'Gangsta' manga is one of the best this year

(Photo Courtesy of Viz Media) (Photo Courtesy of Viz Media)

"Gangsta" is my favorite manga of the year.

Disclaimer: That (loaded) statement includes the lack of other books I've read. The volumes of "Dogs: Bullets and Carnage" trickle in every once in a while — same goes for "Blood Blockade Battlefront," helmed by Yasuhiro Nightow, the creator of "Trigun," an all-time favorite. The only other new manga I've bothered with this year is "Noragami," but that one is a little messy, to say the least.

So, to clarify, it'd probably be safer to say that the series is my favorite new manga in a while, next to "Dogs."

Published under Japanese media company Viz's "Signature" brand, "Gangsta" speaks to my love of writers/directors/manga-ka shoving action and light sci-fi values into more established realms and seeing what comes out. In this case, it's the established mafia base,built upon with physically enhanced mercenaries, and reinforced with the story of two handymen — one who's good with women and a gun, the other a katana-wielding former member of said mercenaries, who loves nothing more than a good fight.

Did I mention our katana-wielding friend is deaf?

The "handymen" are Worick and Nicholas Brown, BFFs for hire who take on jobs not only from the mafia, but from the police and the foul-mouthed yet lovable old lady down the street. Deliveries, escorts, the occasional assassination job — there's not much out of reach for the two to take on, or who to take from. They reside in Ergastulum, living with the knowledge that the cops are, for the most part, corrupt and an arm of the crime families.

Nicolas is aTwilight, a population of people born from users of a drug called Celebre, which gives them increased physical abilities. He was born deaf, but can read lips and is handy with his sword. He's got a gruffness to his personality, particularly toward a certain prostitute, but is kind when it counts.

Worick is a one-eyed pistol slinging womanizer, who works as a gigolo when he's not running with Nicolas. He's the veritable brains of the operation, and does his best to keep Nicolas in line (when necessary). His childhood was, in certain ways, damaged, but it's hard to tell when he's smiling all the time.

Joining the duo early on is Ally, a prostitute who becomes their receptionist (kinda) after leaving her abusive (and dead) pimp. She was to be killed alongside him, per the details of a job picked up by the boys, but Worick managed to keep her off the business end of Nicolas's katana. Together, the three navigate the wretchedness of the city while dealing with demons on a personal and outer scale.

What's enjoyable about the series is how well it manages to present the characters and story, which balances a few subplots. The supporting cast are all engaging and fun to watch on each page, each with their own believable charms and personalities. Besides the main narrative concerning the Twilight killings, there's the tug and pull of power between the various mafia families in the city and even issues with PTSD and prejudice.

The writer/artist, who goes by the pen-name Kohske, allows bits and pieces of the tale to come out when needed, but they're shown without grandstanding. And while you feel enthralled to read more, they always manage to contain satisfying morsels of information, enough to keep you going until the next reveal.

The storyline involving the friendship between the two handymen and how it came about speaks to how Kohske is handling the many story avenues. The first book actually backtracks a bit to their childhood and how they landed in Ergastulum. It's a drip-fed method for sure, but I was quite surprised to get a glimpse of the past so early in the series.

Nine times out of 10, I've sat on manga that rushes out the past in brief glimpses in book after book, until we get a whole volume dedicated to a main character's beginnings. As much as I love the series, the Trigun manga did this quite a bit. I never felt too captivated as I read through those scenes, probably because I was too captivated by the story's logical timeline.

"Gangsta" does have a "beginnings" volume in the form of book three, but because it's done early on (not five or 10 books later) you're not too lost in the story of the present that you don't want to dive in and see how the two became friends. I pray that it doesn't go the "TenjouTenge" route with multiple rewinds to the past and a divulge of information that's barely understandable.

For all the action, the art manages to stay clean, with a bit of a cartoony edge. The expressions are all believable and everything is spaced well with no cramming of the panels to cause you to miss certain points. There's a subtle presentation, which keeps it simple overall.

Four volumes in and with more to come, it's still pretty early to pick up "Gangsta" from the beginning without feeling intimidated by longevity (in contrast to "Bleach" and "One Piece"). It's managed to craft a story that handles well, supported by characters who are believable and entertaining to watch with each page, and an art style that prefers cleanliness to painstaking detail. Long story short, it's good, and even folks who may not understand manga but love modern action could get behind it. Give it a shot.


Describe your favorite katana to the reporter at Damion.Julien-Rohman@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @legendpenguin

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