Also... yes! It's another installment of Overlooked Manga Festival! First, though, I want to respond to comments I've gotten about the difficulty of affording all of the 1,000-plus manga series now available in English translation. This is all too true. Allow me to suggest that you turn to your local library as a resource. Libraries these days are generally eager to stock graphic novels in general and manga in particular, because it Gets the Kids Reading. And, frankly, no library should be without all 28 volumes of this week's Overlooked Manga, which is a classic of old-fashioned kickassitude.
To be honest, I launched the entire Overlooked Manga Festival series so I could talk about this manga. At the same time, I've been a little apprehensive about it, because not everyone appreciates its special genius. Many Viz editors found it an acquired taste, no matter how much I browbeat them about it, although sooner or later all the naysayers came around and acknowledged its greatness. It's pure. It's the most manga manga I have ever read. A rocking metal guitar riff plays in my head every time I read it. I had to invent a new word to describe the feeling each page stirs in me, and that word is RAD-TASTIC.
Knights of the Zodiac is known in Japan as Saint Seiya, and it's one of the key series that made manga into the giant pile of awesome it is today. My good friend Jason Thompson once called it "the Rosetta Stone of manga." One of the flagship titles of Shonen Jump magazine in the 1980s, it renovated the magazine's tradition of intense, earnest sports-training stories with wholly original crazy sci-fi/fantasy trappings, creating the template of the modern shonen manga: outrageously brutal fighting-tournament action in a weirdass setting with a complicated backstory. Virtually every manga in Shonen Jump today is pretty much like Knights of the Zodiac.
That is, they're like Knights of the Zodiac, only wussier.
Every other page of Knights of the Zodiac looks like this.
But that's not all! Singlehandedly reshaping all shonen manga was not enough for creator Masami Kurumada! Through Knights of the Zodiac and the Big-Bang-level power created by combusting his cosmo to its limit, he also made a crater-sized impact on shojo manga! In its day, Knights of the Zodiac attracted a sizeable female fan following, possibly because of pages like this:
...or possibly pages like this:
Don't you want to run out and draw reams of fancomics about these passionate young men and their intense, only nominally heterosexual bonds of loyalty and brotherly love? Lots of Japanese girls in the 1980s did. Among them was future manga superteam CLAMP, which got its start drawing fancomics based on Knights of the Zodiac and the soccer manga Captain Tsubasa. I'm told that the group's first published works, especially X/1999, are heavily influenced by Kurumada's opus. I can't vouch for that because I've never gotten through X/1999, but I'm more than willing to believe it.
(Incidentally, that degenitaled nude has not been retouched by Viz; that's the way it looks in the Japanese original. Knights of the Zodiac has never been censored. Most of the potentially controversial material involves gruesome violence rather than nudity, which makes it okay in America. Also, if you tried to censor Knights of the Zodiac, it would punch you in the face and then explode.)
I've been the editor of the Viz edition of Knights of the Zodiac since Volume 3, and I love it like my own flesh and blood. Each volume is more outlandishly over the top than the one before. This series simply does not stop getting better. Every time you think you've seen the insanest thing you're going to see, something two million times insaner pulls up to the curb. A masked woman in armor getting dunked into the sea while tied upside-down to a cross is barely worth pausing to comment on.
Before I try to describe the plot, I should mention my dear friend Joey Manley, who keeps saying that he can't get into manga because he doesn't understand the characters' motivations. Joey? STAY AWAY FROM THIS MANGA. Nothing that happens in Knights of the Zodiac makes a lick of sense. Or rather, it has its own logic, a logic not directly connected to our reality. It's a kid logic, and in fact the series reads very much like it was scooped directly from the brain of a ten-year-old boy and schlopped down onto the page. From time to time I hold pages of Knights of the Zodiac up to one of my supervising editors, pages that look like this:
...and say, "This is exactly what the inside of a preteen boy's head looks like."
"I'm glad I was never a preteen boy," she says.
Okay. The plot. Seiya and his friends are the Bronze Knights, one of a number of super-strong armored warriors trained to defend the human incarnation of the goddess Athena. They wear armor, or Cloths, based on constellations. The core gang consists of:
-- Seiya, your standard trash-talking, bushy-eyebrowed shonen hero. He wears the Pegasus Cloth.
-- Shiryu, a Chinese guy with a bitchin' dragon tattoo on his back. His main job is to get mutilated the most, which is saying a lot. I'm up to Volume 20, and so far he's gone blind twice (once by putting out his own eyes) and died two or three times. He wears the Dragon Cloth.
-- Hyoga, a standoffish Russian fellow who became a Knight so he could become strong enough to dive to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean every day and place a flower on his drowned mother's corpse. Why are you looking at me like that? He wears the Swan Cloth.
-- Shun, a maidenly young man who hates fighting but rules at it anyway. He really, really looks like a girl. He wears the Andromeda Cloth.
-- Ikki, Shun's big brother and the surly rebel of the group. He pops in from time to time to haul the Bronze Knights' fat out of the fire, especially if Shun is getting slapped around. He wears the Phoenix Cloth. Like his patron bird, he can return from the dead, and in fact does it so often that eventually not even the characters in the manga care when he gets killed.
To win the right to wear their Cloths, the Bronze Knights undergo years of intense training. It looks kind of like this:
...although there's also time for intellectual discussion and mullets:
The first 13 volumes immerse the reader in the manga's violent, illogical universe and eventually send Seiya and his friends on a quest to defeat the twelve Gold Knights, who guard twelve palaces and wear Cloths based on the constellations of the Zodiac. Admittedly, some are more intimidating than others.
Look, somebody has to be the wimpy-sounding constellations, okay?
Volumes 14-18 comprise the Poseidon Saga, in which other gods start challenging Athena for dominion of the Earth. The Bronze Knights travel to Poseidon's headquarters at the bottom of the Mediterranean and wipe the floor with his minions, as a prelude to taking on the god himself.
The last ten volumes haven't come out in English yet, but they comprise the incredible Hades Saga, which pulls out all the stops, pitting all the surviving Knights of Athena against the army of Hades, which includes undead resurrected versions of everyone who's gotten killed in the manga so far. RAD-TASTIC!
I love the full-bore, red-blooded sincerity of Knights of the Zodiac. I know I'm likely to get pilloried for this, but it reminds me of the work of Jack Kirby, after he snapped his editorial restriants and went completely batshit drawing stuff for DC. Kurumada's art isn't as good as Kirby's, but the point of Kirby was never the art, anyway; it was the feverish invocation of a sprawling, larger-than-life reality that could only ever exist in comic books. Kurumada's got that going on. And he's equally insane. When Kirby lets fly with the giant screeching man-bats, Kurumada tosses up a serene flautist casually beheading a guy with one hand.
When Kirby doles out Goody Rickles, Kurumada opens up a can of martial-arts punishments based on the Buddhist cycles of reincarnation.
And so on.
And that's Knights of the Zodiac. RAD-TASTIC.