Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Golgo 13
by Jason Thompson, Mar 1st 2012
Episode XCVII: Golgo 13
Carl Gustav Horn owns Golgo 13 underwear and smokes Parliament cigarettes because it's the brand Golgo smokes. This should be more than enough proof that he was the perfect editor for Viz's 13-volume edition of Golgo 13, collecting 26 of Takao Saito's more than 500 stories of the mercenary super-sniper that have been running in Japan since 1968. The ultimate assassin, a man who (almost) never misses, "perfect machine of snipe", the manliest man alive, also known as Duke Togo, a silent killer whose favorite words are "…", Golgo is one of the most iconic manga characters ever made. His massive eyebrows, massive sideburns and (almost) permanent scowl are more recognizable in Japan than Goku's hair or Luffy's straw hat. His origin is a mystery, he has no friends and no clear motivations, but everyone knows what he does: he does his job. Like Batman, he looks pretty good for a man who must be at least 70 years old.
A lot of people discovered Golgo through the 2008-2009 anime series; others, through the live-action movies. I discovered Golgo through the 1988 US release of Vic Tokai's Golgo 13 video game for the NES. At the time, I had no idea that Golgo was a comic book character, but for a 14-year-old boy at a time when the sexiest thing in video games was Samus Aran wearing a bikini, it was mind-blowing to see the almost uncensored cutscenes in which Golgo sleeps with sexy women in Berlin to get his life meter back. (More on this later.) The relatively brutal killings were also shocking. Who was this dude, I wondered? Later, I saw VIZ's first edition of Golgo 13, the three-issue story "The Argentine Tiger" translated in 1991. In this story (SPOILER ALERT), Golgo is hired by the British to assassinate an Argentinian politician. Along the way, he is helped by a beautiful Argentinian woman who, not knowing he's a killer, takes him in when he's in trouble. In the ending, after he gets his target, he realizes that his benefactress is the only person who might be able to identify him…so he shoots her. Blam. And gets away. In a lot of Golgo stories his mission happens to serve some greater good, like when he stops Saddam Hussein from firing a giant WMD at the White House (in Viz Volume 1) or helps Nelson Mandela defeat violent ethnic separatists in South Africa (in Viz Volume 3), but as far as stories which show that Golgo 13 is an ice cold killer most definitely without a heart of gold, they couldn't have chosen a better one.
That's the thing: Golgo has no morals, or if he does have something like them, it's just a killer's honor buried way deep down. He doesn't serve a nation, like most super-spy or black ops characters; even his exact ethnicity is unclear. Like Ogami Itto in Lone Wolf and Cub (which came out later, although it's said that Kazuo Koike worked with Takao Saito develop Golgo in the first place), he's more a killing machine than a human being; but unlike Itto, he doesn't have an infant kid tagging along, and he doesn't have a background, an origin story, a wrong to avenge. (In several different stories, characters think they've discovered Golgo's origin story, but the story always ends on a note of doubt.) He's simply so good with a sniper rifle, it's Zen. At one point he even meditates and actually achieves Zen, or at least Samadhi. When he has his specially modified M16 (actually, the M16's not the best sniper rifle in real life, but it was a new, cool gun when Saito started the manga), he can shoot an orbital satellite out of the atmosphere. He can deflect a bullet off the surface of the water and hit a target. He can shoot a man through the cockpit of a plane, half a mile up, while he's on the ground. He can see the faint glint of someone watching him from a kilometer away, spin around and shoot them. HE CAN DO ANYTHING WITH A GUN. Not that he has some fancy-pants "I only kill people with my gun" code of honor or anything—he can kill people with his bare hands, too. You almost have to pity the terrorist who, after seeing Golgo kill 20 men with a knife, tells his men "This man's deadly at close quarters! Don't go anywhere near him!" For those who really know who Golgo 13 is, just knowing he's coming for you might be enough to drive you into wigged-out, just-commit-suicide madness. The CIA, the KGB, mafia bosses, voodoo sorcerers, terrorists Nazis and ex-Nazis and Neo-Nazis (lots of Nazis)—Golgo kills them all. Golgo 13 isn't about wondering if Golgo will do his job, it's about wondering how he'll do his job. But still, there's some interesting twists, like the businessman in "A Fierce Southern Current" (Viz Volume 3) who comes up with a way to disable Golgo without firing a shot.
Carl, together with the Japanese editorial staff (the ones who gave him the underwear and insisted that he be the editor of the series), chose the 26 stories in the Viz edition. There's no overarching plot in Golgo 13—almost every story is self-contained—so reading them out of order is no problem. In each volume, one of the stories is a classic noir 1970s story from the early Golgo 13 period, with sideburns and sexy women and bellbottoms and backstabbing and so on. The other story is a more recent story about topical, political events, because Golgo is secretly involved behind the scenes of most major world events. The death of Princess Diana, for instance (in Viz Volume 4). The 2000 US Presidential Recount (in Viz Volume 13). The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many times. The disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. Golgo is always there, sometimes working for one side, sometimes for the other.
"He's a contract killer, a professional sniper," someone says about Golgo. "He's not interested in race, politics, ideology…only money." But Takao Saito is definitely interested in race, politics and ideology. Some people complain about the fact that Golgo himself has no obvious goals or personality, but the truth is that Golgo is simply a weapon, and most of his stories are really about the people who hire him, and the geopolitical and historical conflicts that Golgo gets involved in. For instance, the Tiananmen square massacre of 1989 (in Viz volume 2), one of Carl's favorite stories. (From an Otaku USA interview: "One Golgo 13 story I felt strongly about was "The Deaths of June 3rd"…When I was eighteen, my cultural heroes were Japanese, but my political heroes were Chinese—during the spring of 1989, the entire world looked towards Beijing with admiration, as a symbol of courage and ideals—something that, sadly, seems very hard to believe today. Considering the tragedy, "The Deaths of June 3rd" is a surprisingly nuanced look at the issues, including the complex historical relationship of Tibet to China, and the moral question of Buddhist non-violence in a world of tank columns, and, of course, of assassins.") Or the time (in Viz volume 12) when Golgo takes methoxsalen (like the author of the 1961 book Black Like Me) to pass as an African-American so he can hide out under the protection of the Black Panthers and kill a racist policeman. Or the time when he saves the Pope (in Viz volume 6), or the time when his path crosses Mao Zedong's (sadly not translated), or a thousand other headline-news incidents.
Of course, there is crazy, sci-fi, super-spy stuff too, like when Golgo matches wits against a Russian telepath (Viz volume 8). The anime TV series includes the story when Golgo fights Armored Suit SDR2 (a US military mecha), but not the 1993 story when Golgo matches wits against an artificial intelligence named Jesus—appropriately, because Golgo's symbol is a skeleton with a crown of thorns and his codename comes from after Golgotha, the place where Christ died. (Ahh, manga, I love how you squeeze blasphemy in everywhere.) But even Golgo's weirdest adventures are thoroughly researched, thanks to Takao Saito's hired researchers and fact-checkers: the plot about Saddam Hussein's supergun which can fire a shell into the White House from Iraq seems ridiculous, but it's actually based on a real story. Golgo 13 has tackled almost every imaginable topical subject, including a story about a manga artist (in which Saito proved incapable of drawing the artist's 'moe' artstyle) to a 1989 story when European politicians secretly gather in a room and play a role-playing game, with 10-sided dice, to simulate the future of Europe. Golgo, of course, is a hireling.
Over the years, out of the 500+ stories, a tiny handful of Golgo stories have not been reprinted because they were considered offensive or libelous. Story 237, from 1986, was set in Iran and featured a plot in which the Iranian government makes a duplicate of the Ayatollah Khomeini so people don't realize the real Khomeini is a decrepit wreck. Apparently the Iranian Embassy in Japan complained about the manga. Story 245, also from 1986, is about a prisoner swap between the PLO and the Israeli government; I don't know why it, specifically, wasn't reprinted, but I can guess. Story 266, "Vatican Set" from 1988, involves a corrupt bishop and money laundering in the Vatican. Sôkan ("Extra Story") 32, from 1993, about an ex-Nazi doctor, includes an image of Golgo in a Nazi uniform. Lastly, Sôkan ("Extra Story") 20, from 1989, involves a Hollywood actor, "Hack Robson", who's blackmailed when someone discovers he's got AIDS. Considering the many obvious caricatures of Bill Clinton, George Bush and other figures who've appeared in Golgo, it seems odd that this story was singled out, but maybe it was because of the story's attitudes towards AIDS, and the sex.
Speaking of the sex, Golgo's adventures also include a lot of sex with the ladies. Random sex with beautiful women (well…as beautiful as Saito can draw them) is part of the Golgo experience, although it's not quite as big a part as people seem to think it is, perhaps because they've played the NES game or seen the cover art for the Urban Vision release of Golgo 13: Queen Bee. (I mean, he doesn't get it on in EVERY story, like James Bond. Compared to the original James Bond in Ian Fleming's novels, Golgo is a gentleman.) In volume 6 of Viz's edition of Golgo 13, there is a bonus file explaining Golgo's sexual abilities: it contains the words "at any rate, an amazing penis." One reviewer on Amazon complained "Golgo has the same look on his face when he's killing a person and when he's having sex! It never changes! The fact that he shows no human emotion makes him one of the most uninteresting characters I have ever seen!" Well, maybe Golgo just WANTS you to think he's uninteresting, did you ever consider that? Wouldn't that be a good trait in an assassin? Or perhaps he's like Ice Cold in Fear of a Black Hat, who doesn't want to smile in bed because it would make him seem uncool to the ladies (except when he's having sex doggy style, in which case "you can make all kinds of funny faces." Saito missed an opportunity here).
Although Takao Saito (1936-), the creator of Golgo 13, wrote an untranslated autobiography in 2010, American readers probably know him best as a manga character: he's one of the secondary characters in Yoshihiro Tatsumi's autobio manga A Drifting Life. Teenage Saito was working at the family barbershop in 1955 and drawing in his spare time when his debut manga, Baron Air, was an unexpected hit. He moved to Tokyo and became friends with Tatsumi, who introduced him to the work of hard-boiled crime writer Mickey Spillane. They worked together on Kage ("Shadow"), a detective manga anthology which was one of the prototypes of gekiga (adult dramatic manga). But Saito soon moved out of anthologies and created his own bestselling detective character, Typhoon Goro (1958-1962). His knack for guns, action and mystery got him jobs drawing the manga adaptations of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.and four of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels. He drew period pieces, too; his samurai manga Muyonosuke came very close to being the first manga published in English, when an American publisher (Saito didn't say which publisher) made an offer on it in the 1960s. Saito declined their offer because their pay was too low.
Tatsumi depicts Saito as a nice guy but also a savvy businessman; in 1960, at a time when lone artists were regularly exploited by shady publishers, he set up one of the first manga studios, Saito Pro. "We can't keep operating the Gekiga Workshop as just a group of friends loosely working together. We need to implement a real business model and system!" Saito tells Tatsumi in A Drifting Life. "He sure is good at self-promotion," Tatsumi thinks. At Saito Pro, all the work was divided up, almost like the Western comics system with scripters, pencillers and inkers: Saito employed background artists, people to draw weapons and machinery, people to do research, people to come up with stories. The rapid growth of the manga industry, and particularly the appearance of the first weekly manga magazines in 1959, had created a market where most mangaka in the big markets couldn't draw everything themselves anymore. "Pure manga someone can make themselves, but not gekiga. It's like making a movie!" Saito said proudly. To some comic artists who pride themselves on being able to do it all, the idea of openly boasting about all the people who work for you is a little strange, but Saito's just got a different attitude; and at least he actually lists the staff of Saito Pro, unlike some artists who don't reveal who their assistants are.
Being a smart businessman, Saito isn't unaware of the American market, and he's made several attempts to put Golgo out in English. As early as 1986, he published four stories in America—"Galinpero", "The Ice Lake Hit", "The Ivory Connection" and "Into the Wolves' Lair" (a Golgo-vs.-Fourth Reich Neo-Nazis story)—through his own publishing company, Leed Publishing. A little later he tried again, translating "The Impossible Hit" and "The Border Hopper" in conjunction with the NES games. Then in 1991 Viz did their short comic. But despite all these attempts, Golgo just didn't sell very well, and for more than ten years there was no new Golgo manga in English. For a short time, Viz considered relaunching Golgo 13 as a monthly comic series with dark n' gritty covers by Punisher cover artist Tim Bradstreet, who was into the idea, but then Tokyopop started releasing unflopped graphic novels, and it became obvious that monthly comics wasn't the best way to sell manga. Viz tried again, and this time they released the current (and, I repeat, awesome) 13-volume Carl Horn-edited edition from 2006 to 2008. But again, it didn't sell well, dammit. The Golgo graphic novels are still available online, but they're almost impossible to find in bookstores, comic stores or libraries (even stores which carry other Mature-rated Viz graphic novels like Monster).
Why, Duke Togo? Why? Why isn't Golgo more popular here? My guess is, it's the art. Manga fans don't like Saito's art because it's old-fashioned and not moe (perhaps, since he uses a studio of artists anyway, Saito should license out Golgo and do a bishonen Golgo)and American comics fans don't like it because there's too many cartoony elements: sweatdrops, goofy expressions and big noses. And frankly, by any standards, Saito's art is pretty stiff: in the early '70s it has a nice rugged cartoony look with lots of dark spaces, but in the more recent stories, it looks…well, like a dozen different people all drawing different parts of a manga and assembling them in a factory. And Saito always draws people with the weirdest eyelashes.
Although crime and 'noir' comics are popular in America, they all either have a super-serious, realistic art style, like Sean Phillips, or they're stylized in a certain way with heavy use of dark spaces, like Mike Mignola, Eduardo Risso and Frank Miller. When I asked American crime comics fans on Twitter why they didn't like Golgo, one guy just answered "Sanctuary!" as if a comic that came out more than 10 years before Viz's Golgo was somehow competing with it. But he's right: the plot of Sanctuary is just as over-the-top and melodramatic as Golgo but American readers instantly respected it because of Ryoichi Ikegami's photorealistic art, but they couldn't look past Saito's goofy artwork on Golgo. Even Lone Wolf and Cub had Goseki Kojima's beautiful brushwork. Artwise, the closest thing in English to Golgo 13 are probably oldschool "serious" newspaper comics, like Rex Morgan, M.D. and Dick Tracy. But while oldschool newspaper strips get deluxe reprints from companies like Fantagraphics, Golgo, being a manga, doesn't get that respect, and even if someone wanted to release it that way, how are you going to release a reprint edition of 30,000 pages? And Golgo is still running; Volume 163 came out in Japan last year.
13 translated volumes and a couple of odds and ends isn't enough; I need more Golgo 13. I need more impossible sniping, backstabbing, espionage, "…" and National Geographic style adventures around the world. Since Takao Saito has several other series on jmanga.com, including a tantalizingly empty placeholder for Golgo 13, would it be too much to hope that he would try releasing Golgo digitally? If more Golgo comes out in English, I'm going to celebrate by getting my own Golgo 13 underwear and wearing it as I read it. (By the way, Carl got his Golgo boxers as a gift from the Japanese editor of Golgo, when they first met to work together on the manga. He tells the tale in the epilogue at the end of Volume 13.)
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.