Man Plus is currently being published by Titan Comics as a four issue mini; it’s also being serialised for free online through page by page release. Claire and J.A. discuss the second and third issues of Araújo’s Shirowpunk passion project, as they did for part one previously.
André Lima Araújo, Arisa Rozegar, Luis Guerrero, Tom Williams
JAM: Okay, so we held up on MAN PLUS #2, because it was kind of a transitional issue (and I wanna go back to that in a little while re: thoughts on form of webcomics versus print comics), so now we’re on to MAN PLUS #3.
I read the first page, and on those last panels, I was like, “Oh Christ, Claire is going to have some thoughts on this.” I know I certainly have some thoughts on this.
Claire: [Depressed wheezing sound, like a flaccid bagpipe.]
Claire: Like. Okay. We are writing these ongoing reviews from the “established Ghost in the Shell fan” perspective. Right?
JAM: I worried a little last time about what might be in this comic for someone who wasn’t already waist deep in that aesthetic/fandom already, but I think that’s the perspective we took, yeah. For my part, I read that panel and immediately felt like I was being told, “Sorry, fan of Ghost in the Shell you may be, but this comic is not being written for you.”
Claire: I don’t know what to make of what. There’s two things that are making me feel like taking a walk instead of talking about this comic; a poster of “MOTOKO” with no top on, and a receptionist with ~that hair~ who presumably functions as some sort of joke I’m having trouble accessing. I actually really like seeing an “older Major.” It’s great to consider her in an considered-imperfect body. But I’m like, none of this is getting in, for me. I feel like a puzzle’s been dumped in my lap, and I don’t really feel like jigsaws today.
JAM: Yeah, the receptionist is another riddle, right? I can’t tell if ALA wrote the guy in the way he did to show “this is bad fan behavior and this man is gross,” so then our older-Motoko-receptionist-stand-in is able to shame him adequately later in the issue—or if this entire thing is just rectifying the very concepts it’s supposed to be knocking down. I’m inclined to feel as though it’s the latter. The gross guy could have still been gross without us seeing The Major topless. And then, agh, now I’m remembering she’s also his mother so—what is happening here?
Claire: The scene takes place at a capsule hotel, which makes me assume that the poster is advertising porno. Is this the mythic cyberporn that the Major and her two friends produce—in footnotes? Why else would there be a MOTOKO titty poster available anywhere? Are we obliged to go with the “production line sex doll body” line of thought, and further assume that the LINE is called MOTOKO? These are stupid questions to inspire me to ask when I am not reading a Ghost in the Shell comic, and I grudge it. Without the poster, an older woman recognizable in the Major’s image, who has a son, would be a decent thematic motif. We learn in this issue that there’s been an AI/meatbrain personality merge, à la Motoko and the Puppetmaster, which has a lot of reproductive language around it in various incarnations of the story. And that would be fine, I guess, a short, vague reference to an obvious inspiration during the telling of a new story. But that’s not all we’ve got to “work with.”
JAM: You’re taking it from an angle that I hadn’t even considered, really. I just thought that it was genuine naked poster of The Major, implying that either there’s a porn star who looks like her in the world of MAN PLUS or that the anime/manga exists there. There’s an almost Akira reference on that same page—the ア doesn’t really look like it should but—which kind of makes me think that ALA is just building a world where these things might also be? But either way, I was pretty—I dunno, affronted? angry? disappointed?—that I was being named “not the audience” in that panel. Maybe that wasn’t the intent of its inclusion, but that was its effect. Here’s a nearly nude shot of The Major for you, boys! Just learn not to be like this guy next time. Not cool.
Claire: Yeah. Oshii managed somehow to give the Major ambiguous naked boobs, at least. And I’m tired, pretty damn tired, of seeing brasher and more basic cyborg tits recreated and recreated and recreated by men and applied to her name. If she has to be an entirely created female celebrity, at least please be nuanced and confusing about what it means when she gets’em out. There’s no meaning beyond sexual, sexually commodified, look at these breasts because looking is gratifying to a titty poster in a skuzzy hotel hallway.
The rest of the issue though…
JAM: I enjoyed the rest of this more than issue two, but less than issue one. The action scenes were fun and visually interesting, and I got to see a lot of Josu (who is definitely Ghost-in-the-Shell-Dick-Grayson). I’m guessing your read was less favorable though.
Claire: The rest of the issue was fine, honestly. I’d like to have been able to read it without the brainclouds the first couple of pages (and the imagery is repeated later, so …) caused, but I can see that it’s pretty satisfactory as militaristic police cyberpunk fiction. I’m just having a hard time being jaunty about it! I’d still rather be on that walk.
JAM: Yeah, I feel you. I think that opening (and its resurgence) may put off a lot of female readers, especially those who are GitS fans.
Overall, though, I think the female characters are much more present in this issue as compared to the first one. We’ve got the bigger enemy cyborg in the opening scenes, and then once we get back to the team, I noticed that Ana is sort of used as the perspective character, which is appreciated. The Chief is holding everything down, and we at least get a single line (and characterization through dialogue) from Liu, the mohawked, blue-haired officer. And a freckled darker-skinned lieutenant too, actually.
I realized I also secretly want the Appleseed-looking-mecha to be female too, if only to really underline the dissociation of one’s physical presentation from one’s ghost that’s possible in a future with sophisticated mechs and cyborgs.
Claire: You’re right, there is plenty of apparently female presence in this third issue. Background or bit-part characters right up to shot-callers. And they’re fairly well visually differentiated, too; nobody challenges the bigness of the terrorist leader (we mentioned her a lot last time), but hair, race, range of expression, and range of authority is pretty much as diverse as the levels of cyberisation. It would be great to have a lady Briareos—I really hope you’re on the money there.
JAM: Yeah, you know? It’s one of those things that would be so easy to communicate in a live-action setting (though it’d rely on a “female-coded” voice, and that in itself is something to be interrogated, especially when a cyborg’s voice is, in theory, artificially generated). But on a comic page you’d have to find other ways to communicate that. Not much to say about that except how interesting to think about.
Claire: It is interesting to think about! And a nice thing about this comic is that, as discussed, the art in general doesn’t indulge in too much line-based gender difference. Men and women wear trousers in basically the same way. So it doesn’t feel entirely misguided to suppose about options and possibilities.
You know, we mentioned that issue two is largely transitional, but having finished three and gone back to two, it does express the motion of its bridging function extremely well. Starting with bridge/train acrobatics and hair in the wind, ending with a character alone in a downpour, and whipping through a good number of locations (new and old) in between. I’m pretty excited to read the miniseries as a collected novel, because I think that rather than feeling like a pause in that context the section will heighten tension. Issue two is also notable for featuring a scene in a wood.
Cyborgs in the woods! I love that. Got a bit of the Genesis Surviver Gaiarth feel to it (in which a country boy is raised on a homestead by his [adoptive] dad, an old and dusty warroid. So nice!). Whenever the natural world is allowed to make an appearance in cyberpunk or cyborg futurism it makes me feel much less like I’m looking at something that’s speculative. It’s just a glimpse of the real, actual future. I don’t think we’re going to do away with natural areas or heavily planted sections of land. That’s something that comes back when issue three gives us a sequence in some sewers—after all, we’ll always have shit.
JAM: Yeah, this is sort of related to what I wanted to talk about in the beginning—pacing. The first issue of Man Plus is now out in print, but lots of readers will have already enjoyed it updating twice (?) a week online. As far as I can tell, though, the comic was originally meant to be released in print, twenty or so pages at a time. That works for issue one and three, but it’s harder for issue two—and I imagine also harder for the webcomic reader. I’m definitely curious about readership patterns once the web version hit issue two.
I think you’re definitely right about it feeling like a pause between action scenes in the full context of the work, but in both of its current modes, I think the structure causes the content to suffer. It just underlines how important form is!
We’re starting to touch on a little of the stuff that we asked for in our assessment of #1, though, which is exciting. This is a sort of aftermath of Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell—the AI has already merged with human data. I do wonder whether the soul that the techie is trying to preserve is the AI’s or the human’s—or if he considers them distinct entities at all! It could be the case that he wants to preserve the combination—that he only loved her after she became whatever she is now. Lots of questions of identity and individuality and borders—all the elements I love.
Claire: I suspect that it’s the soul of his wife, human version, that he’s after—his dialogue suggests to me that he doesn’t see the AI as a notable part of the whole so much as a vessel for the sophisticated brain patterns of a human, which is an interesting think to think about. Would you call an AI alive or souled comparably to a born human?
JAM: I think you’ve got to. An individual, sentient existence with its own wants and goals—that’s what makes a person a person. It’s self-determining, which is why AI is so frightening. Humans are no longer in control. It’s interesting, though, to see how the characters talk about her. I noticed on my re-read of #2 that Roderigo refers to her and as a “her” when they’re trying to bring her in without harming her—but he does say, “She’s damaged enough already,” which leans towards mechanical language. And then by the time she’s openly defied them, she stops even getting human pronouns and instead goes right to “fucking machine.” It’s kind of chilling, really, since I’ve had this notion of AI-as-metaphor-for-the-female-experience thing banging around in my brain for a while. That use of the word machine is meant to be a pejorative, so what does that suggest when it comes to robotics and AI in the MAN PLUS universe?
Claire: It’s interesting that you say “humans are no longer in control”—making the distinction between AI (which in this case is humanoid, and which we recognise as sentient through comparison with us, and which is created by human endeavour) and human. The biology starts to be definitive, which probably isn’t a reliable basis for deciding species in the social sense. You’re echoing what you’re seeing from the characters, effectively.
JAM: Mmm, the word “human” and the word “person” or “people” are different entities to me. Human describes something particular whereas I think I could still describe an AI as a person. Human has a place, maybe, in terms of describing origin or biomechanics, but person I would apply more broadly. Already we do it with animals, I think—we talk about pets as though they are people, with the idea of soul or aliveness intact. So, I don’t think I’m echoing it entirely—being a machine doesn’t mitigate an android from personhood.
Claire: We say things like “Am I human?” though, meaning more than at blueprint level. Oh, the humanity!
JAM: Haha, yeah, but I think that’s a particular question, as I said! We might not be saying what we mean—like, with that question, is it the thought of whether you were born in the way that humans are born amd made from the things that humans are made of, or is it a question of personhood and self-determination? And it also gets trickier when we get into Ship of Theseus territory—once you’ve replaced your entire body with cybernetics, are you still human? Does method of birth determine what one is? Et cetera, et cetera, and so forth.
Claire: Yes, I was going to say—when does the human become a person instead, then, if they keep losing bits of flesh and adding bits of whatever they’d make cyber prosthetics of. Or what they DO, rather, since I guess we’re basically there in 2016. If you bio-print a whole human body, like they printed that ear and put an AI in it, is it a human or a person? Please solve this problem in one sentence or less.
JAM: AIs are always people—by my reckoning—but putting them in a bio-printed body doesn’t make them human. I don’t think AIs can become human any more than humans can become AIs. But both have personhood. The question of “when” is a good one though and one that courts worldwide are trying to decide with regards to abortion politics. Is a human a person when it’s born? And can we say that definitively beyond “it cries when it’s unhappy and laughs when it’s not?” What about comatose patients? Do they still have personhood when they can’t manifest their personhood? (My answer to that is “yes,” by the way.)
But it becomes clear that Roderigo and the rest of the OCPD don’t consider this AI a person, which I think is a Wrong Thing. I am interested in the question of whether scientist-husband considers this AI a person or simply a means to an end to guarantee that his wife still exists. Given his rhetoric too, I’m guessing it’s the latter.
And it makes me very sad for the AI, you know?
Claire: Hold up, if a human can’t become an AI, what is she? Do you go with the “dead wife uploaded” premise, or have doubts about what that could produce?
JAM: I think she’s whatever the Motoko Kusanagi + Puppetmaster combination is—I don’t think we have a word for what they are. But they’re neither one nor the other once they’ve combined.
Claire: Y’know what I hope somebody takes and runs with? Ghost dubbing. But we’ve escaped our focus…
JAM: We’ve talked about the portrayal of women in the opening of issue #3 that we weren’t delighted with but I want to talk about how the general portrayal of women has unfolded across these two latest issues. We were happy with the use of bodies, but I’m now starting to look at how the story is centered on Roderigo and Josu. Yeah, as we said earlier, they are more present, but I’m starting to think now about how surface-level that is. In #2, Roderigo and Josu go off to see a criminal informant, and they leave Ana and Liu behind. Josu asks Roderigo whether they should introduce Ana and Liu to the CI and bring them into the loop, but Roderigo gives this kind of shruggy answer that isn’t really a sufficient answer at all. The women get left out because reasons.
And then there’s this kind of hazy thing with their field uniforms in #3. I actually loved that entire sequence from beginning to end, but I did notice that Josu, Roderigo, and Ana are the only ones who have colored suits, while the rest are grey. I thought that it was a rank thing, but it’s also too … convenient to me. Yeah, Ana gets to be orange, but that orange is kind of hidden in the scene, and in general it doesn’t really mitigate much given how the women never quite get to be front and center, you know?
Claire: I do, yeah. It does balance out the positive feelings (or non-generation of negative ones) I get from the delegation of leadership to women, seen in the baddies and our group’s Chief. I’m not like, boo, this is awful, I hate it now, but it tickles a bit. I was really into the first issue’s cover showing Roderigo naked and plugged, taking the pegs usually reserved for a woman in the Major’s image, but again that’s balanced by his shouldering of her mantle of central importance. We get a bit more from an additional team member in these middle issues, a young brown-skinned officer (maybe the actual Togusa of the team?), so there’s some extra bite put into the women’s presence here as well as some of it having been taken out. It’s more give and take than I’m happy with, but I can accept it.
JAM: Yeah, I’m the same. It definitely could’ve been better, but there are also some things that it does pretty well with.
And since I brought up that scene, I also want to say I really liked the use of a non-consensual suicide bomb. I mean, I say “liked,” but basically what I like is the horrifying significance of that once we see it. Bodies can be hacked and made to do things that the person (user??) doesn’t want them to do. It’s this quiet “oh yeah, by the way, this is a thing that can happen” that opens up a whole world of cybernetic possibilities and crimes right in the midst of the reader worrying about a suicide bomber. You blink and you might miss it, but it’s there, building the world in one fell swoop. Dope as hell.
Claire: Yeah I agree for sure. It’s dirty and wicked, which are things I want to see from crime fiction. It’s also really sad, which is REALLY important in crime stories. If I’m not feeling like injustice happened to a person who deserved better and that I need a cup of tea for comfort, it’s not worth its paper. But I did! And there’s a wee sequence in issue four that brings that back, too.
It’s an emotional equivalent to the reader’s pleasure in seeing the visceral, physical trouble our orange android got into in issue one. Not torturous, but upsetting on the character’s behalf—affecting. Move me, and you’re winning, right?
JAM: Don’t spoil me for that yet, still gotta read it!
Claire: That physical struggle comes back in the cool goop gun the police use against said suicide bomber, to contain his blow-up. Imagine getting hit with that! So annoying! It’s very involving to imagine.
JAM: All right, so we’ve got one last issue and then that’s it for MAN PLUS! I’m hoping we can dig deep and get a satisfying ending. And if we don’t get that, then there better be a goddamn sequel.