Cyberpunk police story? Corporate interests versus morality, in a mech-filled, nourished dystopia? Patching in–Old City Blues.
Of Baltic (above), the show-stealing undercover police cyborg at the heart of Old City Blues’ most recent chapters, cartoonist Giannis Milonogiannis says:
“One part of his lineage is obvious–he’s clearly in the same family as Shirow’s Sokaku and his gang–but the other part of it, his personality, is even funnier. At the time I was playing through Resident Evil 4, and Leon is a huge Rad Dude in that game. I was so into him, I wanted to do a character in OCB that was as Rad a Dude as Leon. I wanted to have a person in there that I could point to and say ‘yeah, that’s who I’d be if I could be anyone.’ His butt-window was a side-thing that happened for fun too, but it ended up helping define his personality, which sounds so dumb said ‘out loud.’ He’s the kind of idiot who proudly displays his butt and owns it, but also runs into the top of the door because he can’t remember how tall his cyborg body actually is.”
Micro, meet macro: Giannis Milonogiannis’ Old City Blues, without the work of Masamune Shirow, would be either unrecognisable or seminal. It’s impossible to say; we don’t live in that reality. Old City Blues, in a pop culture landscape A.S. (After Shirow), is neither, but it’s not the opposite of both–it’s recognisable, familiar, but it’s not not seminal. Consistently, Milonogiannis’ work, in both its reference to Shirow’s motifs and tics and the development of a warm and singular voice despite or even because of this, inspires awe and hard work in his peers. Reliably, the supporting cast and worldbuilding suggests enough mystery, verve, and detail to have a reader wanting more of this example of the genre, instead of simply seeking the genre itself. Old City Blues is self-perpetuating, which cannot be said of every mech-police cyberstory. (Tell me why you care about anything specific to Angel Cop or AD Police Files or Black Magic M-66.) It does not need another creative mind to step in and remix the ideas into a well-structured narrative, which can’t be said of Shirow himself. As he does with Baltic, so Milonogiannis does with Shirow’s vibe elsewhere. Springboard, add other input, crackle with your own special magic–come up, in the end, with something really solid. Turn influence, even obvious influence, into originality.
Delivering a cast who develops interpersonal relationships gradually and a geopolitical scene that relates enough to the modern day to be fascinating in the ways it deeply differs, Old City Blues takes place in a post-catastrophe city-state. City-states are excellent choices for claustrophobic narratives (claustrophobic narratives obviously suit mech-pilot and cyberpunk stories well, being conceptual mirrors of their necessary aesthetics) and have formed both in historic glory-stories (War! Defend the castle!) and late-20th century anime features. They seem grand, even vulnerable; they have an intrinsic dignity–dignity by invocation becomes potentially endangered, and tension is thus innate and present outside of the hero or primary quest. They can be suggested by surveillance, or border guards, or blackmarket immigration stories, or even just the name of the town. Old City Blues’ city-state is called New Athens. What happened to Old Athens? It sank. Bummer.
Emphasis is afforded to the imaginary status of New Athens. “What happened” to the world (why there’s an Old City at all, essentially) is explained in Star Warsesque straightforward texposition. The reader is not expected to recognise the details–this isn’t just a trace of real life. The idea of Athens as a relevant city has been used to build a new concept of The Place To Be, much as Shirow’s nose contours, high hip bones, and energetic linearity have been appropriated into a new and lively action-futurism. Milonogiannis doesn’t patchwork together scenes, implications and motifs the way Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex’ mastermind Kamiyama does, but he’s culturally eloquent on a level comparable in its creative repurposing. Kamiyama’s series didn’t “look like” Shirow’s work in ways that Milonogiannis’ does and vice versa. Both seem to have read the whole cyberfuturism library and come out powerful.
There are bad things in that library, of course, and one can pick up those evil powers along with the good. Old City Blues’ early volumes are not without the odd asinine visual choice, pun intended. Milonogiannis, still evolving as an artist and individual, acknowledges the shame of it:
“[…T]he way I treated Thermidor is just unacceptable. I had Newberg who is supposedly her buddy and partner, make a joke about her period, among other stuff. All the characters treat each-other kinda passive-aggressively in that first book, and Thermidor seems to get the worst of it. There are also too many shots of her butt and not enough of the guys’, and it’s boring.
And there’s also the backup short in that first book that’s extremely dumb. The entire thing hinges on the idea that Solano should be ashamed for being beaten by a woman, or that others would make fun of him, and Thermidor makes a deal with him about not telling.
On one hand, it’s hilariously/depressingly immature of me but on the other hand, it’s stuff that’s out there for people to read and project themselves onto and try to relate to, and I can’t see how anyone did that without cutting me some major slack.
I have plenty of regrets overall, but the casual sexism creeps me out the most.”
Someone familiar with Shirow’s first volume of Ghost in the Shell might respond to the period joke as a callback, those willing to cut the book (and its cartoonist) some kind of slack perhaps able to due to that sense of forefathering. Milonogiannis takes that off the table:
“I honestly can’t even remember if it was on purpose, but I’m gonna guess it was just a coincidence or an accidental swipe. It’s funny looking at it now, because in GITS, there’s at least some interesting ideas that come up from mentioning the Major’s period. The way Newberg off-handedly scolds Thermidor is just so typical of a guy (me) not even trying to understand women.”
Why has this invasive gendered gaze been phased out? Because change isn’t worth fearing:
“I’m still hugely self-centered, but growing up I’ve started thinking about and listening to others a little more, in real life, and maybe that carried into comics. I care more about the people who read it now, and especially after realizing how willing everyone has been to overlook a lot of crap, just trying to be entertained.
OCB is strangely personal and over the few years it’s been going, the errors get to be very obvious and glaring–so looking back to old issues can be eye-opening. It’s almost like a journal, and I can go back and see who I was at the time and then try to realign the comic with who I’d rather be now. But of course I still fuck up, so it’s an ongoing thing.”
A reboot in a cyberpunk comic makes thematic (even linguistic) sense. Why stick with mistakes that have been recognised? Cybernetic existentialism tells us “all we are is our memories,” and a journal, as Milonogiannis compares OCB to, is an external stimulus of memory. As Milonogiannis says,
“[…A] reboot wouldn’t erase the previous mistakes and pretending it doesn’t exist would probably just feel disingenuous and maybe unfair to the characters who are finally getting their deserved attention. For now I feel it makes more sense to acknowledge the dumb stuff and try to get better.
I think the stories are fairly self-contained if someone wants to skip the old stuff for now.”
Old City Blues updates in fits and spurts. Take your choice of where to dive in here.