Review – Baki: New Grappler Baki volumes 1-3

art by Keisuke Itagaki

Baki: New Grappler Baki
Story & Art: Keisuke Itagaki
Translation by: Richard Jesner/Momosuke Inc.
Originally published by Akita Shoten, 2000
Published by Media Do, 2018
Copies purchased from ComiXology

Punch your lights out
Hit the pavement
That’s what I call entertainment
Causing problems makes you famous
All the violence makes a statement
-‘Lights Out‘, by Mindless Self Indulgence, 2008

What is it?: New Grappler Baki is the second series in the intimidatingly long Baki series, which clocks in at its (currently, as a new series is incoming) completed length of some 132 volumes across four individual series, with New Grapper Baki being volumes 43-73 of the run.

This era of the mega-series follows Baki Hanma, a martial arts expert and high school student, newly crowned champion of Japan’s underground fighting circuit, as he’s faced with a strange moment of synchronicity; five of the world’s worst, most animalistic and violent criminals have all been inspired to escape prison and make their way to Japan, so that they may ‘taste defeat’. An ultraviolent series of ‘anywhere, anytime’ bouts begin, where who lives, dies, or is impossibly maimed can only be decided through martial combat.

Baki himself is a pretty cute teen boy, but still one capable of flexing his way out of a plaster cast. The sort of aspirational character for teen kids interested in martial arts, maybe?

What I think: There’s something to be said for a little bit of the ultraviolence. In a fictitious setting it’s often cathartic, or at the very least an artistic exploration of the sort of physical activity you just can’t replicate in real life.New Grappler Baki takes this to its own sort of extreme, having inhumanly-muscled bodies bending in unbelievable ways to inflict the grossest of injuries to each other; slashing faces, caving in skulls, removing hands, it’s cartoonishly gruesome, managing to do some truly disturbing things with an art style that stops it from being unreadable. It’s pretty impressive as an example of what can be done with an action manga, when pushed beyond acceptable norms.

The pacing of this initial offering of three volumes is a little hit and miss, both constrained by the ~20 pages of Japan’s weekly comics publishing standards, and the slow drip-feed of new information and characters that all have to be established before the story can truly start. Volume one is actually on a significant sale as of this writing, which whiffs of a knowledge on the part of Media Do that said first volume is pretty much just introductions for our five criminals, as well as the concept of synchronicity, or ‘meaningful coincidences’, which is actually where a young teenage me originally learned the concept, a fantastic bit of teaching in a series normally more interested in people hurting each other in over the top ways, but ultimately something that’s just an overexplored element slowing down the beginning of the actual plot, along with recurring bit with delinquents trying to pick fights with Baki, knowing they’re hopelessly outclassed. It’s all there, it’s all GOOD, but by God does it make the early parts of this story drag a little.

The extended introductions for each criminal are still good comics, mind. Sequences such as these give Itagaki a chance to show off, both by intimidating the hell out of the reader and by doing tricks like this, playing with perspective through the shattered glass of Yanagi’s cell

When it does get moving, Baki truly shines as an action comic, each early conflict showing why Itagaki-sensei has had such a long and successful career working on this series. Wild kicks, animalistic beating, blood, gore, teeth flying everywhere, it’s a beautifully laid-out sequence of gruesomeness, a contradiction in terms perhaps, but the posing of characters, the way these scenes are presented, is truly impressive, and show that there is more to this comic than just shock value violence. Not all of it feels as clear as it could be, which might be more because of the varying page quality of these editions; Akita Shoten may not have been able to provide quite the highest quality of pages for some of these chapters, or mistakes may have been made in compressing the almost 200 page volumes down into files well under 100mb each, but every now and then it’s just a little too blurry for what I’m used to from modern manga publishing.

Which brings us neatly enough to one of my more unusual issues with this release. I’m incredibly unsure of Media Do as a publisher. They fill a void previously occupied by ‘manga bubble’-era Tokyopop; cheap releases, as frequently as possible, from as wide a variety of series as possible, and flooding a market can be a bad look, especially when they’re looking at more ways to speed this process up with less hands on deck, such as machine translation (something far in the future, if ever an actual possibilty, but one of their higher-ups mentioned it as a desire at a convention recently and I’d be remiss to not sneeringly mention it). Baki comes out of this process pretty well, a fairly competent release, especially for its £3 per volume price point. But that feels like a rarity, and one I have worries about when the only staff listing on this volume was the translator. Proper lettering and editing, at the minimum, are crucial to providing quality releases, and Media Do is either skipping them or hiding their credits, which is just as bad from an industry perspective; full credits on manga volumes are something that should be standard by now, and anything less is a harmful step backwards. It’s entirely possible that my issues here are largely unfounded, but a situation where a letterer isn’t credited, but the subsidies received are, is a worrying prospect to this reader.

Baki: New Grappler Baki, is a worthy purchase for now though, a fantastic comic, with a high ongoing commitment, as a 31 volume series, but one made suitably attainable for any given reader at that aforementioned cheaper price point. If you have any interest in violent action comics, martial arts, underground fighting stories, anything within the general sphere this action series encompasses, you really can’t go wrong with Baki. I just wish it didn’t make me feel uneasy because of its publisher.

Not a lot to say for this final image other than that it’s a beautiful splash page, a fantastically drawn series of blows in a single image. A taste of what you can expect should you read this release.

Baki: New Grappler Baki is for fans of: Hong Kong action movies, Fist of the Blue Sky, Gantz

If you enjoyed this review consider dropping me a few pennies over at Ko-Fi. Comics ain’t cheap, but I am.

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