Space Pirate Captain Harlock (2019) – Review

Jérôme Alquié’s Space Pirate Captain Harlock can feel like a lot to take in. Produced by a clear superfan of an artist/writer, with direct input and supervision from original manga-ka (and certifiable legend) Leiji Matsumoto himself, it’s clear that this omnibus collection is a laborious love letter from the moment you open it. There are multi-page spreads showing off collections of classic characters, detailings of the original story’s plot bringing us into where this new tale takes place, and shout-outs to all the key details powering the series as reminders for fans old and new. The sheer amount of Harlock‘s content thrown out right from the start feels like an energized assurance from Alquié that he gets it, and that he’s too ecstatic to be here, doing this, to subtly ease readers into the story’s world and setup. I’d like to say that enthusiasm is infectious, and enough to carry the book in spite of some of its shakier elements.

The decision to make the story of this omnibus an original one, slotted into the broad strokes of the more well-known Harlock narrative seen in the original manga and anime, was definitely for the best. Alquié’s art is robust, and his energy for conceiving this project might have worked just fine in simply recreating the origins of Harlock’s battle over Earth with the Mazon, but might seem ultimately unnecessary given how storied that classic construction is after all these decades. Alquié’s Harlock Thus amounts to a ‘movie’ slotted into a classic narrative: Something that could conceivably fit into the established canon and which uses familiarity with the characters and world at the outset for its ideas, but which is also very telling much of its own independent story at the end of the day, complete with shifts back to the status quo so that the expected adventures can continue on afterwards.

Alquié’s story concerns new characters introduced into the Harlock universe, who have conceptual, thematic ties to the classic cast, while also seeking to add new depths here and there with those introduced complexities. The Mazon themselves, and their leader, Queen Lafresia, see some fresh expansion in their planet-colonizing differences strategies and the idealistic in generations of leadership to how they feel about those choices. Much of these seeming conundrums are mostly in service of facilitating a team-up between the classic antagonists and Harlock’s crew, a suitable movie-level escalation by the time of the book’s climax. Its a sense of nuance lending to the portrayal of the Mazon here, even if it can’t amount to much long-term by the end of the story due to this entry’s nature, nor does it land especially strongly given the Mazon side’s rather tertiary involvement with a plot that’s nonetheless predicated on their past villainous actions.

Similarly, Harlock and his crew remain the central characters we follow through the plot, but with less individual focus on their specific personalities and how this interstitial adventure affects them, if at all. Harlock himself is portrayed well enough, with this story presenting one of the more vulnerable takes on the character that we’ve seen. We spend a lot of time inside his head, understanding the anxieties that power the life-choices he’s living out at the moment, and how he’s fueled by his established obligations to his friends and found family. As for the question of whether this might jibe with those who prefer the less-interior, more stoic-badass presentations of Harlock from classic media, it must be said that the character’s actions still speak to his side of decisive leadership. There are a lot of choices made in frantic situations across the story of this book, and while Harlock isn’t totally unflappable through it nor successful entirely because of his own actions, he still comes across as that man possessed of his own desire for freedom . Of all the main characters that mostly have their foibles and insecurities referenced in an illusory sequence in one chapter, Harlock’s are the only ones that feel like they tie particularly into any of his arcs presented by this collection’s specific story.

The new characters created for this comic, then, are the ones that receive the cleanest, most complete set of developments over the course of the story. The three mutant Mazon sisters, for their part, do mostly come off like plot devices, being living weapons that need to be stopped across the intervals of the heroes arriving at new locations. Their backstory is for the sake of explaining their existence, wrapped in those aforementioned gestures towards fleshing out the broader Mazon forces. Central inciting antagonist Talika, meanwhile, borrows from some other characters’ backstories in ways that are remarked on in the plot itself, painting a picture of a ‘sympathetic’ villain that nonetheless necessitates the Harlock/Mazon team-up and also sees her excised from the series by the end, as any good anime ‘movie’ villain is. There’s an odd irony to the way her story is primarily about the warped effects of living for revenge, despite the fact that her situation (and that of the mutant Mazon sisters) was created at the behest of the Mazon themselves. At the end of everything, even in spite of the Hero/Villain team-up, the remaining understanding is pretty clearly “The Mazon are a force of destruction in whatever they meddle in and should be stopped”, with little mind paid to any nuances regarding their desires to survive and repopulate the planet they colonized, or Queen Lafresia’s supposed standards regarding experimenting on her own people.

Besides the story, the other distinguishing element of this Harlock collection is naturally going to be its presentation. Jérôme Alquié’s art can be an impressive riot to take in a lot of the time. Swaths of color fade into each other in the omnipresent background detailings, with panels and page-spreads going to ridiculous lengths to present as much kineticism across those pages as possible. It can almost be overwhelming in places, as differently-scaled boxes play across layouts with dialogue zig-zagging between them. It’s absolutely leveraging its full-color, western-comic presentation for complexity apart from what you’d see in (particularly older) manga from the likes of Matsumoto. That’s mostly a good thing, in terms of making this entry feel like it has its own identity even with Matsumoto’s involvement. Alquié’s art stays faithful to most of the characters, though some, like the redesign for Mayu or the new characters introduced, stray a bit into the artist’s acknowledged Saint Seiya influencer Bits like that, or how the odder character designs like Masu translate into the more detailed full-color comic art, can leave things feeling a bit incongruous in places. And some renderings, specifically the ice Mazon, are inconsistent in some scenes. But overall, the art just by itself communicates the epic scope this story is selling itself as.

However, the art and the base story aren’t the entirety of what we’re being presented here in Captain Harlock, which leads me to the biggest issue I took with this collection: The dialogue and the narration. Simply put, there is a ton of it, and I’m not certain all of it is strictly necessary. Some interiority for Harlock is appreciated, yes, but him going on for pages of narrative diary entries, reiterating points of the backstory and the plot so far, simply jumbles up the presentation even from the beginning, ironically making it feel more confusing to follow at times than if we’d just been dropped in with more minimal establishments. Similarly, so many of the characters regularly speak almost entirely in exposition, going back and forth with each other in dialogue that never gives us too much in terms of their personalities, but rather interchangeably imparts new information on this or that plot device to us at Each step in the blocked-out journey the story finds itself at. Even Talika’s backstory, the emotional crux of this particular plot, is related in a descriptive flashback once, and then again as she reiterates it to Harlock, in a huge block of seemingly spoken text, right in the midst of the critical blows of an otherwise climactic showdown. It can make for an exhausting experience a lot of the time, as boxes upon boxes of dialogue clutter even the most major of setpieces with explanations, even amongst the points where the detailed art should absolutely be able to make goings-on clear by itself. One charitably gets the impression that this was an area where Alquié’s enthusiasm was such that he just couldn’t contain himself from wanting to communicate every possible aspect of the story he was telling, but it’s definitely one place where that enthusiasm overstepped the point of more tidy, effective storytelling.

That enthusiasm in Alquié’s Captain Harlock really is the major mitigating element for so much of the book’s offbeat choices and imperfections. It genuinely instills a sense of “Well if it’s good enough for Matsumoto, who am I to judge otherwise?” But there is still the point that one fan’s appreciation for a franchise isn’t going to express itself in the same way as another fan’s, so it also stands to reason that Alquié’s take, however well-supervised, won’t read as definitive for everybody. As an entry on its own, it’s a fascinating piece, a window into the joys of a devotee given the ultimate opportunity to make a contribution to something they love. It is wildly imperfect, and I would advise that it’s absolutely not the best choice for Harlock newcomers looking to be introduced to the franchise. But there’s definitely an earnestness about it, which is more than I could say for some other classic-series cash-in creations.

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