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Special Guest Edition - Cyborg 009
Comixology has recently made the world a better and brighter place by making a whole library of Shotaro Ishinomori manga available for download, so this is as good a time as any to talk about Cyborg 009, the first great work by the master of superhero manga and my favorite of the bunch. Ishinomori series like Cyborg 009, Kikaider and Kamen Rider (originally a live-action show created by Ishinomori) were among the first of the fighting androids, sentai hero teams, and tokusatsu superhero series that continue to hold sway over Japanese—and now global—pop culture. They're still some of the best.
It's the 1960s, the age of the Cold War and the space race. Nine people are kidnapped at random from around the globe and turned into cyborgs by an organization called the Black Ghost, whose leader dreams of provoking another world war so he can sell his futuristic super-weapons to the highest bidder. (“For that purpose, I have devised my ‘Futuristic War Plan’…where outer space will become the next battlefield.”) Before they can be brainwashed and turned into weapons, the cyborgs rebel and escape into the international underground, A-Team style. Feared by the world, forced to battle a parade of increasingly powerful and weird evil cyborgs sent by the Black Ghost to destroy them, will they ever find peace?
Human experimentation, brainwashing, shadowy international cartels, the rise of the military-industrial complex…this is a surprisingly grim premise for a children's manga. For generations of kids, that's been part of the appeal of Cyborg 009. Like the better X-Men writers, Ishinomori uses the metaphor of super-powered, persecuted outcasts to share a message that many adults are reluctant to admit to kids: sometimes society is just wrong. Sometimes authority figures screw you over. Sometimes all you can do is stick up for yourself, your friends, and what you know is right.
And another part of the appeal of Cyborg 009 is that, darkness and all, it's such giddy fun. So much of the manga feels like a little kid telling a story, piling idea on wild idea and occasionally pausing for “scientific” explanations that make even less sense than the rest of the plot. Ishinomori's characters are endlessly running, leaping, swimming, yelling, and fighting; it's a rare page that doesn't burst with action. As the manga progresses, he comes up with increasingly inventive threats for his heroes to fight: how about a cyborg in the shape of a house? How about cyborgs modeled after the Greek gods? How about a giant octopus? Sometimes Ishinomori gets serious and throws the characters up against real-life problems like the Vietnam War; other times they fight Neo-Nazis in penguin suits.
Is there anything about this manga that hasn't aged gracefully? How about…dated racial caricatures? The character designs on the international cast of cyborgs are sometimes unfortunate, to say the least. Cyborg 008, who comes from Africa and has swimming powers, gets the worst of it, being drawn as an old-fashioned blackface caricature (a style Japanese artists still unfortunately sometimes copy to this day). Stoic and super-strong Native American 005 and roly-poly, fire-breathing Chinese peasant 006 don't get the most flattering depictions either. The manga's gender politics aren't too enlightened; the sole female member of the team, 003, has enhanced senses, but her participation in the action is frequently limited to carrying Cyborg 001, a superintelligent baby (and arguably the best character). Unsurprisingly, the Japanese member of the team, Cyborg 009 himself, is the hero of the group and has about a dozen awesome robotic powers, illustrated in one of Ishinomori's many enthusiastic cutaway diagrams.
Enthusiastic is the word that best describes this manga—and most of Ishinomori's manga, for that matter. In addition to his much-imitated-but-never-duplicated shonen sci-fi series, he drew oddities like Japan Inc., a magnificently bizarre adaptation of a nonfiction 1980s book about the Japanese auto industry, and The Domestic Yappo, an adaptation of a porn story set in a future in which the Japanese have devolved into subhuman creatures biologically engineered to pleasure the Caucasian aristocracy. And, um, he also did a Legend of Zelda comic. Like fellow classic manga-ka Kazuo Umezu, Ishinomori developed a reputation during his career as something of an eccentric man-child, and in his manga he never lost touch with his inner hyperactive grade-schooler.
Before its digital rebirth, Cyborg 009 was published by Tokyopop, but that edition (from which the scans illustrating this column come) has been out of print for almost ten years. Both the Tokyopop and Comixology editions stop at Volume 10, even though the manga ran for 36 volumes, but that's actually fine, since Ishinomori wanted to stop at Volume 10 and provided a nice wrap-up to the main story arc. Now that mobile devices have made us all cyborgs, it's never been easier to catch up on Cyborg 009. Or Kamen Rider. Or Kikaider. Or Skull Man. Or…