When the volume begins, it seems like business as usual. Yes, there’s planetary-level chaos after the climax of the Zenith of Things Tournament (ZOTT) and the majority of the opening chapter is a three-way conversation between two A.I. entities and Alita, but this is that kind of series. We get plenty of melodrama as the title character goes through her latest bout of self-doubt-contemplation-reaffirmation and establishes a new status quo for the series to go forward from. That’s what I was expecting to read about in the following chapters.
What we wind up getting is much, much different. In form and content.
The cover to vol. 18 is your first hint that something’s up. It has been a long, loooooooong time since we’ve seen Figure Four. (A few lifetimes for Alita herself and over a decade for anyone who has read the original manga.) Positioned as a human fighter who could go toe-to-toe with the titular cyborg, Figure was also set up to be her main romantic interest before effectively disappearing after his introductory arc. When we find him here, he’s been living the easy life on the coast as a fisherman and constantly honing his fighting skills. It isn’t until a merchant shows up with one of Alita’s old guns and the story that someone got it off of the corpse of the “Angel of Death” that he shucks the easy life and heads out into the badlands to find out what happened to the love of his life.
Backing up for a bit, all of this takes place eleven months prior to the first chapter in this volume so when Figure comes across “Alita” being chased by someone else… Well, attentive readers will be able to do the math. (In German, of course.) After this encounter leaves the fighter broken and bloody, he manages to make his way down a nearby river to a place called Farm 21. There, a kindly cybernetic doctor named Ido and his skilled, capoeira-wielding assistant Kayna take him in and begin his recovery. Things are going fine for everyone until a wacky set of circumstances, it involves a robot with a stretched-skin face and brain-zapper, has everyone on the Farm and the surrounding areas thinking that Ido is actually Desty Nova. Calamity subsequently ensues.
Now that the ZOTT is finally over, it’s not surprising that mangaka Yukito Kishiro decided a change of scenery was in order. That Alita only factors into this new “Alita Quest” arc in a peripheral manner isn’t much of an issue either. Remember, this is a series that shunted its main character into the background for two volumes while we found out the secret role a group of vampires played in the forging of this world. So if we’re going to play catch-up with members of the original series’ supporting cast I don’t have a problem with that. As it stands in theory.
What’s troubling is that the series now feels a whole lot simpler and less interesting as a result. Gone are the lengthy expositions from the characters about their motivations, histories, and fighting styles. All of the philosophical and tech tangents that warranted detailed footnotes from Kishiro have been dialed way, way back. Also, the density of plot has effectively been done away with as the “Alita Quest” arc is so far a simple tale of Figure trying to find the cyborg he loves and then (along with the rest of the cast) dealing with the chaos that erupts from the “Ido is Nova” misunderstanding.
It’s all straightforward shonen fighting action now and if I wanted to read that I’d just go pick up another Jump title that isn’t “Bakuman.” Yes, this is what “Alita” has always been at its core, but Kishiro built a fascinating world and characters around it and elevated the material through the sheer amount of detail he put into it. There’s also the fact that he’s a truly gifted action storyteller and produces some of the best, and most thoughtful, fight scenes in manga. A lot of that feels like it’s missing so far from the “Alita Quest” arc as we’re now dealing with smaller chapters that feel like they’re paced for a faster serialization schedule. That’s understandable since the magazine that currently serializes “Last Order” is published bi-weekly.
Things aren’t all bad, as I do like Figure and Ido and am interested to see what plans Kishiro has for them once this introductory storyline is order. The mangaka also hasn’t lost his skill for creating striking images in his art, even if things don’t have the intricate level of detail they once did. There are also plenty of callbacks here to the original series that serve to give you an idea of how this world has progressed since then. Also, a friend of mine who reads this pointed out to me that the whole setup actually has more in common with the original, now abandoned, ending for “Alita.” The transformation of the end of Ketheres? Figure going on his quest to find Alita? The broad strokes are there and it’s interesting to wonder how long Kishiro has been planning this.
Yet what was once an intricately plotted and detailed sci-fi action story now feels a lot more ordinary and run-of-the mill. The original “Alita” found the following it did in America because it was the right series at the right time. It had cool art, a compelling female protagonist and a supporting cast that was interesting and likeable enough to forgive the more conventional aspects of its storytelling. Also, it arrived before a lot of the tropes of shonen manga were recognized or present in manga out here. “Last Order” stepped up the art and storytelling considerably and I can safely say that volumes one-through-seventeen represent one of the most successful returns a creator has ever made to their signature work. Kenichi Sonoda and Frank Miller can only look at this and weep at their own efforts to do the same.
As for what the future holds… Seventeen great volumes is quite an achievement no matter how you look at it. If this volume represents the absolute future for this series then I’m not sure how willing I’ll be to follow it to the end. Even so, Alita’s return is basically inevitable and one can only hope that “Last Order’s” mojo returns along with her.