By Justin Harrison
Yasuhiro Nightow’s 1995 to 2007 science fiction manga Trigun/Trigun Maximum is a bombastic comic. How bombastic? Its official subtitle is “DEEP SPACE FUTURE PLANET GUN ACTION!!” – double exclamation points and all. Illustrator and writer Nightow does everything he can to live up to that name. Whereas Trigun’s beloved 1998 anime adaptation is a comparatively intimate western with vital science fiction elements, Maximum (the vast majority of which Nightow wrote after the anime’s run) is a grand, even epic-in-scale science fiction saga with western elements.
Trigun the anime closed with a one-on-one (if superpowered) gun duel between protagonist Vash the Stampede and his murderous brother Millions Knives. Trigun Maximum the comic pits Vash (a heroic borderline-immortal-artificial lifeform pacifist gunslinger) and his human allies against Knives (who has turned himself into a giant flying monster by absorbing the other members of his and Vash’s species the Plants) and the last of his servants. On top of that, both factions are also up against a human/Plant expeditionary fleet from Earth; a fleet operating with minimal context and heavy firepower. As Vash and Knives burn their lives to shoot lasers and miniature black holes at each other, Vash’s pals try to disrupt Knives’ control of the Plants, Knives’ servants try to kill or immolate them, and the Earth fleet opens fire on pretty much everyone.
Maximum (added to Trigun’s title after it hopped from the defunct magazine Monthly Shonen Captain to Young King OURs – the story remains continuous) is, by design, A LOT. It pinballs from thrilling action to zany comedy to grand melodrama, often within pages – even panels – of each other. As an action storyteller, Nightow loves scale and sound and continual escalation.
Take, for instance, the case of Nicholas D. Wolfwood: Vash’s best friend and one of his essential foils. Wolfwood is a wandering priest trained in the art of assassination and granted a drug-activated Wolverine-tier healing factor by a cult dedicated to Knives. Though ostensibly one of Knives’ agents, Wolfwood ultimately throws in with Vash. Wolfwood wields the Punisher, a combination heavy machine gun and rocket launcher shaped like a cross. During Wolfwood’s final battle, his foe, long-lost childhood pal Livio’s bloodthirsty alter ego Razlo – trained by the same hateful snarl of a man who taught Wolfwood everything he knows about violence before his student betrayed him – wields three Punishers, the third with the aid of a cybernetic arm.
During this battle, hundreds if not thousands of rounds of ammunition are expended, multiple rockets go off at extremely close range, and both men’s healing factors are pushed well past their limits. Wolfwood’s decisive blow reduces Razlo’s head to a smoking ruin of bone and muscle. Razlo does so much damage to Wolfwood that when his regenerative drugs (which he’d deliberately overdosed on to keep up with his nemesis) wear off, he violently bleeds from everywhere. And that’s before he takes a giant spiky gun barrel launched at high speeds to the chest to save Livio – and by extension Razlo – from their treacherous master. It’s thrilling, gleefully loud comics and a fine example of Trigun Maximum in its last act.
So, when Maximum goes quiet, it really stands out.
Nightow deploys such breaks in the action deliberately, especially during the book’s multi-volume climax. Of these, the most striking is the death of Wolfwood, a piece of comicscraft that I have not stopped thinking about since first reading it over a decade ago.
Structurally, Wolfwood’s death in “Wolfwood,” the seventh chapter of Maximum’s tenth volume (also called ‘Wolfwood’), follows a multi-volume action sequence that encompasses Wolfwood’s last stand and serves as the last major incident before Maximum‘s final story arc begins. It’s a Point of No Return for Wolfwood: he succumbs to his injuries from Livio, Razlo, and their master and the aftereffects of overdosing on his regenerative drug. And it’s a Point of No Return for Vash as well. Having lost his best friend to one of Knives’ long-game schemes, he reaffirms his vow to stop his murderous brother and simultaneously honors Wolfwood’s will by taking on the reformed Livio as a traveling companion.
Nightow expertly manages his character focus throughout. He begins by bouncing Vash and Wolfwood off the folks they were fighting to protect – the kids and staff from the orphanage where Wolfwood grew up – before bringing in some of Vash’s other allies to re-center Maximum’s macro-scale stakes. From there, he shifts to a brief comic episode featuring Vash, Wolfwood, and Livio, before giving way to the last drink between Vash and Wolfwood. After a final moment between Wolfwood and his orphanage family, Maximum’s focus returns to Vash as he closes the chapter realizing Wolfwood has died.
Nightow’s control of tone is similarly skillful. With the volume’s action concluded in the previous chapter, he makes space for some goofiness. The orphanage folks are regular folks – that is to say, not even remotely prepared for ALL OF THE BLOOD left behind in the aftermath of the action. The reformed Livio proves to be remarkably clumsy for a man who can comfortably wield a pair of guns that fire from multiple angles simultaneously (to say nothing of Razlo’s triple-wielding Punishers). And, even as they work to evacuate the orphanage kids before Knives’ ship gets within firing range, Vash and Wolfwood cannot help but bicker childishly.
But once the bickering and flailing are done, Nightow gracefully shifts into the meditative and downbeat.
Close as they are, Vash and Wolfwood spend most of Trigun at an ideological impasse. Vash WILL NOT take a life under any circumstances (at one point early in the comic, he stops a gunfight to provide lifesaving first aid to a goon he’d hit at a bad angle) and is a committed, deliberate optimist. Wolfwood, a self-described “assassin,” kills easily and uses cynicism as a shield. A prime example of this is their clash over the fate of Rai-Dei, one of Knives’ servants, whom Wolfwood kills to protect Vash. To Wolfwood, the man was a known killer who’d devoted his life to making Vash suffer and who seemed to be readying an attack when Wolfwood gunned him down. Vash counters, noting that he had already defeated Rai-Dei and that, for all his rage, the late rollerblading samurai’s finger was not on the trigger of his sword-gun when Wolfwood killed him.
Across their friendship, Wolfwood, as infuriating and ridiculous as he finds Vash’s ideals, is nevertheless moved by them to the point that he consciously decides to take on some of Vash’s code during his final battle. He won’t just fight to protect his family at the orphanage; he’ll fight to save Livio from his fatalism, Razlo’s bloodthirst, and their master’s cruelty. And he succeeds, breaking through to Livio and convincing him to take back control from Razlo and cast aside Knives as a master.
It’s a major personal victory for Wolfwood… and it’s just about the last thing he’ll do. The moment he overdoses on his regenerative drugs, he knows that he’s a dead man walking. Vash puts two and two together partway through the fight and offers him his full support, shifting his focus strictly to defending the orphanage kids and urging Wolfwood to “crush” Razlo. With his last act, Wolfwood saves his family and his childhood friend. That does not change the fact that he’s spent most of his adult life as a willing killer. And – on a relatedly grim note – Wolfwood’s adult life hasn’t been all that long; the cult’s enhancements to him and Livio included artificially aging them to their physical prime. While the two look like men in their thirties, they’re in their early twenties at the oldest.
In his mind, Wolfwood has no right to face the family he loves (if they’d even recognize him in the first place after his artificial aging). He’s reconciled to this, if unhappily so.
And yet, grace, expected and unexpected alike, meets Wolfwood at the end of his life. For all Wolfwood and Vash have been through, all the time they’ve spent at odds, and the clashes they’ve had over their respective codes, they’re true friends – vital as any either’s ever had. Wolfwood goes out sharing a drink with his dearest comrade. And he is recognized by his orphanage family despite believing he doesn’t deserve to be. Not only is Wolfwood recognized, he is welcomed home. The orphanage’s kids and staff shower him with confetti they’d been making for the day he’d return from the ship carrying his friends to safety. Astonished and deeply moved, Nicholas D. Wolfwood dies smiling next to his best friend.
It’s wonderfully somber, bittersweet storytelling, all the more so for the deliberate visual contrast between Nightow’s Deep Space Future Planet Gun Action and Wolfwood’s last moments. During his battle with Razlo, Wolfwood is showered with countless projectiles – bullets, bullets, rockets, and more still bullets. Sound and fury, unleashed by a man who’s all but wrath and hurt incarnate. Nightow repeatedly dedicates panels to the sheer volume of spent ammunition. Through it all, Wolfwood remains clear-headed and focused on the fight. As he dies, Wolfwood is again showered with countless projectiles – the confetti made over days, months, even years by his orphanage family for the day when they’d celebrate his return. It’s so unexpected that Nightow uses multiple large panels and a double-paged spread to capture Wolfwood’s stunned response, finishing with a close-up of his weeping for joy.
Moreover, after the chaos and violence of Wolfwood’s final battle, where gunfire and explosions reign supreme, the confirmation of his death comes from something far quieter: the sound of a bottle of whiskey dropping to the ground.
Nightow packs his action sequences with panels breaking down the fight blow-by-blow, but for Wolfwood’s death, he dedicates a two-page spread to the moment Vash knows his friend has passed. Wolfwood goes slack, even crumples. Vash faces the reader, coiled up in the knowing, his eyes hidden by his famous sunglasses. In the following pages, Vash grieves for his friend. But, to paraphrase Hobbes, “It’s that moment of dawning comprehension” that makes the scene.
It’s a stunning piece of comics craft. By itself, the spread is a striking composition that ably demonstrates Nightow’s mastery of body language and character design. As part of “Wolfwood” (and, for that matter, Maximum as a whole), its intimacy marks it as one of the most distinct and vital parts of Nightow’s stupendous science fiction comic.
Trigun Maximum Vol
By Yasuhiro Nightow
Justin Harrison is the film editor for The Spool, with bylines at NeoText and AIPT, among others. He’s tinkering with a visual novel. For more, you can find Justin on Twitter here!
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