Like many adventure-oriented manga, BATTLE ANGEL ALITA is composed largely of “long arcs.”
The first long arc sketches out a futuristic Earth that provides the obverse to Russ Manning’s beneficent “cloud in the sky” civilization, as seen in the MAGNUS ROBOT FIGHTER story “Cloud Cloddie Go Home.” Yukito Kishiro’s world is dominated by an aerial city named Tiphares (named for the central sephiroth of the Kaballah’s “Tree of Life”), a city linked to the Earth’s surface by a long shaft and assorted cables. Yet for the first two arcs the reader does not see how life is lived by the citizens of the clouds. Rather, Kishiro focuses on the lives of the ground-bound humans whose domain, “the Scrapyard,” coalesces around the aerial shaft. The reader’s first image of this environment is that of a mammoth junkyard, reinforcing the idea that the people, too, are castoffs from legitimate society. Earthbound commerce centers around Tiphares as well. The only businesses Kishiro shows are METROPOLIS-style factories, whose main function is to process food and other commodities and send the goods up to the sky-city via the central shaft. The inhabitants of the Scrapyard, however, live a hand-to-mouth existence, and many of their bodies have become modified through grafting or through the addition of cyborg parts—which seems to debase rather than enhance most of them.
I’ll pass quickly over the set-up established in the first arc. A technician named Ido happens to be rooted around in a junkyard for spare parts when he finds an intact cyborg-head from three hundred years previous. He joins the head to a new body and gives her a new name, Alita, but the diminutive cyborg has no memory of her old life. She does cherish her new “papa,” though, and because Ido does a side-busniess as a “hunter-warrior”—hunting fugitives on the outs with the authorities-- Alita begins imitating Ido’s bounty-hunting profession. But the robotic body Ido’s given her possesses phenomenal powers that even Ido barely understands—and this is where the first arc ends.
Since Alita is functionally “born adolescent,” IRON MAIDEN commences with her first love, as well as giving her a reason to be at odds with the dominion of Tiphares. While fighting with some cyber-enhanced bounties, Alita gets kayoed, and wakes up to see a teenaged boy, one Hugo, looking at her. Alita and Hugo become friends, and he, unlike Alita, feels a great passion to transcend his earthbound status by emigrating, legally or illegally, to the sky-city.
At this time Alita has next to no interest in Tiphares, but she falls in love with Hugo right away, and is not a little jealous of Hugo’s passion for the city. Later Kishiro reveals that the dream isn’t original with Hugo, for Hugo’s older brother cherished the same impossible dream. However, Tiphares takes extreme measures to dissuade immigration. Possibly thanks the betrayal of his wife, the brother of Hugo is slain by a cyborg hunter-warrior. Thus Hugo’s passion for Tiphares is entangled with filial affection and survivor-guilt.
Hugo’s far from a starry-eyed innocent, though. Alita is aghast when she learns that his side-business is stealing spinal columns from corpses to sell on the black market. Vector, Hugo’s black-market contact, has promised to smuggle Hugo into the sky-city if the boy can amass a huge number of credits. Alita eventually starts helping Hugo gather credits, hoping to go along with him. The cyborg-girl does not know that Hugo sometimes breaks the law in his dream-quest, attacking cyborg-citizens to remove their spines. (Because the victims are cyborgs, this attack doesn’t kill them, though Hugo’s buddy Vector is not nearly as scrupulous about not killing.) Soon Hugo is a wanted man for his crimes, and one of Alita’s many enemies manipulates things so that Alita may have to bring Hugo to justice. Alita tries to help Hugo escape to Tiphaes, but before they can do anything, another hunter-warrior—indeed, the same one who slew Hugo’s brother—deals Hugo a fatal wound. Alita arrives in time to destroy the hunter, and then is able to save Hugo only by taking his head—in the same way Ido salvaged her head—to Ido’s laboratory, where the good doctor attaches it to another robot body.
At this point Ido drops a bombshell on the young couple. Ido himself is an exile from Tiphares, and he knows that they’ll never allow the entry of people from the Scrapyard. Hugo is more than a little disturbed to learn that he’s lost his humanity in pursuit of a chimera, and when he and Alita confront Vector, they learn that the only way he ever sends “people” to Tiphares is as preserved body-parts. The two cyborgs wreck Vector’s office but spare his life, for Alita has more pressing concerns. Hugo, almost mad from his sufferings, scales one of the cables anchoring the city to the earth. Alita almost manages to talk Hugo down, to convince him that the dream of their future together is better than the dream of Tiphares. Tragic fate intervenes, and Alita loses her first love. Over time, though, she will inherit Hugo’s mission: that of penetrating the mysteries of the city in the sky.