Long ago, in his pre-Vertical days, Ed Chavez helped me out with a roundtable on underrated comics. One of his choices was Yu Aida’s Gunslinger Girl, originally published in English by ADV and recently re-launched in three-book anthologies by Seven Seas. I’m just going to have to repeat Ed’s assessment in full (though I’ll add some links where appropriate):
In a similar way to how the word otaku has a negative connotation in Japan, but is almost embraced in America. Moe has been frowned upon by American otaku while it is clearly the foundation of everything otaku in Japan. Gunslinger Girl fulfills three different unique passions/fetishes:
1- A passion for anything Italian. After the Korean wave came a huge Italy boom, partially supported by Bambino (an Italian cooking manga), the handful of wine manga that are all over the international press, and Sarto Finito – the original Italian suit manga.
2- A Sonoda Kenichi-style obsession with guns. Where building and firing guns take on an almost sexual feel.
3- And the need to raise soulless emotionally damaged bishôjo that so many otaku have.
Gunslinger Girl… Well drawn primer to pop-culture perversion.
The beauty of this is that it could serve as an endorsement or the direst of warnings, depending on your taste. And even after all this time, it’s left me curious about the book, at least enough to invest about $16 for three volumes worth of content. I’m largely immune to the fetishes described above, but I enjoyed Gunslinger Girl.
It’s about a black-ops agency that brings cute girls back from the brink of death and turns them into cute assassins, each assigned to adult male handlers who display varying levels of intimacy with their charges. And no, it’s not that kind of intimacy, though it’s not like that kind of awkward possibility is never broached. It’s just part of a larger jumble of awkwardness that comes with murderous little girls being ruthlessly manipulated and used to fight terrorism and stuff.
To Aida’s credit, the Italian/weaponry/pert troika is contextualized. Even the people who participate in the process of creating these little girl killers recognize that it’s horrible on some level, especially the bits where they brainwash the girls to be loyal to their handlers and erase their memories when things get complicated. That’s undeniably awful, and only the most tone-deaf of mangaka would ignore that. Gunslinger Girl is hardly a moral treatise, but it isn’t shameless, either.
It’s very episodic, focusing on individual cyborg-handler relationships through the prism of missions, down time, medical crises, and the like. Aida gets good mileage out of the premise, at least in these three volumes. I can’t quite picture myself reading ten more, though.
As much violence as there is, and as observant as Aida can be, Gunslinger Girl doesn’t really benefit from being read in bulk. I think I would have liked it better in serialization, where its low-key moodiness would have stood out in contrast to other series. Two volumes of low-key moodiness gets to be a bit lulling, so I was relieved to see the third shift into a longer narrative. It launches a complicated, sometimes messy tale of greed, kidnapping, sabotage, and assassination, and it doesn’t always track very well with Aida’s initial themes. He does try and weave them in from time to time with relative success, but I missed the murderous little girls.
Gunslinger Girl ends up being rather contradictory for me. It was obviously at least partly conceived to pander to certain tastes that I don’t share, but it’s also not content with just successfully pandering. It can be introspective and oblique, and it’s got an impressive level of ambition, even though its ambition isn’t always realized. It’s an odd book. I’m glad I read it, but I don’t know if I really need to read any more.