the sundae of muted hilarity? Despite the visual design of this new miniseries being obviously modeled after the US serialization of Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface, the author’s name is now different. Instaid of being plain ol’ boring stupid westernized ‘Masamune Shirow,’ it’s now sleek, delicious ‘Shirow Masamune!’ Uh oh, VIZ and Tokyopop - someone’s more authentic than thou, despite sticking to the same page count and price point as Uncanny X-Men!

I’d personally appreciate it if US manga publishers would stop romanizing creator names entirely, so I’d have to conduct an hour of research just to figure out who drew the lousy things. That’s the only authentic experience I’ll go for, at least until I can finish that time machine and arrange for my revised birth in Japan.

Anyway, maybe it’s best that writer/artist Shirow (real name: Masanori Ota) get trapped between formats in 2006; along with Ryoichi Ikegami (of Crying Freeman and Sanctuary fame) and Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira, Domu: A Child‘s Dream), he’s part of an earlier gang of manga talents to find acclaim and release in the US no doubt due to the potent Western influence at work in their storytelling. They were needed back then, because they felt much like the popular talents comics readers were used to; these days, their US stars have faded a bit, even if they remain popular in their homeland, because the fandom has swung in the very opposite direction, starving for the most Japanese of Japanese talents and the closest experience to Japanese comics one can arrive at without going through the awful bother of learning Japanese itself. They say there was a time when Shirow’s international popularity dwarfed his renown at home; in terms of the US, I strongly suspect that’s no longer the case.

Not that Shirow even produces many comics these days; I think most of his work deals with visual design and erotic art. Appleseed fans no doubt gnash their teeth at the thought, as it doesn’t look like Shirow’s perpetually ongoing series will ever conclude. The Ghost in the Shell franchise did at least reach a conclusion of sorts, though the presence of this project and its 1.5 moniker indicate another habit of the artist’s: constant revisions. Ghost in the Shell 2 was serialized from 1991-96, quite a long time. And even after that, Shirow apparently tossed out big chunks of story and art to add plenty of full-color computer graphics and pare down the focus to the bare essentials of plot (at least as much as that phrase ever fits anything Shirow does).

The four short stories that’ll be presented in this series (two issues for each, I think) all used to be part of GitS2, and they’re actually kind of a relief for those who actually attempted to plow through the final form of Shirow’s sequel; this is lighter, more accessible stuff, focused on the side characters that otherwise got left out of the proper story so as not to distract from the impenetrable walls of jargon and non-stop cheesecake. For those who don’t know, Ghost in the Shell more-or-less follows the exploits of a team of specialized operatives called Section 9 (or persons connected to that group) as they encounter complicated adventures and crowded action. This particular story’s plot sees two operatives, Togusa and Akuma, trying to crack the case of a young woman’s affluent father who seems to be dead yet moved around like a puppet by shadowy forces through micro-machines implanted in his brain.

Shirow, as it quickly becomes evident to the new reader, has a completely unique style among Japanese or American creators, or really anyone else on the planet. His character designs are oddly old-fashioned, as feathery-haired and stub-nosed as anything out of the ‘80s, while his pages are stuffed full of panels and dialogue, with splashes or spreads to be seen. Six out of twenty pages feature footnotes, in which Shirow attempts to explain his various storytelling choices or impart useful information on his readership; it’s here where the book’s cultural origins become ironically more apparent than in most manga, as the author feels the need to explain that a Drug Dog is a dog that sniffs drugs, not a dog you hide drugs in for smuggling purposes (and that’s when he’s not vigorously explaining his choices in drafting sandwich texture). There’s reams of conversation, heroically translated by Frederik L. Schodt (author of many a fine book on manga), but there’s not all that much one can do sometimes for Shirow’s clunky, textbook-like way with words. Indeed, his tales (especially though this short) sometimes don’t seem as much like stories as little shreds of total experience, imparted by someone not entirely aware of how he’s conveying the information but very, very thorough nonetheless. He’s now and forever a man of big ideas, pretty girls, and decent action, not moment-by-moment storytelling polish. Little wonder that his ideas have been snapped up by so many diverse creators.

Shirow’s manga was the first I ever read while aware of the fact that manga was supposed to be so different from US comics. Today, the differences from other Japanese comics mainly stand out. But there are certain pleasures to following an artist so dedicated to pursuing their own special muse, and by this point Shirow can possibly bank on a certain sense of US manga reader nostalgia kicking in. No amount of right-to-left pages can take Shirow out of that time, and perhaps that’s for the best in this market.

Superman Confidential #1

This debut issue of the new Superman ongoing, meanwhile, in dense in an entirely different, yet infinitely more prodding way: it’s chock-full of stuff that’s not the actual comic. At least it’s still only $2.99; I can recall a time not long ago when Marvel would have rocked you an extra fifty cents for the pleasure.

I thought this issue was a little heavy when I picked it up, and I guess it was silly to think that maybe the story had been unexpectedly lengthened, though the dizzy thought did spin through my mind. There’s a pair of 3D glasses included with this issue, for use in both an ad for the Heroscape game and a related movie online. There’s a pull-out membership card for something called SparkTop.org that promises cool prizes and free trips; I’d have checked it out, but it said I had to get a parent’s permission to join, and I didn’t feel like phoning either of them. There’s also an eight-page Teen Titans comic similarly related to SparkTop, in which the crew goes to Mexico and teams up with some corporate mascot adventure girl named Sara Hunter and learns that it’s ok to have dyslexia because you probably have other talents too. I had always hated and feared those awful dyslexics before, but I think the Titans have changed my mind, and now I’ll see myself over to SparkTop.org for friends, games, and prizes. I’ve known none of the above!

All of this serves to easily distract from the comic, which seriously doesn’t need anything diverting attention; it’s one of those low-key introductory issues set in a familiar world of familiar characters that lingers on setting and motive as a plot creeps toward development. In other words, it’s not quite best served by pamphlet-format serialization, particularly when the reader is leafing through jutting slices of cardboard and page after page of ads; it gets easier if you just rip all the SparkTop content out of the book, but I’ve never appreciated having to perform surgery on my comic in order to render it easily enjoyed, I don’t know about you. It’s not a swell argument for the unique pleasures of the floppy, that’s for sure.

But once you manage to focus your attentions on the story, it’s a pretty little thing. Interestingly, the credits refuse to apportion tasks to Darwyn Cooke and Tim Sale, dubbing them both “Storytellers” - the solicitation copy up until now has suggested a more typically tight division of Cooke writing and Sale drawing, so forgive me if I hew to that (Dave Stewart and Richard Starkings are individually credited for colors and letters respectively, and both do a very nice job). The plot is set in the early days of Superman’s neverending mission for whatnot; Cooke cleverly ties it in to the earliest Siegel & Shuster tales by making the villain a sinister casino magnate, an evil capitalist that the earliest Superman would surely have no tolerance for.

Yet it goes without saying that unlike the initial Siegel & Shuster vision, this Superman isn’t a reckless joker; he’s as sensitive and corn-fed a farm boy as any American heartland idealization could hope for, nervous about the limits of his invincibility and torn between enjoying the favors of girl reporter Lois Lane and saving Metropolis from disaster. Cooke makes us certain that there’s little division between Clark Kent and Superman, and that the latter is the affected persona. And his nervousness is borne out by the all-new presence of Kryptonite, a big old lump of which Cooke decides to set up as one of the primary narrators of the story. And oh, it’s the most articulate rock in space:

I begin to observe a mosaic of familiar energies, each unique in its expression. Timeless energies. The elusive whisper of atoms relaxing out of a violent thrall. Piquant energies. Curiosity. Fear. Spiritual discovery and awe.”

It’s maybe best that the hunk of space rock is limited to only a few pages, as the whole thing threatens to swing violently toward outright camp, and that would spoil the very delicate, underlying seriousness of the story that Cooke and Sale want to tell. Sale’s art is very lovely, a cute and simple approach resting under layers of Stewart’s alternating bold and sensitive colors (preview here); it’s the sort of thing that could single-handedly save the tale from lapsing into the self-important pomposity that marred the likes of Superman Returns, and I can see Cooke perhaps attempting to go in that unfortunate (if, I must admit, largely well-received) direction, though I expect he’s willing to at least try and retain a sense of fun.

All of it’s speculative, since this is, at heart, another one of those first issues were not a whole lot occurs. Once you can discern what’s happening at all amongst the doodads.