The James Cameron-produced, Robert Rodriguez-directed film Alita: Battle Angel is now in theaters. The trailers lay out the basics of the story: a beautiful, if strange-looking young woman with a powerful cyborg body lays waste to a slew of mechanized, mohawked villains, but still manages to find time to share a few quiet moments with the scientist who acts as her wonky, bespectacled father figure.
The movie spirals out of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Battle Angel Alita, starting with the basic ingredients and plot of the first arc and adding its own elements. Whether or not you see the movie (for some, it appears the decision to give Alita oversized manga-style eyes is a voyage too far into the Uncanny Valley), the original Alita—and its sequels—are their own awesome cyberpunk thrill ride.
As a manga, Battle Angel Alita mixes dynamic action sequences with a real story, featuring characters who are more than just fighters, but have real personalities as well. The story begins with repairman Daisuke Ido finding a cyborg head, complete with functioning brain, in a junk heap. He names her Alita and builds a body for her out of spare parts—but although he has assembled her, it’s clear from the beginning that she is very much her own person.
Although she has no memory of her previous life, Alita reacts instinctively when she sees Ido in danger, using a set of fighting moves known as Panzer Kunst. Realizing that she has mastered a lost martial art, Ido gives her a new body, one originally designed for a warrior, and the knowledge combined with the upgrades are literally a killer combo. Alita is more than just a fighting robot with a pretty face, though; she is also smart and strategic. Kishiro resists the temptation to let the battle scenes dissolve into a network of speedlines, instead focusing on the important elements and changing angles to show the motion of the characters. (When Alita spins, she does so in a perfect circle, which is both an impressive feat and a beautiful image.) He also populates his story with an assortment of bizarre and intimidating villains, each one imaginatively designed and intricately drawn, and sprinkles footnotes throughout the pages to explain the real and unreal science behind his creations.
The setting for Battle Angel Alita is The Scrapyard, which sits below the floating city of Zalem and is literally its trash heap. Zalem is a refuge for the well-off, while the residents of the Scrapyard have given up on any semblance of civil society. With no police, the hunter-warriors track down and capture criminals for a bounty. That’s Ido’s moonlighting gig, and when Alita decides to follow in his footsteps, massive ass-kicking results.
The first Battle Angel Alita series was published in Japan from 1990 to 1995. It was one of the first manga to be released in English: Viz published it in comic book format starting in 1992, and as graphic novels starting in 1995. Viz also licensed the sequel, Battle Angel Alita: Last Order. The Viz editions of both series are long out of print, but Kodansha has recently republished new editions with a new translation. Battle Angel Alita is 9 volumes long. Battle Angel Alita: Last Order was originally 19 volumes, but Kodansha’s editions cover the same material in five hefty 3-in-1 omnibuses, followed by four single volumes. Four additional stories are collected in another one-off, titled Battle Angel Alita: Holy Night & Other Stories. Finally, Battle Angel Alita: Mars Chronicles is an ongoing series set during an earlier period of Alita’s life; the sixth volume arrives in April.
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