Manga, the Cyborg Girl, and Me: A Love Story

This post originally appeared on Panels, which is now Book Riot Comics

On my fifteenth birthday, a friend gifted me three single-issue comic books. That’s what I thought they were at first anyway. But when I opened them up, I realized they weren’t superhero comics at all. They were manga about a cyborg girl. Wait a minute. Japanese comics were available in English? I thought companies translated only anime!

This was back in the day before TOKYOPOP came and revolutionized the North American manga scene. Prior to that, companies still mirror-imaged manga so that they read left-to-right. To make the titles more familiar to an audience used to Marvel and DC fare, they released manga chapters as single issues rather than the collected volumes today’s manga readers are familiar with.

What was the manga my friend gave me? The first three chapters of what would become volume 3 of Battle Angel.

Like many teenagers, my first exposure to comics came in the form of the X-Men and all their various titles. Uncanny. Generation X. X-Force. I read them all. Or I tried to. There’s only so much you can buy off of a fourteen-year-old girl’s allowance.

Since I’d been reading the X-Men comics with their huge combined backstory, it didn’t bother me to be dropped mid-series into Battle Angel. That’s just normal, right? So I read those three issues, loved Yukito Kushiro’s art, and went looking for more. Battle Angel’s post-apocalyptic vision of a cyborg girl trying to protect the ones she loves struck a chord with me, you see.

I eventually found volume 1 in a Philadelphia comic book store during the summer I attended a science camp held at the University of Pennsylvania. Wow, collected manga volumes were cute! They came in smaller trim sizes than Western graphic novels. Thicker, too.

In between writing up lab experiments and listening to biotechnology lectures, I read volume 1. And in those pages, I dove headfirst into Gally’s—known as Alita in the English adaptation—origin story. It was 100% pure love at second sight.

A discarded piece of scrap retrieved from a junk heap, Gally was found and adopted by a cyborg doctor who crafted her into the image of the daughter he never had. He doted on her and gave her everything. Pretty clothes. A beautiful cyborg body. Opportunity. Parental love.

But Gally didn’t want to be the perfect, pretty daughter. Gally loved to fight. She needed to fight. It was literally in her blood, a faint memory of the person she used to be before she ended up in that trash heap. And against her father’s wishes, against everyone’s expectations, she sought out ways to fulfill that desire. Again and again until her relentlessness chipped away at the resistance put up by those who thought they knew what was best for her. “Why would you want to do that?” they’d say. “Isn’t it too dangerous?” they’d exclaim. “Why would you want to give up what you have?”

Gally’s story spoke to me in a way no other comic ever had. The pressures and expectations put upon us by other people can form a cage, if we let it. It is an experience common to many children of immigrants to the U.S. Our parents came to the U.S. to give us more opportunities and a better life. Why wouldn’t we want to become a doctor? Why wouldn’t we aspire to become an engineer? It’s a stable life. It’s a good life.

But it might not be the life we want to live.

I read Battle Angel through high school and into college. TOKYOPOP rose (and fell), unleashing a tsunami of manga across North America. Mars. Petshop of Horrors. Saiyuki. Paradise Kiss. More. Countless more. But Battle Angel was my formative manga experience. It was the first Japanese comic I ever read. Gally was first the comic book heroine I truly identified with. Her story is ultimately a journey of self-discovery and learning to fight for the things that matter the most. Battle Angel even left its mark on the manga category I read most of. Don’t get me wrong: I love shounen manga but seinen manga will always and forever have my heart.

Like a certain cyborg girl named Gally.

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