BATTLE ANGEL ALITA (1990-1995)

I recently got back into my habit of reading comics that at one point in time was my primary recreation apart from playing cricket. I needed something that would hook me and get me back into the habit of reading. I read 8 volumes of Neil Gaiman’s exceptional Sandman comics but one has to agree that the material is as such that it’s not a good idea to read it all at a stretch. Gaiman designed it to be read one issue a month giving readers the time to ruminate over what they just read and prepare them up for the next issue. They also had to be given the chance to enjoy and sink in the visuals which formed a large part of the charm that the series exudes. Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro is, however, a different ballgame altogether.

Over the last week or so, I finished reading 9 volumes of Battle Angel Alita that covers it’s run from 1990 to 1995 and essentially completes the first story arch. Alita is a wrecked Cyborg who is discovered by Dr. Ido in a dump of rubble. Ido is a citizen of the Scrapyard that languishes below what is known as the hanging city of Tiphares. Tiphares is the home to a perfect breed of humans and there is very little knowledge available about it to the people dwelling in the Scrapyard. The Scrapyard is in many ways a storehouse of all that comes tumbling down from the excretory ducts of Tiphares. When Ido discovers Alita, she is without most of her body and she has no memory of her past.

Ido rebuilds her and tries to give her a sweet and loveable persona. However, to his utter dismay, Alita soon proves herself to be an exceptionally gifted killer as she saves Ido from a marauding Cyborg with a bounty on its head. Ido doubles as a hunter-killer (bounty hunters who hunt rogue and criminal Cyborgs for a price) by the night. In her attempt to save Ido, she demonstrates a fighting technique known as “Panzer Kunst” that was believed to have gone extinct hundreds of years ago. All this and more in Alita point to an ominous past. As the story progresses, we see Alita grow through a series of emotional and dramatic encounters each of which adds something or the other to her character and develops her as a thinking and feeling being. By the time we reach the end of the run, we also learn a bit about her past, her training, how she came to be and also about the cagy city of Tiphares.

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Battle Angel Alita is un-put-down-able. I was just beginning to get back into the habit of reading and these comics ensured that I was not getting sidetracked by my love for cinema and instead popped a film or two instead of reading through hundreds of pages of sensational albeit black and white art. The story flows organically through the pages and the treatment is so cinematic that it gave me a feeling of watching an actual motion picture unfold on the pages. The books hit a sweet balance between being dialogue-heavy and dialogue-light whenever necessary. There was a lot of information to take in and a lot of it was scientific. Yet somehow the books felt extremely breezy and accessible. Wherever a scientific jargon was used, the writer made it a point to add a footnote which really helped to understand so much of the story.

Another huge plus for me was the kind of content that we were dealing with here. This is a comic that even though is Japanese, has very little to do with their culture and setting. Its appeal is a lot more global considering that one could try to base the same story in any portion of the world and would hardly lose any of its nuances. Battle Angel Alita is at its heart a science fiction thriller that grows on you because of the story, the set pieces and the arc of its protagonist. Its protagonist is a girl who could have been of any ethnicity and yet would make a similar impact. Alita starts off as a little girl who doesn’t know her place in the Scrapyard and by the time the series ends, she turns into the single most important tool that ensures the survival of the human race. That arc is beautifully built up from issue to issue without ever for once feeling enforced.

A lot of the comics are action-heavy that results from actual and dramatic situations. It isn’t easy to draw action and make it have the kind of impact that is achieved by Yukito Kishiro here. Alita starts off by facing against opponents who are mere thugs. As the story progresses, the stature and killing power of her opponents keep going up culminating in her climatic battles with enemies who are powerful enough to plummet cities. She also has to fight her own self. What stands out in these sequences are the organic movements and the manner in which the action is choreographed. It isn’t easy to show the flow of action through panels and handpicked movements but Kishiro breathes life into the action through his expert handling of the matter.

There are two books dedicated to the game of Motorball that Alita becomes a part off after she loses the love of her life. Motorball is one of the most visceral and unforgiving takes on all that we know of racing. It combines racing, fighting and sheer destruction to serve up a broth of unforgettable visuals. I can site numerous films and other media that have taken a leaf out of Yukito Kishiro’s concepts and implemented them in their own ways.

I was also amazed by the emotional depth that the stories had. Except a few, most of the comics culminate in the span of 30-35 pages and in those few pages they are able to leave an indelible mark on the reader’s mind with their storytelling. Alita is a tragic character. As she points out herself, whatever or whoever she loves she loses. We as the reader are able to relate with her angst and misery as she is unable to understand her place in a world that she doesn’t fully understand. She is without memory and hence has nothing but her instincts to lay back on. Ido nearly ends up making her his plaything without an identity of her own but she breaks free of his clasp, finding love, losing it and ending up being one of the most gifted killers in the Scrapyard. All this happens because she is willing to give in to her instincts and go against all that feels sane.

Battle Angel Alita is about to get its movie re-incarnation this February. Robert Rodriguez will direct a script by James Cameroon who has been quoted as saying that he has been passionate about making the books into a movie ever since he was introduced to it by another auteur Guillermo del Toro. I am really hopeful that this film will come out good since the source material doesn’t have the kind of cultural baggage that weighed down on some of the other Hollywood adaptations of manga (Death Note, Dragonball: Evolution, Ghost In The Shell). More than anything I am curious to see how the action and the visuals transport to screen under the watchful eyes of Rodriguez who has proved his prowess with visuals when he brought Frank Miller’s Sin City to life. For now, I am keeping my fingers crossed.

Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)

Here is the trailer of the upcoming live action film directed by Robert Rodriguez and written & produced by James Cameroon

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