Mars. The humans who colonized the red planet, are at war. Two children, Yoko, a dark-haired little cyborg girl and blonde-haired Erica Wald, are rescued from the carnage by kindly Dr Finch and taken to an orphanage. There they fall under the sway of Ninon Silber, a charismatic young girl who dreams of being the Queen of Mars. Ninon is not kind to Yoko and her adoring little entourage follow her example in bullying the little cyborg– but the would-be Queen of Mars takes a liking to the optimistic Erica and tells her she will be her personal servant. However unscrupulous hunters are out searching for Yoko and the warring forces are drawing nearer. Soon the orphanage is at the heart of a brutal attack. Will Yoko and Erica and the other girls find a way to escape? And who is attacking the pillars that support the baldachin, the protective canopy/biodome that makes it possible for humans to survive?
Way back in 1990, mangaka Yukito Kishiro created Gunnm, a post-apocalyptic future manga set on Mars, whose central character Alita, is an amnesiac female cyborg rescued from a garbage heap and rebuilt by a cybernetics doctor. The first nine-volume series was issued in the West as Battle Angel Alita and Kishiro has continued to tell Alita’s story ever since. Here in Mars Chronicle, he’s gone back in time to fill in some of the missing fragments of her early life. It’s also said to be the ‘final chapter’ so Kishiro must be aiming to draw a line underneath this many-volumed saga that he’s been working on for nearly thirty years. Skipping swiftly over the name changes made for the various US versions (not least, Alita’s name is Gally in the original) it’s good to see Kodansha bringing out the prequel at the same time as their hardcover deluxe editions of the original. The translator, Stephen Paul, offers a fluent and effective English version.
The apocalyptic nightmare of future Mars is brought vividly to life once more by Kishiro in Mars Chronicle. His vision of future Mars uses many German names: Alt Neun, Priesterin, Heuschreken (which are all helpfully explained in the translation notes at the back) which can’t help but evoke echoes of the last world war – but the images of displaced refugees trekking away from devastating military conflict resonate just as much with what’s happening on earth today. (Was it not Margaret Atwood who recently said, “In science fiction it’s always about now. What else could it be about?”) Kishiro’s distinctive graphic style, well-constructed world and (not so) futuristic military paraphernalia help to tell a powerful story. (Check out his range as an artist by looking at the panel ‘Die Königin von Mars’ in the free extract from Kodansha below.) His experience as a mangaka shows in the way he uses double-page images at significant moments, as well as zoom-in close-ups and stark contrasts of dark shading and light; it’s a very cinematic way of conveying the action. Which leads me to…
Most anime and manga fans have been aware for some while of James Cameron’s upcoming live-action project Battle Angel, currently rumoured to be due out in December 2018, so it’s no surprise, really, that Kodansha Comics run a quote from the famous director on the back of this volume: “Just a great, kick-ass story.” Hmm. Kishiro is certainly a skilled story-teller, involving the reader from the very first panels and conveying Yoko and Erica’s tale as only an experienced graphic novelist can, with great economy: every image counts and moves the story on. What matters most here, though, is that this story is about the terrible toll that war takes on the innocent. There’s no female warrior cyborg doing any ass-kicking in this prequel but there’s heroism and heartbreak a-plenty.
Battle Angel Alita: Mars Chronicle has obvious appeal to all Alita fans as it delivers a fascinating revelation of her early life. Told in a gritty but compelling way, this dystopian SF tale of the red planet makes a great page-turner that will also appeal to readers who are new to the series.
Read more about Battle Angel Alita at Kodansha’s site here.
And read the first chapter here.