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Andrew Osmond shells out for the Mardock comic

In the West, we’re still inclined to think of anime as coming out of manga, as naturally as eggs from chickens – one line into a Mardock Scramble piece and we’re already talking about eggs again). In Mardock’s case, both the manga and anime are alternative versions of a novel by Tow Ubukata, published as a trilogy in Japan and collected into one volume by the publisher Haikasoru. It’s comparable to what happened with Battle Royale, a novel which spawned a live-action film and an even more lurid manga.

Drawn by the female artist Yoshitoki Oima, the first two Mardock Scramble manga books cover much of the same story as the first anime film (Mardock Scramble: The First Compression). Once again, troubled girl Rune Balot is blown up by her psycho boyfriend Shell, rebuilt by the jovial Doctor Easter and partnered with Oeufcoque, an A.I. looking like a cute mouse. But it’s quickly obvious this is a different take on the material from the anime.

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The look is loose and sketchy; often the characters are framed against minimal backdrops or none at all. Interestingly, the opening pages of the first chapter are drawn in a much darker, shaded style, more in line with a hardboiled (sorry!) action manga. However, this look only resurfaces afterwards in individual panels, such as those with Shell’s henchman Boiled in action. Balot, supposedly 15, looks even younger than she did in the anime, without the bitter, defensive anger. Her pixie face is curtained by long black hair; her nose is barely a shadow.

Unlike the anime, there’s very little nudity, and Balot’s outfits are generally less provocative, even she’s seemingly wrapped up in bandages for combat (with shades of Rei in Evangelion). Doctor Easter is drawn with flowing locks and a cartoonily excitable demeanour. Oeufcoque is a squat beanbag of a rodent, with an oddly triangular forehead (not so cute) and a perpetually worried expression (so he’s cute nonetheless).

It’s a much “lighter” look than Mardock anime fans would expect, given the gruesome story. Not that the Oima softpedals. In the opening pages, Shell slashes Balot’s throat, making a “pfft” sound. The Bandersnatch chop-shop gang turns up later in all its anatomically-augmented glory. Admittedly the, ahem, buxom one shakes and bounces winsomely (“I’ll even let you touch it…”).

In the manga, we see the Bandersnatches take victims; there’s one genuinely upsetting scene that may have story consequences later on if Balot finds out about it. Even the whimsy has a dark edge, as when the homeless Balot hallucinates a huge eggshell on the pavement, and burrows into it away from the world.

The course of events diverges very quickly from the anime, with far more action. In the manga, Balot has no sooner realised her powers than she crashes out of Easter’s lab to confront Shell and his goons in person. (In the anime, she takes up Easter’s plan of taking Shell to court.) She also has an early big battle with the deadly Boiled, though this fight is very clumsily plotted, so that the action is often impossible to follow.

So far, the strength of the manga is in its empathising with Balot and Oeufcoque. The drawn style inevitably makes the violence less brutish, while the lighter moments are cuter. We see both Balot’s brother (in flashback) and the mousy Oeufcoque resolved to protect Balot. With Balot herself lacking in the steel that she has in the anime, it’s hard to resist calling her a moe figure. If the anime skidded between challenging ideas and exploitation, then so far the manga is somewhere on the dial between charming and sentimental, with extra blood and bangs. But of course, this is only the start of the story…

The second part of Mardock Scramble, the anime, is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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