Back in my comic-reading infancy, I was caught up in the world of hyper-violent titles with big dudes, bigger guns, and pouches, oh so many pouches. The early days of Image filled out the modest collection of my younger self, what few comics I could sneak past my parents. My view of the medium was informed by, and restricted to extreme action, covers alone providing enough force to dictate my attention. Enter Striker (or Spriggan for you purists), featuring an angry dude, in some sort of combat armor, and a camouflage bandana–a promising start. What I didn’t expect was a comic that wasn’t a disposable thrill, something worth coming back to every few years, revisiting to unravel layers of unforseen complexity. It became a staple of my collection, something I can’t say about the vast majority of other comics I owned in my early comic-reading years. In three short volumes, not even the complete series, (11 total volumes were published in Japan), a world past violence and action opened up an avenue through which solid storytelling could co-exist with big dudes and even bigger guns. And for a reader looking for both substance and action, Striker blends the two seamlessly, delivering a megaton kick in the name of archaeology and cultural harmony.
The series revolves around a secretive, illuminati collective called Arcam, seeking to contain or destroy technology and artifacts from an ancient, unrecorded civilization. These artifacts are sometimes hinted at being alien in origin. Regardless, each is tied to a specific religion or spiritual belief. The spiritual power imbued in, or tied to each item is always enough to upset the fabric and stability of modern society, thus containment, responsible usage, or absolute destruction are the top objectives. While Arcam operates almost exclusively though Japan in these volumes, operatives from other countries are hinted at or make brief appearances, giving the organization a sense of global governance. This is important because it means Arcam’s motivations aren’t dictated by geopolitical borders and allegiances; their concern is for the overall well-being of humanity as a whole. It gives Striker a foundation for some multi-cultural harmony (although, full disclosure, the multi-cuturalism in these three volumes is limited to white, Asian, and a pinch of brown people), which, given the range of cultures Arcam encounters artifacts from, prevents the series from eschewing proper representation.
Despite Japan’s somewhat troubled history with archaeology, Striker presents a fantastic sense of moral fortitude around the practice. Arcam doesn’t believe in hoarding these artifacts as a means of abusing power; they believe in a duality between respecting the cultures from which the artifacts belong, and securing or destroying them to prevent the rise of a deeper malicious world power. The preservation aspect comes with the territory of being a good guy: the world is threatened, so you have to save it. However, the morality around preserving artifacts is the meat and potatoes of the situation. Arcam mounts its battle from a perspective of global consciousness, an idea that all people and all belief structures deserve an equal amount of admiration. Throughout its short English publication, Striker covers Judaism, Christianity, Shintoism, Hinduism, and a dash of Taoism. Within this spectrum of beliefs Arcam manages to not impose its own specific cultural values on any one spirituality, opting for a universal respect of the human spirit instead. For the good of humanity these cultural artifacts are worthy of protection and study.
Alongside Arcam’s protective mission, the artifacts act as a metaphor for the dangers of zealous religious beliefs. Power alone drives militant world governments to their clandestine acquisition attempts, however in some cases power is not the only motivational factor. Particularly in the case of Noah’s Ark, the group fighting Arcam is not so interested in the Ark to harness its power, but to unleash its power to remake the world as it was intended to be. The danger here is not so much in the artifact itself, rather the belief that this immensely formidable world building machine represents God’s perfect earth from a Christian standpoint. So, while Yu and company are actively fighting the shadow group, and attempting to deal with the Ark in whatever way is most prudent, the real battle is against stopping one belief structure from upsetting the balance of overall human spiritual unity. The battlefield becomes a mix of literal and symbolic fighting, deeply complicating the roles of Arcam and their nemeses.
As exemplified by Noah’s Ark, not everyone in the pursuit of these artifacts holds the goodwill of humanity as a primary concern, and just like any good hero story there’s an inevitable need for a proper villain. Since this manga began in the twilight years of the Soviet Union, most of the villains are militant, power hungry Soviet soldiers, with a splash of ultra-patriotic Americans, and some ambiguously unaffiliated shadow organizations on the side. Both sides of the Cold War conflict are more invested in increasing individual national power, as opposed to holding any measure of concern for the world as a whole. Both countries are painted as selfish brokers of power over conscience. Where Arcam stands as a pillar of worldly preservation, American and Soviet villains paint their respective countries as squabbling children bent on preserving manmade definitions of boundaries, affiliation, and most dangerous of all: patriotism. It’s hard to say whether many of the cultural artifacts either power is after would truly upset the balance of power versus hyperbolic nuclear caches, nonetheless the conflict between these nations, with Arcam at the center, is a parable of the absurdity of what the Cold War represented: an overly long game of flexing roulette with no real winner. Acquiring these artifacts then becomes a show of which world power can pee further rather than an actual tipping of scales. Perhaps we are meant to reflect on this moral comedy while both American and Russian villains are mercilessly beaten up by Yu Ominae and company.
Inevitably as the stakes get higher, and the cast as a whole inevitably levels up, the bad guys need to follow suit by getting increasingly ridiculous. Striker vs. the Third Reich takes villainy in an utterly absurd direction, calling a play that Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. would be jealous of. With the Cold War at an end, what better boogeymen to battle than one of the most reviled humans and fascist dictatorships in modern history: Hitler and the Nazis. Driven by the exiled remnants of the original Third Reich, these rogues attempt to resurrect Hitler through an ambitious and streamlined cloning program, running nonstop until his original consciousness returns from the abyss, because only real soul of the Führer can unlock an armory of cultural weapons tucked away by the Nazis for a rainy day. Eventually we have to ask ourselves, what’s more evil than Hitler? An entire legion of Hitlers. While the Führer clone army is not long for this world, the one true Hitler emerges to lead the Third Reich once more, to glory, and to a treasure trove of lost artifacts.
Unexpectedly, Striker never intends us to maintain Hitler as an inhuman monster. As one of the Reich generals explains, Hitler’s evil streak was due to a dual personality. On one side is a peace-loving, puppy dog-eyed, lovable man; on the other, the merciless dictator everyone loves to hate. In order to remain sane Hitler jumps back and forth between these identities, with hard-wired subconscious triggers available should he need to switch personalities on the fly. In this twist, the unthinkable happens. We are made to feel sympathy for one of the most evil human beings to ever walk the planet. At this point it sounds like things have jumped the shark with a rocket pack and NASA grade fuel. Yet the purpose of this dual identity is to afford Hitler the opportunity to reflect on his inhumanity as his good side, prevent the return of the Third Reich, and apologize to humanity for his horrible mistakes. His actions become irrefutably sympathetic, in essence forcing him to assume the role of a tragic hero. Hitler, while giving the impression of being mad with power, consumes all of his life energy attempting to wield a weapon from the Ramayana, destroying everything in the armory, preventing the return of the Third Reich, saving the world. His last admission: he was in full control the whole time, and this was his attempt to right the wrongs he inflicted on the world. Instead of utilizing Hitler as a vehicle for shameless, indulgent, easy violence, Striker employs him to, if only on a miniscule scale, help soothe a deep wound in the history of humanity.
Striker is available, for mature readers, from Viz Media, most likely in the discount section of your favorite used book seller.