Ladies and gents, hold on to your butts, because they're about to be blown away by The Manga Test Drive's first theme month! I declare this July to be:
That's right, every review this month will feature big fights, big guns, and big explosions!And to kick it off, let's head to the high seas to engage in a bit of piracy...
BLACK LAGOON (Burakku Ragun), by Rei Hiroe. First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2008.
PLOT: Rokuro Okajima was an ordinary Japanese salaryman. He spent his days doing menial tasks, bowing and scraping to his corporate overlords, and occasionally taking trips to foreign locals to deliver materials. All this changes when he is captured in the South Seas by a trio of pirates: the leader, Dutch; the tech guy, Benny, and Revy "Two-Hands" who is not so much a person as she is a tank in short shorts, willing and all too happy to blow your dumb ass away. These pirates are looking to trade Rokuro's delivery of illicit nuclear information to the Russian mob and hopefully get a bonus in the form of ransom money for Rokuro. To cover their asses, the company declares Rokuro legally dead, and thus the newly nicknamed "Rock" is given both the cause and the freedom to join his captors in the Thai city of Roanipur, where the elite of the world's criminal underbelly uneasily coexist in their own little hive of scum and villainry.
STORY: This is a story that comes at you like a punch in the face. Literally, it starts with Rock being sent flying across the ship deck by the crew of the Black Lagoon. It's essentially an American action movie in manga form: an action-packed story with a great cast that never gets terribly deep, although it never stoops to insulting the intelligence of its characters or its audience.
Of course, such a story needs a solid cast to anchor it, and Black Lagoon has that in the form of Rock and Revy. Now don't get me wrong, Dutch and Benny are solid characters too, but we don't get a lot of time with them, and they don't provide the contrast that the former do. Between them you have the innocent, by-the-books diplomat and the jaded, blood-crazed mercenary, and their interactions bring a lot of the story's tension, as well as a certain degree of pitch-black comedy.
Black Lagoon also has really great opponents (I can't really call them villains as pretty much everyone in this cast is involved in some kind of crime). First and foremost is Bailailaka, the head of Hotel Moscow,the Roanipur branch of the Russian mob. She is a cool, intelligent, and fearsome leader, and she runs her organization with the same discipline that she used to command them during their days as Soviet Army soldiers. The other is Roberta, who is certainly unique. I mean, in what other manga can you find a Colombian mercenary-turned-housemaid (complete with frilly dress) who will calmly, politely plow down anyone who gets in the way of her goal?
This is a well paced tale that never drags or becomes too convoluted, and each of the two story arcs in this volume work as both stand alone stories as well as part of a greater plot, supported by a fascinating cast of thieves and thugs.
ART: This is pure seinen with an international cast, so there is no moe-moe-kyun to be found here. No, here we have characters with detailed, fairly realistic, and extremely expressive style, which is even carried over into the gag story and 4-koma comics at the end. Hiroe brings that same sort of level of detail and realism to the backgrounds, ships, and weaponry.
Now, as for fanservice...well, it's a little complicated. Now it's true that Revy spends all her time in a tiny tank top and jean shorts so short that they might as well be denim panties, and Hiroe clearly loves drawing that body at just about every angle he can as she leaps and bounds her way through her gunfights, but it's also clear that he also just wants the reader to notice how much of a goddamn badass she is as much as he wants them to ogle her. There's a few other moments of nudity, thanks to a few random hookers, but when it comes to fanservice of both the violent and the sexual variety, Revy is the main focus. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it as a whole, but it's certainly not crude enough to be truly offensive to my sensibilities, for what that's worth.
Hiroe tends to pack in plenty of panels on each page, and they are often full to the brim of sound effects from the action. It's busy-looking to be sure, but not to point where it becomes distracting or ugly. He does give his art a great sense of dynamic motion as boats chase one another on the open ocean and gunfighters fly through the air guns-a-blazing, often in nice, big panels to better show it off, and it's this sense of motion which helps to lend the story another level of tension and energy. Hiroe's artwork complements his story to a T. It may not be for the squeamish or overly sensitive, but it helps to fully fill in the details and personalities of this criminal underworld.
PRESENATION: As mentioned previously, there is a gag story and some 4-koma comics at the end, along with a few translation notes. This is part of Viz's Signature Line, so it is printed in the oversized style typical of that line.
I'm always happy to immerse myself in the world of Black Lagoon, where I can enjoy one of the finest action stories on the market. Now if Hiroe would just work on it more often so we could get a new volume...
This series is still ongoing in Japan, and is published in the USA by Viz. There are 9 volumes, all currently in print.
This volume and many others are available through RightStuf.com!