For the next month or so, I'll be writing off and on about Masamune Shirow. I'll be posting reviews of his major work (Black Magic, Appleseed, Dominion, Orion and Ghost in the Shell), some opinions about his artistry and his approach to storytelling, and a few thoughts about the various movie and TV adaptations of Ghost in the Shell.
There's no better place to get started than the beginning...
Story and art by Masamune Shirow
Translation by Alan Gleason and Toren Smith
Lettering and retouch by L. Lois Buhalis
Black Magic is Shirow's first published work, a fan publication (doujin) from the days before he became a professional manga artist. It's quite obviously the work of someone with a great deal of talent and enthusiasm - and no practical experience.
In the world of Black Magic the people of Venus are governed by the powerful supercomputer Nemesis, who enforces its decisions with the aid of genetically-engineered "executors." When Zeus, the leader of the executors, attempts to seize power for himself, Nemesis unleshes the ultimate executor - Duna Typhon - to stop him once and for all. Sound familiar? It should. It's the same set-up as Appleseed - a government loosely modeled on Plato's Republic, run by "bioroids" who may no longer have the best interests of the human population at heart, and driven by internicene conflicts loosely based on Greek myth.
Black Magic is divided into three chapters, with a prologue and and epilogue. The prologue introduces Typhon and her rag-tag group of rebels. Of course, they don't actually figure in the next two chapters - "Bowman" is about a Zeus's operatives sabotaging an attempt to terraform Earth, and "Booby Trap" is about a special forces unit trying to stop a trio of ramping robots. Typhon finally steps out from the shadows in the final chapter, "City Light," where she tries (and fails) to prevent Zeus from sabotaging humanity's attempts to leave the solar system. Finally, the epilogue lets us know that everything ends happily - Zeus steps down, Typhon retires, and a year later everyone on Venus is wiped out by a nuclear war.
Maybe it's not that happy.
Black Magic is quite clearly the work of an amateur. The plot structure is weak - it feels like three unrelated short stories shoehorned into a framing sequence, rather than three stories in sequence. The dialogue is full of technobabble and grandiose philosophical posturing. The characters are poorly defined and wooden, and there's little in the way of character development. The beginning, ending, and all other plot twists come entirely out of left field.
One of Shirow's weaknesses as a writer is his tendency to hint rather than show. As a result, one frequently has to read between the lines to understand what's really going on. This can work well if the story is engaging on a surface level - casual readers can enjoy the explosions, while more serious-minded folk can be entertained by the philosophical underpinnings. Unfortunately, there's nothing to see between the lines of Black Magic - there's little insight into the Venusian system of government or the underlying philosophical problems that the Venusians face as a species. Furthermore, the surface level is totally uninteresting - a random string of pointless fight scenes and political posturing.
It's almost impossible to recognize the Masamune Shirow of today in Black Magic's art - the recognizeable aspect is his obsessively complicated mechanical designs. He's not a particularly accomplished draftsman or storyteller at this stage - the art here is serviceable, nothing more.
As a stand-alone work Black Magic fails to entertain. Appleseed readers might find it interesting, if only to see how some of Shirow's earliest ideas were later recycled into better material, but will still find the story lacking.
Black Magic M-66
In 1987 Shirow directed a straight-to-video adaptation of "Booby Trap." To simplify the story he snipped out all of the Venusian politics and added two cute girls for the M-66 to chase around town. Both definite improvements - but the y still couldn't shake the "low-budget Terminator" vibe that permeated the entire project. Do yourself a favor and leave this one on the shelf - rent a quality film like The Snakehead Terror instead.