I don't know about you, but I'm a bit of a Spider-Man Zombie. Since I need to get all of Spidey's appearances each month in order to keep up to date for SpiderFan, I often find I have very little time or money left over for other Marvel comics, let alone other non-Marvel comics. But still, I do try and make an effort now and again to learn about what else is going on in the wider world of comics. That included a brief foray into Anime/Manga a few years ago.
Back in the nineties, even just getting your hands on any of those Japanese Anime/Manga books or DVDs was a bit of a challenge. Of course, that has all changed in the past few years, for better or for worse. Now there's a flood of violent and graphic video nasties, and countless volumes of Draggin' BallZ flooding the shelves of your local discount store. Most of it is pretty pointless stuff, but snugly tucked away in-between the offensive and the puerile are a few gems that are actually worth the reputation and popularity Anime/Manga has enjoyed of late. Masamune Shirow's "Ghost in the Shell" is one of those.
This first volume of Ghost in the Shell consists of 8 issues, entirely created by one man - Masamune Shirow. Predominently created in black & white, though most issues contained a few colored pages also, Ghost in the Shell is an eclectic tour-de-force. The series centres around Major Motoko Kusanagi - a high-tech government agent for a covert department. On the surface an attractive young woman, Kusanagi is in fact a cyborg, over 90% machine, and is dependent on the government for her own existence, needing access to maintenance and parts only they can provide.
Like many other such creators of this genre, Masamune has envisaged a future Japan, full of dark violence and political intrigue. However, unlike many other creators, Masamune somehow manages to dodge most of the cliches and create a tale with a surprising freshness. In fact, given that the key protaganists are covert fighters who live for little but to serve the government, Masamune manages to give these dangerously stereotypical figures a suprising amount of depth of character over the short length of the series.
Furthermore, there are a couple of other notable aspects of "Ghost in the Shell" which lift it out of the ordinary. Firstly, Masamune has a vivid imagination for future technology, and his works are full of notes, describing the details of the weapons and vehicles which appear in his story. Secondly, the complex plots are related in such a casual fashion as to give an implied depth, leading the reader with the impression of murky depths and layers.
Initially, the tales centre around high-tech anti-terrorism and corruption investigations, however there is a secondary theme concerning the nature of humanity and the possiblity of true artificial consciousness, which eventually rises to become the central angle of the story. It is from this that the title derives... the "Ghost" being the conscious spirit, and the "Shell" being the human flesh which is perhaps little more than a vehicle for the soul. This dualistic philosophy is at the core of the story, and Motoko's cyborg body moves from being a "high cool-factor" embedded weapons system, to becoming a key piece in the puzzle as Masamune investigates what it means to be human.
There are some flaws in this story. The overly sexy dressing habits of the female characters are actually a little distracting from the main tale. Further, some of the passages discussing the viral and reproductive nature of consciousness are perhaps over-long. Also, every now and again there are moments of silliness in both art and story which detract from the overall serious and introspective tone. But none of these can detract from the fantastic way in which "Ghost in the Shell" manages to combine socio-political intrigue, future vision, high-tech action, and philosophical investigation in such an engrossing fashion!
As a final note: this comic spawned a movie of the same name during the late 90's. The movie is first-rate - even better than the book. In fact, I'd rate it as one of the best Manga movies ever made.
Last year saw a second series of comics, and some time in the next few months a second movie is slated for release. I picked up the first issue of the second comic series, but I have to say I wasn't that impressed. However, I have high hopes for the second film, which promises to be a visual treat. Let's just hope the storyline also holds up to the standard set by the first film.