Final Crisis

Golgo 13 Vol. 13 (of 13): Flagburner

Basically, it ends as it began.

I don't mean that just in terms of plot, although English edition editor Carl Gustav Horn has been thoughtful enough to arrange a little symmetry, in that the very last story of this newest, longest, VIZ-published run for Takao Saito's nearly 40-year old creation specifically references the first story from way back in Vol. 1, which saw superassassin Duke Togo head off to Iraq during the presidency of Bill Clinton to foil a supergun plot.

, in contrast, takes place in the twilight of the Clinton years, and chronicles Duke's manful effort to clinch the 2000 election for George W. Bush, at the behest of a disgusted White House gardener who's hell-bent on restoring dignity to the Oval Office. Can Golgo 13 sabotage the Florida recounts? Preferably in a manner involving outstanding use of a sniper rifle? Moreover, will there be a non-explicit but unequivocal panel of Bill Clinton 'in action'? The answers, dearest reader, are inside your heart.

It's not much of a story. It weighs in at only 39 pages, with no chapter breaks. Apparently, it ran as a one-off in the March 17, 2001 issue of Big Comic, making it the newest story of the VIZ run, even postdating Saito Pro's heretofore omnipresent numbering of its G13 inventory. It reads like an especially rushed current events tie-in; nearly everything about it is cursory, filling in the requisite storytelling blanks with avalanching exposition and the unfettered, predictable awesomeness of Duke Togo.

The plot makes no sense (er, that's less than usual), hinging entirely on characters identifying the most crucial stack of ballots in the state of Florida, in spite of several concurrent recounts. I don't even think the history is completely sound -- wasn't Bush's margin of victory over 300 ballots at the time of the recount halt? -- and the requisite factoids become grating over such a short span of pages. In sum, it's a formula lump, though probably not without interest to US readers, for the obvious reasons.

And it brings these 13 books around in a rather neat circle.

But that's not all this last volume does. Two new backmatter essays are included, offering different inside perspectives on the very being of Golgo 13. Former G13 editor Takashi Fukuda (who also wrote The Orbital Hit, from back in Vol. 4) provides a rambling, somewhat tongue-in-cheek short essay, eventually arriving at the metaphorical suggestion of bunkoban manga collections as prayer books for bored commuters, and suggesting that the aloof, nationally disinterested adaptability of the Duke Togo concept originates with the Japanese detachment from organized religion:

"If the main character of Golgo 13 was an Islamist, his actions would be severely limited, and there would be instances where the story could not proceed. The same thing would apply were he a devout Christian. Having no religion isn't the same as having no nationality, but it certainly wouldn't help to be thus limited in the turns the plot could take... if I were to summarize, I'd say cultures with a Christian background probably do not give birth to heroes other than those who take pride in brute strength."

Horn himself pens the second, longer essay, a fine tour of his history with and interest in the character, juggling mentions of Mack Bolan, The Day of the Jackal and Mr. A alike. Due tribute is paid to Maurice Horn's The World Encyclopedia of Comics, Studio Proteus founder Toren Smith, the anime-heavy sci-fi BayCon '86, and Osamu Dezaki's 1983 Golgo 13 anime movie, mentioned at last. We learn of Horn's custom underpants, gifted by the aforementioned Mr. Fukuda. He invites us to consider him when he was 'shotalicious.' We do. And what of the motives of Duke Togo? How does he select his missions? What are his inner workings?

"He reduces complex moral questions to black-and-white... this reduction is not a consequence of his worldview as such. Rather, it is like that of a chemist or a distiller, in which he begins with the raw materials of a world in spectrum, this color and that pleading their mix of history, reasons, and rationalizations before him. Should the mix in turn make it through the hidden complex pipework inside him, the cold twists of probabilities, risks, angles, and tactics, he will accept the job."

Like a machine, then. Makes sense.

But it's not the only means of making sense. Duke Togo may be an often incredibly blank character, but he's appeared in so many comics over such a long time that countless 'readings' of him might exist. What of Saito's own suggestions, from the bonus sections of earlier volumes? Or the words of various commentators? Or the stories themselves? Often times, that last group does a fine job of saying nothing at all.

Which is the other way Vol. 13 wraps in the way Vol. 1 unfolded: there's not much G13 in these stories, although his presence is undoubtedly felt.

No more is this evident than in the last 'big' tale we'll get for a while, The Serizawa Family Murders (Story #100, November 1975), a 148-page first-in-English example of a specialized form of G13 saga: the 'origin' story. The scare quotes are there for a reason. Remember that old Superman thing, the 'imaginary story' where we'd get differing visions of the cast's futures? That's kind of what's going on in these tales, although Saito & company are looking backward, and have taken to heart Alan Moore's admonition that all these stories are imaginary; thus (if this one's a representative example), the Golgo 13 'origin' story has someone uncover something that might be the One True Origin of Golgo 13, although we never quite know for sure. All the better for a character that, by all rights, ought to be well into his 60s by now.

This one's among the more unique G13 yarns we've seen, focused entirely on the domestic and ambitious in its scope, leaping around from the the post-war ruins of 1946 to the 1961 cusp of the economic miracle, then beyond toward the stable then-present of 1975. The plot follows a pair of hard-luck police detectives who encounter a strange quintuple murder. A father is dead, along with four of his sons; oddly, none of them seemed to have served in the war. The mother is soon found floating in a nearby river. The daughter and a servant are missing. All that's left is a young boy, who won't talk, and is soon taken under the guardianship of a distant relative, a master sniper.

The detectives are doubly shamed by their inability to crack the case, and the obvious derision the occupying Americans view them with. Time passes, and the boy grows into something else, a cosmopolitan Japanese for a revitalized modern Japan; one of the detectives becomes obsessed with uncovering his secrets, especially after the missing daughter and servant reappear with their own mysteries, but the boy's too slick, too... awesome.

If this all seems a bit Frank Castle, don't worry - Saito and company have an especially devious background developed for their young maybe-Duke, and a bombastically nasty coming-of-age. It's entertaining as a story, in spite of plentiful obsessive detective clichés and a distracting (if time-saving) reliance on the ol' Xerox machine, but its fascinating as a grimy pop cultural parable, crystallizing the end of the WWII imperial drive as the death of ancient loyalties. The growth of Golgo 13 is presented as the rise of the New Japan, one slick and deadly, an international force to be feared, beyond the constrains of old moralities. An anti-hero for a new, troubling, exciting age.

Of course, that might all be bullshit. Saito and company say so. There's a perfect little ending in here, suddenly cranking the familiar Duke Togo tropes into gear, and punctuating our little cultural fable in the only appropriate way: with a perfect, between-the-eyes shot of ambiguity. He's still got a Republican to put in office afterwards, but I prefer to consider the bigger story the end of this current series. We'll know more at a later date; we've learned a lot already. But the big picture of stony Duke Togo is still obscured, maybe for everyone by now. Four decades is a long time. There's a million perspectives, and one very storied character at the center.

And he's not talking.