Bubblegum Crisis is a series that’s sprouted more than one spin-off. From BCG 2040 to the AD Police prequels to the aborted live-action movie (that I would still pay good money to see), the Knight Sabers have been through a lot.
And yet, no-one talks about the graphic novel adaptation. Pushed out at the height of UK and US manga mania in 1994, Bubblegum Crisis: Grand Mal featured a script and art from Adam Warren, a man that had already had success adapting the Dirty Pair for the English-speaking market with his clean, detailed manga-influenced style. It was approved by Kenichi Sonoda himself. It should have been massive.
But somehow, it’s slipped through the gaps. It warrants one line in the BGC page on Wikipedia, and most fan pages don’t mention it at all. You can pick up mint copies of the trade paperback for a couple of quid.
So what the heck happened?
The book serves as an introduction to the world of MegaTokyo, and gets you up to speed fast. Warren’s cyberpunky, caffeinated style grabs you by the collar and yanks you in hard. It’s a high-dose, concentrated hit, mixing captioned “audio samples” and archival news footage with a Boomer’s raid on an abandoned building, finding and then losing the engine of the plot–an old hard drive holding details of a Genom “intellectual asset”. It’s dense, uncompromising storytelling, cramming swathes of detail into both art and narrative. You have to pay attention. This is Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg-level work, using every graphical trick in the book to fire the story forward, at the same time bopping back and forth in time to introduce the Knight Sabers, Genom and their nemesis, the mercenary Peter Vashnevskaya.
Vashnevskaya’s dry voice underpins the whole book, and he’s the focus that brings the many strands of the story together. A tragic figure, prone to seizures (the Grand Mal of the title) that cause rage-fuelled fugue states leading to blackouts and uncontrollably vioent episodes. If he’s alone, he turns that rage on himself. If not… well, let’s just say he doesn’t make friends. He’s a dark, conflicting character that you can’t help but root for, even as he half-kills Priss during a raid on the AD Police HQ.
Although the pace eases after the manic blipvert style of the first half of episode one, there’s no chance to really ever catch your breath. Grand Mal is a complex, twist-heavy tale. Skip a couple of panels and you might well miss something important. Warren’s art, always detail-heavy, is almost claustrophobic here. Every panel is jam-packed with cool bits of tech, neat character moments and a metric ton of in-jokes. The book feels heavy. It’s bulging with ideas. The dialogue is jargon-heavy, uncompromising. For a book that’s supposed to be an introduction to MegaTokyo and the world of Boomers, the Genom Corporation and four girls in hardsuits, it feels like you need to already know the world to get the most out of the book.
Perhaps that was part of the problem. If you’re not a fan of the world, Grand Mal can come across as dense, dark, unwelcoming. It’s violent, bloody and cruel, and utterly bewildering in places. It needs to be read at least twice before it really starts giving up its treasures, and even then you feel as if there’s more to discover. A lot of casual readers, I feel, simply didn’t have the patience to give the book the attention it deserves.
There’s little discussion online about the book, although a common grumble seems to be that it was “too Americanised”, and worse, that the characterisation of the Knight Sabers was completely wrong. The girls are certainly painted with broad strokes, Priss in particular coming across as a reckless rageaholic with a death wish. That being said, a different approach doesn’t necessarily mean wrong, just different. After all, there’s been more than one try at the animated version.
Ultimately, Grand Mal comes across as a book that’s easier to admire than love. Like Warren’s Teen Titan story, Scissors Paper Stone, there’s a darkness at the heart of the writing that could sour the experience a little if you’re not expecting a self-harming hitman or Priss in a wig and leather miniskirt. However, it’s intelligent, well-crafted and powerful, and plays with Sonoda’s world in ways that bring a whole new perspective to the origins of the Knight Sabers. It’s tricky to see what audiences would have expected from an American version of the property, bearing in mind that Warren knew the material and had already done some pioneering work on bringing manga to an English audience. If they expected a dumbed-down introduction, they got the opposite.
Adam Warren now works almost exclusively on his own projects, notably the sharp superhero parody Empowered, which regularly faces down the ongoing arguments about sexism in comics with humour and grace. Lightening the tone has brought its own rewards, and Empowered is, frankly, one of the best books out there. It’s sad that its not better known. But then, Adam Warren himself seems to be one of the best-kept secrets in comics. That’s a real shame. His Dirty Pair books remain in print, and Empowered is onto its sixth edition. His work is well worth getting to know.