Random Musings: A Moment of Respite in Kohske’s Gangsta

Gangsta is an ongoing manga series created by Kohske that began serialization in Japan in 2011. The collected volumes of the manga are being published in English by Viz Media under its Signature imprint. So far, I have been loving the series.

Although the manga features a large and diverse cast of characters, the story primarily revolves around the Handymen: Alex Benedetto, a former prostitute recovering from involuntary drug use; Nicolas Brown, a deaf Twilight mercenary with incredible physical abilities; and Worick Arcangelo, a gigolo with an exceptionally accurate and vivid memory. Living in the city of Ergastulum, which was created to quarantine and control the superhuman Twilights, the three leads carry out all sorts of odd jobs for the police, the mafia and gangs, and individual citizens, everything from repairing buildings to finding lost cats to assassination hits.

I have been thoroughly enjoying Gangsta ever since it first began being published in English. I like its dark, gritty atmosphere, intense action sequences, and engaging characters with complicated relationships and pasts. However, I only recently caught up with the sixth and most recent volume, released back in May. While reading the volume, I was particularly struck by a short sequence of panels which was part of a larger four-page scene:

Gangsta, Volume 6, page 51

At first glance, Nic could be standing next to anything—a door, a wall, a pillar, or what have you. I was initially so caught up in the subtle changes in his expression from one panel to the next that it actually took me a moment to realize that Nic was in fact leaning up against part of the sound system at Bastard (a club/brothel run by one of the mafia families that the Handymen are on good terms with). Nic may be deaf, but for an all too brief moment he’s enjoying Ally’s performance as she sings. He’s also literally feeling the music.

A bit of a personal side story: Back in my undergraduate days, the symphonic band that I was a part of would go on tour over spring break. There is one performance from my junior year that particularly stands out to me for two reasons. The first being that our lead trumpet player (who was also my roommate for the tour) was hit in the head by a tuba during intermission, didn’t let anyone know there was a problem, proceeded to play through the rest of the concert with a concussion, and ended up in the hospital that night as a result. The second reason (and the reason that I’m even bringing this all up) is that several members of that evening’s audience happened to be deaf. They sat together as a group with a clear view of the stage so that they could see the performance and they held balloons between their hands so that they could more easily feel the different vibrations created by the woodwinds, brass, and percussion.

Likewise, Nic standing near and actually leaning against one of the sound system’s speakers allows him to more fully experience the music of Ally’s performance. When I recognized this was what was happening, I immediately thought back to that concert in my junior year. I love Kohske’s attention to these sorts of details. They can be found throughout the series and bring an added level of realism and nuance to the manga’s characters and story. I also appreciate that Nic’s deafness isn’t used as a gimmick; it is an integral part of who he is as a person and how he experiences and interacts with his environment and the people around him.

This scene takes place during Ally’s second public performance as a singer at Bastard. The first was an effectively heartbreaking rendition of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me,” her voice superimposed over the mayhem and death occurring in the streets just outside while Worick, Nic, and others risked their lives to trying save those of the Twilight refugees seeking shelter within the club. Tragically, the violence could not be withheld and ultimately spilled into the club itself. This makes Ally’s later performance even more significant, powerful, and emotionally resonant. Her singing this time is a celebration—it can be seen in the joy and happiness in her face and in the faces of those who are listening—providing healing for the survivors and a moment of peace between the tragedies of the past and the tragedies that will inevitably come.

The entire sequence, and specifically these three panels, capture that feeling and atmosphere astonishingly well. Kohske is remarkably skilled when it comes to pacing in Gangsta. Chaos and violence is balanced by quieter moments, pain and tragedy (of which there are plenty) is alleviated by humor and compassion. Gangsta has a narrative rhythm to it that continues to build tension without becoming unrelentingly bleak. Kohske knows when to push the action and when to hold back to allow the characters and the readers to recover, breathe, and process the ramifications of everything that has taken place.

What is also striking about this four-page scene is that there isn’t a single word of spoken dialogue or narration. Even what it is that Ally is singing is unknown. The scene is an entirely visual experience, relying exclusively on the strength of Kohske’s artwork to convey the emotions and narrative of the manga. It serves to emphasize what is happening in these particular three panels as well, accentuating Nic’s perspective as someone who can see but not hear the world around him. And then he closes his eyes, distancing himself even further from that world and from the people he cares about and who care about him.

In the very next instant, Nic is suddenly gone, off on a mission of his own devising that may very well get him killed. And he hasn’t told Ally or Worick or anyone else who truly matters about his plan. But this moment before he disappears is tremendously important—Nic is fully present as he absorbs with all of his senses Ally’s performance and the jubilation permeating the club, something that he will carry within himself when he leaves. Even while Nic is closing himself off, he still maintains and strengthens his connection to others. The space that he previously occupied is left disconcertingly empty; though initially unnoticed, his absence will be felt.

Nic knows what he’s going to do and what’s coming next even if nobody else does. Elation, sadness, energy, calm, regret, contentment, and a myriad of other things can all be found within this one scene. And the wider implications of it are surprisingly complex considering its simplicity. On the surface, Ally sings while others listen, but underneath it all is a turmoil of emotions and a tangle of intentions. In general I have found Kohske’s Gangsta to be an incredibly engaging manga, but this scene in particular has left a huge impression on me from both a visual and narrative standpoint.

Gangsta, Volume 6, page 51

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  1. I loved this post! I’m backlogged on this series, but subtle moments like the ones you highlighted are always the best.

    I would really love to see more Random Musings/Features from you, Ash. ^^

    • Thank you so much!! ^_^

      I’d love to see more Random Musings and other features from me, too. They take considerable more effort and inspiration than my regular reviews, but I always like working on them. They tend to end up being some of my favorite (and often more worthwhile) posts, too.

      I hope you enjoy Gangsta! As you can see, I’m rather fond of the series.

  2. Great post!

    There were many examples of disabled characters in action manga who usually compensated by having near supernatural ability, but Nic’s always struck me as a far more nuanced and ‘real’ character than that. Props to Kohske.

    • I absolutely agree! Nic’s portrayal in Gangsta is probably the most realistic that I’ve seen in a manga that isn’t actually based in reality (like Yoshitoki Oima’s A Silent Voice and Takehiko Inoue’s Real are). I also like that what gives Nic his superhuman strengths doesn’t come without serious consequences.

      (Also, thank you for the kind words!)

  3. Okay, this post has convinced me to try this series ASAP.

    • I hope you enjoy if you get a chance to read it! Gangsta can be pretty brutal, but it has these wonderful, quiet moments, too.

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