I've long felt Masamune Shirow's The Ghost In The Shell was one of those things that fared best when someone other than Shirow worked on it. When Mamoru Oshii adapted it into an animated film, or when Kenji Kamiyama translated it into an animated TV series (in my opinion, the fullest flowering of the franchise thus far), or when any number of other folks came along and did their thing with it, we saw all the more completely what Shirow seemed to only be able to hint at. The Ghost In The Shell: Global Neural Network brings a novel form of collaboration to the table: it employs four teams of artists and writers from outside Japan to present their own original stories in the Shell-verse. Some of them stick closer to Shirow's original flavor; some are more explicitly in the mold of the way others recast Shirow's work; and some depart entirely from expectations, with mixed if also fascinating results.
Automatic Behavior (story: Max Gladstone, art: David López)
A number of the best episodes in Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex touched on the way the pasts of the characters — Motoko, and in particular Batou — came back into the present to haunt them. Automatic Behavior has an old war acquaintance of Motoko's, Li, turn up in Shanghai. Motoko doesn't want to trust Li, but needs to crack a case involving a "ghost force" of soldiers she fought Back When that seem to have surfaced again, and Li is the only one who knows the territory she's currently stuck in
One intriguing element here is the way the story uses Aramaki. Normally he's the puppet-master and diplomat, but every now and then the franchise gives him a chance to more directly play hero. Here, it's by way of a circumstance that someone like Motoko would normally find herself trapped in, and which Motoko would need to think and fight her way out of. Saying any more than that would ruin the fun.
Long before this book landed on my desk, I did wonder how I'd feel about seeing Shirow's characters depicted in a Westernized comics style. López's art is not to my taste, but his approach brings to the surface something intriguing about the material — the way he specifically contrasts the way Motoko and her mates look compared to some of the Westerners (specifically, Americans) they tangle with. Then again, manga creators do this sort of thing all the time in reverse, and it isn't long before the art style takes a back seat to the moody tug-of-wills between Motoko and Li.
Redbloods (story: Alex de Campi, art: Giannis Milonogiannis)
Answers the question: What's going on in the "American Empire" that is only hinted obliquely at throughout the Shell franchise?
The way into that question — one I've been wanting an answer to myself ever since we first heard mention of the Empire — is by way of a quintessentially Shellesque plot. It opens with Section 9 moving in to crack a criminal gang that's trafficking in illegally acquired cyborg bodies of minors. The trail leads Togusa and Saito (the latter being one of the franchise's most underused characters), the two members of the team with the least amount of enhancements, into "Redblood Parish" in Louisiana. There, without network connectivity, they have to do some old-school sleuthing, shoe-leather and brass-knuckle work to find out what's ado.
The one minus to this story is in how the American Empire is little more than just a picturesque backdrop that presents the team with some logistical difficulties. Its real significance in the Shell universe isn't explored very deeply. But everything dropped in front of it is entertaining and fast-moving, and there's nice moments where Togusa and Saito share notes about what their lack of cyberneticizing has amounted to in this world. This is also the one story in the batch that seems to be most directly designed as an homage to Shirow's original material — it self-consciously attempts to copy Shirow's art style, right down to the chibi-form joke panels that occasionally show up at the bottom of a page.
After The Ball Is Over (story: Genevive Valentine, art: Brent Schoonover)
Continues to answer the question: What's going on in the "American Empire"?
Here we have both the best and worst story in the collection, each of those being for reasons that are entire at odds with each other. Best, because it goes further than any of the other stories in terms of shedding light on a corner of the Shell verse. Worst, in the sense that this comes at the cost of not featuring a single character or situation from the Shell stories as we know them — no Motoko, no Batou, not even a Tachikoma.
Ball gives us Sofia Vasquez, an "unhackable" like Togusa — no cyber-enhancements — who sells her skills under the table to people who need someone in that department. Life without augmentation is hard enough; it's twice as hard in the American Empire, where everything looks like the most desolate parts of the Southwest. One day an old friend shows up with some cyber-trouble, and she agrees to help him against her better judgment.
Much of the road trip that ensues is not so much about plot as it is filling in details — Vasquez's own past and motives; the way everything has changed since she was a child; the difficulty involved in dropping off the grid, both when you've spent a lifetime on it and when you haven't. The details are also a reminder of how, as we come all the closer to Shell's actual purported moment in time, what we see in the franchise isn't meant to be our future, but a future, in the same way Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 went from being a possible future to its own alternate now. That flavor, and some of the techno-political details about what Vasquez's old friend got mixed up in, are where it hews most closely to its source.
Again, anyone looking to this story for something familiar will be disappointed. But that in the end I admired the way it took a left turn up one of the Shell-verse's darkest alleys and opted not to come back into the light.
Star Gardens (story: Brendan Fletcher, art: LRNZ)
With every year that goes by, the Shell-verse feels a little less like fiction for any number of reasons: the meshing of men and machine, both bodies and intelligences; the interpenetration of virtual and physical worlds; the way all of the above has remade every corner of human life, from creativity to politics to crime. Stand Alone Complex tried to throw its arms around many of those ideas simultaneously.
Star Gardens tries to do much the same thing, so in that sense it's arguably the one story of the bunch that's most faithful to the Shell aesthetic. Bluntly, it feels like one of the "stand alone" episodes of Stand Alone Complex, both in its subject matter and in the arcane way it backs into the real concerns of the story. It opens with a digital heist, where Apsel, the thief in question discovers his partner in crime is in fact Motoko. But Apsel is no rookie, and Motoko finds herself pitched into a dizzying double-reversal involving the identity of the woman she impersonated to get closer to Apsel, and ultimately her own identity as well.
Of all the stories in the book, Gardens also has my favorite artwork; it's right on the knife edge between the manga style we'd most directly associate with the franchise, and the look of Western comics that has in its own way become all the more manga-influenced over the last decade and change. It also employs — most explicitly in one splash panel — variations on all the art styles and design changeups Motoko, and the franchise itself, has gone through over the years, from the 1991 manga all the way up to ARISE. It's a fitting cap for a project that embodies how Ghost In The Shell keeps finding ways to reinvent, rediscover, redefine, and reincarnate itself.