Over the last few months I’ve been rereading (or just browsing and scanning) through various title sin my geek library of comics. Started with Terry Moore’s work (Strangers in Paradise, Echo, Rachel Rising #1-30) and then into other books such as Dragonball and Azumanga Daioh. I recently went through and had a quasi reread of the Kenichi Sonoda manga Gunsmith Cats. A book about a pair of Gunsmiths who also work as bounty hunters. Main focus is Rally Vincent-the real gunsmith and markswoman. Her partner is Minnie May Hopkins, a bomb expert. Taking place in Chicago they find themselves getting into all kinds of adventures including dealing with drugs, mob, and just a lot of jerks.
The thing to note about Gunsmith Cats is that it truly is a combination of artist preference and style over substance. Sonoda is about cute girls, tough guys, fast cars, big explosions, and gun culture. Thats what this book is about. The story is simply a backdrop for his preference. There is not a deep story and a lot of problematic stuff (I’ll dig into that a little farther down) but based purely on what the creator wants to do-its excellent.
Sonoda is one of my favorite manga artists and purely one of my favorites. Some artists don’t like drawing cars, Sonoda likes drawing American muscle cars and car chases. Some artists just draw guns-Sonoda educates the reader on guns. Naming the type, the magazines, and at times a bit of the history. Cute girls? Plenty of them and some busty bombshells. Tough guys? Bean bandit in Gunsmith Cats is a seven foot tall monster of a man in a armored jacket and wearing a titanium plate in his bandana and has no problem beating the shit out of people trying to screw him over. Cats is a textbook study in a lot of ways. Framing action-specifically gun use, and how to lay out car chases. Sonoda’s character designs are of that 80s manga style which appeals to me quite a bit. Where the girls had big hair, cute eyes, and there was some sort of synth rock soundtrack. Like in Bubblegum Crisis, which Sonoda was a character designer for.
The gist of the story centers on Rally Vincent who runs her missing fathers Gunshop and works as a bounty hunter as a reason to try and locate her father. Interestingly Rally, real name Irene, is a mixed race Indian. Incredibly rare for comics so to have it come from a Japanese creator is even more fascinating. Minnie May, who looks waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay younger than she is, some how ended up as her partner. Her boyfriend was a bomb specialist and taught her everything he knew. They have associates in thief and lock pick expert Misty and information broker Becky Farrah. Rally constantly finds herself involved with the transporter Bean Bandit whether its working together or against each other. Rally gets some help from a Chicago detective Roy but his appearances are more scattered. Rally’s biggest opposition in the series comes from Italian mafia boss, Goldie. A very tall, dangerous, depraved woman who creates a new drug that can brainwash people. Half of the stories seem to involve Goldie.
The first major arc to really get things rolling involve Gray. A crime boss who has some plans about drugs and bombs but really its all set up to bring him into conflict with rally who blows off his hand. After a short break he’s back stealing guns which brings him conflicts with the ladies and once he find out who they are he plans to take them out. Gray is a thorn for a while and while not a terribly interesting bad guy provides enough antagonism to keep the story interesting. Especially when Bean Bandit gets tied up. When helping Gray escape they end up picking up Minnie May in the get away. Bandit has rules and feels May is of no use to Gray and wants her freed but Gray has beef and soon it becomes Grays gang taking on Bean, May and Rally after she tracks them down. There is a brief in between story with Rally tackling a bounty who has some info on Gray, he tries using Rally to get away from his own gang but Rally gets the better of him at then end-I like this short stories.
After they finish Gray comes the first Goldie story which might be the best of them all. Misty, the lock pick, is out of jail and looking to make good to a friend by delivering tapes with incriminating evidence on the mob. This makes her a target for Mafioso, Goldie. Misty is able to get the tapes to Rally before getting grabbed and soon a deal has to be made. The first face off between Rally and Goldie leaves a big impression on each. After a brief interlude Goldie is back with a new designer drug making waves. Its also capable of brainwashing and Goldie uses it to get what she wants. She uses the drug on Rally to control her, having her shoot her Detective buddy. Lucky Rally’s friends come to her rescue to try and help her get over the drug and fight back. The ending finds neither winning with Goldie still at large but Rally getting only a little payback.
Possibly the best story of the original series is almost a Rally vs. Bandit story as Rally seeks to win a bet where if she can prevent Bandit form delivering the new drug Kerasine he’ll stop transporting drugs. Bandit is transporting the drug but some aspiring criminals look to take him out, steal the shipment, and make the money. The next big Goldie story has a big climax and gives details on Rally’s missing father and then there is final arc Misty’s Run which is a fine story. The originals series has a non-ending with Rally’s birthday making her reconsider her life but deciding to stick to the bounty hunting business.
After seven years Sonoda returned to the characters and after a couple refresher chapters jumps into the big business. The first arc involves Rally and Bandit getting tied up with a mob account and millions. Its a fine story with some twists and turns and the final story of Rally’s long suffering GT500. The car’s been through chases, gun fights and more but now its gone. I actually was into the Bean bandit story about a cop who has a serious beef with Bean. He wants to kill Bean and in the process its almost like a game. The cop even helps Bean escape and works with criminals to arrange it so it could be him finishing off the transportation. The second time these two go at it is in the middle of an illegal car race. The final arc brings back Goldie and its… disappointing. I will not say much but the series has a tie up that leaves a mix of feelings. Some feeds into the series problematic nature. The others are mix of good and bad. Minnie May gets a happy ending, but Rally… well… I guess its open ending so he can come back to her if he ever wants to.
Now lets talk the problematic. A lot of which is focused on Minnie May. Introduced at age 18 (or was it 17) she is under five feet tall, looks almost like a pre-teen, is established to have been a teenage prostitute and her boyfriend is over 30. Yep, they even got together when she was still under age. I’m more able to catch problematic stuff now than years back but even when I first had the opportunity to read this series I knew that it was wrong. I generally like May-she is a spitfire and likes to blow things up. But she is one of the most oversexualized characters I’ve ever read. Its even worse as she looks so much younger than she is. Constantly reminding people of her age, but even than there is a story where she is disguised as a nine year old girl to help the team assure a man under duress that his daughters okay. Said man was a magician being forced into helping for a robbery because his daughter had a bomb strapped to her. Don’t worry, Ken diffused it and she went back to her dad. Its very sweet ending but during this arc young male friend of the girl remarks about not wanting to leave his 9 year old friend with this creepy old dude who dates a woman that easily confused as younger than she is.
Goldie is an issue too. She’s the evil dyke. She has brainwashed slaves who worship her and yet she cares little about. She is obsessed with Rally at one point, wanting to break her into real submission. Goldie is on the other hand incredibly smart and very dangerous. She’s the sort of villain that is pros and cons. Rally’s biggest issue might just be Kenichi Sonoda being oblivious to it. Rally is pretty much asexual and yet she herself is pretty sexualized. I’m basing her asexuality on the fact the closest thing to attraction she has is the final sequence with Misty as they part ways, and it is possible she might have been falling for her but it could also be because both were sad they would never see one another again. Or maybe she is greysexual. However, that sequence is from his last run of Gunsmith Cats, before that there was a very much a lack of interest in sex, let alone men. Sonoda, as I stated, likes pretty girls and has no problem drawing them naked but little things show too much interest in Rally’s physique other than the random shower scene. How her clothes sometimes tear or even a scene in a hospital her robes are accidentally open for there to be a boob shot. Originally, this was a minor annoyance and I guess it still is because I don’t think Sonoda intending for Rally to be seen as Asexual but its hard not to view her as such after once more plowing through the book. So, because it might just be a readers response I let that slide.
I should also note that the occasional victimization of women is pretty annoying.
Problematic material aside, Gunsmith Cats is not designed to be more than what it appears to be. If you are into comics about cute girls, guns, and fast cars there really is few books who nail it as well as Gunsmith Cats does from an aesthetic standpoint. If you want something deeper this really is not the book for you. For me, its a joy to go back and look at. To admire the art. To wish for the best for these ladies. But it also saddens me that I don’t get the same thrill I once did with the series. Maybe I’ve grown as a reader, or maybe it really is so focused on style there is not enough here to revisit. Either way, Kenichi Sonoda remains a favorite artist and GSC remains something I’m proud I bought.