“They were chopping them up / They were chopping them down / It’s an ancient Chinese art / And everybody knew their part”
A few years ago, Ben Costa was nice enough to send me his first comic, volume 1 of Pàng the Wandering Shàolín Monk, which was quite good. He contacted me recently and asked if I’d like the second volume, and I’d be a fool to say no, so I’d like to thank him for it. He self-publishes Pàng under the delightful name “Iron Crotch University Press,” and this book costs a mere $19.95.
As always, you can keep up with the comic on-line, but of course I’m one of those old-timers, so I dig the book!
I enjoyed the first volume of the book but felt it was front-heavy with exposition – Costa kind of had to do it, as he’s writing about China in 1674, not exactly a time period many Americans are familiar with – and it got better as it went along. With volume 2, he doesn’t have that problem, and we get a faster-moving book, which is nice.
In the first volume, we met Pàng, who arrives in a small village searching for two of his brothers, and he meets an innkeeper and the innkeeper’s attractive niece, Yang Yang, who becomes his friend and to whom he tells his story. The emperor ordered the destruction of the Shàolín temples because he believed they were conspiring with ethnic Chinese who were sympathetic to the Ming dynasty, which the Qing dynasty from Manchuria displaced in 1644. Pàng escaped as part of a small group who were trying to save the sacred texts of the monastery, but he became separated from Jian and Bó, his companions. In volume 1, he was forced to leave the village because he got in trouble with the local authorities, but he had heard rumors about where his brothers had gone, so he followed. That’s where we find him in volume 2.
As the middle volume of this story, Costa can assume we don’t need the history lesson that began volume 1, which means he can move right along with this, which helps get us right into the story.
Pàng is hurt, sick, and lost, and he comes across a tiger, from whom he barely escapes, and then gets into a kerfuffle with a man who has studied some of the Shàolín precepts and doesn’t believe that he’s a monk. It turns out that the man, Yíng Jié, was attached to a different temple, and he’s living in the woods with Rú, one of the monks whom he helped escape when the army came to burn the monastery. Yíng Jié believes he knows where Pàng can find his brothers, so he goes with the young monk. Of course, nothing goes as planned, and Pàng ends up in the hands of a bounty hunter, and then, at the end of the book, he finally finds his fellow monks, but that isn’t as satisfying a reunion as he thinks it will be. Costa does a nice job with the mystery of the disguised man who has been searching for Pàng since the first volume, whose identity we finally learn late in this book. We still don’t know why Pàng or the books he carries are so important, but we get a clue at the end of this volume. Costa does a good job leading us to that point, with the coincidences in the book feeling less like coincidences and more like fate. It’s fiction, so of course there’s going to be an actual plot rather than just random occurrences, but the way Costa brings the plot threads together is well done, because he takes his time and gives us good reasons for the way these people find each other. He also does a nice job with the different characters. Pàng remains somewhat terrified of his own shadow, but as we saw in volume 1, he’s perfectly capable of taking care of himself, and he gets to do a bit of that in this volume. Costa is slowly making him a stronger person as the events around him force him to do so, but he’s also trying very hard to be compassionate, like the Buddha, and that helps him in other situations, too. It’s refreshing to see a hero who wants to do the right thing without fighting, even though Pàng can fight rather well.
Meanwhile, the other characters are interesting because while they represent different factions of the civil war in China at the time and different kinds of Buddhists, they’re not stereotypes. Yíng Jié appears to be completely unreasonable, but after we get to know him, his paranoia becomes very understandable. Wàng, the bounty hunter, is moved by Pàng’s compassion, but he also needs to make a living, and Costa does a nice job with his internal battle as he tries to justify keeping Pàng a captive even though the monk has shown him a better way to live. There’s a lot of that in this book (and volume 1), and it makes Pàng’s journey more interesting, even though it’s plenty interesting on its own.
Costa’s art, I think, benefits from him not having to exposit so much in this volume, because he used a lot of panels in volume 1, making his artwork a bit more cramped. Part of that was because the book took place in a small, cramped village, and Costa did a nice job with the claustrophobia of a medieval-type town. In this volume, the action mostly takes place in the wild, and while Costa still packs each page with a lot of panels, but it doesn’t feel as crowded – I didn’t count the panels-per-page, but even using one fewer opens things up a bit more. His art is very cartoony, but fluid and dynamic, which helps the action scenes quite a bit. There aren’t quite as many emotionally charged scenes in this volume as in volume 1, but at the end, Costa is able to wrench quite a bit of emotion out of the scenes, and he does a good job even with the relatively abstract faces he draws. As in volume 1, he draws action very well. He gets in close so the fighting feels more brutal, but he choreographs it very well, so that it’s always clear what’s going on. We feel the characters’ physical pain, as Costa doesn’t skimp on the bloody details, and that means we also see the psychic pain it causes to the characters, especially Pàng. Costa’s coloring is wonderful, too – far better than in volume 1, but that might be just because he’s putting his characters in different colorful places.
The early scenes, in which Pàng wanders in a bamboo forest and encounters the tiger, are amazing – the lush green contrasts wonderfully with his drab clothes, and the dull orange-yellow tiger leaping out of the ocean of green is a marvelous image. He uses blues and pinks later in the story really well to indicate time of day, and at the end of the book, he makes the sky gray to indicate the storm gathering for Pàng and his companions. As we saw with the first volume, he does a good job with flames, too, as he uses smudgy paint to make the fire look less solid. It’s a smart choice.
Costa is taking a break from Pàng for a while, as he’s working on something else and he wants to finish writing the final volume before he starts drawing it, so it might be a while before it’s finished. Despite it being the middle chapter of a three-volume set, Costa manages to get a pretty good plot into it – if you haven’t read volume 1, he catches us up on Yang Yang (briefly) and gives us a bit of information about the mysterious person following Pàng. The problem with second volumes of a three-volume set is that we don’t get the beginning of the story and we don’t get the end, so it might feel like too much of a bridge. That’s a bit of an issue here, but Costa gives us enough of a plot that it’s interesting on its own. I would still recommend getting volume 1 and volume 2, though – they’re both pretty cool comics.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆