Return of a Heavy Metal Warrior

by Fred Burke

Xenon, Masaomi Kanzaki's fast-paced heavy metal warrior melodrama, burst noisily onto the U.S. comics scene in late 1987, the year of the American manga explosion. The fourth Viz/Eclipse International title, Xenon, quickly overtook The Legend of Kamui and Area 88 to join Mai, the Psychic Girl at the top of the biweekly manga hit parade.

With the historical/ninja, military/aviation, and literary/psychic bases covered, it had certainly seemed time to roll out a true superhero soap opera, something the manga readers had been clamoring for all summer. Xenon fit the bill, giving us one more view of the huge variety of material being published in Japan.

Having edited the translations of Sanpei Shirato's Kamui (by Satoru Fujii and Toren Smith) and Kaoru Shintani's Area 88 (by Fujii and James Hudnall), I was next up at bat as Fujii's co-translator, under the able editorial guidance of Eclipse's Letitia Glozer and Viz's Abra Numata.

I couldn't have asked for a more entertaining assignment.

The powers that be at Viz and Eclipse may have chosen Xenon for its hot art, cyborg transformations and rip-roaring action, but thrust into the center of Kanzaki's intensely innocent yet gore-filled world, I immediately fell in love with a cast of characters who live on in my mind like old high school friends: Asuka Kano, the valiant bully-fighter and kitten-saver who would be turned into the amnesiac cyborg Xenon; Sonoko, destined to fall pitifully in love with a man she did not understand; Risa, Sonoko's valley girl/ tomboy best friend, afraid of losing her closest compadre; Ryuji, Asuka's ex-rival and a gangleader without a gang, who finally comes to Asuka's aid; Gramps, Sonoko's mad scientist grandfather who created Xenon in the first place; and Yoko, the world-class runner with metal legs who would challenge Asuka's rather dim view of women.

Maybe even more fun were the villains: incredible creeps like Tono, head of the Xenon project, whose powers and abilities we never did quite figure out; Number 204, the assassin cyborg who had a thing about being called "defective"; the Demon Three, disturbingly American mercenaries in exo-skeletons; Bluebeard and Redbeard, zombies on drugs complete with an army of attack monkeys; and of course, their creator, the bad mad scientist who would finally stand up against his old rival, the good mad scientist Gramps. It was all too much.

Xenon was young Kanzaki's first major work, and it reflected all the angst of a coming of age classic. You see, poor Asuka isn't like the other teenagers. He and his friends have watched as assassins ripped his mother's heart out, for one. And bad guys have stolen his humanity, so he has to seek revenge instead of studying algebra. His ga-dooming heart pumps oil instead of blood, and if Sonoko finds out she will be heartbroken herself. On top of it all, Asuka has a sort of a nervous habit -- he stutters.

But Kanzaki isn't content with leaving well enough alone. He stirs into the equation more girls than we can shake a stick at. Sonoko is beside herself because her first love appears to be rejecting her. Her best friend, Risa, is jealous of the love Sonoko has for Asuka. And then Yoko comes along to take off her blouse every once in a while -- Yoko, the older woman who is also a cyborg. How does Sonoko stand a chance?

And beneath the surface, the unmentioned question lurks in eueryone's mind: Asuka and Yoko may be gorgeous, but what do cyborgs have down there, anyway? It should have been no surprise when the fan mail started to pour in from far more gals than guys -- here was a romance book for the eighties!

Of course, crammed into every issue was more blood-spillage than Kenshiro and his North Star pals would know what to do with. This was, after all, the book in which I had to decide what it would sound like to shove a woman's heart out of her rib cage, and then recreate the comic-booky dialogue she will spurt with her blood.

One fan letter called a later gorefest when Xenon loses his arm "tastefully disgusting" but noted that the sound effects were "utterly nauseating." We aim to please.

For Kanzaki has no qualms about letting Xenon be just what it is: a comic book. His characters talk like they're in a comic, speedlines manifest at the slightest opportunity, and sound effects sprinkle the pages like salt on popcorn. And like the best bucket of popcorn, Xenon makes you want to grab a Coke Classic and wade in. Since co-translating it, I've gotten to play my hand at a couple of other melodramatic slugfests, and on the surface Fist of the North Star and Bio-Booster Armor Guyver might even appear a step up from Kanzaki's overwrought dialogue and manic plot twists. But Xenon has a youthful exuberance and pop sensibility that just won't quit. In the end, I find myself wondering if Fist and Guyver don't try just a little bit too hard to succeed as product as they appeal to the adolescent power fantasies of their mostly male audience. With Xenon, I know that the words and pictures are genuinely driven, fun, and sincere. In 1986, Xenon was the story 22-year-old Kanzaki most wanted to do.

And two years later, at the age of 22, it was what I most wanted to do as well.