The Eroicaverse: Z
April 20, 2012
This is fifth in a series of articles exploring From Eroica With Love and its spinoffs. For the index, go here.
I’ve already talked about The Marksman, which was a hard-boiled spy thriller starring Klaus. I mentioned I thought it came before this work, because The Marksman is basically just like the Z stories here, only moreso. More serious, beautifully drawn, plotted more tightly, and it shows off the professional life of the Major the same way Z does for Agent Z. It was Z that came first, though, and I suppose that makes sense, because everything in these stories went into the Marksman later.
Agent Z is introduced in the From Eroica With Love Story Insha’Allah in volume 3 of the series. Prior to that story, much like Agent G, he was introduced in another series, in this case one named for him. Z is a series of six stories that cover six different missions, each showing a different aspect of what it’s like to train as a rookie agent under Major Eberbach.
The first Z story ran in the August 1979 issue of LaLa Magazine, a Hakusensha magazine. Again, it’s interesting to me that Aoike was allowed to share her characters among different publishers, since Z never pretends to be anything but a From Eroica With Love spinoff, and Eroica was being printed at Akita Shoten at the time. Z appeared in LaLa one month before he made his debut in From Eroica With Love, so all the heavy commentary about him being the new agent makes more sense when you realize another series is being promoted.
Unlike Agent G, Z is essentially the same character between the two stories. The Z missions call attention painfully to his shortcomings as a rookie agent, and Major Eberbach uses each mission as a learning exercise for Z. Z also does his share of fumbling, such as letting his target get away or meeting them face to face, things like that. He also tends to not make much progress on his stakeouts, which drives the Major crazy. What’s interesting about this is that in Eroica, Z becomes the most competent and favored of the agents, whereas here the Major is quite hard on him when he screws up.
The stories are a lot more about international espionage than even From Eroica With Love. The plots frequently involve Z tailing someone, sometimes a civilian with a low chance of being kidnapped, other times suspected double agents or key witnesses or what have you. A common plot element is that there are agents from the other side involved (in the context of Z, the “other side” is usually communist East Germany), and they quickly spot Z and begin keeping tabs on him, unbeknownst to Z. Usually, it’s stressed that it’s obvious he’s been taught to do certain behaviors, rather than the casual look that Z is going for. Having said that, Z does always try his hardest to do the mission successfully, and he always gets a spectacular save at the end of the story.
While the Major does yell at him a lot, it becomes increasingly obvious that it’s tough love. The Major makes allusions to tough training he had as a rookie, and how much he hated his commanding officer. And while he never says so out loud, even when he deceives Z during one mission and winds up punching him when Z protests, he seems to cringe mentally when he does it. Apparently, doing orders without question, regardless of what you think, is one of the most important lessons a new agent can learn.
The Z stories all have sentimental endings. Z reeling in shock after he kills a man. Reacting emotionally (though lying about it) when someone he was shadowing commits suicide upon learning Z was a spy. Some… uh, build an atmosphere between Z and the Major. I… don’t know. I suspect some of those endings launched a thousand doujinshi. Or perhaps not, since if you’re going to write a doujinshi, the Earl practically begs for it. Plus, Z goes all James Bond on the ladies in this series, the rare times he can silence the stern, anti-romance advice of the Major running through his head.
Strangely, I’m pretty sure the above scene was redrawn to be less explicit in the Hakusensha graphic novel.
All the stories are nice-looking, though scenery is never as important as it is in The Marksman, nor are locations as important as they are in From Eroica With Love. Z is almost entirely a character-building exercise via spy stories. Still, Z travels to Switzerland, Norway, and the US, among other locations. There are other shoujo flourishes, too. For instance, the villain in the first story is fond of roses, and the ending is rather spectacular.
Actually, one of my favorite things about this series is the way Aoike draws Z. The first five stories were drawn over a period of four years, and for some reason, Z’s hairstyle is different in every one. He starts with a fantastic mullet that grows shorter in every story. The 6th and final Z story was published in Melody magazine much later (in 1999), and there’s a drastic difference in his character design in that story.
Admittedly, while Z makes for a fun rookie agent, he never quite breaks out of being a timid rookie officer, personality-wise. He does get triumphant action scenes, but aside from that, he mostly cowers from the Major, occasionally eyes pretty ladies in a polite manner, and goes through all the motions of being a young new guy. The stories are great, and he is both sympathetic and heroic, but Z never really becomes any more than his role. A shame, since the Major and Earl are such personalities.
Action scenes are very important in this series. There are plenty of car chases, targets being stolen out from under Z, enemy agents turning hostile, and even shootouts. It never goes over-the-top, and Z is never too terribly heroic the way that Klaus and Dorian can be in the main series, but that does make it more believable.
And really, the believability is the strength. The stories are never quite as exciting as The Marksman, partially because Z is still learning, but also because there is occasional levity since the Major’s personality is allowed to shine through here. It’s not quite as funny without the Earl needling him, but he still has enough loud subordinate abuse in him to make Z cower comedically. The humor isn’t too much, though, and all the Major’s yelling does come at appropriate learning moments. They are tightly written little stories, equal parts Z struggling with what to do and action scenes where his decisions lead to something exciting, usually an out-of-control situation.
Not as funny as From Eroica with Love, but not as epic as Der Freischutz, Z is still a neat series, very much worth reading. It seems to be the most popular of the From Eroica With Love spinoffs, perhaps because it has just enough of the main story’s feel, some humor, with the over-the-top parts stripped out, leaving a really great shoujo action series with a sympathetic hero.
Then again, perhaps another part of the allure is that Z is meant to be, on some level, shoujo eye candy.
There are several different editions of Z. The first five stories were republished three times, once as a small bunkouban by Hakusensha, and in two 2-volume editions, one from Hakusensha and the other from Akita Shoten. There might be an Akita bunkouban floating around, too. The 6th story, published after both of these editions were released, appears both in a special edition booklet that was bundled with a 2000s-era copy of Princess Magazine (this is quite hard to get), and in volume 33 of From Eroica With Love. But! The edition you want is the recent Complete Edition, which is the whole thing in one volume. This was released as the first part in an apparently ongoing 35th anniversary celebration of From Eroica With Love. This also keeps all the original color pages and pinups of the series, bonus black and white illustrations, and even short side stories and diary comics that Aoike drew.