Appleseed, a four-book series that will likely never see the release of book 5 as the author has decided to focus on Ghost in the Shell (and other T 'n A projects) was a gripping and visionary tale of the world a few decades into our future. It combined large helpings of optimism and pessimism, and mixed up the big issues with personal struggles. I was utterly enraptured by it at the time, though now I recognize it has lost some of its lustre...
The story starts with a girl, Deunan Knute, digging around an abandoned/ruined city for food and shelter. She's accompanied by her partner Briarios, whose body has been turned almost fully into a robot. They've been wandering 'badside' for a while before Hitomi shows up. She's come from Olympus, a post-war city that was well under construction before the war and is now, essentially, the management hub of the world. Soon after Hitomi's arrival all three are attacked by team of soldiers, sent to kill Hitomi. It's clear that they have no choice in choosing who to trust, so they travel back to Olympus with Hitomi.
From there the story shifts between many different stories. Rich with subplots, each issue of the comic brings a wonderful mix of detailed technical artwork, political intrigue and SWAT-team action. It doesn't take long before Deunan and Briarios put their survival skills to work, joining the police and then ESWAT, buying enormous mecha (Landmate) for her, and struggle to find their place in this new world.
Meanwhile the politicians are trying to manage this utopian society. The old-world countries often resented the terms Olympus dictated after the war, and there was a constant risk of terrorism. There was also the very nature of humanity to consider. When allowed to live in complete peace and freedom, people tended to atrophy as they were not required, in any way, to fight for anything.
The comic delights by filling every panel with beautiful imagery. Beautiful women, machines and architecture fill every page, and the attentive reader is rewarded when time is spent examining the backgrounds.
It's not a perfect book however: The dialogue, especially early on, feels a bit like it's happening outside of what the reader is shown. Many conversations are discjointed and scattered, making sense only after repeated readings, and sometimes not at all. This does not seem to be a translation problem - the same translating team worked on many other books that were far easier to read. It seems as if Shirow simply couldn't focus the outpouring of ideas enough to create a coherent thread.
The art isn't perfect either. Shirow has a very sketchy style and while he fills every frame with artwork showing a world that was extensively considered, the linework is rarely solid. Instead the reader gets a very emotional ride, with plenty of motion and impressions - rather than definite objects - fill the books. Shirow's mechs are very unique, with incredible attention paid to real-world limitations. His women are stunning, and unlike his later works (Hello Ghost in the Shell 2) he shows a lot of restraint in his depictions of them. Nude scenes are rare, and you can count the panty shot on one hand for the entire series. (For those who aren't aware, Ghost in the Shell 2 had a panty shot on every page, and in almost every frame)
My copies are looking decidedly dog-eared after years and years of re-reading, but it's still a series I treasure.