On this week’s Leaving Proof: We do a brief retrospective on Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed and revisit Giannis Milonogiannis’ Old City Blues. ALSO: A comprehensive cover gallery of all the published English-language editions of Appleseed.
I recently caught the first two episodes of Ghost in the Shell: ARISE on Netflix and as far as manga/anime property reboots go, it’s about as good as any that I’ve seen, both in terms of making a storied media franchise accessible enough for the novice viewer and the retention of the narrative, design, and philosophical themes of its predecessor manga and anime so as to satisfy reasonable long-time Ghost in the Shell fans. We’ve all grown cynical about reboots of established properties in recent years, but that’s really due more to the perception of the lazy “cash-in” quality of the resulting reinvention, and not because there’s anything inherently wrong with the idea of refreshing and reinventing a property for the next generation of potential fans (or the old generation of fans looking for a fresh spin on a beloved media franchise).
I don’t exactly know how much creative input Ghost in the Shell manga creator Masamune Shirow had on the new series but from what I’ve read online, it seems like his creative involvement has been peripheral for the most part. While Shirow was directly involved in the development of the hit 2002 Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex anime series, at this point in his career it seems he’s content to let the team at Production I.G interpret what is arguably his most popular creation without him directly overseeing the production. If the first two episodes of Ghost in the Shell: ARISE are any indication, it’s a wise choice. It’s a beautifully realized and updated iteration of what made the original Ghost in the Shell and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex so compelling, without the bloat of prior continuity or Shirow’s more polarizing character design quirks.
Ghost in the Shell has been an exceptionally durable property, all things considered, especially since Shirow hasn’t really created new original Ghost in the Shell material (or much new manga for that matter) for over a decade now. In fact, these past several years, he’s been pretty much focused on making erotic art books that have been met with, well, let’s say a mixed reaction. A fairly notable example: In a recent Tumblr Q&A, comics creator (and admitted Shirow fan) Brandon Graham opined that Shirow seems like he’s “actively working to destroy his name and legacy” with what the Eisner Award-winning cartoonist describes as the 53 year-old Shirow’s current fixation on “oiled Photoshop ladies.”
Still, regardless of what one thinks of Shirow’s recent output—I’m indifferent to his erotica work myself—the influence of his earlier manga, not just on his fellow mangaka but on the international comics scene, is undeniable. Ghost in the Shell gets talked up a lot because of its stylishness, its crossover success in feature film and TV animation, and the way it presented to readers the subjects of artificial intelligence and the philosophy of mind alongside the usual seinen-style violence and titillation, but in my mind, an earlier Shirow work, 1985’s Appleseed (first published in English by Eclipse Comics back in 1988, with the North American publishing rights eventually transferring to Dark Horse Comics with Eclipse’s early 1990s closure), has had a no less important influence on modern comic art and design.
One of the most striking things about Appleseed is that it doesn’t look at all like a work that was created 30 years ago. Because of how stylistic and aesthetic trends tend to be sweeping in manga and comics in general, it’s fairly easy to date their creation (or in the case of the works of “retro-cool” artists like Tom Scioli and Ed Piskor, it’s fairly easy to see the era—and even the specific past creators—from which they are drawing inspiration). With Appleseed however, Shirow’s mid-1980s depiction of a post-World War III 22nd century society and near-obsessive attention to future-tech detail looks like a lot of sci-fi future settings in contemporary comics, animation, and films.
Appleseed‘s future-forward breakthroughs also extend to the visual storytelling. The manga features an energetic and dynamic “camera” rarely-seen in comics before then that allowed Shirow masterful control over the flow of time on the page. When he deemed necessary, Shirow would decompress sequences and exploit changes in distance and perspective to heighten the action and enhance the drama and depth of a scene—the best comparison I can think of is that it’s how I imagine anime directors Kazuya Tsurumaki (FLCL) or Hiroyuki Imaishi (Kill la Kill) would choose to break down and layout a comic. Check out this particularly impressive eight-page sequence from Appleseed Book 4: The Promethean Balance (note that the pages and panels are arranged in the original right-to-left reading orientation):
All this isn’t meant to suggest that Shirow had some near-preternatural talent for prognostication, of course. But just as Dan O’Bannon and Moebius did with their 1976 Heavy Metal comic short story “The Long Tomorrow,” Shirow’s Appleseed was so overwhelmingly influential in just the right circles that it practically codified the storytelling and cyberpunk design vocabulary for many of those who came after him, not just in comics, but in animation and film as well. With Appleseed, Shirow wasn’t predicting the future of the cyberpunk aesthetic so much as he was creating it.
Whether through actual exposure to Appleseed or through cultural osmosis, Shirow’s aesthetic and storytelling sensibilities influenced more than a few prominent Western comics creators, not just in the sci-fi/cyberpunk comics genre but also the superhero realm. It’s not difficult to see the design DNA of Shirow’s powered mechanized suits (called “Landmates” in Appleseed) and commandos being expressed in Jim Lee’s designs for the Genoshan soldiers in Uncanny X-Men #270 (November, 1990), for example, and it doesn’t take a lot of squinting to see Appleseed‘s Briareos and Landmates serving as perhaps not-so-distant design ancestors—for better or for worse—in the rounded, organic-looking shapes of any number of post-1990 Western comic book mechs, cyborgs, and androids. (There’s a neat bit of historical reciprocity in all this, since Shirow has mentioned before that Robert Heinlein’s descriptions of the Mobile Infantry powered armor exoskeletons in the 1959 novel Starship Troopers was one of the inspirations for the Landmate design.)
Less tellingly, the “in your face” visual storytelling favored by many of the most popular artists of the late 1980s through the 1990s also owed a debt, direct or indirect, to Shirow’s techniques, although how effectively they utilized them is likely a matter of debate for fans. And of course, it goes almost without saying that many of the most prominent manga-influenced North American comics artists of today such as Adam Warren, Brandon Graham, Joe Madureira, and Fred Perry have seamlessly incorporated, to varying degrees, many of the features of Shirow’s art.
The continuing impact of Appleseed‘s design and aesthetics on comics extends well beyond the borders of Japan and the United States and the years immediately after translations of Shirow’s work started appearing in North American comics shops. I would actually cite Mexico-based Argentine artist Lucas Marangon (Star Wars Tales, Abyss) and Greek cartoonist Giannis Milonogiannis (Prophet, All-New Ultimates) as among the most notable creators working in the North American comics scene today who have clearly imbibed qualities of Shirow’s work.
In the creator-owned original work Hellcyon (published by Dark Horse and reviewed here), Marangon employed many of the hallmarks of Shirow’s Appleseed—the fine line work, the slightly cartoonish human proportions, the radical perspective shifts, the judicious use of decompression to highlight the action and narrative tension, and of course, the tech designs—as seen in the nine-page sequence reproduced in the image gallery below:
And while Milonogiannis’ deliberately coarse rendering style may superficially look nothing like Shirow’s super clean line art, his work on Old City Blues (available for free download on OldCityBlues.com and for sale in various print formats published by BOOM!/Archaia) likewise displays a keen understanding of what made Shirow’s storytelling so engaging. The sequential gallery below shows Milonogiannis using the urban skyline establishing shot to frame an extended, chapter-opening multi-page sequence, one of the signatures of Shirow’s Appleseed:
From a personal standpoint, I would actually recommend Appleseed over Ghost in the Shell to any novice readers looking to get familiar with Shirow’s manga work. Not that Ghost in the Shell is inferior in any clear and consistent way, but I find the world of Appleseed to be more fleshed out and its themes and structure to be surprisingly sophisticated—the University of Birmingham’s Dr. Gideon Nisbet has done a presentation, Mecha on Olympus, laying out all the little details of Shirow’s use of themes from Greek mythology in the work—and the character interactions are actually just as entertaining as the action scenes. One of the reasons all the previous attempts at animated adaptations of Appleseed have failed to develop a following commensurate to the work’s standing in the comics/manga community, I think, is because the screenwriters and directors seem to forget that Appleseed actually features quite a bit of comedy in the more quiet portions of the narrative. Appleseed, believe it or not, isn’t the grim and gritty work its reputation and outward appearance may paint it out to be.
Speaking of Old City Blues…
The inaugural print collection of Milonogiannis’ Old City Blues was actually one of the first publisher-supplied titles I ever reviewed for this site. I liked it well enough then, although I felt that the book could have used more in the way of bonus content to justify the leap in cost from free webcomic to $15 trade paperback (that’s not really a comment on Milonogiannis and more a criticism of what was then the relatively high-end pricing strategy of the pre-BOOM! Studios acquisition Archaia Entertainment).
One thing I did neglect to give Milonogiannis credit for in my review of Old City Blues was how he tried to address through the cyberpunk metaphor the socio-political unrest and economic uncertainty Greece was undergoing during the time of the comic’s creation. Not every comic has to say Something Important to be good or enjoyable, obviously—I like my fair share of mindless entertainment, thank you very much—but there’s something to be said about coming away from reading a comic feeling like you just had an earnest conversation with the creative team about topics that are personally meaningful and important to them. To me, reading Old City Blues felt like sharing in a fellow manga and anime fan’s celebration of everything good about Shirow’s Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell while also watching him work out his thoughts on his country’s struggles through an entertaining creative exercise. It was a singular, memorable experience.
Anyway, I never did get a review copy of Old City Blues, Vol. 2—I think it came out during the transition period when Archaia was being assimilated into the BOOM! Studios family of imprints and must have fallen through the cracks during the review cycle—but I did get to read the free PDF editions of its individual chapters off of Milonogiannis’ site recently. I have to say that it unquestionably exceeds the promise of its predecessor; the writing, the art, and even the lettering are vastly improved. I don’t know if Milonogiannis ever mentioned it in his interviews or on social media, but it’s almost like there’s a little Jim Mahfood influence creeping in there, as well. It’s really worth checking out. And if cyberpunk isn’t your thing? Milonogiannis contributed as a writer and an illustrator to the recently-concluded, Eisner-nominated Prophet series from Image Comics and has just started a stint as the artist on Marvel’s All-New Ultimates.
A listing and cover gallery of the English-language Appleseed comics
The Eclipse Comics/Studio Proteus single issues: The now-defunct Eclipse Comics co-published Appleseed in English in the summer of 1988 with Toren Smith‘s Studio Proteus. The manga was “flipped” left-to-right as was the common practice at the time, which is why so many of the figures in these comics appear left-handed. Some panels were left “unflipped” as doing so would disrupt the storytelling flow even further. Translation and repackaging was handled by Smith and Dana Lewis while lettering was done by veteran DC and Marvel Comics letterer L. Lois Buhalis and John Clark. The original four Japanese Appleseed trade paperbacks were divided into four miniseries (“Books”) comprising 19 single issues in total. While the first and fourth miniseries featured original Masamune Shirow art for their individual issue covers, the second Eclipse miniseries featured covers by fan-favorite Uncanny X-Men and Classic X-Men cover artist Art Adams and the third miniseries featured covers by a young, Dirty Pair-era Adam Warren. Check out the gallery of covers below:
Back-issues of the Eclipse Comics series don’t seem to be all that pricey online, (although prices are fairly high for Very Fine/Near Mint grade copies on the Mile High Comics web store), despite what I would imagine is their relative rarity. I suspect this might have something to do with the fact that Shirow’s art was flipped in these issues to suit the left-to-right reading format and that the new English sound effect lettering obscured some of the art. The second and third miniseries might be worth tracking down for serious Art Adams and Adam Warren fans, though.
The Eclipse/Dark Horse trade paperbacks: Eclipse Comics and Studio Proteus jointly published three trade paperback editions collecting the individual issues of the first three Appleseed miniseries. With Eclipse Comics struggling to stay afloat by early 1993 (the company would completely cease operations the following year), Studio Proteus and the Appleseed license made the move to Mike Richardson’s Dark Horse Comics, which published the fourth trade paperback under its sole imprint. All trades featured Shirow cover art.
The Dark Horse Manga editions: Dark Horse would reissue all four books in March of 1995. Books 1 and 3 were reissued with the same cover art as the previous Eclipse/Studio Proteus releases with only a slightly modified trade dress while Book 2 received a new cover. [Edited to add: Yes, I know that the Dark Horse, Random House, and Grand Comics Database sites all list premium-priced, hardcover limited edition versions of the second and third books in addition to the 1995 reissues, but the publishing date for both books is off—the three sites all say they were released in 1987, a full year before the debut of the Eclipse/Studio Proteus Appleseed comic. Also, neither book appears in the Comic Book Database or on Comic Vine’s list of published comics. I don’t doubt that these two books exist, but without more information, I’m leaving them off this list for now.]
Dark Horse would also reprint for the first time in English the Appleseed Databook, a two-part art book and guide to the world of Appleseed originally published in Japan in 1990 featuring Shirow’s sketches, diagrams, essays, plot summaries, technology specifications, maps, and character bios. The Databook would also include an all-new Appleseed story (“Called Game”). Like the earlier English-language Appleseed material, the art in the Appleseed Databook would be flipped to accommodate the left-to-right reading standard. The Databook would be collected in trade paperback format later the same year.
Restoring the art to its original orientation: In 2002, Dark Horse would serialize in 14 parts an all-new original Appleseed story by Shirow in issues #25–39 of the Super Manga Blast! anthology. For the first time, an Appleseed comic would be published in English while at the same time preserving the original right-to-left orientation of the art. The story would be collected in 2007 as the Appleseed: Hypernotes trade paperback. This is the most recent Appleseed material from Shirow. 2007 would also see the release of the Appleseed ID trade paperback, a revised version of the Appleseed Databook with the art restored to its original right-to-left reading format, and the beginning of the roll out of the third edition of the Appleseed trades. Like Appleseed ID, the third edition books’ contents are in the original right-to-left format. For readers who want to see the art and visual storytellingof the Appleseed comics the way Shirow intended them to be seen, these are the editions to get.
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