There’s something weirdly fascinating about seeing any manga set not in Japan or in some fantasyland, but in the United States. Granted,Gunsmith Cats isn’t meant to be remotely serious, of course. The story is half gun-happy action movie, half modern-day Western, but it’s still neat to see a story set in an environment that the creators might never have visited in person and only know about vicariously through movies and TV. The “cowboy culture” of the USA, authentic or not, takes on a life of its own through the eyes of others.
Burst's gun-slingery is a continuation of the adventures from the previous Gunsmith Cats comics by Kenichi Sonoda (all of which are also now being reprinted by Dark Horse), but enough is explained casually that you don’t need any previous experience with the series to understand it. It presents us with Rally Vincent, a bounty hunter / gun-shop owner and weapons expert, and her bomb-happy ex-prostitute partner Minnie-May Hopkins, both plying their trades in Chicago. When they’re not behind the counter of the gun store, they’re out rounding up convicts on the lam — and both of their lines of work tend to land them in tons of trouble. Again, not remotely realistic, but you won’t care: it’s two tons of fun all the way through. In this series, when one of the characters bites into a can of Spam, can and all, then spits it back out again (as a distraction), you’re not inclined to ask “Now how’d he pull that off without slicing up the roof of his mouth?”
Most of the first volume is actually fairly complicated: it starts in the middle of things, then presents us with a good deal of switching back and forth between present and past. It isn’t until we’re about halfway through the book that the chronology snaps into place, but Sonoda’s storytelling is fast-moving and spirited enough that I didn’t mind the detours. It opens with the theft of Rally’s limited-edition GT500 Shelby (Sonoda loves classic cars almost as much as firearms) and then fills in how she ticked off the wrong people while trying to transport a mob member back to Chicago and cash him in.
Rally and her quarry — and another recurring Gunsmith Cats / Sonoda character, the transporter named “Bean Bandit” — end up stuck in a motel-cum-convenience store in the middle of the burning flats of Texas, where they’ve run out of gas, and Bean passes out cold after pushing the car for miles on end (and can only be recovered by an emergency infusion of a case of nauseatingly warm beer). Rally engineers an escape from having guns pointed in her face by multiple parties, thanks to a combination of brio, cunning, and dumb luck. Unfortunately, there’s just as much trouble waiting for her at home as there is on the road, and the first volume closes with her trying to rally (no pun intended) all the resources she has at her disposal to keep her car from being used in a terrorist attack.
The book doesn’t actually start off with this adventure, though: instead, for a warm-up, it gives us three shorter, standalone adventures to set the mood and establish the characters: in the first one, Rally hauls in a hooker caught transporting cocaine in a stolen car, not out of a sense of justice but because she doesn’t want one of her custom guns being found as an accessory to a crime. The second one is a mini-tutorial about modifying a pistol, which is informative but doesn’t seem to go much of anywhere — at least until the punchline. In the third, Rally uses a holdout pistol to shift the odds when a mob drug runner turns out to be holding out more than just bags of coke in the trunk.
Aside from being terrifically entertaining, GCB also gives us (whether it’s intentional or not) a constant undercurrent of cultural commentary about America’s fascination with guns. In Japan, guns are tightly controlled; even a relatively minor firearms violation can send you to prison for years. That doesn’t keep Sonoda, and a great many other folks over there, from being deeply fascinated with the subject, and we get to benefit.
Gunsmith Cats © 1991 Kenichi Sonoda/ KODANSHA LTD. All rights reserved. Click for more examples of Gunsmith Cats: Burst's art, courtesy of Dark Horse.
Art: Kenichi Sonoda’s probably best known for his character designs: he was responsible for the look of the seminal Bubblegum Crisis, Gall Force and Otaku no Video, among others. His designs are sharp-edged and sassy, and he contrasts his detailed machine and architecture designs with his characters’ cute faces (the second short story in this book is one of the best examples of that). Sonoda also blocks and frames his action with great vigor — the way he plays off his complex stunt-style action sequences is terrifically solid. Finally, Dark Horse did justice to this title with the quality of their reproduction. There are no moiré patterns on the tone or any other distracting low-end production problems.
Translation: Another excellent job by Dark Horse, by way of “Studio Cutie.” They’ve presented the book unflopped, with text translated cleanly and seamlessly. The sound effects are annotated unobtrusively on the frame.
The Bottom Line: By the time I finished the first volume of the new Gunsmith Cats Burstseries, I’d not only had a fine time but learned a startling amount of sideline information about the weapons so prominently featured in it. I still want to know how Bean Bandit pulled off that Spam trick, though. I suspect it’s because he’s just that tough.