Kenichi Sonoda's original "Gunsmith Cats" series is not a timeless classic, but it was a very entertaining series that was a cornerstone of manga released in America for its time. Mention this series to any fan who is old enough to remember when Viz and Dark Horse published the vast majority of their series in single issue form and they'll probably tell you how cool it was. Not only was it one of the few releases at the time to take place in America (Chicago, specifically), but it served up a stylish and entertaining mix of action, comedy and girls with guns. The adventures of gunsmith/bounty hunter Rally Vincent and her sexpot/explosive-mongering pal Minnie May may not have been classic tales to stand the test of time, but they were certainly entertaining. While the series was popular enough to be re-issued in four uncensored and unflopped omnibus editions, Dark Horse has also been publishing Sonoda's follow-up series "Burst" for the past few years now.
The fifth and final volume came out a few weeks ago and it proved to be a dispiriting capper to what has been a decisively underwhelming series. (Spoilers for the end after the break.)
I was originally very disappointed with the first volume, but it doesn't seem so bad in retrospect now. In addition to Rally and May, info-dealer Becky, lesbian cat-burglar Misty, ace transporter "Bean Bandit" and the rest of the supporting cast return for a story that starts off with Rally tracking down a low-level mafioso who has stolen a fortune from his gang. As the chase leads her to cross paths with Bean, the mafioso's crew steals Rally's signature Shelby Cobra GT-500 and plans to use it in a terrorist attack in order to get her to turn the goon over to them. My first read-through of this storyline left me with the feeling that I had just reunited with a friend I hadn't seen in years... who hadn't changed or had anything new to say since I last saw him. The storyline didn't really give me the feeling that Sonoda brought back the series because he had anything new to say about the characters, but it at least showed that he hadn't lost his knack for knowing how to stage an exciting gun battle or car chase. He's a true gun otaku, and his knowledge of firearms and their capabilities always enhances an action scene.
Volumes two and three proceed in much the same fashion with stories that involve Bean getting mixed up in drug deal, and the gang getting mixed up in a V-8 engine race Bean figures heavily into both of these arcs (to the exclusion of the main cast in vol. 2), and he even gets a nemesis in the form of Percy, a cop so obsessed with taking him out that he's willing to bend the law any way he can to do it. While I think Bean's a great character, the fact that these volumes are so heavily focused on his actions gives one the feeling that Sonoda was bored with the girls and wanted to focus on him instead. That said, after I had adjusted my expectations from the first volume, these volumes provided some good examples of the the action and style that I had come to expect from the series. Bean's one-man assault on an organized crime compound and the V-8 race that nobody wins are particular highlights. So as long as the series kept delivering thrills like these, I was content to keep following it even if Sonoda's heart didn't really seem to be in it.
Then he brought back Goldie in volume four and the series promptly jumped the shark.
For those of you who haven't read the original series, all you need to know was that Goldie was the series "big bad:" a gangster with a sadistic streak, an knack for whipping up potent mind-controlling drugs, and a desire to own Rally Vincent, mind, body, and soul. The last we saw of her in the series revealed that she was still alive, but without her memory. It's a familiar kind of cop-out that leaves the threat neutralized, but the door open for the author to bring her back. Unfortunately Sonoda does this in a way that betrays the intelligence and any kind of instinct for self-preservation that Rally has.
You see, after a hitman starts offing Goldie's crew in her home, Rally negotiates a deal with her lieutenant Dennis for safe passage from the premises for her and Misty. This is after Dennis had told her that he wanted her help to restore Goldie's memory in exchange for freedom. After the hitman gets what's coming to him, Rally, Goldie, and Dennis find themselves in a scene not unlike the one where Goldie originally lost her memory. Rally then utilizes to familiarity of the scenery to trigger the recall of Goldie's memory.
If you read that last part and went, "Why did she even do that if she had already negotiated safe passage out of there?" or better still, "WHAT! THE! HELL!" then you can see my problem with Sonoda's decision. The smart money would've been to stop reading the series there, but at the time I figured that Sonoda would've only brought back Goldie like this if he had a really good story to tell. (That, and volume five was solicited as the last volume so I figured I'd see it through to the end.) As I'm writing all this, I can only shake my head and marvel at how stupid I was for thinking so.
Bean Bandit's conflict with Percy is the only thread that gets a somewhat satisfactory treatment in volume five as their high-speed car chase is pretty entertaining and ultimately sheds some light on the cop's motivations. Nothing is resolved in the end, but that's par for the course with this volume. Goldie is back in action with an even more powerful drug that she has decided to try out on Misty, who visits Rally, May and Becky at their shop to tell her that she's decided to stay with the gangster of her own free will. And no, she insists, she hasn't been brainwashed AT ALL. Her friends rightly see through this and start researching in their own ways to find out how to break the hold of the drug. Unfortunately all of their efforts are fruitless, and we're informed by May's granny friend in Chinatown that having Goldie claw her way to the top of the organized crime heap is actually a good thing because she favors stability over all-out war. So our heroines give up and Misty stays with Goldie, but not after getting a nice long parting kiss from Rally. Then Sonoda promptly decides to dismantle the entire status quo of the series in series of one-panel vignettes that has everyone splitting up and Rally closing down her shop to go fight in Iraq. THE END.
It's an ending that has all the charm of a bitter comic book store owner telling his customers to get out so he can burn the place down and collect on the insurance. I don't know why Sonoda came back to the series to end it like this, but the events of the last two volume reek of the actions of a man who had no idea what he wanted to do with this series. It's not the best comparison, but while Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Strikes Again" wasn't a very good sequel, you could feel the mad glee he had from tearing down everything he had built up in "The Dark Knight Returns." Here, it's just a creator on autopilot going through the motions, and striking out blindly in the hope that something, anything will bring back the inspiration he had from his previous series. In the end, nothing clicked and he decided to finish things off in a way that lets us know he won't be coming back again. After reading these five volumes, I can only hope that he doesn't.