Raymond Chandler, that master of hard-boiled fiction, dubbed them the Mean Streets.
“Down these mean streets a man must go”.” He wrote, “who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.”
Chandler, of course, was talking about the cities of the early 20th century. Those streets get even meaner if you imagine what they might be like in 50, or even 25, years.
Two current comics that are working that particular beat are Old City Blues by Giannis Milonogiannis and Ghost In the Shell Stand Alone Complex by Yu Kinutani. These two series are produced on opposite sides of the world, but they still have some things in common.
Starting as a web comic, Old City Blues has been collected into two volumes so far. The old city in question is the remains of Athens, which was leveled by catastrophic storms. By 2048, however, a partnership of multinational corporations have financed the construction of New Athens. (I don’t know if it’s intentional, but this scenario echoes the strategy that some real-world corporations use, according to Naomi Klein’s non-fiction book Shock Doctrine.)
Solano, the protagonist, is one the police detectives trying to maintain order in this new city. Early in the first volume, Solano’s unit is merged with a squad of mecha pilots—Milonogiannis calls them mechs—and Solano has to adjust to working with new partners, with a different approach to crime fighting.
In the two volumes that have been published so far, Solano investigates the apparent death of a corporate president and the theft of a device that will crack any computer’s encryption.
Milonogiannis’ biography says he was born in America, but raised in Greece, where he now resides. His art is an attractive mix of Heavy Metal—maybe I should say Metal Hurlant—and Japanese anime. It’s sketchy and impressionistic in some places, but lush and detailed in others.
If you want a taste of life in New Athens, you can check out the series here.
I attributed Ghost In the Shell Stand Alone Complex to Yu Kinutani, because he’s producing the manga adaptations now being published by Kodansha. However, he didn’t originate the concept. It’s adapted from the animated TV series which, in turn, was adapted from the manga by Masamune Shirow. For the record, “Stand Alone Complex” is considered a different continuity from the original manga and movies.
Set in the year 2030, this series is a superb combination of several different elements. It’s a police procedural, but there’s also political intrigue and a very serious exploration of the differences between artificial and human intelligence. A large percentage of the population have cybernetic implants of one form or another. This leaves them open to a whole new form of personal attack. As one introduction to the series states, “In a time when consciousness can be digitized and uploaded to the network only the ‘standalones’ remain outside the system.” At the same time, the concept of the soul—called the “ghost” here—seems to have gained new currency.
The protagonists here are the agents of Japan’s Section 9, led by Major Motoko Kusanagi. In general, the major is a great example of a strong female lead character. However, in the first season of the anime, her standard costume is an outfit that strongly suggests that her previous assignment was working undercover as dominatrix. The good news, though, her outfit in the second season is more practical.
Although it doesn’t appear to be on right now, the Ghost In the Shell Stand Alone Complex anime seems to run regularly on Adult Swim’s Toonami, and they’re definitely worth making the effort to find. Meanwhile, Yu Kinutani’s manga will give you feel for the type of stories they tell and the visual feel of the series.
(And there’s an oddity here that I think is worth reporting. Each volume of the manga is labeled as an “episode” and it’s an adaption of one segment of the show. However, they’re not adapting the episodes in chronological order. For example.The most recent issue was episode five, but the story is actually episode 13 of the first season.)