With movies subsisting on clichés and American superhero comics taking their clichés from both movies and themselves, I always look to manga for fresh ideas.
Yes, manga has its own set of clichés as well, but in seinan manga, ie comics aimed at older readers past their teens who would like something more meaty, manga does tend to offer more interesting genre ideas than the usual big-eyed moe girls and painfully-earnest superpowered teens.
Take for example JORMUNGAND, Just your everyday tale of a teenage arms dealer and her rag-tag group of mercenary bodyguards.
Except, no, it’s not everyday, it’s the only series of its type out there.
Written and drawn by Keitaro Takahashi, JORNMUNGAND is the political action thriller manga that runs in the manga anthology MONTHLY SUNDAY GENE-X alongside the similarly-themed BLACK LAGOON. Both series are currently being published in English by Viz Media.
Where Rei Hiroe’s BLACK LAGOON is the more flashy series about mercenaries and spooks scraping together a living in the Golden Triangle with a gun-toting Eurasian chick in hotpants as its poster child and its emphasis on over-the-top John Woo-style gunfights, JORMUNGAND is the more subtle political series.
What makes manga like these interesting and sets them apart from American comics is the amount of research the writers put into the stories. Much of the geopolitical situations depicted in their plots are taken right from the last 20 years’ worth of headlines with a near-fetishistic knowledge of technology, weapons and military tactics thrown in so you feel like you might actually be learning something when you read these comics. The closest that US comics have right now are books like Nathan Edmondson’s effective but somewhat dry THE ACTIVITY from Image Comics. What the Japanese do is push their concepts that extra mile to make them truly high concept and crazy, hence examples like JORMUNGAND.
JORMUNGAND is about Koko Hekmatyar, an Icelandic girl barely out of her teens who officially works for her father’s shipping company, which is actually a front for her and her brother’s arms-dealing businesses. Each of them runs their own branch of the business, which is illegal so they have to travel from country to country to peddle their wares, which is to sell weapons to whoever can pony up the money, including countries prohibited by international law from buying certain types of heavy arms. Koko’s life is in constant danger from law enforcement, rivals and assassins. She has surrounded herself with an intensely loyal band of eccentric international mercenaries as bodyguards, all of them either disgraced ex-soldiers, spooks or cops with nowhere else to go. She has even personally adopted Jonah, a traumatised but highly-skilled child soldier into her dysfunctional surrogate family.
Koko Hekmatyar is a monster.
She has to be to stay alive. She has to smile all the time and be flighty and laughing while hiding her real intentions. She has to be smarter, faster, more ruthless and unpredictable to stay one step ahead of all the people who either want to use her for their own ends, or take over her turf, or kill her because she’s an inconvenience or for revenge. The life of an arms dealer is not for the squeamish, and it was one she was thrust into. She and her band of mercs are damaged and doomed, and the people she tangles with are also monsters, but the stories positions Koko and her friends as the underdog because they’re tangling with big dogs like the CIA, the NSA, the Japanese intelligence services, the British and anyone who has a problem with people selling arms to their enemies.
JORMUNGAND is very much a post-911, War on Terror comic, dealing in realpolitik more than any comic or most prose novels do. The characters play in the murky waters of the chaos and destruction of a world in a state of perpetual war. All the players are monsters, treating it all as a huge game. It’s all business and all pragmatism, even if doing business here often involves having someone in their way killed. Even the CIA agents who alternately hunt or want to use Koko treat it all as fun and games and one-upmanship rather than act like the earnest, somber patriots we’re used to in American movies and TV shows. Soldiers, including the most elite black ops and SEAL, are pawns to be avoided, evaded, manipulated or eradicated lest they catch up with and kill you. Knowledge is power here, it leads to money and weapons and protection. Everyone is constantly trying to figure out what the other sides know so they can get leverage.
In a Hollywood or Jerry Bruckheimer movie, the likes of Koko would be the bad guy, and Koko and virtually everyone in JORMUNGAND is a bad guy. The reader is put in a position of siding with someone thoroughly amoral, the bad guy in a world of bad guys and grey areas. Even the art avoids the cute, big-eyed moe look that dominates manga now and verges on the ugly. And you get suspense and action sequences that rival any Hollywood A-list movie. The only reason the studios haven’t ripped any of it off is probably because not many people in Hollywood have actually read this manga, which actually has smarter writing than the majority of action and political thrillers right now. It doesn’t carry the nationalist subtext of many Japanese political action manga since the main characters are mostly Europeans and Americans and has a clear-eyed, if awed and slightly appalled, view of how event hidden from the public eye shape the wars and events we barely understand while people’s lives and deaths are just collateral damage.
In Norse mythology, “jormungand” is the Midgard Serpent, or the World Serpent, and the series’ title refers to War and weapons as the coil of the serpent that envelopes the world and holds it hostage. As the series progresses, this takes on a deeper meaning as Koko’s agenda becomes more prominent. She might be set to become the serpent itself. The most terrifying player in this story is a teenage girl, because hey, teenage girls are terrifying. Just ask anybody.
The Western release of the manga series has almost caught up to the Japanese run at volume 10, so if you want to start reading it, this is a good time to start. There’s also an anime series with English subtitles that you can stream online.
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