Book Club #2: Ghost in the Shell

For our second installment of the Fantastic Fangirls (Comic) Book Club, the four of us decided to read Ghost in the Shell, vol. 1, written and drawn by Shirow Masamune.

If you want to get a jump on our next book club, we’ll be reading the first volume of the recent Power Girl story by Justin Grey, Jimmy Palmiotti, and Amanda Connor. We’ll be discussing that sometime in August, more details will be forthcoming.

Today, though, we’re going to start our discussion of Ghost in the Shell, also known as GitS, by sharing an email exchange that took place among the Fantastic Fangirls’ staff. This is a starting point for whatever our readers would like to say about the book. In the comments, feel free to address any of the points that came up in our discussion, or raise a topic/question of your own. Enjoy!

Sigrid: I like comics. I like much manga. I like strong female characters. I like science fiction. Yet I could not get into Shirow Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell, no matter how much I tried. I started it three times. I did, ultimately, finish reading all the pages of the volume. But I only managed this by deciding it was okay to not understand the plot or character motivations.

When I reached the end of the book I found Masamune’s footnotes. This went a long way towards explaining why I bounced off of the story so hard — apparently, if I understand the footnotes correctly, GitS is a book about ideas. It’s an exploration of certain ideas about identity, human consciousness, and the nature of mind and soul, presented as a police action-drama. I also happen to like police action-dramas, particularly when they feature attractive, sarcastic, bisexual female special agents. But I am uninterested to the point of active avoidance in stories about the nature of human consciousness or the soul. Do. Not. Care.

Jennifer: I find it interesting, Sigrid, that you like police action-dramas but not explorations of the nature of human consciousness, and this was what turned you off about the book. Because I had just as much trouble getting into this as you did, but for exactly the opposite reason — the ideas about human consciousness were pretty much the ONLY things I found interesting about the book. Unfortunately, those ideas were buried under so many layers of technobabble and politics-babble that I didn’t even understand what half of those ideas were supposed to be, and the lack of anything resembling layered characterization left me cold. I have a lot of respect for Masamune’s dedication to extremely detailed, accurate-as-possible fake science and fake politics, but I could not for the life of me follow them, and I’m still not sure I could explain a single plot point from this book, or name a single trait possessed by any of the characters.

Of course, I think there are a lot of issues at play in the difficulty I had. While part of the problem is certainly my disinterest in, and difficulty with, hard sci-fi and police dramas, another part of the problem is the manga format, which has always given me trouble. While I appreciated that the physical size of the book and the left-to-right printing were more in line with the kinds of comics I’m used to, I found myself struggling to follow the crowded, black and white manga art (the colored pages were much easier to read), and I have a feeling a lot of the poetry and flow of the language was lost in translation.

That said, I think Masamune had a lot of great ideas that, unfortunately, just didn’t translate well for me as a story. I’d love to sit down and have a conversation with him; I just have no interest in reading the narrative version of his thoughts.

Caroline: I enjoyed Ghost in the Shell a lot, and maybe it’s because I’m at the perfect halfway point of Sigrid and Jen’s reactions. I found the endnotes pretty early in my reading and I went, “This is a nature of consciousness story! How awesome for it! I have little if any hope of being able to understand it. Fortunately, it is also an awesome spy drama! With spies!”

Ahem. Okay. I like spies. Let me try again.

Sigrid, if someone had told you going in, “This is Queen & Country with cyborgs,” would that have helped? Because that’s exactly how I read it. For the benefit of everybody out there who is not an enormous Greg Rucka fan, Queen & Country is a comic book series about the machinations of a group of British spies — office drama, personal lives, international intrigue, et cetera. Ghost in the Shell, which started coming out in the late ’80s/early ’90s, predates that comic, but I’d be shocked if they didn’t have a lot of the same influences: the TV show Sandbaggers, for one, but also just a general tradition of literature about the British secret services. I don’t know to what extent Japan has a similar tradition, but many of the author’s notes in Ghost in the Shell use examples from British history and politics. So I’m inclined to believe that Shirow Masamune is a fan of this particular genre tradition, and decided to graft it together with — cyberpunk? Mecha? I don’t know enough about this kind of sci-fi story to be sure of the influences, I just know it was a good blend for me as a reader.

I have sympathy with Jen’s situation, because a reader who doesn’t care for spy procedurals probably isn’t going to find much to like here, either. I can’t argue with the statement that the characters lack layers, but for me they were recognizable types with recognizable goals and dynamics. And those are types and dynamics I like — the star agent who plays by her (and I like that it’s “her”) own rules, the smartass veteran, and the timid rookie who comes through in a pinch. Particularly, I like the politically shrewd boss (for Queen & Country fans, the “Paul Crocker” character) who spends as much time maneuvering around rival agencies within his own government as he does managing his own people. I’ve seen these types explored in more depth than in Ghost in the Shell, certainly, but they were portrayed well enough here for me to enjoy their personalities and interplay, along with the interesting twists on “case files” that the book’s cybernetically-charged world allowed. Well enough that I didn’t even mind wading through some occasionally baffling pages about the nature of consciousness.

Anika: I first encountered Ghost in the Shell as an anime film. I saw it in a movie theater in Cambridge, MA and I still remember hearing the strains of the clearly un-American soundtrack and watching Kusanagi’s body being built and being absolutely transfixed. And I remember the credits rolling and thinking a) I have NO IDEA what just happened, b) but it was amazing, and c) I want to watch again! I’ve watched all the anime, I’ve read the mangas, and I’ve played the games. And in the midst of it, I went to Montreal for a weekend to celebrate my best friend’s engagement (she was married in 2002) and I got a henna tattoo of the Kanji symbol for the word “ghost”.

That’s how much I love this story. I want the tattoo.

I love spies. I love robots. I love philosophizing about identity. I love intellectualizing religion. I love stories I have to experience twelve times before I really understand them. And Ghost in the Shell touches all of that. It is not my favorite example of this (that is probably Neon Genesis Evangelion) but I appreciate it. And the manga has one thing over the anime (besides being first): I can re-read it over and over as needed. And I see that as a strength. I want my comics to be something I read more than one or twenty times. THAT is something worth the habit.

But I understand the difficulty — it is a commitment to read this story. And that is not even touching the differences in artistic style. So, Jennifer mentioned the colored panels were easier to read; what other differences are notable?

Sigrid: Caroline, if you’d told me this was Queen and Country, that would have helped a lot. It didn’t once occur to me to frame all the incomprehensible political stuff that way. Of course . . . in Queen and Country, I spent a lot of time referring to the cast notes at the front of each story that told me who everyone was and what the relationships between their departments were like. I got as lost in the politics as I did in the human consciousness stuff.

The art also played a part in some of my difficulty. I do read manga, more than a lot of people, less than some. And one of the things I struggle with is that the characters look different depending on the emotional context of a scene. Dramatically beautiful in one scene, chibi-cute in another, faceless in rage or shame in another. I know I lost track of the characters in GitS more than once. And word balloon attribution — it took me half the comic to realize when the characters were speaking via machine telepathy, and when the word balloon had no tail because a character who was in the room, but off-panel, was speaking.

That said, I liked the art. The scope was grand, and the details gritty. The panels looked like a still image from Blade Runner, in that there was so much going on in the background. But I am more comfortable with art that gives me a clearer message as to where I look in the frame. Most of the manga I read is angsty melodramatic relationship stuff, and where you are supposed to look is highlighted, often with really big lines or a two-page spread devoted to one facial expression.

Caroline: I had trouble with the art at first. Then I told myself to slow down and read one panel at a time, at which point I really started to enjoy it. I’m not an experienced manga reader at all; the only manga of any length that I’ve read before is Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto, and I realize that I read it in a similar way — panel by panel — but that was because it was printed manga-style (backwards to American eyes) so I was reading more slowly anyway, to acclimate myself. I didn’t mind reading slowly, in either case, because there was a lot to take in — though I wish I’d given myself more time with Ghost in the Shell.

I actually liked the colored panels less than the black & white, at the beginning, though they grew on me as the story went on. I like the emphasis that the black and white places on lines and movement within a panel. I did have a harder time following the story from panel to panel, but I am too inexperienced a manga reader to be able to tell how much was the comic and how much was me. I will admit I hated the lettering, though, and I’d at least like to look at the pages in Japanese to see if the American publisher mucked it up as badly as I think they did. I didn’t have any trouble distinguishing the major characters, once I got used to them — I thought each character had a distinct look and signifiers that stayed consistent even when the style changed to show emotion — but I do see how it could have done with more exposition to start with, or a little chart to refer back to.

Basically, for me, there was enough of a road map to follow the narrative, and enough of a hook that I wanted to follow it. Beyond that, I don’t think I know enough about the manga tradition or about this particular type of science fiction to be able to evaluate how good the book is or is not. I do know that, like Anika, I’m looking forward to reading it again. I’ll probably watch the movies, too.

Jennifer: So basically what I’m getting out of this discussion is that I probably wouldn’t enjoy Queen and Country. Ah, well. There’s plenty of other Rucka for me to enjoy!

As far as the art and lettering go, I’m notoriously bad at following art in any comic, and this was extra-difficult, especially on wordless panels. It’s possible that taking it panel-by-panel would have helped, but I don’t think I could have the patience to do something like that unless I was really engaged in the story, which I never was. Mostly I found myself rushing through the book just to get it done, which probably hindered my enjoyment further. Sigrid, those things you pointed out about the meanings of different kinds of word balloons are things I NEVER noticed, and that may have been part of my problem — though I don’t know enough about manga to know if it’s just a matter of limited familiarity or a problem with this book in particular. I’m tempted to say the former, because I know other manga readers who had no trouble with this book — when I told my 21-year-old dyslexic manga-reading brother that I was reading it and asked him to try to help me understand it, he was able to do so clearly and cogently despite not having read it since he was 15. (This did nothing good for my self-esteem, let me tell you.) I assume that manga familiarity helps with the understanding of which word balloons are meant to be read first, and when sound effect balloons and small-print aside balloons are meant to be read.

Here’s a random question — what did you guys think of the footnotes throughout the book? The end notes were awesome and truly fascinating, but I found the footnotes more distracting than anything else, especially the ones on the side of the panels that forced me to turn the book physically to read them. And then there was that one that basically said, “I didn’t feel like drawing the next scene, but this is what it was.” Is that kind of thing unique to this book?

Anika: I don’t think that kind of thing is even unique to manga? I like some of the footnotes in Vision and the Scarlet Witch more than the dialogue.

I find myself somewhat fascinated by this discussion. I don’t know if I am more familiar with manga than you three or if I simply read comics differently but while I can understand the variances in manga versus western comics on an intellectual level, I don’t find myself reading them differently.

When I get a new comic book – single issue or trade – I flip through the whole thing, usually more than once, looking at the art, maybe reading a panel (or a footnote!) here and there before I sit down and read it properly. I notice art that I like or art that I don’t like but, for example, the shifts that Sigrid mentioned don’t particularly register. My brother said once the changes in artists arc to arc or issue to issue make it hard for him to appreciate comics the way I do. I get it, I am always reminded of how strange Ms. Marvel 47 is because there are three determinedly different artists’ work in the one issue. But it is just remarkable, it doesn’t interfere in how much I LOVE that comic. Similarly, I don’t approach Ghost in the Shell as “manga”. I don’t discount the art in either case, the “graphic” in graphic novel is important to the medium, obviously, but if I read them differently I do it instinctively.

But all that said , it is also worth mentioning that I saw the anime first, so I had a good idea of the story and characters before I read them. I have the final book of Sailor Moon manga in French and knowing how the characters are drawn helps a great deal in translation.

Sigrid: You keep mentioning the anime, Anika, and I have to say that I have seen most of the anime adaptations of this story and world, and I really like them. Which makes me wonder — what does the anime do differently? For one thing, the anime deals with the speech attribution in a manner I found more clear — different voice actors always let me know who was talking, whether they were on- or off-panel. But in addition, I think I just … tuned out the bits about the nature of consciousness, in the anime. Like, I checked Twitter during those parts, and looked up again when things started exploding.

Jen, I kinda liked the in-page notes. I needed them, in some places, to give me the cultural referent for a concept or exchange. I would have liked more notes, more exposition.

So, final thoughts? Any other points you all wanted to bring up about Ghost in the Shell?

Caroline: This has been an interesting conversation to me because it highlights how different people have different stumbling-blocks. I actually have a much easier time tuning in and out in a comic than in any other medium. If a prose book bores me, I put it down. If a movie loses me, my attention wanders to something else and I generally don’t come back. But with a comic, it’s pretty easy for me to skim the parts I don’t care about and tune back in when, say, the characters I was paying attention to are on-panel.

Also, I think I demand a pretty low level of basic understanding when I’m exposed to a new story. Here, my interpretation was, “the ‘ghost’ is an individual’s basic essence, as long as that’s intact, they’re comfortable with a wide range of cybernetic and other enhancements, I can roll with that!” As far as the politics, I was able to, “Cold War. . . interagency rivalries. . .I know this from the zillions of spy stories I’ve read in the past. . .works for me.” (By the way, I don’t think that means that someone who doesn’t like GitS would necessarily hate Queen & Country, it’s just that my familiarity with that type of story gave me the shorthand to get through this).

On the other hand, though, if I’m reading something set in the Marvel Universe, or in the real world — something where I feel like I should already have the basic background to know what’s going on — I tend to be really hard on a lack of exposition or purpose. If I don’t have a good grasp on the characters and purpose after one issue of a new Marvel comic, or one episode of a TV series, I’m unlikely to come back for more.

As far as the informational footnotes, I should confess that I’m in the middle of reading Moby-Dick, so any narrative that doesn’t stop in the middle of the action to deliver multi-page epics on the logistics of whaling feels positively streamlined. That’s a good time to mention that this comic had cyberwhales — cyberwhales! — and my final conclusion may be that I would like the power to be able to lock Herman Melville and Shirow Masamune in a room for a few days and see what kind of creative product they could come up with. Does that answer anybody’s questions?

Jennifer: I swear I don’t hate fun, guys! I’m glad this book worked for others, and I’m also glad I got the opportunity to at least try it, and step outside of my comfort zone, even if it was ultimately a failed experiment. I’ll finish by saying there was one part of the story I actually liked — the end, with the merging of the two souls into one. I find that conceptually fascinating, and it actually made me more curious about the story’s sequels than I was in Ghost in the Shell itself. Maybe I’ll give them a shot someday.

Anika: I keep mentioning the anime because I think of that first (aside to Caroline: Macross Dynamite 7 is Moby-Dick retold in space. With a space whale.) I encountered this story as pictures in motion and spoken words (English, I’ll note) and it made such an impact that is how I imagine it even when we are discussing the book.

But it is a written word that really captures everything I like in this story: ghost. I love the word “ghost” replacing “soul” or “essence” or “inner truth” or any of those more weighty and less scary words. When I think of a ghost I imagine something wispy and barely there and difficult to contain or prove — but just as difficult to banish or destroy. And a ghost is invariably either frightening or sad. Or both. As a metaphor for the human condition it resonates strongly. For me. And as Sigrid pointed out at the beginning, Masamune meant this to be about ideas — his, and I believe, ours. He wanted to engage with the audience, like the merging of the Puppeteer and Kusanagi that Jen mentioned. So my idea of it matters. Ghost is an excellent word to describe my identity; for that alone, I am happy to know this story.

That wraps up our initial thoughts on GitS. What about you? What did you like about this ground-breaking work? Share your thoughts with us and the other members of the Fantastic Fangirls’ (Comic) Book Club in the comments below!

  • I really enjoyed this discussion! Who knew we’d have so many different perspectives? Incidentally, I started watching the anime version on Netflix Instant last night and while I think it’s really cool — and definitely is heavy on the exposition and explanation from the start, unlike the comic — I found myself missing a lot of the details from the book. I’m going to end up going back to reread this, after watching the films, I think. Honestly, I could not be more shocked by how much I liked this, so thanks to those who suggested and voted on it!

  • Great discussion of a great book. I was amazed people had a problem following the artwork. I admit that Shirow’s art is more dense than the average manga. He was heavily influenced by superhero comics. So his art is a blend of Japanese and American comics. This might account for some problems since at times he is following one tradition and then switches over to another tradtion without any warning.

    I love the themes of the manga and have called it the anti-Pinocchio story. In GiTS, no one wants to be human they all want to cyborgs. The sentient computer program doesn’t even want a physical body. I love trying to think through all the implications of Shirow’s idea.

    Thanks for giving more new angles to view the story.

  • sigrid

    @Ed I frequently cannot understand why some people can’t read superhero comics, but they I read something outside my comfort zone and I’m like, oh, right, this. :)

    @Caroline I like the anime a *lot*.

  • Oh, I really like the Pinocchio comparison! I’ll have to reread it thinking of that.

    BTW, I don’t remember if we’ve announced it, but at some point I’m going to do a podcast with Ed in which he schools me about manga. It should be enlightening and/or hilarious.

  • Sigrid,

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply anything derogatory. When people who are avid comic readers say they find the art hard to follow, it makes me rethink suggesting this title as a bridge between manga and superhero comics. Urasawa’s Pluto has very dense artwork but a much cleaner look.

    I read the manga after having seen the movie and watching anime for a while. Your comments have made me realizing how much that helped me follow the visual and narrative flow.

    Caroline I look forward to our podcast, this discussion is helping me know what questions I should ask. It’s going to be a blast.

  • :) Ed, you should read Power Girl with us in August!

  • Caroline,

    Let me think about that. It would be a good mental stretching exercise for me.

  • sigrid

    @Ed Oh, no offense taken in the slightest! And you should totally read Power Girl for August. :)

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