Though my pile of trade paperbacks has ramped up its rate of growth in the past couple of months, my slow drift back into reading comics for — GASP — fun started a couple of summers ago.
Maura and I had to have our fingerprints taken as part of the pre-adoption process, and the nearest place to do it happened to be a couple blocks away from a comic shop we both frequented in our teens. We decided to pay a visit since we were already in the neighborhood.
I didn’t really anticipate buying anything, because I couldn’t think of anything worth buying. After ten minutes of poking around the shelves, I ended up plunking down the cash for a couple of “Year’s Best Comics” DC Digests from the early Eighties and a full set of Xenon: Heavy Metal Warrior paperback collections.
I’ve written about Xenon a couple of times before, so forgive any auto-plagiarism that might occur. The Masaomi Kanzaki series was one of the earliest offerings of the translated manga boom of the late Eighties, localized by Viz and published in bi-weekly installments by Eclipse. While I picked up stray issues of that partnership’s previous trio of offerings, Xenon was the one that truly grabbed my attention by virtue of its ultra-violent mash-up of mecha, melodrama, and superheroics.
The story was a fairly straightforward jobber that bordered on cliche — a surly teen with sensitive side disappears in a plane crash, only to turn up as an amnesiac super-cyborg a few months later, with the sinister arms dealers responsible for the transformation hot on his heels. Limbs are severed, hearts are torn out, and panties are flashed across multiple arcs where Xenon and his ragtag band of assistants take on the arms dealers’ other enhanced agents, from super serial killers to bionic apes. The action culminated in a high stakes battle aboard a runaway freighter and one of the most abrupt and disappointing endings I’ve ever encountered in a fictional work.
I purchased the original issues as they come out in 1988, lost most of them in the wake of my mom’s death, and picked up replacements during the Great Back Issue Buying Spree of the mid-Nineties. While I still have those copies, finding a complete like-new set of the collected editions for ten bucks a pop was too good a deal to pass up.
Xenon was foundational for Teen Andrew in numerous ways, most of them either so embarrassing that I’ve blocked them from memory or so subtle that I forgot their origin. It was the first genuine manga I followed, as opposed to Comico’s domestically produced Robotech comics or other local attempts to bite the aesthetic. If you were a fan of Japanese comics or animation in those distant times, you had to settle for whatever slim fare drifted into the American marketplace — most of it badly dubbed, imperfectly localized, or edited for the kiddie crowd.
Xenon was the first manga series that appealed to me beyond the aesthetic novelty. The character’s cybered-up look echoed the slick designs of the imported mecha toys I coveted while the narrative channeled the edgy superhero stories I embraced as a sign of “maturity” and “sophistication.” Revisiting it now, I can see why my younger self fell so hard for it…and how problematic it was on several levels.
The dialogue is of the shouty-ludicrous school, frequently defaulting to “WHY WON’T YOU DIE” and “HAHAHAHA” in moments of crisis. The protagonist is a complete prick, even by the standards of the archetype, and prone to spouting off sexist rants. There’s a heavy edgelord vibe to the violence coupled with some truly dire moments of fan service, both of which have only grown more cringeworthy over time. It was the perfect manga series for a surly adolescent male who was really into Punisher and Watchmen, and — God help me — I was such a creature.
I spent hours in my room trying to copy Kanzaki’s style and adapt characters from the comic into my Champions campaign. When the supermarket I worked at went out of business, I blew part of my last paycheck on some black dye for my shaggy mane and beamed when my friend said the results make me look like Xenon. I read and re-read the prose pages used as filler for a few of the issues, covering topics like contemporary tends in manga and the significance of robots in Japanese pop culture. It was a (thankfully) short-lived phase, but it left an indelible mark.
It also makes Xenon a difficult thing to revisit, the words and images triggering flashbacks of unsettling intimacy. It’s not shame or embarrassment, really, but confronting ghosts that should’ve been exorcised three decades ago. There’s a significant piece of my adolescence trapped between those pages, and nothing will ever shake it loose.