Perhaps it’s a little unwieldy to start talking about a series just as it’s concluding its U.S. print run — but in Golgo 13's case, this last volume isn’t really the “end” anyway. It’s just the closing of a window that might someday reopen in the future.
Golgo 13 is as iconic a manga as you could ask for. Since Takao Saito created the character and the series in 1968, he and it have become cultural staples with something of the same heft and breadth in Japan as James Bond. A hitman-for-hire who never misses and only needs one shot to take out his target, Golgo’s identity and origins were cocooned in mystery: he did his work and went. Cross him and you’d take a bullet, too, one aimed with the same deadly perfection.
As the series progressed, Golgo receded further and further into the background of the story, becoming more like Sadako or Shonen Bat — aforce that blazes out in a moment of crisis — than an actual protagonist who drives events. The books themselves have gone on to sell a staggering 200 million copies in 142 volumes, making the series eligible to sit in the same Neverending Story Hall of Fame as Guin Saga (120 volumes and counting) and Kochi-Kame (131+), whose own hero bears a weird resemblance to a cheerier-looking Golgo.
Because of the fairly episodic nature of the series, Viz elected not to translate the whole thing — which would have been commercial suicide and madness even for the most devoted fans — and instead assembled thirteen “greatest hits”-style volumes from across the years of Golgo’s adventures. It sounds daft until you realize the stories were engineered to be fairly self-contained anyway, with Golgo’s mythology hovering over everything as a kind of psychic backdrop. The series has no real beginning and no real end; it’s just a continuum, and you can dip in and out as you choose.
That explains to a great degree why the “last” volume of Viz’s Golgo 13 press run features the stories it does. The first, “The Serizawa Family Murders” (story #100, from 1975), does nothing less than explain Golgo’s origins — or, rather, it uses a story in the Golgo mold to suggest where Golgo might have come from. The massacre of an entire family in the post-WWII years comes back to haunt one of the police who investigated the crime, and as he digs deeper into the past he realizes the one person who seemed least likely to be the killer was in fact the prototype for the deadliest man he’s ever known. And in the end Golgo makes his presence known through his usual signature action: a bullet. The most striking thing about the story is, as is the case with many Golgo 13 stories, how Golgo himself never once appears on the page except in photos or reconstructions. He’s there, but … not really.
The same “I was here / I am everywhere” feeling also hovers over the last, much shorter story, “Flagburner,” a twisted take on recent events in the U.S. It’s the election of 2000 as seen through a funhouse manga mirror (published March 17, 2001 — Saito worked fast!), with Golgo hired to put a bullet through a key package of ballots and tilt the election. It’s sardonic and strange in the extreme; there’s something perennially, weirdly fascinating about how Japanese manga artists deal with American culture and history. I’ve seen such things plenty of times before — the action-movie cartoons of Gunsmith Cats come to mind most readily — but “Flagburner” is so bizarre and incisive at the same time that I could only see a non-American pulling it off. Sometimes you need an outsider to see the things no one else can see, or do the things no one else can do. And Golgo himself, the ultimate outsider, once again appears in this episode as a force or a presence rather than an actual character — the embodiment of the way history can turn on a dime while everyone is watching.
Because of the way Golgo 13 works as a whole, my recommendation for this volume can apply across the whole series. This is a thriller for people who wouldn’t normally pick up one: it’s oblique and deviously fascinating, the ultimate story of The Man Who Wasn’t There.