If you thought Masamune Shirow's original Ghost in the Shell manga
stretched the boundaries of science fiction, you ain't seen nothing yet. More than a decade since its Japanese debut, the series' mind-bending follow-up has finally made its way to America. Filled with ideas that are just as exciting as Shirow's storytelling skills, Dark Horse Comics' ongoing monthly serialization of
Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface is undoubtedly the most unique comic book on the market today and just might point the way not only to the future of the medium, but humanity itself.
Ok, that last statement may be a bit of a stretch, but for all his wild techno-imaginings, Shirow's take on the marriage of computers with the human mind is almost frighteningly believable. Following her assimilation with the Puppet Master towards the end of the first Ghost in the Shell series, cyborg heroine Motoko has evolved into a superhuman/computer hybrid whose technological abilities border on godlike. She can access any computer in the world telepathically and hack into cybernetically enhanced minds in a matter of seconds. With a consciousness that simultaneously resides in cyberspace and in multiple host bodies around the globe, Motoko redefines the very meaning of human existence. Yet all of her powers remain rooted in basic computer networking principles, and are thus totally convincing. A physical line must often be established between Motoko and her target before she can work her magic, and like any computer her brain is susceptible to hackers and viruses whenever she makes a connection.
Motoko herself is not the only technological marvel Shirow has dreamed up for his new series. Most prominent are Motoko's army of mini-drones that provide assistance on her real-world and online adventures. These little guys run a lot of the secondary programs and information scans that allow their boss to perform at peak performance, and they provide most of the comedy relief as well. Though at least a few of them must physically exist (we see one fired out of a torpedo tube early on), the majority of them might well reside solely in Motoko's mind and only appear in the "virtual" world. Though not quite as engaging as the first series' wisecracking Fuchikoma robots, the mini-drones lend the story much of its personality.
The action is divided pretty evenly between cyberspace hacker-battles and real-world ass-kicking. A lesser artist would not be able to handle such "intellectual action" but Shirow's visual style and entertainment sense carries the day. There are many accomplished "real" action sequences, but with a plot that revolves mainly around the online Motoko combating viruses and attempting to trace them back to their source Shirow must invent visual representations of abstract ideas - and make them exciting, too. He more than meets the challenge. The sight of a virtual Motoko racing through a sea of neon circuitry in pursuit of elusive data is not only beautiful, it's just as gripping as the confrontations between her various physical personas and their adversaries. Tense chases through cyberspace will end with our heroine downloading herself into a body halfway around the world where she will immediately begin pursuit of the perpetrators of the latest viral invasion of her industrial company, Poseidon. Shirow's vivid imagination combined with his knack for illustrating action makes Ghost in the Shell 2 a nonstop page-turner.
One might say his imagination is almost too vivid. Pushing his ideas from the first Ghost in the Shell to the nth
degree, Man-Machine Interface is too technical for its own good. Some of Shirow's ideas are so complex the author provides a running commentary at the bottom of the pages to explain them all. While the action moves along at a brisk pace, it is almost overwhelmed at times with paragraphs of techno-babble even an MIT graduate might have trouble following. This makes the series somewhat alienating to the masses, and many readers will likely be turned off by its snooty, egghead mentality.
Compensating for the series' unnecessary over-intellectualism is the gorgeous artwork, Shirow's best yet. The artist has come a long way since his early, crude work on titles like Appleseed and Dominion, and Ghost in the Shell 2 is a visual marvel. Of course, Shirow has always shown a healthy interest in drawing sexy ladies, and here is no exception; Motoko struts around in all manner of revealing outfits, and there's a guaranteed panty-shot every four pages. While some may be quick to dismiss it as mere fanservice, his masterful renditions of the female form are on a par with the old masters, and possess an amazing sense of vivacity and charm.
His canny drawing skills are supplemented by an innovative use of CGI graphics that represent the series' boldest artistic endeavor. Many crucial elements such as the mini-drones and most of the featured ships and vehicles were created entirely on the computer and composited with the hand-drawn characters. The mix is not always perfect, but it gives the series a look all its own in the manga world - and given the subject matter it's highly appropriate. The most successful CG scenes are undoubtedly the online cyberspace sequences; the characters blend perfectly with the mesh of intricate glowing circuitry, and the effect would have been impossible to duplicate by hand. Digital paint effects also enhance the hand-drawn elements of Shirow's mostly all-color masterpiece, and the end result is one of the most visually appealing manga series ever created.
Perhaps one day all comic books will feature such amazing blends of traditional and CG elements, but few will likely match Ghost in the Shell 2's mix of inspired science fiction and accomplished action. Only a third of the story has been released as of this writing, but the genius of Masamune Shirow's imagination is plainly evident, and the first four issues have been flying off the shelves. Though he sometimes indulges in his own technological fantasies at the expense of the story, sharing in his distinct vision of humanity's future is a joy and a privilege every serious comic book fan should experience.