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Battle Angel Alita. By Yukito Kishiro. Translated by Fred Burke, Sterling Bell, and Matt Thorn. San Francisco, CA: Viz Comics, 1994. 1v. (unpaged). $16.95. ISBN 1-56931-003-3.

Alita cover

Science fiction (cyberpunk)

Adults, teens; violence, gore

In an unidentified future period, civilization is divided into the utopian Tiphares, city floating in the air, and the Scrapyard, home of Tiphares' wastes. While poking through a huge pile of junk, kindly mechanic Daisuke Ido finds a "genuine human" female head--a cyborg head with a hibernating human brain inside--and torso and takes it back to his shop. He hooks her up and she awakens, but her memories of the past are almost gone. Daisuke names the head "Alita" after his deceased cat and takes it upon himself to find limbs for her, going out at night. Alita is delighted with her beautiful new arms and legs but becomes suspicious when she spots blood on Daisuke's clothes. The next night he goes out, she follows. He appears to be about to murder a woman, and Alita stops him--but then the woman attacks them, proving to be a horrific mutant and the real murderer. In the melee, Alita kills the mutant with a martial arts technique that Daisuke recognizes as "panzer kunst," a very rare and powerful fighting style. Alita is just as surprised by her abilities as Daisuke.

Daisuke explains that he is a hunter-warrior, a bounty hunter with a little peace officer thrown in. Alita decides to become one as well, despite Daisuke's objections (he wants her life to be pure and unsullied). Unfortunately, her first opponent is the horrific Makaku, who eats brains because he's addicted to endorphins. Although she does enough damage to him (including blinding him in one eye) to force his head to flee his borrowed body, he manages to rip her to shreds and seriously wound Daisuke before flying away, swearing vengeance. Daisuke rescues Alita's head and drags himself to a phone booth, where he is rescued by his friend Gonzu. At Daisuke's request, Gonzu grafts Alita's head onto the body of a "berserker," an old but state-of-the-art cyborg body that Daisuke found in a spaceship. The body is immensely strong and fast and also has unknown qualities. Daisuke fears that wearing it will change Alita, but she laughs off his concern.

With Daisuke wheelchair-bound, he and Alita go to the Kansas Bar, a hangout for bounty hunters. They try to enlist the others there in their war against Makaku, but everyone refuses. Alita sneers at them, and in the inevitable fight, she makes fools of many of them. As the other bounty hunters yell at her, however, in steps Kinuba, undefeated champion of the arena and most powerful being in the Scrapyard. Unfortunately, his body has been taken over by Makaku. He and Alita spar (well, for them it's sparring), and then Makaku grabs Koyomi, the bartender's infant daughter, and blasts his way through the floor into the caverns under the Scrapyard. Only Alita is brave enough to follow, and Daisuke can only "sit here with a dumb look" on his face and wait for her to return....

This series is described as "ultraviolent," and there is an abundance of gore (especially splattered brains), but I've seen much worse. And I enjoyed this book a lot more than similar titles. First of all, there is a real story here, with likeable characters and interesting villains. Alita combines nonchalant confidence with introspection in a way that's very appealing. She doesn't doubt her combat abilities, but she would love to know who she is. Daisuke, who has a certain "European comics" look to him--he wouldn't be out of place in a Tintin book--is a nice guy with a dark streak (he loves killing criminals)--not quite as grotesque as Makaku's brain-slurping, but still pretty ugly. The Scrapyard society, with its bizarre mix of humans, cyborgs, robots, and mutants, is visually exciting, though I would have liked to have seen more of the city in this first book. (My desire is granted in the next book in the series.) The definition of "human" is blurred almost beyond recognition.

And oh, the art! Kishiro is rapidly becoming one of my all-time favorite manga artists. From the stunning cover to the final panel, the book is a visual feast. Alita has a wide-eyed, doll-like innocent look when she doesn't have her combat face on, and in general Kishiro does excellent work with faces; they have a lot of life and can express very subtle nuances. I've said before that gore doesn't usually look good in black-and-white, but here it does (well, relatively speaking, anyway); moreover, because the art is black-and-white, one can't tell whether the vital fluids spurting from a body are blood or oil, which also helps to blur the humanity of the characters. The backgrounds, when they are shown (which isn't all that often), aren't quite as detailed and impressive as the human figures, but that's perfectly OK with me. I can't begin to count the number of comics artists who really stink at people and faces, so.... One quibble: like most manga artists, Kishiro uses those annoyingly complicated battle scenes where it's almost impossible to follow the action. However, between his overall skill and his well-drawn figure of Alita, who tends to be smaller than her opponents, these scenes are more coherent than usual.

Very highly recommended. The horror/gore elements might be offputting to some readers, but I think the vast majority of manga fans will love this title and its sequels.

Buy it directly from Viz Comics

Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


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