Pop Culture Gadabout
Thursday, May 21, 2009
      ( 5/21/2009 12:24:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"IT'S A SERIOUSLY HARDBOILED JOB." The title characters in Shirow Miwa's "mature" readers manga Dogs: Prelude (Viz Media) may hang around the Buon Viaggio cafe instead of a reservoir, but you know that Quentin Tarantino would recognize 'em anyway. An interlocking quartet of stories set in the criminal world, Dogs focuses on a foursome who all live on the fringes of that ultra-violent setting.

First in line is Mihai, a grizzled former hitman returning to the city where he plied his trade after an extensive period of exile. He appears at the cafe where his slain lover once turned tricks, wanting to know the reason behind her murder. Next is Badou, a chain-smoking information broker who gets caught spying on a masochistic gang boss in the midst of a visit to the dominatrix. On the run, our scruffy anti-hero is also in the throes of a serious nic fit -- which ultimately proves his salvation.

Third is the "blade maiden" Maoto, whose parents were slain when she was still a child. The girl was subsequently reared into young adulthood by the man she thinks responsible for her parents' demise (and the large "x" scar centered between her breasts) and trained in the use of swordplay. When she comes upon her teacher killed by another former student, she's driven to avenge his death even though she's unsure why she's doing it.

In two of these tales, our protagonists struggle to make sense of their violent pasts; in the third, the hard-scrabbling Badou is just striving to stay alive with an army of gangsters after him. Much gun and sword play ensue. If these first three stories and their leads prove fairly straightforward pulp creations, Dogs' fourth piece, "Stray Dogs Howling in the Dark," takes things in a more s-f direction. Though the book hadn't given much indication of this in the earlier adventures, the whole shmear turns out to be set in an urban dystopia.

In "Stray Dogs," mystery man Heine Rammsteiner comes to the aid of a mute girl "fetish mutant" who is being abused by her pimp. The young waif has a pair of wings on her back, "a relic from the past when genetic manipulation was still unrestricted," Heine notes, which makes her valuable property to her abusive handler. Heine is drawn to the girl since he himself has been subjected to the whims of unscrupulous scientists. Though the full nature of this tampering is not fully revealed in this "Prelude," it's somehow connected with a metal collar and something called the Spine of Kerberus, which gives him the ability to spit out bullets.

This slip into the more brazenly fantastical reminded me of Kentaro Yabuki's more outlandish Black Cat (note the appearance of a stray cat in Badou's earlier story), though the book's language, flashes of nudity and occasional bloodiness probably put it beyond the age-range of your average Shonen Jump reader. Let's call it manga for the SJ fan who's grown into "maturity."

Miwa's art can be sparer in places in than it needs to be -- especially when it comes to backgrounds -- but his action sequences are convincingly kinetic. He also provides some engaging visual character moments, most frequently when "Weepy Old Killer" Mihai and Kiri, the owner of the centerpiece cafe, are in panel. Mihai shows up in three of the book's tales, while info man Badou has a prominent role in the book's final story. The only story to not feature any of Dogs' other creations is "Blade Maiden," though I suspect that our scarred heroine will connect with the other regulars at Buon Viaggio in Miwa's more extensive follow-up series, Dogs: Bullets & Carnage.

As a storyteller, Miwa may be a trace too beholden to the kind of absurdist random plot making that once placed Bruce Willis into the hands of a crazed and sadistic pawnbroker. Still, his ability to blend hard-knock action with an occasional flash of believable melancholy and broad humor is appealing. I know I found his four characters intriguing enough to make me want to see where he takes them all in a more extended fully rounded storyline, though comics readers looking for a more rigidly templated manga series may differ.


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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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