“What needs to be true in this world for this story to be true?”

While I was watching Manila Skies, I kept being reminded of a favorite comic, Battle Angel Alita.

Battle Angel Alita is a Japanese Manga title featuring an assassin cyborg who looks like the average Japanese school girl fantasy—just built with a plasma laser in her fingers, and legs capable of running along her opponent’s chain-link weapon while he’s trying to hit her with it, so she can then kick him in the face.

Alita’s first issue is devoted to her discovery in a junk yard by a gentle robot scientist named Ido, who finds her decapitated but still beautiful cyborg head in deep hibernation amid the trash piles that surround the floating city overhead. Earth has been divided steeply into haves and have nots, and in this future, the haves live in a city above the surface of the world, where they are apparently free from conflict and disease and poverty, all of that being on the Earth’s surface, along with the rejects from that world, who will never be able to enter or return—Ido being a former inhabitant of this paradise.

When I teach comics, I begin by asking my students of the text, “What needs to be true in this world for this story to be true?” All comics pose as alternate realities where the world is like this one except for ______________. So, for example, to believe in Superman’s story, you need to believe that an alien race that seems to exactly resemble humanity would, under our sun’s radiation, give that alien specimen invulnerable skin, heat vision, x-ray vision and flight, as well as amplified hearing and breath.

This difference creates a gap, between our world and the comic’s, in which the story is possible. But that gap is also a rear-view mirror.

What needs to be true for Alita to be true is that humanity is freely willing to attach its human parts to machines in order to survive. And that there is a permanent underclass.  The open question of Battle Angel Alita’s stories is, yes, “How much ass can she kick this time?” (Answer: really a lot). But also, the other open question is “How much of my humanity can I lose and still be human?”

I ask these students this question because the answers offer clues into the culture, comics being a sort of collective of fantasies conjured in the face of our fears about sex and death. Superman isn’t just invulnerable to harm, but (and this is theoretical) also to sexual rejection and the loss of his beauty. His invulnerability and strength are not so subtle metaphors for virility—he’s like a permanently erectible penis.

As is Alita, though she needs Ido to return her to life.

Every now and then I take a picture of what I’m reading, to understand what my obsessions are and what is driving me. I don’t exempt anything. At some point, after the 9th or 10th volume, each of them 9.95 a pop, I turned my attention to this and I asked myself why I was reading this comic.  The answer? She’s an amnesiac but memories come to her in battle, and so she fights, first as a bounty hunter, then as a gladiator in a mechanized death-match roller derby, and then as a sort of wandering ronin, needing these fights to trigger her memories and return her to herself. The spectacle, of her fighting in order to get her memories of herself back, this was what made it different from all of the other hack-and-slash Mangas with swordfighters, ninjas and cyborgs.  Most of those other heroes just wanted to fight. Alita wanted to know who she was and what had happened to her.

I also ask questions as to why I teach a text, when I do. I taught Alita in the first of the graphic novel seminars I offered during my time at Amherst College as their Visiting Writer. What became clear over the course of the semester is that this permanent underclass—and a permanent overclass— was a character in other comics as well. Frank Miller’s Ronin, for example. It was often set in the future but not always:  in Akimi Yoshida’s Banana Fish, the popular Japanese Manga credited with being the reason so many Japanese people moved to New York, the permanent underclass struggles to not know what it is. It has, as a group, the opposite mission to Alita’s. And yet the end of Banana Fish has all of the figures permanently in their places, their class positions being, horribly, the real winners at the end.

Alita’s mission as a person, beyond her wish to know herself, is to unify the two classes. And the story at the level of plot is of the people who have a vested interest in this separation, who make money off of it, in an all-out war against her, determined to stop her.

That this story is among the next James Cameron means to bring to the screen (he has the option on it) is interesting. I wonder how much of the plot he’ll retain.

I’ve begun re-reading the series, and will be posting on it, and all of this, again soon.


  1. In American comics, at least, I think the idea of a permanent underclass is kind of subversive. (Offhand, Frank Miller is the only writer I can think of who even goes there – see also the Martha Washington books and, in a very different way, Sin City.) Social class operates outside the traditional comic book good vs. evil dichotomy. In fact, superheroes are generally professionals (Superman and Spider-Man are journalists; Daredevil is a lawyer; The Incredible Hulk is a scientist). Nobody deconstructs Bruce Wayne’s privileged upbringing. He kicks ass because he’s a good guy with a dark past, and his opponents are generally motivated by greed or psychosis, not desperation. The only possible exception I can think of in mainstream superhero books is the X-Men, but although they face discrimination, social class doesn’t enter into it — they are, after all, students at an exclusive boarding school.

    What the “permanent underclass” aspect does is it adds an additional layer of complexity to the characters’ motivations. They’re not “just good” or “just evil” anymore; they’re formed by social factors beyond their control, which are more fundamental to their identity than alien origins / cosmic rays / traumatic childhood experiences.

    Sounds practically Marxist.

    1. Yes, I’ve read all of those books, and yet I don’t find it subversive, in say, Miller’s Ronin—there it seems more of an inherited feature from his reading Japanese comics. Why do you think it is subversive? Is it subversive to portray a permanent underclass in an American comic, and in America? That does go against the country’s idea of itself, and in that case I’d agree.

      1. That’s basically what I meant. A superhero is the consummate individual and the symbol of American individualism, so bringing social class into the picture changes everything. This is especially true in the case of a permanent underclass from which individuals cannot escape Horatio Alger-style.

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