Tokyo Ghost vol. 1: The Atomic Garden

Rick Remender’s creator-owned output through Image can be charitably described as “uneven.”  Though he’s clearly a skilled writer, he needs to find a new approach beyond simply tossing his characters into hopeless situations and then starting to grind them down.  It’s an approach that has worked on “Deadly Class,” is on the verge of breaking “Black Science,” and managed the impressive task of getting me to quit “Low” after one volume.  Now he’s back with a new title that shows him to have ever so slightly tinkered with his established formula.  If that was the only thing “Tokyo Ghost” had to offer then it’d be easy to write off.  As the art comes from the enormously talented Sean Murphy, I’m actually thinking about sticking with it.

The story starts off in the Isles of Los Angeles, circa 2089, and wastes little time in introducing us to our protagonists.  Constables Led Dent and Debbie Decay aren’t so much cops as enforcers for the corporations that oversee the tech-addicted population.  It’s their job to keep psychopaths like the mind-jacking psychopath Davey Trauma from killing off too many people and putting a crimp in the megacorporations’ profits.  This is a world in full bloom of squalor and decay and Debbie wants out before her childhood friend and boyfriend Led’s mind is fully consumed by it.

Fortunately their boss at the Flak Corporation has the “one last job” that will allow them to do that.  While most of the world embraced everything that technology had to offer, Japan wound up going a different way thanks to “Project Akata.”  Not only is it a green paradise, but it also has enough clean water to supply Los Angeles for decades.  Problem is that it’s blanketed in an EMP field that makes a full-scale attack impossible.  Debbie and Led are sent into rectify that problem with the promise that their contracts will be fulfilled after they’re done.  Of course, being sent to a green land without technology is just what Debbie was looking for and what Led needs to get back his mind.  So why would they even bother coming back, let alone finish their mission?

It probably wouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that Remender has a pretty depressing fate in store for his protagonists that will ruin the lives they go on to build in this natural community.  What sets this apart from the writer’s other works is that it shows he at least understands that characters have to be built up before they can be broken down.  Things are pretty bad for Led and Debbie when we first meet them.  He may be a badass fighter, but Led is emotionally and socially shut off from his girlfriend and the world at large.  Debbie is also hopelessly devoted to this guy against her better judgment without a solid plan to free his mind.  When they get to the Tokyo garden, they’re finally able to start letting go of these bad feelings and start becoming real people again.  I’ll also give the writer credit for some amusing sections where his protagonists’ crudeness clashes with the peaceful, laid back vibe projected by the garden’s inhabitants.  These scenes are the best parts of the volume, even though they don’t last for long.

The rest of this volume is basically what you’d expect as things go bad for Led, Debbie, and the community they’ve come to be a part of.  I’d probably have been more involved in it if Remender didn’t make it obvious that was his plan all along.  What with the community member who clearly has a beef with Led making his intentions known as soon as he and Debbie show up.  Then you have the familiar tropes, both with Remender’s style and the genre as well, further diluting my interest in the story.  Without giving too much away, Led and Debbie’s lives are pretty much ruined by the end, even if it’s obvious that the apocalyptic ending we’re served up is a fake-out for a surprise reveal of survival in vol. 2.  Remender’s use of casual-sounding narration during breakneck action scenes is also starting to wear thing.  What was once unique and refreshing now comes off as standard-issue here.  It’s also disappointing to see him take such an obvious binary tract with the world he has created here.  The moral spectrum in “Tokyo Ghost” basically boils down to “Technology=BAD” and “Nature=GOOD.”  This is an obvious approach that has been done before and a lot better elsewhere.  I can’t really get invested in another allegorical attack on the perils of technology when it’s done with so little imagination.

For all of my criticisms, there’s one thing that makes all of them go down significantly easier:  Sean Murphy’s Art.  I’ve said before that he’s one of the best artists working in comics today and he reinforces that opinion further here with some absolutely stunning work.  He makes the urban decay look utterly dazzling to the eye with the intricate detail of the backgrounds and insane action that almost hits “Looney Tunes” levels of insanity, but still maintains enough grounding for the reader to be fully invested in the violence.  Murphy also creates a fully-realized utopia of nature in the Tokyo scenes that really sells its appeal as a paradise that allows Led and Debbie to start the healing process.  That’s the real strength of the art here.  As trite and formulaic as the storytelling gets in this volume, Murphy was still able to sell me on a good deal of it through the strength of his visuals.

If I’m looking forward to anything in the second volume of this series, it’ll be what new sights we get to see in this world.  I can’t say that the story has me all that excited as I believe I know exactly where Remender is heading with things in the short term:  A whole lot of people (or maybe just one special one) turn out to be not dead and Led and Debbie find themselves forced to be apart due to their new status quos.  If nothing else, I hope that this setup provides a decent enough springboard for more fantastic art from Murphy.

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