Calling Manga Island: Issue #6

Thu, March 3rd, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Tony Salvaggio, Columnist

CYBORG 009

Old becomes new again on Manga Island as the cold war era manga "Cyborg 009" rockets its way to the future on Manga Island. This classic manga has been given new life in its release by Tokyopop. Although classic manga hasn't really caught on as well as some of the slicker, newer releases that fill most shelves in larger bookstores, I have to applaud Tokyopop for taking the chance and releasing manga like "Cyborg 009." I was drawn into Shotaro Ishinomori and his iconic cyborgs at an early age, after seeing some illustrations in an "Epic Illustrated" magazine. I was drawn to the illustrations and how stylized and different they seemed from Marvel and DC (indy comics were much too mature for me and not readily available in convenience stores like other comics) books I read the time. In fact, other than "Speed Racer," I would say that this early exposure to Ishinomori's style is part of what lead me to my stay on Manga Island. Although Ishinomori has left us, he left a fantastic legacy that has been passed on to successive generations of manga-ka and animators.

Ishinomori's style in "Cyborg 009" definitely shows his tutelage under Tezuka. In fact the more I stay on Manga Island the more I see the influence Tezuka had on the manga of the time and how far reaching his influence has extended to what we read today. Ishinomori was no slouch as a creator. He created some of the most beloved icons of Japanese pop culture, including Kamen Rider, the original Sentai Ranger show ("Himitsu Sentai Go-Ranger"), Kikkaider and many others. He also created another of my favorites in the Tokyopop publishing roster "The Skull Man." As one of the most prolific manga-ka, and live action screenplay writers (including the violent live action "Kikkaider" and the original story for the Katsuhiro Otomo vehicle, "Harmegeddon") he was creating until his death in 1998. He was even responsible for a manga based on the popular "Legend of Zelda" series.

The biggest hurdles of that most people seem to have in getting into "Cyborg 009" are the older art style and the fact that Japan at the time was not politically correct at all. In the Cyborg team alone, there is a large lipped, dark skinned African warrior, an Indian (Native American) in full-face paint, a rather bumbling Chinese character, a drunken English thespian, and an American gang member with a huge sharp nose. Stereotypes in much of Japan's early manga and anime works, even Dragonball (written well after "Cyborg 009") has its share controversial character designs. "Cyborg 009's" Tokyopop editor Luis Reyes penned a stunning introduction to this phenomena, and I can't see topping that, but I agree that although these stereotypes were prevalent and can even be seen in a few of today's manga works, the character designs and attributes of the "Cyborg 009" characters are not done out of spite, but instead are in line with what the perception of a culture that was still very insular at the time. Ishinomori wished to capture a recognizable likeness for each of the cultures he portrays in 009. At the time, a reader in Japan could easily recognize the characters and what they were supposed to represent from their visual shorthand, much the same way that a child watching the Lone Ranger at the time would not have thought twice at the conflict of Cowboys versus Indians and how they were portrayed. Ishinomori takes these stereotypical characters and imbues them with values and depth that pushes far past the visual shorthand character each character fits into. As the manga progresses, they rise to every challenge and become heroes that stand for every man and the need to push past any adversity in their lives.

"Cyborg 009's" story revolves around a team of escaped cyborg test subjects and their struggles to escape from the warmonger and profiteer, the Black Ghost. The cyborgs were built to escalate the arms race for Black Ghost and to pit countries against each other to line his pockets and secure his place as shadowy ruler of the world. Black Ghost realizes that the nuclear war would doom the earth and develops a plan to use cyborgs to take the arms race into space. The Black Ghost has been kidnapping top scientists and forcing them to work for him by threats, coercion or promises of power. When his plan backfires and Cyborg 009 (the Half Japanese delinquent) escapes with cyborgs 001-008 and one of the scientists who was forced to work for the Black Ghost, the race for survival and fight to save mankind begins.

As they make their escape, the 00 prototype cyborgs begin manifest their powers in various ways. 001 is a telepath and can teleport, 002 can fly, 003 has enhanced ESP and x-ray vision, 004 can transform his limbs into weapons (including rocket launchers and machine guns), 005 is super strong and tough, 006 can burrow under ground and breath fire, 007 can shape shift and alter his body into almost any animal, and 008 is adept at swimming and staying underwater for long periods of time. Even with all of these abilities at the team's disposal, it is quickly established that 009 is the strongest and most developed of all the cyborgs despite his young appearance (only 001 is younger, but in body only). His powers include the ability to move at amazingly high speed, rendering most opponents completely defenseless as they seem to move in slow motion in relation to his speed. 009 can also recycle oxygen in his body and repel most wounds due to his super thick armored skin.

"Cyborg 0009's" 10 volumes span the globe as the adventure expands beyond the island hideout the team occupies in the beginning. As the Black Ghost continues to send new cyborgs at the prototypes, they make their way to Vietnam, below the earth's crust, and into space for the final conflict. There is even a section that hearkens to Tezuka's Jungle Emperor manga, showing Ishinomori's respect and love for the works of his mentor. With each chapter, Ishinomori ramps up the action in the story line, and he also adds more and more depth to each of the prototype cyborgs. Whether it is bringing 008 back to his roots in jungle settings or adding a love interest for 009, you can see that Ishinomori cared for these characters and wanted to bring them give them extra dimension, enabling the reader to empathize and care for the characters as much as he did. Even his villains are not always altogether evil, as seen in the tragic polar opposite 010 twins who can never even tough one another due to their charges polarity. Equally tragic is the monstrous 011, whose brain is trapped in a monstrosity of a body, promised to be returned to his family only if he kills or captures the 00 prototypes. As monstrous as some of these villains are, Ishinomori's gifted writing allows us to empathize with certain villains and see that not all evil action have clear cut reasons behind them.

Ishinomori's very cartoony style is often a sharp contrast to the very serious themes and tone of his story of warmongering, life, love lost and the search for the cyborg team's place in the world. Each of the Cyborgs has a tale of loss that has led them to where they are. From the Cyborg 002's gang days in New York (complete with his intro dancing as if in West Side Story), the sad story of Cyborg 001 and his advanced brain placed in a baby's body, and the loss of Cyborg 004's fianc in a wreck that put him into the Cyborg program. Cyborg 009's tough street life, growing up as an orphan and a half breed toughened him and ad s to his angst, as despite his heroism, his cyborg body and the company he keeps makes him an outcast everywhere but around the 00 team. Despite the serious tone of the story, Ishinomori often employs many of the cartoony tricks seen in older anime, influenced more by the early Disney shorts such as Steamboat Willie than the feature films such as Snow White. I enjoy these moments of levity, the distorted grins, stretched "what the?" looks from surprised characters, and the occasional pratfall or "jump in the air out of surprise or anger" are all part of what makes classic Tezuka style manga such as this stand out from the dead serious manga of today. Ishinomori's pliable, kinetic characters move and flow in an unreal but appealing and comforting way to me. They appear to be able to do any acrobatic move or feat of daring on a whim.

Even though some of the art may seem more child-like compared to modern manga, Ishinomori's panels portray action scenes with intense acuity. The flow of his sequences, whether they are flying, underwater, land, or space (and the manga takes us through all of these locations) the action is constantly flowing. The use of fades, cuts and an interesting variety in tones and shading to simulate lighting effects show the same techniques Hollywood directors still use today. The more I read the series, the more I was struck by all the cinematic techniques that the artist employed. In some ways he even surpassed his mentor "The God of Manga" with his panel breakdowns and movie quality cuts and lighting effects. No mean feat for a purely black and white comic!

Although it is hard to sell old school manga to many new fans looking for the next new, slick shojo or bishonen adventure, classics such as "Cyborg 009" should definitely have a place in manga enthusiasts' collections. The stories of struggle and daring feats of heroism told in the pages of this classic work (and seen in the new anime series put out by Geneon) are the foundations that modern manga built off of. I have to applaud Tokyopop for expanding their manga line to include classics such as this, even if it doesn't make the most money for them. It is neat to be able to buy older manga and see what the scene was like for different generations of manga fans. Even if it is just for nostalgia and interest in what came before, I recommend picking up "Cyborg 009." Give it a spin and dig on the 60's stories, cool cyborg uniforms and truly original characters, I think that you might be convinced to stay on this retro area of Manga Island.

Tony Salvaggio has been a fan of anime and manga from an early age. He has been an animator in the video games industry and is currently co-writing an original graphic novel for Tokyopop. He regularly hosts anime and Japanese related shows in Austin and his passion for all things anime and manga related is only excelled by his quest to become King of the Monsters.

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