Black Magic (Second Edition) Vol. #01 (Mania.com)
Review Date: Friday, October 08, 2010
Release Date: Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Shirow reveals what really killed the dinosaurs
Translated by:Alan Gleason and Toren Smith
What They Say
Today, the planet Venus is a literal hell of furnace-like temperatures and dense, poisonous atmosphere. But millions of years in its past, Venus teemed with life and with a civilization far advanced to our own. The Nemisis supercomputer controls government functions, with bioroid "executors" created to carry out the system's utopian edicts.
But trouble brews even in paradise as different executors vie for control of Nemesis, forcing the governing system to secretly create Duna Typhon, a super-bioroid "sleeper," raised among the human populace and ready to use her awesome powers should Nemesis be co-opted to turn paradise into paradise lost.
In spite of Black Magic's low-key origins -- Shirow's debut, and for a fanzine at that -- his artistic talent is nearly at full force here. Shirow's attention to mechanical design is a tad less obsessive than in later works, especially with the relative lack of high-tech weaponry compared to something like Appleseed or Ghost in the Shell. Still, his art is mostly spot-on here, barring the occasional problem telling different female character designs apart (a problem which, unfortunately, will pop up again and again throughout his career).
Dark Horse's packaging for Black Magic is consistent with the rest of their Shirow (re-)releases: a slightly enlarged page size compared to normal trade paperback manga, high print quality, and a brief commentary from Shirow thrown in at the end. Shirow's artwork is reproduced here in its original right-to-left orientation without SFX touchups; SFX and a handful of military terms are translated in nigh-illegible footnotes.
Contents (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
When my copy of Black Magic arrived in the mail, I wasn't sure how excited I was to finally read Shirow's debut work. I'm a big fan of his later works like Ghost in the Shell and Orion, but not so much his earlier ones; and even his more recent series suffer from inconstant quality on a chapter-to-chapter basis. Having now read Black Magic all the way through, I've really only got one lasting impression: wow, this is really rough. Sure, in retrospect, Shirow's stories aren't always his strongest side -- even some of his better works are often fascinating in spite of serious narrative flaws. Black Magic, on the other hand, is not just flawed but borderline incoherent.
A big part of the problem stems from Shirow simply trying too cram many ideas into the series's relatively short length. Our heroine Typhon's role in the story is more or less laid out in just two introductory pages, which enumerate through a list of omnipotent computers that have ruled the government of Venus at one point or another. At some point during the succession of rulers, the granddaddy computer Nemesis created the Typhon in order to keep the democratically-elected Zeus in check. Hence, the series nominally follows Typhon as she battles Zeus over ... political power, I suppose. It's never really made clear exactly why Nemesis and Zeus are fighting each other; with the complete disregard both sides show for the lives of the Venusian people, I'm going to assume the answer's not "for the good of the people".
It's not just the basic premise that's problematic. Shirow actively thumbs his nose at cause-and-effect throughout Black Magic, which he's split up into a handful of story arcs that don't seem to connect in any logical way at all. After one arc introduces Typhon and some of her comrades, the next inexplicably shifts the narrative to an entirely new set of characters on Earth. What do these two things have to do with each other? There's a superficial connection between the two in that a major character during the Earth arc reappears as a minor character later in the book, but not much else that I could figure out. (On the other hand, the plot twist where said character inexplicably destroys the entire Earth colony and causes a mass extinction has absolutely no bearing on the remainder of the story, and in fact is never mentioned ever again for the duration of the series. Go figure.)
It's a challenge just to make some basic sense out of Typhon's basic motivations -- one of the longer plot arcs involves Typhon unleashing a wave of killer robots on the populace of Venus, watching over them just to the point that they make it into civilian territory, and then vanishing without explaining what the hell that was supposed to accomplish. I was starting to think that Shirow was just screwing with the readers at that point, suddenly exposing the series's "heroine" as the actual enemy; but nope, before long she's keeping Zeus from killing off the rest of the people on Venus. And that's even before figuring in the non-sequitur epilogue which apparently declares that none of this actually matters: the ending reads like it's supposed to be some kind of transparent morality lesson, but I hate to think what sort of moral statement we're supposed to take away from this mess.
I have no doubt that some readers will legitimately get their money's worth out of this book, simply because their expectations are set no higher than "I want to read Shirow's first work". Despite its substantial flaws, this is the debut work of a major artist who would go on to bigger and better things, and for that reason alone it at least has value as a historical curiosity. But for readers who are interested getting anything more out of Black Magic than its historical context, there's just not much of a reason to recommend it.
Mania Grade: D
Art Rating: B+
Packaging Rating: A-
Text/Translatin Rating: A
Age Rating: 16 & Up
Released By: Dark Horse
Orientation: Right to Left
Series: Black Magic