Review: Mardock Scramble, Vol. 1

When Kodansha Comics popped onto the scene, replacing Del Rey and making huge plans for increased frequency of releases and new series making it to print, I was fairly excited. Obviously it was upsetting that Del Rey had mostly been cut from the picture, but it was my hope that this change would lead to some great new content being released. For the most part, I have been underwhelmed, due in large part to the fact that I am not the average manga consumer, and I still don’t have new volumes of Nodame Cantibile (which, face it, is a lost cause).

Kodansha has made a lot of safe bets with the titles it is currently publishing (besides the ever-befuddling Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei!) and one of these safe bets is Mardock Scramble, a manga based of a 700-page “cyber punk noir thriller” novel recently published in English by Viz Media‘s Haikasoru imprint. Importantly, both the manga and book were written by the same person, so the hope is that the transition from novel to illustration would at least be faithful to the original book. I had all but decided not to purchase the title when a few bloggers I follow fairly closely said that it was a fun read – so I decided to bite.

Mardock Scramble follows a young girl named Rune Balot (the most irritating name for a protagonist ever) who has been forced into prostitution and is inexplicably found, revitalized, and subsequently murdered by a man named Shell. Rune, in the hands of the reaper, is saved by two private detectives, Dr. Easter, and a shape-shifting weapon that calls itself Oeufcoque and takes the form of a yellow mouse. She is saved by a mostly illegal experimental procedure called “Mardock Scramble 09″ (yes, I realize this gets more ridiculous as I type), and now has the power to interface with all manner of electronic devices. The main focus of this first novel is whether Rune feels that her new life is worth living, after being broken down so thoroughly by her past, or if she should help Dr. Easter and Oeufcoque deliver Shell to justice.

If I had to describe Mardock Scramble in one word, that word would be “fluffy,” which is an odd word for describing a gritty sci-fi action thriller like Mardock Scramble. We see Rune run through the ringer, only to be brought back to life and made into some sort of superhuman weapon, and it’s all very cheery and “wow, look at how much power she has,” in a typical shonen way. Rune is a victim of poor circumstance, and her trials and tribulations are laid out to give her excuses to do certain things, but the pain or the sadness is very gimmicky. As a reader, I want well developed characters to go with my action, and Rune is a few clichés pasted onto a black-haired girl. The content of Mardock Scramble takes a backseat to cool explosions and artistic flourishes, and while that can be entertaining, it certainly isn’t compelling. It is this “style over substance,” storytelling that turns me off to works like Mardock Scramble.

To add to that mix, Rune is a doormat character, and her trauma and sadness are not well explained, so she ends up looking like a broken doll rather than a person battling with depression and issues of self-worth. The book is so busy with its upgrades that it essentially overrides Rune’s emotional crisis after a few short scenes. The other main character, Oeufcoque the mouse/weapon, is played as both comic relief and a Yoda-like benevolent teacher, leading Rune through her problems while enjoying a good pistachio. It’s not really clear what roll Oeufcoque and his friend, Dr. Easter, play in this series, but they break the action up a little bit, and that’s a welcome change from the rest of this first volume.

The art of Mardock Scramble is fairly well done, but there’s an unpolished feel to it that nags at me. The style, which is grungy, a little dirty, and futuristic, hits the right tone for the story, but there are some inconsistencies with the way people are drawn (faces with misaligned eyes, abnormally long arms and legs) that seem to get less and less noticeable as you progress through the book. Page layouts in Mardock Scramble are excellent in comparison to other books in the same genre, and Mardock Scramble reads very easily because of it. If anything is this book’s saving grace, it is that it is a quick, well composed read, so unless you are looking specifically to evaluate the work in a critical, some of the misgivings I have about it may be easily overlooked.

Overall, I think Mardock Scramble will be a great read for teens who like action and sci-fi, but I think those who are looking for a bit of manga popcorn to munch on will like Mardock Scramble the most. For my tastes, I want Mardock Scramble to have more substance than it currently has. This may change in the second volume, but from the parting scenes of volume one, I would have to sit through another chase scene, and to be honest, I have seen enough of those to last a lifetime. While Mardock Scramble isn’t the worst work I have read in the genre, and certainly manages to get the pacing and flow of reading absolutely right, I doubt I will be back for volume 2.

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