Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
In a future Western-styled setting, 13-year-old knife-throwing expert Elwood works for a gang, picking pockets for a living and to help save up money for an operation his sickly older sister badly needs. His life changes completely when Gamma Akutabi, a notorious criminal with a massive bounty on his head, comes to town looking for the mythical 12 Rings of the Dead, which when combined are said to allow the owner to make Zombie Powder, a substance that can grant immortality or bring the dead back to life. Elwood ultimately tags along with Gamma on his quest, allowing him to meet the expert gunman Mr. Smith and encounter assorted other amoral gangs, criminals, and bounty hunters.
A part of Viz Media's Shonen Jump Manga line, this unfinished 1999 series is now seeing release in the U.S. because it was the premiere manga work of Tite Kubo, who is much better-known to American otaku as the creator of Bleach. It's packed with enough action, mayhem, and arrogance that it probably could have succeeded even without such a pedigree, as the American market has repeatedly proven that it has a seemingly insatiable appetite for entertainment with extremely graphic content, whether it's good or not.
Graphic content, action, and a sometimes-playful attitude are about the only things Zombie Powder has to offer, though, as little about the first volume distinguishes it from other titles centered on a bad-ass anti-hero who acquires a kid as a tag-along or protégé. Nearly every gimmick it uses has been recycled from somewhere else; the sci-fi Western setting and enormous bounty on the hero's head invite comparisons to Trigun, the massive sword harkens to Berserk and others, the quest for Items of Power is a staple of innumerable fantasy anime/manga, and so forth. Even the mix of playfulness and ultra-graphic content is borrowed from GUNNM/Battle Angel Alita (although Zombie Powder emphasizes the playfulness much more), as are weapons with jet boosters to make their swing faster and stronger and oversized chain saws. About the only thing that is fresh here is Mr. Smith, although even the “expert gunman who dresses like a '50s American businessman” concept feels like it's taken from somewhere else.
Its heavy recycling doesn't keep Zombie Powder from being an entertaining read, partly because the pacing is quick and partly because Mr. Kubo doesn't try to take anything too seriously beyond the stuff about Elwood's sister. Mixing torture and comedy makes for an uneasy combination if you think about it, but this isn't a title where you're meant to actually engage your brain while reading. No deeper meanings or social commentary here; this is as straightforward as storytelling gets.
Kubo's writing style makes it clear that this is a first effort. It lacks sophistication and doesn't have much of a plot, with the individual encounters Gamma and Elwood have only really being excuses for action and mayhem. Not much effort was put into establishing the setting, either, and the author's comments suggest that it's a Western-flavored world only because it was a cool idea. Better is his use of pacing, which doesn't allow the story to dwell for long on details that aren't relevant to the action content, thus keeping it firmly focused. Kubo also has an amusingly odd sensibility on his use of sound effects.
Kubo's artistry also shows a lack of sophistication, as it only minimally uses backgrounds and is rough around the edges. His character designs favor the ridiculously lankly style seen in numerous other manga but are otherwise distinctive enough. Action scenes are handled better than average, as usually it's not hard to tell what's going on and they have sufficient movement to be interesting. The more comedic bits are nice touches but don't have much definition. His visual graphic content isn't as extreme as the strongest titles out there but is in the upper tier when it comes to depictions of violence.
Viz Media's production offers an attention-catching color cover which features by far the best artwork anywhere in the production. It goes out of its way to make it clear which way the title is supposed to be read and replaces all of the original sound effects with English equivalents in font styles doubtless reminiscent of the ones originally used. In fact, the only thing in the artistry that isn't translated is Ranewater Calder's chest tattoo, although a translation is provided for it in a side note. Extras include a one-page Next Volume preview and the chapter-ending B-Side Naked Monkeys files penned by Kubo, which include bio files on characters and comments on conceptual design. The only thing that Viz's production doesn't do well is the lettering, which is so consistently big and bold that many characters feel like they're always shouting. Presumably this was because the original Japanese took up more space in the word balloons, but certainly some other compromise could have been worked out here.
Fans of Bleach will undoubtedly want to check this one out, as it might provide insight into the development of Kubo's writing and artistry that ultimately led to his later mega-hit. It may also be of interest to action junkies who place more value on entertainment than originality or fulfillment. It's a light, easy, familiar, and moderately fun read for older shonen fans, just don't expect much of it beyond that.
Story : C+
Art : C
+ Good pacing, moderately entertaining
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