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In the city of Ergastulum, a shady ville filled with mad men and petty thieves, whores on the make and cops on the take, there are some deeds too dirty for even its jaded inhabitants to touch. Enter the “Handymen”, Nic and Worick, who take care of the jobs no one else will handle. Until the day when a cop they know on the force requests their help in taking down a new gang muscling in on the territory of a top Mafia family. It seems like business (and mayhem) as usual, but the Handymen are about to find that this job is a lot more than they bargained for.
The world of Gangsta is gritty. There may be handsome boys and sexy girls, but the first volume of Gangsta shows a world ground in realism. The city of Ergastulum is a slum, built to quarantine “Twilights”; humans who, via their descendants use of the drug Celebre, have become violent and super-powered. In fact, their powers are so feared that there was once a Twilight hunt where many Twilights were slaughtered. The cops have their hands full dealing with murder, drugs and prostitutes. That’s where the Handymen come in. Worick and Nicolas take on assorted jobs that get sent their way. They’ll do basically anything, from assisting police, offing someone or finding a lost cat. Nicolas is deaf and carries a sword around with him; Worick is charming and has a side job as a gigolo.
Let’s step back a bit there and review that. Nicolas is deaf. It’s very rare to see a deaf character in a manga, much less have them portrayed as someone as capable and pivotal as Nicolas. Nicolas is a Twilight and is the main brute force in the duo. He’s able to take on multiple enemies at once, as well as bring down men three times his size. He’s also sarcastic and doesn’t hesitate to throw in his own thoughts on any given matter. Of course, this is all done by sign language (and black speech bubbles so we know what he’s saying). While I cannot vouch for the exactness of Kohske’s portrayal, it’s not only an interesting aspect of Nicolas as a character, but an extremely positive thing to see in the media. He doesn’t let his disability hold him back, and likewise the disability doesn’t define his identity. A few characters, upon meeting Nicolas, just assume he’s ignoring them (which is sometimes the case).
Worick is an interesting character too. Despite having a tragic backstory – seen only in brief flashbacks – he appears light-hearted and often jokes around. He and Nicolas have a complex relationship, as the flashbacks and discussions regarding them imply, but often come off as close friends who understand each other perfectly.
The rest of the cast are also well constructed, in both appearance and personality. Characters are tall, short, beautiful, ugly… Almost every character looks different to each other (with the exception of two characters I continuously get confused).Kohske isn’t afraid to draw characters that many manga artists shy away from; older men with grizzled faces, thugs, old women… There is so much variety in appearances that there will surely be at least one character you like the look of. Furthermore, they all have their own clear personality.
For example is the character of Alex, who acts in some ways as the readers eyes. Exposition and introductions are gained by her meeting and working with the Handymen. While at first, she seems more like an exposition device than a character, she soon starts becoming a fully fleshed character with her own burdens and opinions. In future volumes we may see Alex shape up to become a very strong character, but by the end of the first volume she is – while not the reader insert she was at first – not particularly important to the story. There are hints, however, that her role will expand, which is a good sign.
Better is the fact the manga is not lacking for varied female characters. In a manga about attractive guys doing stuff in slums, it’d be easy to assume most girls that appear would be prostitutes (as Alex was before joining the Handymen). However, we are introduced to assorted characters – both major and minor – that refuse to just sit in the background. Examples include Granny Joel, the outspoken old lady that sells Worick his cigarettes and doesn’t hesitate to tell the boys off; Georgiana, the owner of a popular brothel running in the seediest part of town and holds no hatred towards Twilight’s, and Nina, the young girl who helps at the clinic Worick and Nicolas frequent. Despite only being 12, she has a lot of medical knowledge. She’s also very brave, as the clients who come to the clinic are often thugs or very badly injured. Nina and Nicolas are also very close, with her learning sign language in order to talk to him.
Even from the first volume, you can tell that Kohske has spent a lot of time developing the world of Ergastulum and its residents. This is very much evident as we learn about the different factors of the city: it is divided into ten sections and ruled by three mafia families and a guild. These four parties don’t all get along, so there’s a great sense of unease underneath the surface of Gangsta, as the threat of large-scale gang wars constantly looms.
Further is the attitude towards the Twilights. Whilst not explored in great depth in the first volume, we still see flashes of the prejudice towards them from the main populace. An example of this is when Worick, Nicolas and Alex visit a brothel for work. Nicolas stays outside while Alex and Worick hear the brothel girls scorning Nicolas’ existence and ask Worick why he hangs around with Nicolas. It’s a straightforward reflection of racial prejudice in the real world, helping add weight to the manga.
Gangsta also applies a code to the Twilight, whereby they must follow three rules. These rules are almost directly taken from Asimov’s three laws of robotics. Although quite liberal in their borrowing, Kohske uses it to extend the feelings of isolation and prejudice that effect Twilights. Even though they appear human and have human emotions, they are regarded so strongly as a foreign being; a monster.
The art is refreshingly different, with lots of details and a semi-realistic appearance given to the cast. The backgrounds are well done, detailed but not to the point of distracting you from the main focus. You can get a clear vision of Ergastulum through the careful way Kohske renders the slums and broken buildings. The fight scenes are also very well done, capturing a lot of movement and action. Characters actually seem like they’re moving, with clothes and hair drawn in such a way that you could almost hear them fluttering.
Overall, Gangsta volume 1 is a great read for those who are looking for something a bit more gritty and realistic. It has its fair share of humour, with likeable characters and good art, but also makes you think with its hints of backstory and reflections on real world issues. I highly recommend this series, and am anxiously awaiting the anime’s release!
(Plus, Kohske adds some silly little four panel comics at the end of each volume that always makes me laugh.)