Despite my storied history of nerdy pursuits, I’ve never really been a comic book reader. I’ve read some of the canon titles – you know, Watchmen, Kingdom Come, and, um, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics? – but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to educate myself in the medium, picking up some discount trades from the local comic store at the clerk’s recommendation. One of the trades I picked up was Earth X, an Alex Ross/Jim Krueger joint that imagines the Marvel universe on the brink of collapse. Rendered in stark, evocative chiaroscuro, the series primarily operates as a post-modern deconstruction of the enduring appeal of superheroes – specifically, Marvel’s superheroes – with X-51 (aka Machine Man) observing as an audience surrogate.
Earth X intellectualises, criticises, interrogates. It’s an impressive achievement, testament to the maturity and self-reflexivity that ‘childish’ comics are capable of. It isn’t, however, especially entertaining. Not that art needs to be entertaining, of course, but at a certain point all the vividly-realised analysis and intimidatingly-complex sci-fi underpinning becomes a bit tiresome. The creators have thought so deeply about what motivates contemporary comics that they seem to have forgotten the main reason people read these things: escapist fun.
I don’t intend this to stand as coherent criticism or anything. As I said, I’m not especially familiar with the medium of comic books. I’m sure there’s a place for series like these that are as much essayistic as they are entertaining; but while I love the look of Earth X, I admit I’m in no particular hurry to check out its sequels (Universe X and Paradise X). The reason I’m bringing this up is because Earth X helps clarify my own thinking about the anime series Kill La Kill, which takes a similarly deconstructive approach to anime and is successful – and unsuccessful – in pretty much the same ways that Earth X is successful and unsuccessful.
Just as Earth X made me intensely aware of my limited knowledge of comic books, Kill La Kill will make any casual anime consumer (such as myself) conscious of how much dang anime there is out there. This is a series deeply indebted to the history of its medium, a series populated with so many references and explicit homages that the Reddit-penned summary of such references will take as long to read as watching a full episode of the show.
Kill La Kill is an anime about anime, drawing unapologetically on every anime cliché imaginable while simultaneously scrutinising those same clichés. Its protagonist, Ryuki Matoi, is an assertive schoolgirl determined to avenge her father’s death – while wearing skimpy, magical clothing, of course, neatly combining magical girl, fanservice and vengeance all at once. She enters a high school (check) where rank and fighting ability are closely interlinked (check), makes a wacky best friend (check), struggles to control the power of her uniform (check) and ends up discovering a conspiracy of apocalyptic proportions (check). Rather than just going through the motions, Kill La Kill increasingly questions the underpinning logic, with some late plot twists cutting at the exploitative core that drives anime fanservice and (mostly) ties said fanservice to prepubescent magical girls.
This kind of interpretative framework has its flaws. You can dismiss concerns about the impossibly revealing outfits Matoi wears by pointing to Kill La Kill’s interrogation of the conflation of clothing and power in anime (going into too many details here would stray into spoiler territory, but perhaps its sufficient to note that there’s a rebel organisation called ‘Nudist Beach’ because they refuse to wear clothing). Think that the bridge between the high school drama of the first half of the series and the larger-scale warfare of the second half is clumsy? Well, maybe it’s supposed to be clumsy, huh? Didn’t you think of that?
It’s not that there isn’t plenty of evidence that the show is commenting on these conventions, whether it’s a parody of ‘catch-up’ episodes mid-season or the particulars of its conclusion, which is about as feminist as a show that continually puts its heroine in barely-there costumes is going to get. But, much like Earth X, I increasingly got the sense that the series was coasting, relying on its commentary to paper over any flaws in its presentation. In particular, it feels too long – the expressive, exciting animation (à la FLCL) and silly comedy (à la Excel Saga) makes the first half-dozen episodes incredibly fun to watch, but as it evolves into a more plot-centric show, it begins to drag. Once you sort of get what it’s doing, it runs out of the momentum to sustain twenty-five episodes (a dozen would’ve been perfect, in my opinion).
What I’m getting at here is a sense of disappointment that’s rooted in how good the series actually is. It promises a lot, but doesn’t deliver consistently enough to meet the standard that I expected after watching the first Blu-Ray (the series is released in Australia by Madman on five separate discs; prohibitively expensive, sure, but gorgeously presented at least). This is not to say that you shouldn’t check it out, just as my misgivings regarding Earth X shouldn’t be construed as disapproval! For the most part, Kill La Kill is intelligent, entertaining and visually glorious; it’s just not quite what it could have been.