Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Cobraby Jason Thompson, Nov 11th 2010
Episode XVIII: Cobra
"Some people think I'm a poisonous snake. And jerks at the galaxy patrol call me a criminal. Women, especially gorgeous ones, just call me the pirate Cobra."
Buichi Terasawa, like Masakazu Katsura, is a manga artist whose fame rests partially on drawing ass shots.* In his comics, chairs are always warm and cold breezes never drift across the floor, at least judging from the clothes of his female characters, who almost always wear G-strings regardless whether they are good or evil, aliens or androids.
But of course, an artist who could only draw butt shots would be a mere pinup artist, not a mangaka. Buichi Terasawa (aka "the Booch") is indeed a mangaka, and one with style. For starters, he used to be an assistant to Osamu Tezuka. Whereas Tezuka always wore a beret, Terasawa is known for always wearing all-black clothes and sunglasses. Terasawa is also known for his personal oeuvre (or limited range, whatever). All his manga—Midnight Eye Goku, Kabuto, Bat, etc.—share two essential things: (1) statuesque women with minimal underwear and (2) a roguish, smiling hero with long curly hair and an eye for thongs. And if, as Joseph Campbell might put it, there is only one hero with a thousand faces, then Terasawa's hero (and probably self-insertion character, judging from the photos that come up on a google imagesearch for "Buichi Terasawa") is the hero of his first manga, perhaps the hero of all his manga, Cobra.
In English translations, it has been titled Cobra the Psychogun and Space Adventure Cobra. The first run of Cobra appeared in Weekly Shônen Jump from 1977 to 1984. Unlike today, when the average shonen manga hero looks like an 14-year-old girl, it was a time when the bestselling shonen manga heroes looked like 28-year-old men with enormous eyebrows (Ryo from City Hunter, Kenshiro from First of the North Star, etc.). "Western," "hard-boiled" styles had a substantial following in that era, and despite Terasawa's time with Tezuka, his comics show a massive influence from Western comics, movies and art. His panel layouts are more Western than Japanese, with generally squarish panels and simple layouts. In interviews he talks about James Bonda and Dirty Harry. His work never had a huge following in America (perhaps because Americans already have American-looking comics), but it was very popular in France, perhaps not surprising considering that France was the birthplace of Jean-Claude Forest's science fiction comic heroine Barbarella and the 1968 film based on it, which is one of Terasawa's favorite films. France was also the birthplace of Metal Hurlant, the sex-and-science-fiction comic magazine which was imported to the U.S. as Heavy Metal. Yes, House of 1000 Manga readers; we're back in the '80s again.
Cobra starts out eerily similar to the movie Total Recall, which came out 13 years later. (Perhaps Terasawa had read "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," the 1966 Philip K. Dick story which inspired the film.) Johnson is a burned-out salaryman in a far-future city, who's sick of being woken up every day by his robot maid and going to the same boring job. Tired of his dull life, he goes to the "Dream Merchants," a company which implants false memories of imaginary adventures into people's minds. ("I know what I want. I'd like to be the King of Harlem, surrounded by luscious, oversexed women! I also want to be the commander of a space-soaring battlestar fighting monsters even a superman couldn't beat!") After a dream of being a handsome space pirate, he goes back to his ordinary life, only to recognize a man in the street as a pirate from his dream. When the confused Johnson accidentally reveals what he knows, he discovers that the man really is a pirate, and he finds himself wanted by the dreaded pirate guild!
Suddenly, the memories come flooding back. Johnson was really the infamous space pirate Cobra, who had his memories erased and got plastic surgery (mostly on his nose, apparently) in order to live a safe, normal life. Cobra is gifted with unbelievable strength and reflexes (but in a "greatest human who ever lived" way, not a "mutant alien freak" way). Beneath the fake skin of one of his arms is a powerful cybernetic weapon, the Psychogun, which can blow holes in just about anything! (Ahh, shonen manga heroes and their transforming arms!) His sidekick is Lady, aka "Armaroid Lady," a masked but distinctly feminine-looking ninja-esque robot, the sort of sexdroid Hajime Sorayama might have drawn. His faithful ship is the Turtle, the kind of crummy space tub that makes the Millennium Falcon look like the classiest ship on the planet. And his most faithful companion, before even Lady, are his cigars, which he is continually smoking, even in scenes when he is underwater. (I'd like to see that in a shonen manga nowadays, incidentally. In Viz's edition of Hikaru no Go, even the bad guys' cigarettes were changed to chewing gum.)
With the luck of the gods, the grunge of Han Solo, the devil-may-care attitude of James Bond, and the so-awful-they're-not-even-funny-in-an-ironic-way lines of the galaxy's worst pick-up artist ("My help…? I'm sorry, but I'm on vacation now. Unless you need help with your back-zipper"), Cobra is off on his adventures! He saunters into bars and orders milk and gets into fights with aliens. He gets sent to a prison where the hapless prisoners (except for Cobra, of course) are beaten to a pulp by Amazonian cyborg wardens. He tangles with Crystal Boy, a space pirate cyborg with metal bones inside his translucent outer skin, his first major adversary. And he goes in search of the lost treasure of the space pirate Nelson, whose location is tattooed onto a map on the backs of Nelson's three hot daughters.
There are little self-contained story arcs, but Cobra is not the kind of manga character whose adventures have a middle and an end. After the Cobra manga ended in Shonen Jump, Terasawa kept coming back to it, and he has drawn a zillion Cobra one-shots in the decades since. Cobra is always on the run through a universe of weird sights, of strange technology and Star Wars ships and alien monsters and most of all, women. Cobra himself is the only attractive human male in the manga; everyone else is either a robot, a goofy alien with a dog head or lizard head, or a beautiful woman. All Terasawa's women have pretty much the same physique, which to his credit, is at least a realistic physique and not some moe jailbait or grotesque bakunyu explosion. Terasawa is a good, if stiff, figure artist. Cobra encounters four-armed swordswomen, snake women, women with fishbowls for breasts (Cobra: "Hi, you have cool breasts"). Some are good, some are evil. The good ones tend to get killed off, like James Bond's ladies, although Cobra does have a few continuing companions, such as Jane Royal, bounty hunter. It was Terasawa's Midnight Eye Goku which featured the cyborg woman with motorcycle handlebars on her shoulders, but she would have fit right in in the Cobra universe.
Yet to his and Terasawa's credit, Goku treats the manga's shameless female eye candy with remarkable self-restraint for a shonen manga hero of the period, never stooping to "accidental" breast-groping or panty-peeking or any of the stuff that, say, City Hunter did. (In fact, the manga is downright chaste; he doesn't even really have sex with anyone in his entire gynocentric galaxy, at least not onscreen. Shonen manga still has its restrictions, forcing Cobra to sublimate all his sexuality into Psychoguns and cigars.) Despite his terrible pick-up lines and the fact that women are always dying around him (it's not his fault, really!), it's hard to escape the conclusion that by '80s shonen manga standards, Cobra is a gentleman. Maybe even…cool. But he is undeniably odd-looking. The closest thing to him in manga I can think of is, strangely, the equally long-jawed and fluffy-blonde-haired leads of the proto-Boys Love manga From Eroica with Love. The connection isn't as strange as it seems, since in addition to both manga being products of the '70s when big hair was king, Terasawa drew shojo manga before he moved on to drawing Cobra.
Terasawa revealed his shojo past in a 1996 interview in Animerica magazine, later reprinted in the out-of-print book Anime Interviews:
ANIMERICA (Takayuki Karahashi): Can you tell us more about this first manga?
TERASAWA: I was submitting work for a year or so, and I must have drawn twenty or thirty stories. They were all shojo.…they were all science fiction.
ANIMERICA: So they were science fiction and shojo manga and had roses all over?
TERASAWA: Yes, there were roses. I drew roses…I went out to buy a photo book on roses and used it for reference. (laughs) It was shojo manga, after all, but it was still my work, which meant that even back then, I had female characters wearing G-strings.
In the flashbacks to Cobra's life before he changed his identity, he looks even more bishonen, without the big nose and wisecracking expressions. In other words, Cobra is a parody not just of Western action heroes and Star Wars, but of '70s shojo science fiction and its handsome heroes. Before his amnesia, Cobra was a serious, seductive, beautiful space pirate; now, for the duration of the manga, he is a goofball. It all follows the ancient formula for shonen manga success (Onizuka in GTO, Ryo in City Hunter, Dark Schneider in Bastard!!…): the main character must be both an awesome hero AND a juvenile goof-off.
Viz published part of Cobra in 1990. The Viz edition of Cobra lasted for 12 comic issues—a decent chunk of story—but wasn't very successful, and it was never even collected in a graphic novel. (Though remember, in France, the series was a huge hit: in the same Animerica interview Terasawa said, "The French are big on derrieres. I have many derriere photo references of French models in my reference library.")
But those who want to read Cobra are in luck; the series has recently been released for the iPhone by the cellphone manga company NTT Solmare on the iTunes store. However, while the out-of-print VIZ edition contained the original Shonen Jump storyline, the NTT Solmare edition consists of standalone stories created by Terasawa later in his career. Terasawa's manga output dropped after Cobra, partially because Terasawa started working less in mainstream manga magazines and began working in color and lavishing more attention on his art. This artistic shift put Terasawa more in line with Western comics than with manga, which to this day has an emphasis on pumping out lots and lots of B&W pages, rather than publishing in color in high quality editions. Terasawa was also an early fan of computer graphics and "interactive manga," such as the English-translated CD-ROM Takeru: Letter of the Law. So in a way, seeing his work on the iPhone, broken into chunks so that you read the panels one at a time, is natural. With its primary-colored characters and 3D-rendered backgrounds, Cobra looks good in color. It's overdone, over-Photoshopped and very 1990s, but it works, transporting us to alien dive bars and casinos that are a rainbow of color and light.
Unfortunately, unlike the VIZ edition, which was rewritten into English by former Marvel Comics writer (and Blade: Vampire Hunter creator) Marv Wolfman, the NTT Solmare stories have some pretty awful translations. This is the official iTunes store description of one of the Cobra "digests," the free apps which contain a tiny number of sample pages of Cobra:
"COBRA is a space pirate with psyco (sic) gun in his left arm and sidekick lady type armaroid named LADY. This is a very popular SF hardboiled action story which is written in American comic style. The enchantment of the story is the sexy drawing of women and the strange world of SF."
The NTT Solmare apps also have other problems, such as an annoying and confusing in-app-purchase interface. The apps which contain an actual story's worth of material cost $2.99 each, but some of the app descriptions promise more manga than the app itself seems to contain, and I wasn't sure if I was supposed to pay more money to order more content in-app, or what. The material in the digests didn't seem to relate to the material in the full apps. Try it at your own risk.
But there are some good stories there. One of the best is "Legend of Mandrad," a crazy tale which begins when Cobra is blackmailed into working for Elizabeth Tucker, an evil rich woman who rides a luxury car through outer space. Her left eye has the power to suck people inside it ("my eye is a virtual prison!"), so to save his lady friend from an eternity in Tucker's eye, Cobra must help her on her search for the Mandrad, "the face plant," a flower that looks like a human face with precious diamond teeth. Cobra is assigned to a team with Ear, Eye and Nose, three aliens who each have super-sensory abilities. On a gloomy swamp planet, they go in search of the legendary flower, but they are soon picked off by flying piranhas ("Oh no! Jet piranhas!"), man-eating bugs and other creepy things.
In "Gold and Diamond," a bonus story in the paid version of the "Legend of Mandrad" app, Cobra finds himself in a sci-fi Wild West tale, trying to rob a robo-stagecoach and getting arrested by a lady army officer (whose uniform, of course, is basically bare-assed). In "On the Battlefield," Cobra finds himself stranded on a war-torn planet and must team up with a motley crew of alien soldiers (and of course, one hot girl) to survive. Can they cross the deadly desert? And could there be a traitor among them? The least interesting story in the initial apps is "Thunderbolt Star," a simple tale in which Cobra goes to a space casino where he befriends a bunny-girl hostess and fights "Hammer Bolt Joe," a pirate leader with detachable flying hand missiles, on a giant roulette machine. But even that is pure Cobra: a story which would have been amazing as a Batman plot in the 1960s, but today is simply funky and dated and sort of sexist but too ridiculous to be offensive.
Is Cobra good? Well, it is how I've described it. It's a significant piece of manga history. It's more fun to read than Japan Inc. For those who like strange manga artifacts with Western-looking women in thongs… for those who like goofy space aliens and daredevil escapes and cigar-smoking heroes… and for those who want to peer inside the soul of a mangaka whose heart may always be in 1968, watching Barbarella as a 13-year-old boy… Cobra is your manga. Prepare to have your eyes blown out the back of your head from color overload. Or from the asses.
*Don't get me wrong. I love Masakazu Katsura. I'll write about him later.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.
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