Jan 9, 2013

Pop Medicine: Ghost in the Shell vs. Watchmen

Pop Medicine is a "visiting" column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

Ghost in the Shell vs. Watchmen
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

“You choose the reflection in the mirror… because the universe is asymmetrical.”

Why is Ghost in the Shell so rarely discussed in these “Nothing is better than Watchmen” bouts? Ghost in the Shell 2? The Ghost in the Shell Cycle? It’s no less intricately and poetically arranged, no less mature, and arguably no less sexist or classist than Watchmen, about as equal in breadth of relevance and limitations thereof. The characters seem more genuine to me, and certainly attract me more. The world and political machinations are more plausible and less a stacked deck, to my way of thinking. It has better action sequences. And, no one has ever made the argument that Ghost in the Shell or its sequels require a working knowledge of anything it metatextually comments on.

I’m not saying Ghost in the Shell is perfect. I’m not saying Ghost in the Shell 1.5 or 2 aren’t without their flaws. But Watchmen is hella flawed even in respect to the structuralism and constrained comics aspects, which most can agree to admire it for (myself included), as it does not adhere to any of the constraints issue to issue unflaggingly. Everything has flaws. Watchmen’s gape, to me, like suppurating wounds. While, I sort of like Ghost in the Shell’s lapses. The cut pages. The altered plans that necessitate 1.5. The disregard for preserving the fourth wall much at all, allowing Masamune Shirow to talk directly to the audience at length in a thousand little footnotes, even apologizing when he goes for a dramatic layout or avoids plausible scenarios because he would rather draw something else. Shirow’s addresses to the audience buoy me along the primary story, truth be told, while even when I was younger, if I tried to reread some Watchmen, I’d mostly stick to the backmatter.

The consistent techniques of Ghost in the Shell are fantastic and feel fresh to me each time because they never feel desperate for attention the way some of Moore and Gibbons’ can. Looking at chapter 02, Super Spartan, I can see so many echoes happening and they all flow and seem almost unintentional, from our protagonist, Major Kusanagi’s hurting hand paralleled in the hand injury of a worker, to that same worker receiving a zap to the head while she’s suffering her headache. Her body language in that chapter and others is constantly echoed by others in adjacent panels or the mirroring page. This was often the argument for keeping in the sex scene of a later chapter, as some of it is mirrored on the preceding page by a colleague of Kusanagi’s, Batou.

Still in Chapter 02, when Kusanagi is spying on kids in the teaching-machine, she appears at the top of the page in a panel that has a clean straight gutter leading down, not across. While you should read across, then downward, if you follow that line, you find the youth she’s spying on, who then freaks out, yelling, “The universe is falling in on me!” in echo of where and how Kusanagi will end up at the end of the comic, but also visually, they share body language and panel placement, and… Kusanagi’s on the next page has her staring into a monitor not showing the youth, but her own reflection in the glass.

This sort of echo seems, to me, at least as beautiful as the smiley faces and streaks echoed in Watchmen, and considerably more subtle and plausible in the moment. Not that there’s any way to prove the second, there; it just feels that way to me.

And, the ending? The big plan and its after effects? Does anyone believe the plan in Watchmen worked? At all? And have any of you sat with it and really considered the philosophical and sociopolitical implications of both the plan and it’s potential success? For any real length of time? I kinda doubt most have. But I don’t know anyone who’s read Ghost in the Shell, its sequels, or seen the movie, without at least one night where the branching and bleeding and breeding of shared, copied, and splintered identity was mulled over.

Let me remind you, this is a comic where the only pages without speed lines on them have explosions instead. It’s not a dry philosophical treaty, or tight, intentional political allegory in play-by-play. But, again, Watchmen isn’t, either.

We treat Watchmen, sometimes, as if it is this self-sufficient world Gibbons and Moore built, that it’s a substantially intricate allegory. It’s not. Nixon-for-life should tell you that. It’s a stacked deck designed to make us feel squicky and depressed, so when a few small nice things happen we gush. If love changed the world for Doctor Manhattan in a happier story, we wouldn’t much care. It’s big stuff in Watchmen, because it happens in the wake of tons of shitty events and things like Manhattan letting someone be shot and killed in front of his face decades, but mere pages, earlier. But it’s, again, a stacked deck that he’s drifting off from his lover anyway, the easiest way all love triangles go in fiction (and that, for what it is, is alright).

We are not allowed to treat Ghost in the Shell as self-sufficient. Shirow invades the comic and reminds us, especially in the sequels, that he’s deciding this stuff, and sometimes he re-decides. It still has a wider range of genders, ethnicities, nationalities, and identifiable economic classes than Watchmen. (For what that’s worth.)

So, is it that Watchmen avoids spectacle for slowly entering a situation as often as it can? We see things in cinematic, slow slices, or after the fact, before the bomb, but rarely does Watchmen take us through a fight, a flight, a flare up in a way that’s meant to incite excitement or appear bigger than life. It’s intentionally subdued and often ironic. Does Ghost in the Shell get cut out for being an action comic with a lot of romantic visuals? Or, is it simply that Watchmen’s release was a watershed moment, and since Ghost in the Shell was not, by that comes the tendency to disregard it as a comparable work?

They’re both widely recognized as thought-provoking, intricate comics. They are frequently lauded and of the few comics I’ve noticed the English-language manga camp and American-comics camp will at least acknowledge the one not belonging to them. It’s sometimes thrown in as a contender for the “As Good as Watchmen” or “Better Than…” prize, but a comparison is rarely, if ever, considered at length, turned over in depth, and why not?

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