Let’s start things off with a nice, friendly, out of context quote from our subject today,
So we’re back in action with another edition of Peril In Panels. This time around we aren’t talking North American comics, no sir (and/or madam). We’re taking a trip over to the tentacle-filled land of Japan to read some manga. Thankfully for everyone involved,
none of that (to my knowledge, at least) appears in any canon volumes of Black Lagoon
by Rei Hiroe. Some other things happen in the series, which you could argue are a lot worse/on par with being sexually assaulted by a Cephalopod. Like running into two remorseless killers, who were trained to do all manner of things for the simple amusement of their captors, then were unleashed onto the world to stalk to shadows and paint entire cities with crimson, making the wind stink of rust and gunpowder as they gleefully continue their wanton, unstoppable chaos. But before I get to any of that, I gotta drop some knowledge on you as if it were an anvil and your skull was Wile. E. Coyote
(“Super Genius”). Well bust out your comically small umbrellas and have a worried look on your face because this is one big ol’ anvil.
Those infamous words were spoken by Rokuro Okajima, as he became the man known as “Rock”, in his first foray into the the twilight of the criminal underworld in the series known as Black Lagoon. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves, oh Fake Unbelievers
(hey, if Stan Lee can have his lil’ fan nickname, I can to). We can’t really talk about him just yet, though we will eventually. First I’ve got to cram some more pertinent knowledge into your brain as if it were glass into an eye-socket. Man, I’m really teasing you guys with information this time around, huh? Weird that I did it twice in a row–oops, I should keep going, shouldn’t I?
Black Lagoon is an action-packed manga that was first published in Monthly Sunday Gene-X in 2002 and so far nine volumes have been collected, two of which I own
and others I’ve read in scan-form because I’m not made of money. But if I were made of mad stacks o’ cash, I’d probably use some of it to legally obtain the rest. And then probably do some other things that don’t need to be mentioned within the confines of this article (here’s a hint: giant golden effigy of myself flipping the bird would probably be the most sane thing I would do, which says a lot). The manga has also been adapted into an anime series which has garnered a lot of praise for its quality and even its English Dub version is considered one of the few truly perfect ones. If you get the opportunity to watch it I would highly recommend it. The over all story also focuses heavy into drama as it progresses, with the stakes of every plot raising exponentially every issue.
The plot of Black Lagoon is partially based around the lives of four characters in the Southeast Asian city of Roanapur, which may or may not be in Thailand but is at least near Thailand (it’s a bit confusing), set in the early to mid 90’s: the previously mentioned Rokuro “Rock” Okajima, former salaryman-turned-hostage-turned-employee of Lagoon Company (pirates/smugglers/mercenaries), his boss/former kidnapper Dutch, a tall, cool, possibly ex-military veteran who captains the PT boat Black Lagoon, an American nerd named Benny, who works as Lagoon Company’s resident tech-expert and last but certainly not least (because were this character real she’d MURDER ME), Revy. What’s the deal with Revy? Well, least just say Revy’s probably one of the more complex characters in the series. On the surface: A cold-blooded, booze-loving, ass-kicking, hyphen-in-her-description-needing gun-slinger. Underneath all that…well that’s all still very true but, well…let’s just say good ol’ Revy has some emotional issues that effect her character that
I don’t want to spoil because you all should be reading this manga. They mostly stem from her past, which I’ll talk about soon.
Roanapur is basically a very nasty place and I’m not just talking about the humidity. Though it is supposed to be very hot there. Its also full of murder, drugs and prostitution. And those’re the nicer aspects of the city. Roanapur’s home to all kinds of criminals and gangsters, all of whom are fairly stereotypical (Italian mobsters with slicked back hair, Chinese Triads in black suits, Russian ex-military, Columbian drug runners, etc.) but still well written, which is great because they play a major part in almost every goddamned story. Especially the few I’ll be talking about in this article. The main three you need to worry about are the Triad, run by the John Woo-inspired Mr. Chang and Hotel Moscow, run by the terrifying Ms. Balalaika, an ex-VDV Soviet Sniper, military leader and now crime boss and finally the Church of Violence (aka The Rip Off Church in the English version of the anime), run by the Mother Teresa-like Sister Yolanda (if MT packed a golden gun and smuggled illegal contraband while enjoying a nice cup of tea) with her underling Sister Eda (a possibly former CIA agent who is now a pretend nun).
Switching gears entirely, lets talk about the art and writing. Now, I’m not much of a manga reader myself. I don’t really have trouble with the top down, right to left reading or anything, that’s fairly simple to figure out and honestly can lead to some interesting art-choices in terms of character placement and layout. Sometimes I think certain manga artists draw way too similarly to each other, which is my main problem.
Not that North-American artists aren’t guilty of that. Oh, Grodd no. If anything those chumps are the originators of that disgusting, putrid, art-crime. It’s one thing to pay homage to artists you love. It’s another thing to completely ape a style just be popular.
Anyway, that previously mentioned problem I have comes from not reading enough manga to have a better feel for it, which I want to rectify. If anything manga is a home to some of my favourite of all time artists, like *Vagabond’s Takehiko Inoue. But art is really where this series shines in my opinion. Characters all seem to move in this great way that seems very natural, how an actual person would gesture and act. Rei Hiroe draws these characters with a sense of realism remaining stylized enough to keep things interesting, and loves adding as much detail to backgrounds and objects (specially guns) as possible. Honestly, Rei’s real calling was drawing guns. I’m no munitions-expert but even I can tell these death-machines were painstakingly researched and referenced to ground the series in reality with near obsessive levels of effort. Not that the series doesn’t go pants-crappingly insane from time to time. Don’t believe me? Read any canon story, because they are all chock full of it. And when mister Hiroe decides to do something non-canon and funny, like Black Lagoon: The High School Episode, or the Magical Girl Episode the dude goes all out. He keeps the art realistic, but goes absolutely bonkers content wise.
Taking characters and dressing them as teens, drawing them as the opposite gender,
the aforementioned Magical Girl episode that ends in an already ridiculous character who normally dresses as a maid (armed tons of guns who can break knives with her teeth) popping-in even more ridiculously dressed as a Magical Cat Maid for no reason.
And unlike all the things he’s poking fun at, he’s actually found a way to make those tropes great. Hiroe has a good time with his art and you really need to come along for the ride with the rest of us nerds.
Also the series has a lot of male fan-service which is…whatever, honestly. Take it or leave it. I mean, I’ve seen worse (WAAAAY WORSE, lemme tell ya, from all over the place) and it’s not a detraction from the story so I give it a pass. I think Hiroe just likes drawing attractive ladies killing people. Although, really his thing seems more murder than pretty ladies but hey, to each their own. Were it any more…blatant, I think, then I’d have
a problem with it. But it’s not like Revy (or any other important character of any gender) is constantly put in sexual poses, or that overt sexual imagery is in every panel so I’d say it gets a pass. This book is probably better than certain North American comics that will not be mentioned (*cough*anyMARVELorDCbookdonebyJimLee*cough*). When it happens, it happens and honestly I didn’t even notice until I begin rereading for the article. Though to be fair it still happens, so if you don’t can’t stand that kind of thing at all I wouldn’t blame you for being displeased with it. It’s not cool and comics in general are unfortunately full of it sometimes.
*Whew*. That was a lot to say there. Got off on a tangent.
Writing-wise it’s a mirror image of the art. Grounded in realism but with just enough crazy bullshit to make you come back for more, which is a common theme in stuff that I like. Remember how I described the character Revy as having this surface layer that was
a badass that hid her actual emotional problems while still being her real self? Yeah, that’s pretty much every character. It’s not so much that they hide behind their surfaces because they’re weak inside and don’t want anyone to know nor do they want to deal with said weakness. It’s that they only show parts of themselves to get by day to day. There’s a real feeling of almost hopelessness to certain characters. As if they gave up long ago and you’re just seeing them after years of not giving a damn. Not that they couldn’t ever fix their problems or grow and change…just that they’re in a cycle, constantly spinning. And this rotation is difficult to break off from. Revy did not have a fun childhood, growing up a Chinese-American raised in Manhattan as a poor street-rat. You don’t become one of the most fearsome killers without taking on a lot of baggage. In fact, you don’t become an interesting character in Black Lagoon at all without some kind of baggage. But that doesn’t mean every character is like that, or that its all tragic pasts. The most tragic thing that happened to Rock is that his family doesn’t like him because he’s not as acedemically smart as his brother and he had to live the shit-life of a salaryman, being abused constantly by his superiors. In comparison, Rock had the easier life but still has his own issues (The previous links are the main part of a great scene with Revy and Rock arguing their respective points of view). These characters are like real people, some are almost completely broken inside and the difference is that some embrace their shattered souls while others try to hold together. Some, like Rock, are in-between. Unsure of how they fit into things while still trying to do so without being tainted by the darkness whether that’s possible or not. Others, like Revy, try to hold it together while appearing completely broken, embracing their faults. Even to themselves. Ms. Balalaika has no qualms over what she is: a soldier without a country, leading her troops as best she can. Nor do Dutch or Benny. And when you place these characters in situations like smuggling contraband, city-wide manhunts and such, they really transform from what would be terrible **cliches into well-rounded fictional people. All of this really ties in to the series mentioning existentialism quite a bit, specifically the works of Jean-Paul Sartre. Also the concept of morality is a heavy topic of discussion among these criminals.
Anyways, enough salivating over how great Rei Hiroe’s overall work is (for now).
You freaks and geeks want something scary, right? You want blood covered, viscera-seeking mutilators with dark, vile souls and shrunken, corrupted hearts that crave violence and pain? Well, Black Lagoon has you covered (in gore) with today’s subjects. I humbly introduce a pair of serial killers that I hope never find a way to enter the realm of reality: Hansel and Gretel.
Yup, you read that right. These two are called Hansel and Gretel, after the oh-so happy German fairy-tale about kids being left to die alone that eventually kill a witch/are eaten, depending on the author(s?) mood at time of writing. That isn’t their real names, of course. That’s never given out and isn’t important. It’s just what their called (along with The Twins). What’s important is what they do. And what they do can be summed up in
a few, nasty words: incest, torture and murder. Oh, and they’re children. Did I mention that? Yeah, I’m not describing adults here. These little Romanian kids are orphans who were sold into the black market after the orphanages were closed down, then were forced to act in pedophiliac snuff films by their captors and had to watch other children be murdered when they weren’t forced to do it themselves. The two are essentially reborn in the dark, their minds breaking as they’re forced to accept the evil around them as normal, even growing to love it over time. Eventually they began to work as killers for hire, the only thing they had left was each other, and even that relationship is messed up.
These otherwise adorable, fairly polite, ghostly pale munchkins dress in full gothic regalia, with whichever one of them is Gretel looking like a creepy Lolita the entire time.
Oh, that line probably threw you off right? “Whichever one of them is Gretel?”
Lemme explain. It isn’t so much that I don’t know which one is which because they’re drawn similarly. No, its that the two of them suffer from a lovely mental condition brought on by their upbringing in that they switch between personalities from time to time (sometimes just for fun, in a “And now you be Sister and I’ll be Brother” kind of way).
So, it isn’t always the girl being Gretel and the boy being Hansel. Hansel and Gretel are masks these two swap in and out of, not only mentally but appearance-wise as they put on a wig or switch clothes, even taking on different weapons (Hansel favours axes while Gretel carries an automatic rifle bigger than she is, with a lil’ doll tied to it). They even begin talking differently, as well as perfectly switching tasks and mannerisms. By that last one I mean that whomever is Hansel at the time will be acting boldly and be relegated to “boy jobs” (aka lifting a heavy corpse with no help) while the other, in the Gretel personality, will act very feminine and kind of demure. All of this is incredibly unnerving to readers, which adds greatly to the story as you really fear and kind of pity these characters. They are like amped up versions of real murderers with their own unique personality ticks. They are on that same kind of level that only a serial killer has.
They want to kill because they need to kill and they need to because they want to because they don’t understand anything else anymore. At one point one of them mentions how they believe they’ll live forever because they’ve killed so many people. As if the blood of others is the secret to immortality. That’s how broken they are, that is how monstrous they’ve become. Tried and true killers and they aren’t even teenagers yet.
The story these two are introduced in called “Bloodsport Fairy tale: Part 1” and is found in the second volume of the collected Black Lagoon books an ends in the third collected volume. The basic plot of the story is that someone has called in the Twins to Roanapur, where they immediately begin to horribly murder mobsters from various crime syndicates. Very quickly the four heads of the biggest organizations, including Hotel Moscow’s
Ms. Balalaika and the Triad’s Mr. Chang meet and put a huge, open bounty on the head of the killers while also saying that whomever first introduced the new element into Roanapur will be dealt with. And I do not mean a stern slap on the wrists. I mean they will die terribly. And slowly, as well. Ms. Balalaika vows that her men will not rest until they’ve killed the two. The Twins rebel against the person who hired them (whom I shall not name, for obvious reasons) and…well, they go nuts. Crazygonuts, to quote the rambling wreck of e-mail check, Strong Bad. The Twins say they’ll kill anyone in their way and especially want to kill Ms.Balalaika, as she and her men were their original targets
and now their biggest pursuers because of their actions towards one of her loyal soldiers involving a hammer, some nails and his nervous system. The bounty draws out all the criminals in town looking to cash in. While Rock, Revy and the rest of Lagoon Company try to avoid getting involved as the risk is too high they are eventually dragged in by Sister Eda, who we see for the first time in civilian/non-nun habit clothes. She thinks the bounty is easy-pickings and wants to team up with Revy to get the quick score before anyone else. She is wrong about the difficultly level of this bounty, of course. Very, very wrong.
So yeah, that’s the basic, non-spoilery plot. Twins get called in, things go downhill from there and really the series takes a turn at this point from grim to straight up dark.
Don’t get me wrong, the stories were always dark but the series overall seems to slowly grow even more so after this point. For every character as well, not just the main four previously mentioned. Everybody seems to become more and more intertwined with the underworld. Whether they want to or not.
Now, just like last time I’m gonna end on some choice scans from Black Lagoon,
focusing mainly on the first volume and then the beginning of Bloodsport Fairy Tale because those are the actual books I have access to. Enjoy, ya freaks.
So yeah, that was Black Lagoon and the Twins, Hansel and Gretel. They aren’t around long but they sure leave an impact with everything they end up causing. Mainly on the skull of the guy they pounded nails into but hey, whatever works. I hope you enjoyed this look at serial killers. They’ll be more to come in the future
So you freaks next time and remember, as always, keep it monstrous!
– J. Kruschack
*Vagabond is also really good, you should read it. No monsters, unless you consider really good samurais monsters. But then you’d have an odd definition of monster I’d want you to elaborate on.
**Not that this series avoids cliches, mind you.
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Read the first instalment to Peril in Panels here!