The Sound of Its Engine
Travis Hedge Coke
“Gun oil and gunpowder, my favorite fragrances… I like the smell of this case, too.”
Gunsmith Cats, Revised Edition vol. 1
Gunsmith Cats was Kenichi Sonoda’s outlet for producing stories about sexy people doing badass things with a wide variety of carefully-detailed firearms, explosives, and motor vehicles. In comics, generally all you need to represent a gun is a trigger and a barrel and many many pencilers dislike drawing the complexities of cars, so you get a lot of generalized boxes on wheels. You can tell a Sonoda comic because every gun is specific, each car chosen for its design aesthetic as well as its stats (or whether it’s appeared in a famous movie), but it is the most useful machine of your life, mine, and his, that is shown off the best in Gunsmith Cats: the human being.
Named for the Chicago gun shop and shooting range run by Rally Vincent and her assistant, May Hopkins, most of the comic is motivated by their sideline of bounty hunting and a habit of racking up violent pull-out-all-the-stops enemies. Characters and their tools are treated with the excitement of a little kid who’s just learned how fun it is to use those spring-powered cars you roll back so they’ll throw themselves forward, in order to make two or more cars crash into each other. Even action figures with “action features” can’t really have an elaborate fight, but that’s never stopped children from picking two up and ramming them against each other. Nor, has that ever stopped other kids from making their dolls kiss in roughly the same way. Sonoda, in Gunsmith Cats, is racing his cars into each other, smashing his people against each other.
Sonoda’s comic is as much about the limitations of machinery, including the human body and brain, as he is with the range of pressure they can handle, speeds they can achieve, or inventive novelty uses they can be put to. Rally’s car is jacked up significantly no less than three times in the first six chapters, between being rammed by other cars, shot up, and used as a battering ram to get inside a warehouse quickly. It can be repaired, of course, as soon as parts are available and someone has time to install them. When human beings are jacked up, though, shot, mutilated, or simply disturbed, they take longer to recover. You can’t just jam a new hand on someone and all’s better, or install new ribs and slap a new panel where the bruises are.
Rally and her partner and best friend, May do some ridiculously amazing things over the course of the comic, like Rally’s signature move of shooting the hammer off the other person’s gun, but these abilities, like all of Bean’s ridiculous arsenal or Gray or Bonnie’s weaponized prostheses, are treated as novelties. Rally can shoot the hammer off a pistol, yeah, but she’s got to have a great firearm, a clean shot, little in the way of distractions, and mostly she’s just shooting at the gun. Bean surviving being shot up more than once because he’s walking around in body armor even though he’s just going to a strip club is less than miraculous given that he just always walks around wearing armor in his clothes.
Even if you are really good at something, significantly practiced, some dirt in your eyes, bruised ribs, a bad morning, or a death in the family can completely take you off your game. Most action stories focus on people putting all that aside and batting a thousand anyway, but human beings don’t work that way. You can’t just turn your emotions off or “ignore the pain” and act with total accuracy as if the pain isn’t indicative of physical damage. If you lose a thumb or a friend, it hurts, and that pain is real. It will affect you. Which, shouldn’t need spelling out, but genre conventions say you can ignore these things. “Cool guys don’t look at explosions,” right? They always look away and walk calmly and slowly from the bomb. There’s a reason Will Ferrell made fun of that so hard.
But, Gunsmith Cats isn’t a bunch of weepy people wincing as they pull their triggers and crying into their cordite. Gunsmith Cats moves faster, smoother, and more dynamically than any motion comic ever, and more than most movies, when you get down to it. Car chases are fast, intense, and when the car drifts or turns or brakes there is momentum, there is force. If you want to turn left hard and at high speed, you have to be prepared to have your body thrown, in the car, to the right. And, you can’t let go of the wheel.
What’s cool is seeing them handle that, take the pressure, take the turns, and keep one foot on the gas and one hand out the window to pitch a grenade back at the bastards in the van with the absurdly high-end engine gaining from behind. When Rally, hands tied in front of her, gets a small pistol and shoots, at close range, both of her captors (prompting them to shoot straight across at each other, there’s just as much chance she’ll get shot, but it’s a chance and she takes it. And, because she’s got her hands tied and she’s holding a little holdout piece, when more guys come with machineguns, she doesn’t stand there firing, she runs for cover and doesn’t look back. Rally and May take huge risks, they kick a lot of ass, but they’re not stupid. They’re not suicidal.
Well, they’re not that suicidal.
The villains build, over time, starting from the psychotic Bonnie and the super angry bully from hell, Gray, who loses a hand and replaces it with a big fucking knife that he puts on a car spring so it can launch off. That’s coping right there. Mad coping skills. They climax, for me, with Goldie, the drug-dealing Mafioso murderer with a harem of brainwashes sex servants, assassins, and human shields. Something weird happens between the time Sonoda stopped doing Gunsmith Cats and when he returned for a couple short stories and then Burst: Bonnie becomes the devil you know. She has her own, often unwilling trajectory towards maturation, and her rage and competitiveness are something Rally can sympathize with even if she doesn’t want to. This is a woman who destroyed Rally’s father’s life, inadvertently also shaping Rally’s, a hateful, rape-happy horror, but she’s also acting out of desperation to prove herself, and conviction that her way is better.
Should that stop a hero from doing right? No, it shouldn’t. But it can. And, more, Goldie, eventually, is so big how do you take her out? Her whole deal is that she’ll put anyone in front of her to stop a bullet. She’ll drug up a teenager and send her out holding a pistol to her head, ready to kill herself for Goldie. She’ll send out cannon fodder in waves. Blow up an office building. Rape your daddy right in front of you and dare you to do a damned thing about it.
Sometimes, a crime is so big, society works smoother if you ignore the crime. Sometimes a crime is so small, it’s easier to let it go than spend time and money and risk death to shut it down. Crime isn’t monolithic, it’s not “the other side of the fence.” It’s something we are all complicit in, from jaywalking and downloading illegal mp3s to holding a friend’s pot stash for a week or taking a cut from a prostitution ring, buying illegally modified guns, bombing a country, killing your neighbor. There’s a difference in scale, of course, between all these crimes, and there are levels of complicity, but that scale is often internally appraised. We know the law’s gradation, but we, too, each know our internal scale, our own limitations, what we can do casually, what we can do under pressure, and what we just don’t want any part of.
Even early on, Rally and May find that no matter how slimy the criminal, there’s no reason someone on the side of the law might not ally themselves with the bastards. Police chiefs, security guards, district attorneys, governors, attorneys… housewives, accountants, and waitresses… anyone can act criminally. Anyone can betray their basic ethics for “the bigger picture,” all it takes is convincing them. Some do it for more money, some do it to save lives, to avoid pain, because they’re mad. You don’t trust people, or work with them, because you know they can’t ever betray you. Trust and cooperation are committed to despite never being able to fully know if someone else is on your side or being entirely honest.
Rally and May break tons of laws, themselves, as do most of their friends. Law, itself, is never positioned as a holy or great thing in Gunsmith Cats, but as a system. As long sas the system is workable, it’s worth committing to, but where it is less beneficial, it can be circumvented or fought against, and they do. May’s boyfriend made bombs for terrorists and mobsters, and shacked up with her when she was thirteen. Rally has a small arsenal of illegal firearms stashed away. Bean “Mister Big Jaw” Bandit is a professional getaway man. Rally’s police contact, Roy, pretends very well to not notice she’s using fake ID, only nineteen, and constantly acting out of her jurisdiction. Roy seems not to care so much that she’s breaking the law, but he clearly worries when she’s risking her safety or endangering her health. Roy’s old enough to know that no nineteen year old knows everything, but he’s also old enough to know that him having a good number of years on Rally does not mean he knows her situation better than Rally herself might.
About friends and family, law and order, contracts and stand offs, Gunsmith Cats has some of the finest shootouts and best car chases and coolest fights in all of comics. It supports this mix of human interaction and high-octane violence by having everyone act as robustly individual as people do in real life. Each and every character in the comic, from bounty hunters and lawyers to burglars, hookers, and little kids act as if they are the star in a production of One Woman’s War. May is the hero of her own story. Bean’s life is one big action movie with him in the title role. Rally has lived, and will always live fighting. For none of them, is it ever a case of “what can people do for me,” even if they ally with others or use others. It’s “what can I do,” through and through. It’s about taking action.