Roughly a year ago now I started reading a manga called Gangsta online and became pretty much hooked from the first few pages. I lapped up every chapter that was available, and every subsequent chapter that was painfully slowly uploaded by the scanlators (I would explain what a ‘scanlator’ is, but the clue really is in the title.) A year later (the present) the manga has FINALLY had its first volume released in English and I didn’t hesitate to order it, despite having already read the first 20 or so chapters, and I can’t wait to re-read it again in print.
What is it about this manga that grabbed me so much? Honestly, I can’t put my finger on one single thing. Gangsta has just got that magic formula of great characters, plot, artwork, and writing that sing off of the page for me. Overall it tries very hard to keep away from the usual trappings of its genre, but there is one element that I find particularly unique: it has the first deaf character I’ve ever encountered in manga.
Disability, whilst still hugely underrepresented, is by way no way unheard of in comics and manga. The most obvious example is Daredevil – the blind lawyer by day and the blind superhero by night. His is the classic tale of turning what most would view as a disadvantage into an advantage – his lack of sight is compensated (or overcompensated, perhaps) by superhuman hearing. And he can also kick the shit out of you. Another is of course Oracle. Oracle, aka the original Batgirl, aka Barbara Gordan, was dealt horrific spinal injuries by the Joker and rendered unable to walk ever again. Again, rather than wallowing in self-pity or giving up entirely on superhero life, she became Batman’s technological eyes and ears as Oracle.
There is also the alternate tale of continually struggling with disability. Cloak – of the superhero duo Cloak & Dagger – suffers from a terrible stutter which, as a teenager, prevents him from being able to warn his friend of the oncoming car that hits and kills him. His ability to literally engulf himself in darkness represents his own longing to disappear in silence from the world.
Other examples are more allegorical. Bruce Banner’s ability to transform into a raging green giant when angry can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for a mental health condition. Maybe he is just a guy who loses control over his emotions so extremely that he also loses control of reality. The Hulk could all be in his own head, and we see what he sees because the story is told from his point of view. I doubt I’m the first person to make this point either. The X-Men, who have been born with their abilities rather than gained them, are classified as Mutants, which automatically has an inherent linguistic negativity.
They are the embodiment of every feared and misunderstood ‘abnormal’ or minority group in our society, and similarly vary between defensive separatism and active outreach. Every single mutant has a unique mutation in the same way that every disabled person has a unique disability. There may be some general similarities or common characteristics, but ultimately the severity and the effects of that mutation/disability depend on the individual.
Returning to manga, I have to say I can think of far less examples. Very often, if a character is in a wheelchair – which is the most common visible example I’ve seen – they are very much defined by that disability to the detriment of their characters. Nanalie in Code Geass, who is both blind and in a wheelchair, is presented as being so emotionally and childishly weak as direct result of her disability that she borders on being pathetic. She cannot go anywhere without being nursed by someone. It infuriates me so much I wish she wasn’t in the show at all. Sometimes just being representative isn’t enough when that representation is so profoundly negative.
Implied mental health problems are a bit more common in manga. Light in Death Note is quite clearly a high functioning sociopath and – by the end of the story – develops megalomania to boot. Shinji in Neon Genesis Evangelion is an undiagnosed manic-depressive who happens to also be trapped in the most bleak and apocalyptic world imaginable. His frequent declarations of ‘I might as well be dead’ and ‘I really don’t care about anything’ seem to enhance the intense melancholia and crushing sense of hopelessness that hangs permanently over the story of Evangelion. Luckily his initial reluctance is slowly purged by a latent heroism that develops partly thanks to his confused yet affectionate feelings towards one of his co-pilots, Rei. Shinji is a protagonist who discovers the will to live as the world around him conversely ebbs closer to destruction. Never mind, Shinji.
So… in light off all of this waffling contextual analysis, how and what does Gangsta do differently to represent disability? In the first few pages in which the two central characters – Nic and Worick – are introduced, there is nothing to suggest Nic’s hearing impairment. And why would there be? The only way you would know if someone was deaf would be if there was a physical indication – you might see that they have a hearing aid, for instance. Nic’s physical presence is that of the strong, silent, and vaguely disinterested type. The revelation of his disability is not revelatory in the slightest. So much so that I actually missed it on the first reading – which I think is a good thing. Rather than being the be all and end all of his character, it is simply presented as a different way for him to communicate. This is partly due to the constraints of the medium itself. If it were moving images, or perhaps even a book, his deafness might have been instantly apparent in the scene in question. As still images it is a little harder to grasp.
This is how it goes: Nic taps the hood of the car he is sat on to get the attention of the other characters around him who are all having a verbal conversation. His hand gesture is drawn to suggest movement. His speech bubbles are black with white text – the inverse of everyone else’s speech bubbles. As this is the first time I have ever seen a deaf character in a comic/manga, I don’t think there is a standard method of presenting one – I had no reference point to think ‘ah yes, he’s signing’ in the cartoonish way that you often see a blind character drawn with sunglasses and a stick and get that they are blind, for example. I think I just assumed his speech bubbles were different to make him seem cooler or something.
It is not until much later on that his disability is specifically made reference to and that was when I clocked it and the ‘Wha-?’ moment happened. In the scene, Nic becomes angry, and his speech bubbles suddenly became white with black text. But the shape of the bubbles is jagged and the text is all in capitals and differently sized.
“Wait! Nicolas, did you just speak?” One of the male characters asks him in surprise. “Say something again!”
Nic taps his chest.
“Sorry I…don’t know sign language.” The man replies.
“He says he’s too tired to do it again.” Worick interprets, and he exits the scene with Nic.
Given my ignorance in realising that Nic had been signing the whole time, I think it was good that the creator – Kohske – added this little bit in for other thick people like me, but I was also impressed that she managed to avoid being too expositional. Nic chooses to verbally speak only to vent his frustration directly to the characters that are non-sign language fluent, but refuses to indulge them again, completely fitting with his ‘fuck you’ character (which I am completely in love with, btw.) Without going into too much detail, Nic does have superhuman abilities in strength and speed, but unlike your average Daredevil or Hulk or X-Man, these have nothing to do with his disability. He is a superhuman assassin who just happens to also be deaf. It does not define his character, but merely adds another ‘FYI’ layer to it.
In fact, the only time in the story so far when his deafness is central to his characterisation is possibly my favourite bit of the manga so far. The word ‘bromance’ gets thrown around a lot lately, and very often is used to comic effect with not-very-subtle-and-borderline-offensive-gay-jokes scattered around, because how else can heterosexual men express love for each other without it being (tee hee) a bit gay? Well, let me introduce you to Nic and Worick: a truly legit bromance. I don’t want to give too much away because I genuinely want people to go out and buy this manga, so all I’ll say for context is that Nic and Worick share a pretty traumatising childhood together. At first, Nic is totally alone – silent and illiterate (which I ironically just misspelt about 5 times…). He has absolutely no way of communicating with people other than vaguely miming, and none of the adults around him are remotely interested in making an effort to understand or reach out to him. He is emotionally blank. It is Worick – an equally isolated child of similar age – who teaches him to not only read and write but to sign (he discovers the language in a book). It becomes not only Nic’s communicative liberation, but also their own private language, and this special world of two stays with them into adulthood and remains beautifully impenetrable. Worick is also Nic’s connection to the outside verbal world, but there isn’t any point that you get the sense that Nic is dependant on him. He stalks rooftops alone, disappears around corners, and sneaks down alleyways while Worick struts his stuff down main roads and runs his prostitution racket – (yep, Worick is a gigolo) on the side of their delivery business.
Before writing this I did a quick Google search on the author and manga but failed to find much on either of them unfortunately. Specifically, I wanted to know why she had decided to make Nic deaf, but then I realised that just by asking this question I was being discriminatory. Why shouldn’t Nic be deaf? It would be the same as asking why a character was a woman, why a character was gay, or why a character was non-white. The answer is they just are. There could be a reason why Nic was an assassin. There could be a reason why he decided to only wear black. There could be a reason why he possessed superhuman abilities – and all of these are answered in Gangsta (except the black clothing thing, I think its just to make him look like real dude tbh.) There doesn’t have to be a reason why he is deaf unless it is a crucial factor in understanding his character – which it isn’t. The proof of this is that I read the first few chapters not realising he had an impairment and still understood his character; still empathised with him; and still wanted to read more. When I became aware of the impairment, my feelings towards him did not change. If anything, I warmed to him even more. This is a real testament to the story-telling abilities of the author, Kohske, and if Gangsta gets popular enough, will hopefully encourage the creation of other more positive and well-balanced disabled characters in this medium.
You can buy Gangsta Volume 1 now from Amazon and Forbidden Planet. And you really should.