Reviewby Carlo Santos, Sep 27th 2008
Gun Blaze West
Young gunslinger Viu Bannes is trekking across America to reach a legendary place: Gun Blaze West, where only the strongest dare set foot. Accompanied by lasso-twirling adventurer Will Johnston and knife-throwing circus performer Colice, Viu's got some uniquely talented companions on his side—and he'll need all of them to survive the journey. The next leg of their trip brings them to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where a mechanical-suited warrior named Armor Baron guards the "Sign to the West" that will grant them passage onward. The task is simple: defeat one of the Armor Baron's men in combat, and you'll be deemed strong enough to continue to Gun Blaze West. But Viu won't settle for "strong enough" ... he wants to defeat the strongest of them all, the Baron himself!
"Our adventure is just beginning!" That's the desperate cry of a series that gets cut before the author can finish the storyline, and so it is with Gun Blaze West, which runs out of ammo after just three volumes (amounting to 28 weekly chapters in serialization). With this installment, Nobuhiro Watsuki tries to end things with a dramatic bang—but his profuse apologies in the author's notes only serve to point out just how poorly-conceived the series was. Churning out superhero-ripoff characters without any regard for plot, trying to guess what the target audience wants instead of telling one's own story from the heart, and generally flailing about without a creative direction—is it any wonder this one got axed?
Give Watsuki credit for one thing, though: after getting his cancellation notice, the last few chapters end up being streamlined into the perfect epic fight. No more worrying about side characters, no more trying to develop the world and the backstory—it all comes down to Viu vs. Armor Baron, which is pretty much the best part of the book. Like all great shounen battles, it pits a young, scrappy hero against insurmountable odds: a guy equipped with bulletproof armor and powered by rocketry. (Forget historical accuracy; if you've read this far into the story, you don't care about that anymore.) This over-the-top showboating is exactly what makes the battle so entertaining, and Viu's own over-the-top skill of "Concentration One" allows him to beat the Baron not by sheer power, but by cleverness—the classic lesson that true strength comes not from mastering others, but by mastering yourself.
Unfortunately, the hundred-odd pages prior to that final battle are a clichéd, directionless mess. The arrival in Arkansas comes loaded with dull, prefabricated scenes like "here's lots of nasty villains in a bar" and "a mysterious gunslinger gallantly saves the young lady." Then comes a page-wasting battle between Armor Baron and a throwaway villain—look, if you want to show how strong he is, why not just show it in a battle with the main character? Even Baron vs. one of the sidekicks would do. Speaking of sidekicks, they basically get neglected from about the halfway point in this volume—even going so far as to skip right over the battle scenes and just showing the part where they win. Of course, it's only understandable given that the author suddenly had to wrap things up. Yet even the way he wraps things up turns out clichéd, right down to a gimmicky cameo from a long-gone character.
If the over-the-top battle scenes work so well in this finale, it's likely because Watsuki's bold, blocky art is perfectly suited to it. Intense speedlines, rugged cross-hatching, and explosive special effects all help to capture the adventurous side of the Wild West. But when an artist tries to render everything else in that one style, it just leads to awkwardness. The first few chapters are a classic example of having no idea what to draw when people are standing around talking—no shading, no subtlety, just dull flat lineart. Even the character designs suffer from this— Armor Baron may look awesome in battle, but in any other context he just looks impractical and hilariously overdressed. This ham-handed artistic approach turns out to be a good thing for the layouts, though, as the strong, angular lines make it easy to follow the action from panel to panel.
Subtlety is nowhere to be found in the artwork, and neither is it found in the dialogue—you can't go more than a few pages without Viu spouting tired old catchphrases about how he wants to get stronger. Just because it's one of the guiding principles of the boys' adventure genre, doesn't mean it needs to be repeated constantly. Meanwhile, the rest of the story reads something along the lines of: "I'm going Gun Blaze West!" "No, I am!" "I'll beat you in battle!" "Not if I beat you first!" It ought to be an easy translation job, yet this one manages to miss a few words—yes, readers will actually find a couple of typos in the text. Sound effects also play a key role in this loud adventure, and because they're so prominent in the artwork, the obvious deletion and replacement of the characters actually grates on the eyes in certain places (plus, the translation of "DON" to "DM" just looks like some wacky vowel shortage).
Author's notes don't usually deserve special mention as bonus content, but because Watsuki has so much to say in this volume, readers can get a deeper look into the artistic process than most manga-ka allow. (None of this "Thank you for supporting my work. I like cats" kind of drivel.) The discussion on character and story development reveal an artist in love with action comics, as well as someone very concerned with trying to please every single reader. Things get kind of embarrassing once the cancellation is announced and Watsuki starts apologizing like crazy, but his unused character sketches provide an interesting "what if?" look into where the story might have gone next.
In the end, the saga of Nobuhiro Watsuki prematurely ending Gun Blaze West is probably more interesting than the saga of Viu Bannes actually traveling to Gun Blaze West. Apparently, the pressure of cancellation forced him to write one last epic fight into the series—an indulgent delight of over-the-top abilties and wild, explosive visuals. Unfortunately, all the stuff that happens outside of Viu and Armor Baron's battle only goes to show just why the series was cancelled: slapdash character ideas, contrived storytelling, artistic crudeness, and desperate reader-pandering instead of taking charge of one's own vision. Indeed, "our adventure is just beginning" ... but perhaps we should be glad it ended before things got any worse.
Overall : C
Story : D+
Art : C
+ Squeezes out one last crazy, over-the-top battle before the series' premature ending.
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