November 27, 2010

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Jormungand Vol 1

Written by Keitaro Takahashi
Illustrated by Keitaro Takahashi
Viz

Sometimes I read comics because they're so intellectual and thought provoking. Sometimes I read comics because they open my eyes to new worlds.

And sometimes I read comics because I want the literary equivalent of popcorn.

That's the kind of feeling I got when I was about halfway through Jormungand, a series that has all the seriousness and subtlety of the action movies that came out so often in the 1980s, before the 1990s messed them up with including environmental messages and the 2000s made it worse by adding moral agonizing. Sometimes a person just needs to sit down and read/watch a bunch of people blowing things up while saying clever bits of dialog. Is that so wrong?

Despite opening with a serious premise (a boy hit by tragedy at a young age seeks revenge), this manga quickly turns into a romp. Jonah, the boy, has just joined a group of arms dealers led by a perky, quirky woman named Koko. She grins like an amiable idiot but has plenty of guile to use in the dangerous world of arms dealing. Weaving and ducking her way along a fine line, she keeps her team together---and her profit margins high.

As the book progresses, we spend more time seeing how crafty Koko is and less on Jonah's problem. This means that instead of getting a serious look at a trade that goes on in war-torn countries, we get quite a bit of mugging for the camera, shifting alliances, and multiple explosions. I'm not complaining about this at all, mind you, but I' still trying to figure out where Jonah fits in. He's amazingly good with a gun, despite hating them, and his name implies that he's living in the belly of the beast. Will he eventually escape? And if he does, will we be forced to take his side over that of the far more interesting Koko?

Those are problems I'll have to deal with later. For now I'll just enjoy seeing a morally bankrupt but fascinating character take her motley crew of employees into situations that are increasingly over the top.

One of the things I particularly liked is that Takahashi gives us a grouping of people who are interesting to watch. Koko is unpredictable, and surrounds herself with agents who fit roles we're used to seeing in these kinds of plots. There's the serious one (Jonah), the grizzled merc, the disgraced special ops person (who doubles as a potential hidden love interest), and the folks who will probably die when the story needs to get a bit darker. Koko's even got an overweight foil whose main agent is a former friend--two more notches in the belt of typical action flick.

All of this leads to some very familiar storytelling, but in this case, that's perfectly fine with me. Takahashi's dialog gives the characters life, despite their familiar premise, though I wish there was a bit less cursing. (This is one trait from action movies I could have done without.) In addition, Takahashi's artwork with faces and body language is incredibly good. Sometimes the eyes are blacked out for effect, which is both creepy and eye-catching. In other cases, we can tell what is about to happen by how the characters are moving, rather than what they are saying. There's a lot of strategic arm placement and hand gestures. These are little touches that, like a director's decision to frame a shot, make the difference between so-so action stuff and a book that makes me want to read further volumes. There were a few times where I had to go back and look again to make sure that I'd followed the story correctly, but that's true in most manga for me, and even a few western-style comics, these days.

Jormungand is a book you'd think I'd dislike because of the lack of a moral center. When you think about it, these are people who sell death, and here I am cheering them on mentally as they find clever ways to stay alive. I'd be lying if I said that didn't give me a little bit of guilt. On the other hand, I'm sure things will catch up to them eventually, and Koko is just so much fun to follow around, with her ruthless desire to make a profit and uncanny ability to be funny while she's doing it.

I certainly wouldn't recommend Jormungand to everyone, but those who like action stories and are okay with just a little mindless violence (okay, a LOT of mindless violence) should find this Viz Signature book to be a good way to spend an afternoon or evening before bed. I know I did.