Today's review is not only a blast from manga's past, but also one that strives to recapture the style of older comics and pulpy sci-fi in one place.
STEAM DETECTIVES (Kaiketsu Joki Tanteiden), by Kia Asamiya. First published in 1994, and first published in 1999.
Somewhere between the past and present is Steam City, a fantastical city powered entirely by steam. The downside is that the constant clouds of steam allow all sorts of nefarious folks to roam the streets and evade the law. The only person who can stop their plans is Boy Detective Narutaki. With the help of Ling Ling the nurse, the sentient automaton Goriki, and his ever-present butler, Narutaki vows to clean up the streets of Steam City and find the answers to his own mysterious past.
Steam Detectives is the sort of retro pastiche that's very hard to pull off well. It's easy enough to slap some steampunk on a detective serial with a few robots for extra flavor and hope that it all comes together, but it could have easily turned into the comic equivalent of those bootleg nerd mash-up t-shirts you see at every convention. Despite the odds, Asamiya makes it work by keeping things simple.
This style of story evokes both old-school shonen manga and the detective serials of the 40s. It reminds me a lot of the 90s Batman series (and considering Asamiya's open love of American comics, I'd be surprised if it wasn't an influence). He doesn't do anything particularly original or deep with the characters: Narutaki is determined and brave, Ling Ling is spunky and sweet, and the villains are bombastic, scenery-chomping hams. Yet it all works because Asamiya writes it with sincerity and keeps the pace lively. Thanks to that approach, Steam Detectives is just plain fun. After reading this, I can start to see why he was such a beloved figure back in the 90s.
I don't think Asamiya's art has ever looked better. His flat, stiff faces may not work on something like Star Wars, but it absolutely works on a broad, cartoony style that evokes the glory days of 1960s shonen manga. His composition here is dramatic and atmospheric, what with the retro style, the lush shadows, and constant, rolling clouds of steam. That being said, part of me wonders if he leaned on that steam to cover up the fact that he's not that great at drawing action. He comes up with great action pieces - gunfights on top of railcars, robot brawls, and tense stand-offs - but there's no sense of flow between the panels and no sense of motion in the art. It's the biggest thing holding this manga back from greatness.
Steam Detectives has plenty of retro cool, but it can't quite overcome Asamiya's limitations as an artist. That being said, it's the most compelling work of his I've read thus far. If you're the sort of person who enjoyed works like Giant Robo or Metropolis, this might just get you steamed up with joy.
This series was published by Viz. This series is complete in Japan with 8 volumes available. All 8 have been published and are currently out of print.