Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Oct 13th 2010
GN 15-17 Omnibus
Benkei's fight with vicious little water master Ohm blows up in everyone's faces, pretty much as expected. In the aftermath Ikki gets released from the hospital, reuniting with the Noyamano sisters. The party is short-lived however. When Ikki walks in on Ringo mashing with another guy, he doesn't just get an eyeful of smooching, but also an earful of the truth about what Ringo did to Simca. And when their confrontation boils out onto the streets and into the air, he gets a bellyful of Ringo's lethal Air Trek skills. When the dust—and water, and rock, and rubble—settles, the battle lines have been drawn: Ikki, Team Genesis and the misfits of Kogarasumaru on one side, and on the other Ringo and the Sleeping Forest. As Ikki gets better acquainted with the technicians at Team Tool Toul To and more entangled in the coming assault on the Tower Trophaeum he slowly learns just how permanent and insurmountable those battle lines are. And how deadly wrong his every assumption about his life has been.
When Del Rey decided to release volumes 15-17 in one enormous book they may have been thinking many things: That it was the most efficient way to catch up with their releases after the big gap following volume 14, perhaps. Or that the discount (three volumes for less than the price of two) would boost sales. What they weren't thinking about was what reading that much Air Gear in a single sitting would do to their readers. Namely burn them out. Air Gear is an exceedingly dumb series, but in small doses a fun one. Cram six hundred pages of it down just about anyone's gullet, though, and they'll likely notice the dumb more than the fun.
And the uber-complex turn the series has taken of late doesn't help that any. Complexity isn't an inherent ill, but anyone familiar with Air Gear's firecracker-up-the-butt mentality will know that the series is unlikely to handle intellectual or narrative ambitions well. And sure enough these three volumes are crammed to their eyeballs with patently ridiculous mythology, epic-sized info dumps, and revelations both obvious and arbitrary. Juvenile philosophizing about the nature of freedom vies for space with murky murmuring about Air Treks that could Destroy the World As We Know It and convoluted chatter about portentously titled pseudo-myths like the Tower Trophaeum, the Grand Scale Tournament, and the Gravity Children. All of it dumped in a nearly insensible jumble in our laps. Not that making sense of the jumble helps any. Examine any of the world-expanding revelations or brainy discourses too closely and they almost immediately self-destruct; a few of them hilariously (applying world-shaking consequences to a silly sport, for instance) and others nastily (there's a reference to 9/11 in one of Ringo's speeches that is in spectacularly bad taste).
But again, who didn't expect that? Any fan who's made it this far knows that the series is a narrative, intellectual and even emotional train wreck. Far more damaging than the shoddiness of its ambitious content is the manner in which it is presented. Namely that it is jammed in with a thirty-pound blabber-hammer. The only way Oh! great communicates anything is via reams of dialogue or hokey inner monologues. After standing by as snappy dressers natter on for pages and pages about the true nature of the Tower Trophaeum, or what true freedom is, or Sora's real reason for uniting Storm Riders, you begin to wish that they'd just shut the hell up and start speaking with their fists. Even this mega-volume's centerpiece—Ringo and Ikki's mega-battle—is besmirched by endless explicating and tedious philosophizing. And therein lies the real damage done by Oh! great's push to make a "serious" manga of Air Gear: It interferes with its better qualities. It is difficult to honestly enjoy the balls-to-the-wall aerial action that has been the series' saving grace when you're constantly being pulled out of the action by clunky speechifying and clumsily inserted cutaways to characters spouting cryptic shards of info.
But most unforgivably, it interferes with Oh! great's art. In terms of pure skill his art hasn't fallen too far. He does wonderful things with shading and line-work: bold, gorgeous and fetishistically cool things. While punishingly obvious in their symbolic intent, the crosses and wings that garnish so many scenes are works of genuine beauty, composed of everything from clocks and gears to bones and flesh. His mastery of the articulation and inherent sex appeal of the human body—male and female—is unabated, as is his aptitude for artfully shredded clothing and outrageously awesome outfits. He can still pop your eyes out with breathtaking flights of aerial fancy and incredible fusions of flesh and steel (used to embody killer Air Trek moves), and even brushes up against mythic eeriness with some of his stranger visual inventions, particularly the crucifix-eyed stares of the Gravity Children.
But the flow of his art...that has been destroyed. The constant need to cut between action sequences, explanatory flashbacks, and guys dumping info results in flurries of artless transitions that cut the once-clean progression of fights into jumpy little jolts of violence separated by intrusive stretches of talky boredom. His once expansive compositions are crowded with teensy dialogue-cluttered panels, which in turn clutter up and bog down both the action sequences, and the manga overall. The result is a gorgeously illustrated but choppy and dissatisfying read; and a definite sense that Oh! great's ambitions have far outreached his skills as a visual storyteller. Which is a bitter shame, since—when the story is kept straightforward—those skills are considerable.
Del Rey, as mentioned, fused three volumes together to form this omnibus. Literally. Each volume has its own page count and its own table of contents and its own volume-end extras. The extras are the usual translator's notes, which while welcome definitely feel less comprehensive than before. The book looks good, from its stylish cover to the clean reproduction of Oh! great's intricate art, but reads less than optimally thanks to some dodgy writing and a few distracting editing mistakes (e.g. leaving imprints of the original Japanese dialogue in place or cutting off dialogue bubbles at the bottom of the page).
So why read this book at all? In one word: Ringo. Not only is she the source of the best, and subtlest, of the fan-service, but she's also dead cool and heaps more sympathetic than the bulk of the increasingly unpleasant cast (not to mention a little scary, under her vulnerable childhood-friend veneer). The tension between her love of Ikki and her need to crush his ambitions, between her hatred of violence and the inherent brutality of her role in the Sleeping Forest, provide these volumes with their only glimmer of heart, and her 150-page knock-down drag-out with Ikki not only transforms her into a viable villain, but into one for whom it is all too easy to root—even when she's skinning the protagonist. And if that isn't enough to get this book off the shelves and into your pocket...well, chances are nothing in it will.
Overall : C
Story : D
Art : B
+ Plenty of signature fan service, one Everest-sized aerial death-match, and the best Ringo material the manga has yet to offer.
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