Dangerous Work to Do

Speed Racer: Mach Go Go Go

Ah, Speed Racer. Your fast-talking, two-fisted racing adventures refuse to die. I remember watching it on summer vacations with my family when I was young; we didn't get a lot of cable channels at home, so flipping around on the hotel television at night was part of the vacation experience. The best shows were Mystery Science Theater 3000 and that classic anime.

You probably won't miss this item on the bookstore shelves - DMP's put together some of the fanciest packaging I've ever seen for a North American manga release, let alone a 'vintage' project. A mere $39.95 gets you a pair of 300+-page hardcover dustjacketed books, roughly the same size as Vertical's old Buddha hardbacks, with about a year's worth of digital restoration work performed on the innards - some of it still looks fuzzy and rough, but I suspect the source materials weren't prime. All of it's stuffed into a sturdy white, blue & red slipcase. No offense to France, but I get an American feeling from those colors; must be the project's proximity of release to a certain critically-reviled Hollywood picture, the latter no doubt responsible for the former's very existence.

It's looking like I'll be seeing the movie in, oh, 38 hours or so, and I'm of two minds. Many of the negative reviews I've looked at (and there's plenty to choose from) deem it overstimulation to the point of incoherence or genuine discomfort, which sounds suspiciously like what I’d expect from Speed Racer: The Motion Picture going in. On the other hand, it's apparently 135 minutes long, which kinda gives me the 'uh-oh' face - I dunno if any Speed Racer-derived work ought to push the two and a half hour mark for one-sitting consumption. Shit, I could barely read more than one of this manga's storylines at a time.

And while I'd like to tell you a little more about the genesis of that manga, I have to admit that I don't actually know much; for all its surface appeal, the DMP package is damned lousy at putting anything in context. What's for sure is that Speed Racer is at least the co-creation of Tatsuo Yoshida, a veteran manga artist who co-founded the famous Tatsunoko Production Co. with his brothers at the dawn of 'modern' anime in the early '60s. The studio developed the Speed Racer anime as one of its early projects; it aired from 1967-68. However, the manga apparently began to run in boys' magazines in 1966, perhaps in promotion of the still-upcoming show, which has prompted various sources to describe the manga as both the basis for the anime and an anime tie-in.

Furthermore, while credited to Yoshida, there's apparently some question as to how much of the comic he actually drew; Jason Thompson has suggested (in Otaku USA Vol. 1 No. 5) that the manga's visuals may have been provided by an uncredited Jiro Kuwata of 8-Man, presumably working from Yoshida's and/or Tatsunoko's story concepts. Granted, Thompson also places the date of the manga's publication at 1968, though I've seen scans of magazines supposedly from 1966 bearing the series' title among its contents (fifth one down). Can nobody solve this mystery? Maybe the Wachowskis have all the answers. I'd hate to peel them away from Doc Frankenstein, but does anyone have their email?

The reason I'm going through all this background is because the Speed Racer manga is a pretty odd read. Many of its 10 stories match up with the anime's storylines in terms of plot, but there's often crucial differences - the manga is consistently rougher, more prone to resolving things with enormous fights and action sequences. There's much less Spritle and Chim-Chim (note that DMP's localization retains all of the 'classic' English names), and more of the feeling of a shōnen action series, with Speed always pushing himself to win, but extending the hand of friendship to fallen foes as well.

Narrative consistency is not a high priority - one story might see Speed is a world-class racing legend, invited all over the world, while the very next might highlight his struggles with Pops to even let him compete on a pro level. The Mach 5's special gadgets appear gradually, sometimes without introduction, and sometimes with introduction after they've already been seen.

As a result, these manga stories feel premised on early drafts of anime plots, and subsequently forced to shift focus mid-serialization to cope with concept modifications. Nowhere does this strike me as more evident than with the Racer X material - the manga's second Racer X storyline is a virtual remake of the first, even going so far as to straight-up recycle seven or eight pages' worth of art (while still trying to acknowledge the first story as in-continuity!!), and it provided the basis for the anime's first Racer X story. I wonder if Tatsunoko wanted more consistency between the projects as the anime's air date drew near? Did the manga even continuously run? Certainly it reached an end, as the Racer X mystery is curtly wrapped up on literally the last page of the series.

But as much as the presentation seems like a missed opportunity, there's still some value to these comics. I couldn't call Speed Racer a great manga, but it's maybe interesting to look at as an example of a 'midlist' manga of the period, a high-competency, low-inspiration thing, probably one of many that filled publications of the period. We get some of the Tezuka, and a little of the oddball Umezu, but not too many real B-grade action efforts; Speed's exploits may not be the most graceful, but they're cleanly, assuredly drawn in a manner that helps the greater inspiration of other projects to register.

And yeah, at their best, some of these comics do approximate the one-thing-after-another appeal of the anime, which never did let limited resources get in the way of non-stop skidding and exploding and Speed Racer leaping into action. An invitation to a desert race might lead to a sabotage accusation, a car-vs.-camels showdown, palace intrigue, a two-person race jazzed up with deadly scorpions, a nation's full-blown hostile takeover, hungry vultures, giant cannons bombing a Palace of Doom, and Speed pulling off awesome backflips to shoot the guns right out of villains' hands, only for it all to culminate in Our Hero cradling a rifle atop a desert castle spire, wating for his errant racing foe and boy prince to arrive back: "When you get back here, I'll teach you a thing or two about discipline." Go, Speed Racer!

I don't think that was in the anime, being the kind of stuff that gets smoothed down on the way to the screen; if only the work at large seemed more jolted with that early fire, instead of seeming malformed. Die-hard Speed freaks will still probably want this stuff, as might devout manga students happy to see it at all, but don't expect any revelations - that potential seems lost behind the walls of translation and trans-media adaptation, in spite of all good intentions.