Masamune Shirow is the Frank Miller of manga. That’s because it’s hard to overstate the contributions of both men to the medium of comics in their heydays, and the works they created are still being drawn upon for adaptations in other media. They also experienced a sharp decline in their standing within the industry after releasing sequels to their best-known works, “The Dark Knight Strikes Again” for Miller, and “Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface” for Shirow. Since then, subsequent projects haven’t done much to re-endear them to fans. Most people are split between whether or not “All-Star Batman” is “so bad it’s good” or “just plain bad” while “Holy Terror” was a weak attempt to mine post-9/11 sentiment for drama. As for Shirow, I never got around to reading “Ghost in the Shell 1.5: Human-Error Processor” because part two was just that bad. These days it appears that he only gets out of bed to illustrate porn.
Currently, both creators are working with additional talent for their latest works. Miller is co-writing the third “Dark Knight” series with Brian Azzarello while Andy Kubert provides the bulk of the art. Shirow… well, he’s not really collaborating with Rikdou Koushi for “Pandora in the Crimson Shell.” He only provided the story and background for this title and let the “Excel Saga” creator run with it. It’s not so much a collaboration as one creator imposing his style on another’s idea. For what it is, “Pandora” is pretty harmless.
Nanakarobi Nene is a full-body cyborg -- someone who has had their entire body replaced by robotic parts, except for their brain -- on her way to visit her aunt on the ultra-exclusive high-tech city-island of Cenancle. While on the boat, she meets eccentric inventor Uzal Delilah and her full-body cyborg assistant Clarion. Nene takes an instant liking to her fellow full-body with the maid outfit and cat ears (which she is warned to not touch at the threat of being erased from existence) while Uzal finds the girl’s presence and personality verrrry interesting.
Things get even more interesting when they arrive on Cenacle and violence breaks out. It’s quickly revealed that Uzal is the member of a secret organization whose members are in the process of staging a mutiny. Unfortunately, the mutineers prove to be unable to control the robots they’ve unleashed and proceed to beg their deposed leader to bail them out of this jam. Recruiting that Nene is an adeptor -- an individual who has perfectly acclimated to the challenges of operating a cyborg body -- Uzal recruits the girl to help stop the robot attack. With the help of the Pandora system, everyone involved may just be able to get out of this alive.
Though the color pages which open this volume indicate that “Pandora” is going to be the yuri action-movie version of “Chobits,” it winds up not being as salacious as first indicated. The fanservice is relatively tame, being limited to a few panty shots, naked cyborks, and bikini-clad henchwomen. Even the opening pages, which show Nene inserting her hand into Clarion’s crotch turn out to be a bit of a bait-and-switch as we see later on in the manga that her hand is put into a panel above that crotch in order to activate the Pandora system. I’m not complaining. If I wanted real service I could just go check out some of Shirow’s latter-day works.
What this series ultimately winds up being is a fast-paced sci-fi action series with a healthy dose of comedy. Koushi’s style is grounded in the comedic and the end result is consistently amusing, if not really laugh-out-loud funny. That’s probably down to the fact that most of the humor is drawn from relatively familiar sources. Things like Nene fawning over Clarion’s cuteness, the incompetence of Uzal’s subordinates, and the “Excel”-level bad luck of the reporter commenting on the chaos enveloping the island. Basically, nothing I haven’t seen done before.
As for the action, Koushi keeps things moving at a steady clip throughout, so I was never bored by what was going on. There are some decent action setpieces, like the assault on Buer at the end of the volume, yet nothing that stands out as truly exceptional. If you come into this series expecting its action to compare with the work Shirow himself has done in “Appleseed” then you’re going to be disappointed. What you get here is competency that gets the job done with a little bit of flash to go along with it.
Then again, if you’re going into this expecting to see a lot of Shirow’s style at all that disappointment is likely going to be quite bitter. Koushi imprints his own sensibility through the work that if you didn’t know the legendary mangaka was involved in this beforehand you wouldn’t have been able to suss out his influence. I can see some of his ideas at work in the concept of “adeptors,” the attacking robots, and the Pandora system, but Shirow’s presence is fleeting at best.
Except at the end where the mangaka provides a mini-essay about how this series came to be. Easily the most interesting thing about “Pandora,” this manga began life as a plan for an anime that never came to fruition. Not wanting to let things go to waste, Shirow’s editor suggested that he let another mangaka have a crack at it and Koushi wound up with the opportunity. Why didn’t Shirow do it himself? Apparently he feels that his style is “old,” it’d be too reminiscent of “Ghost in the Shell,” sluggish, and not cheerful enough. Well, if the mangaka feels that he’s lost the ability to deliver up the things that made “Dominion: Conflict” his best series, then it’s probably for the best that he handed this off to Koushi and spent the last several years drawing porn.
In all honesty, I went into this expecting a trainwreck since Shirow and Koushi’s sensibilities are so different. The fact that I ended up with a harmless piece of sci-fi action/comedy fluff isn’t really a net loss or gain based on that. I’ll probably pick up the second volume just to see if it develops into anything more or less than this. As for now, “Pandora” doesn’t suggest that we’re any worse for having Shirow’s interest directed at pursuits other than making manga. Whether or not I’ll feel the same about Frank Miller after the next “Dark Knight” series… Nah, that’s not true. Unlike Shirow, I think I can go the rest of my life without seeing Miller serve up actual porn.