Column: Global Ghoul: Battle Angel Alita, Vol. 1

By Dale Carothers

Kishiro, Yukito. Battle Angel Alita, Vol. 1. Viz, 2003. USD $9.95. ISBN: 1-56931-945-6.

[spoilers ahead]

Even though Battle Angel Alita takes place in a post-apocalyptic junkyard, there’s an underlying tenderness to the story. Violence and cyber-gore abound, but the connection between Alita and Daisuke Ido, the cybernetics doctor who brings her back to life, is what drives the story.

This tenderness is evident in the way Kishiro draws Alita. Her face is the very picture of youthful innocence. Even in combat, when she lies bloody and torn, her expression in more akin to a sleeping baby than a fallen soldier.

Daisuke shows tenderness, as well. All of it toward Alita, like a father with a darling tween daughter. He pulls her from the garbage heap and reconstructs her body, but is soon shocked, like any father with a darling tween daughter, by her disinclination to stay in the tidy little box that he’s created for her. Alita sheds her innocence when she saves Daisuke from a murderous cat-woman-cyborg and becomes an instrument of violence. Alita’s defiance isn’t born out of rebellion against a controlling father figure but, instead, out of loyalty to Daisuke and an overwhelming need to keep him from harm.

During the fight between Alita and the cat-woman-cyborg, Daisuke discovers that Alita knows Panzer Kunst or the “Armored Arts,” a powerful fighting style known only to one type of humanoid cyborgs. This revelation upsets Daisuke; he wants her to remain a thing of beauty, the way he sees her in his dreams.

Alita and Daisuke argue about her life, but Daisuke eventually realizes that violence is Alita’s destiny.

The rest of the volume centers on Alita and Daisuke’s encounters with Makaku: a giant, emotionally unstable cyborg addicted to the endorphins that he sucks from the brains of his victims.

Their first battle takes its toll on everyone. Alita is nothing but an unconscious, ragged half-torso. Daisuke drags her away, though he’s been weakened by the three-foot spike in his gullet. And Makaku makes his escape as a half-blind cyber snake, little more than a head and a mechanical spine.

Now confined to a wheelchair, Daisuke repairs Alita by attaching her head to a “Berserker” body. After her repairs, there’s no going back. Alita is now an instrument of war. Makaku sneaks into the bowels of the cyborg arena and attacks Champion Kinuba in a moment of repose after a match. Makaku steals Kinuba’s body and is now powerful enough to go toe-to-toe with Alita again.

Daisuke and Alita go to Bar Kansas, a subterranean watering hole where the cyborg bounty hunters go to drink and swap stories, and ask for help in their hunt for Makaku. The bounty hunters refuse and Alita gives them a sound beating for their cowardice. Soon after, Makaku arrives and the ensuing battle destroys much of Bar Kansas.

Instead of killing Alita when she’s down, Makaku knocks a hole into the floor. After daring Alita to follow him, he drops into the labyrinthine sewer below.

The sewer reminds me of the petrified innards of a gargantuan beast, all melted organ-forms and disintegrating bone columns. During their battle, Makaku tells the tragic story that drove him to become the monster he is. His mother flushed him down the toilet at birth and he was forced to eat sewage to survive. The sewer is his home, and Makaku uses his familiarity with it to his advantage in the battle.

But before their battle ends, the volume comes to a close. I found the ending a bit abrupt and it took me a moment to realize that it was over. I think it was meant to be a cliffhanger, but it didn’t feel that way.

Kishiro’s art walks a fine line between sharp and sketchy. His designs are old-school, apocalyptic sci-fi, and iconic enough that I was able to differentiate between all of the characters and the environments. And his subtle changes in posture, camera angle and design convey varied themes: from innocence, fascination and joy to fear, horror and despair.

Kishiro’s story flows easily from panel to panel during character moments, but becomes a kinetic, jump-cut barrage in action scenes. Most of his action scenes work, but, sometimes, the transitions between panels and Kishiro’s high-tension compositions make it hard to figure out what’s going on. It only happens a few times, but it was enough to make me mention it.

Battle Angel Alita has a 6 out of 10 chance to wake Cthulhu from his eternal slumber. It’s a fast-moving and fun action story, but, after the first few passages, it leaves character and plot development behind in favor of extended action scenes.