I was never much of a mecha manga person. Oh sure, I can tell the difference between an Eva-unit and a Labor (this stuff is fed to you automatically if you grew up during the nineties); but don’t ask me to try and explain to you all the different Mobile Suites, or what exactly the relation is between “Universal Century” and the “Cosmic Era.” Maybe that makes me the wrong person to review Aorta, the current ongoing project by cartoonist Sarah Horrocks (Goro, Bacchae). Now in its second volume out of a projected who-knows-how-many (it was meant to be fairly short, but she seems to expend the scope with the second book), it is very deep dive into the self-created mythology of the mecha genre.
Aorta opens with a large and epic-sounding backstory delivered in a half page of in-universe history, involving warring factions and rebels standing up to corrupt noble houses. After that we are thrown headlong into a series of combats and disasters, with people pleading each other, saying things like ‘do not be so heroic’ or ‘don’t act so foolishly;’ someone eventually sheds a solitary tear. Even I, a person not wholly immersed in the genre, can recognize when familiar tropes and images are being touched upon; the type often used to make those in-the-know smile with recognition.
There is a way in which this type of thing can be annoying, a sort of wink-wink nudge-nudge self-awareness that permeates through so much of modern pop-culture. This is what Neil Postman would refer to as pseudo context (which I’m quoting here without approving much else of Postman’s writings): “a structure invented to give fragmented and irrelevant information a seeming use[…] pseudo-context provides is not action, or problem-solving, or change. It is the only use left for information with no genuine connection to our lives. And that, of course, is to amuse.” I think the reason Horrocks’ take on mecha-stuff works is that her writing does have a connection to our lives. Her art is tangible in the way it depicts people’s interaction with physical reality and other beings. The story takes great care to be in the world and of the world, even if it is a fictional one. Aorta doesn’t play-up its self-awareness angle. It does not wink at the reader, it doesn’t pretend or kid. It’s deadly serious, not just in terms of action on the page, but also in terms of the author’s (and hopefully the reader’s) emotional engagement with the characters. This is something I can always appreciate about Horrocks’ work, even the stuff I don’t fully enjoy: she’s committed to the honesty of her creations.
It doesn’t really matter what genres Horrocks works in, be it the trashy melodrama of Goro or the horror-romance of “Red Medusa on the Road to Hell” (her short story from the Twisted Romance anthology, probably the standout work of that outing in the sheer craft of it). She always jumps into the deepest waters of the concept, going straight for the raw emotive core. "Red Medusa” was a stand out piece in terms of the pure poetic force of it, reading like some black metal album blasting into your soul with the howls of a thousand damned. While Aorta is slightly more normalized in terms of presentation, there’s still the same heightened quality to it; you read it and you hear the music playing the background.
I recall an older interview with Tom Scioli in which he referred to Jack Kirby as a ‘genre’ he was working in; and I think it helps to explain why his stylistic aping of Kirby feels progressive rather than a regressive. So many other people doing Kirby Kovers feel cheap and uninspired – they adapt his big poses and big hats but they lack the light that guided him. Horrocks’ work with mecha here feels similar to me. Not in terms of style, though in truth her raw pencils and tactile layouts that stress expressive resonance actually feel closer to what Kirby was aiming for than Scioli’s tightly controlled figures and page structures, but in terms of digging into the familiar structures and re-connecting with their inner truth. It’s not just about cool robot designs, though obviously that’s important, but also the people within them and the world they inhabit.
Take a look at the page above. The first thing you notice is that it’s very ‘cool’ in a formalist sort of way, the way the letters of the sound effects tower over the figures, filling the panel the way the sound of the last shot might fill the mental void of the characters; the small white bleeding away into the black gutters. Both the blood of the dead and shadow of the shooter put them on equal footing, but the heart of the story is in the less show-y two panels above – with Castil giving his dying speech, knowing a bullet awaits to him at the end of the page. Dignity and nobility in his horrible demise.
Or look at this image from slightly earlier in the book: Horrocks doesn’t merely draw a kick to the face, she draws the feeling of being kicked in the face. The angle in the second panel point of view is from below, the angle is slightly tilted – favoring the figure of the kicker and making it more menacing. The leg appears longer than possible, so much that the tip of the foot is outside the page (the impact transcends the limits of the page). The mouth and the nose appear not just broken but nearly torn apart from the power of the blow; after the viciousness of the previous two panels, she allows the page to rest for a minute, illuminating the beauty and strangeness of the science fiction world in contrast to the violence brought about by humans.
That’s the charm of the series, we are always in the world of the characters – experiencing things as they experience them. We are not on some remote plain looking above, but in the guts of its action and passion. Kirby, as I mentioned before, is an apt comparison in how we are always in the midst of the action; but also Leiji Matsumoto in how she dramatizes the life of the characters in a grand romantic fashion. It’s not about trying to approximate life, to reach some naturalistic verite; it’s about exploding outwards from the comics form, embracing the exaggeration and the trash of it; digging deep into it and finding the divine. As the author noted in interview: “comics are the best medium for extreme heightened emotions. A comic where people don’t scream with emotion is only going at half speed in my opinion.” Aorta is definitely a screaming work, an intense work. Go big or go-the-fuck-away type of work. Sometimes that means loss of clarity (book two has some very chaotic bot battles), but never of what we are meant to take from the scene.
In general there’s a lot of… 'interplay' I guess we can call it, between the various pieces of technology, human bodies and natural world. We time jump in book one from some heroic battle to a tight focus on a cow’s anus as it defecates. There’s some humor there, all the striking passions of humanity eventually mean the same to the universe as some dung (the excrement is black on white, literally stains on the tabula rasa of the page / existence), but beyond that there’s some serious intention – an attempt to depict the force of existence in all its various levels. My one major complaint is that the comics are in black and white. I get that this is the water she chooses to swim in, black and white manga, and it’s far from bad looking; but I really do prefer her color work – a heightened palate that could correspond well with actions of page. Her colors shout at me, and without them Aorta's tone can sometimes feel muted.
So I’ll be waiting for book three, and book four and however many books she’s planning for this thing; and I’ll be looking for what comes after. I definitely have the urge, following this thing, to go a little deeper into mecha manga myself. I dig giant robots now.