Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
In Ergastulum City, the law is only partly maintained by the police. The city is overrun with warring gang factions, and so the cops rely on two men who call themselves “handymen” to help clean things up and maintain the peace. Nic and Worick are those handymen, and when they take in a mafioso's former prostitute named Alex, she learns that the two men have some secrets of their own that make them uniquely suited to the job they do.
Ergastulum, although it sounds like some sort of stomach disorder, is a city dominated by warring mob forces. This may or may not have led to the creation of “twilights” or “tags,” a group of individuals with special powers marked by the dog tags they wear around their necks. Most of the tags seem to work with one gang or another, but Nicholas Brown, better known as Nic, and his partner Worick have a different job – they're “handymen,” fighters or delivery men for hire who help the police maintain order in Ergastulum City for a fee and possibly for the right to let Nic do as he pleases. The tags, you see, are not held in high esteem.
While the book opens without her perspective, the point of view character for Gangsta's first volume is Alex, also called Ally, a prostitute working for one of the gangs. Nic and Worick find her working where she shouldn't be, and when the order comes in from the cops to eliminate the gang, Worick decides to save Ally instead of killing her. (One assumes that Nic is on-board with this, if only because Ally is still alive at the end of the book.) This gives us an entry point into the handymen's world, and through Alex's eyes we get to see the men in a much more personal light. This is not to say that a whole lot of new information is revealed – we're still figuring most things out as Ally learns about her new roomates – but the men go from “thugs for hire” to “people” with her entrance onto the scene.
Mangaka Kohske, whose first major series this is, makes some interesting choices with her characters. Nic is Deaf and communicates mostly through sign language, although he is capable of speech when he wants to be. His signed words are written in white on black speech bubbles and his spoken words in a clumsy looking font, presumably to signal that his words are inflected differently. Worick's day job when he is not being a handyman is a gigolo – a male prostitute, a rather rarer bird in manga than his host counterpart. He seems much more hardened to the life than Alex, who clearly relishes her escape from the profession and won't allow anyone to touch her sexually without her say-so. This also makes her an interesting character – she's been abused, but she is not going to stand for it any more, making her come off as stronger than she might otherwise have been as the lone adult female in the volume.
Kohske's art is clear and somewhat leggy – everyone is tall and lithe with the exception of little girl Nina and the requisite pudgy cop. Backgrounds tend to be white, with all of the blacks and grays being used on the people. The only major issue here is that for what's supposed to be a low-life, down-on-its-luck city, Ergastulum looks pristine, with clean streets, buildings in good repair, and a general middle class air. While this does make the book easy on the eyes and a breeze to read, it also detracts from the atmosphere the characters create, giving everything a sense of unreality that is out of place with the gritty story. Kohske also reuses the same image of Nic fighting another tag over Worick and Alex's heads three times in under fifty pages. While she may have been attempting to go back in forth in time from that particular moment, any hint of that is pretty well lost and it just feels like the artist being lazy.
With its overall feel of crime-soaked dystopia and the promise of more world building and backstory, Gangsta is off to a good start. The characters are all interestingly flawed in ways we don't usually see, the world, despite being a little too pretty, clearly has its own dark secrets, and the relationship between Nic, Ally, and Worick has the potential to really delve deeply into all three of their troubled pasts. This first volume feeds us just enough tidbits to make us eager for more information – like how does the rest of the police department feel about Chad hiring the handymen? - making this a good bet for fans of science fiction or gritty action stories. So if you're in the mood for something dark but with a plot and characters who are more than stereotypes, give the handymen a call. For the right price, they'll help you with anything.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Interesting characters, a setting with potential. Just enough information given to whet the appetite.
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