Owen Wiseman is no stranger to the world of samurai. Thanks to a middle school scheduling mix-up, Wiseman wound up studying Japanese. The class focused on history, language and culture, and soon enough captured the young Wiseman’s imagination. Fast forward several years later to a discussion between Wiseman and his creative partner Mike Benaroya about doing a samurai comic and all the pieces for the June-shipping “Samurai’s Blood” fell into place. The comic produced by Benaroya Publishing and Image Comics stars three young adults in 17th century Japan trying to survive in a world that has completely turned against them. Even though Wiseman knows his history and has put a good deal of it into the pages of this six-issue miniseries drawn by Nam Kim, he wanted readers to know “Samurai’s Blood” does not get overly bogged down in the historical details.
“I want to be clear about one thing, this is not a history,” Wiseman told CBR News. “I’ve intentionally set it away from the main cities of Japan. It doesn’t take place in Ado or have actual historical figures in it, because I wanted to tell a story, almost a fable in a certain sense. I didn’t want to get bogged down trying to explain the minutia of Japanese history because it’s just not possible. Even in vast novels like James Clavel’s work, things like that — ‘Shogun,’ ‘Gai-Jin’ — even then with thousands of pages of prose it’s difficult to explain the historical details of the time and place. In a comic you can only hint at it, you can only try to make the details you’re using accurate but still leave out large parts of it because balance is required. In the case of ‘Samurai’s Blood’ it’s not a meandering pace, it’s not a slow paced story. One thing I want to be really clear about, the number one thing that this is, is a kick ass story. All the historical detail and all the setting and all that stuff is wonderful and I hope people appreciate it, but I just want people who like a good story to read this comic because I think they’ll get one.”
You can’t have a kick ass story without solid characters worth reading about, and Wiseman is well aware of that fact. The writer has that in spades in the trio of heroes Jun, Katashi and Mayuko who are on a mission of vengeance thanks to the widespread destruction of their clan.
“Sanjo Junichi, or Jun as he’s commonly called, is the last heir to the leadership of the Sanjo Clan, which in the first issue is destroyed and usurped by a man named Gakushi,” Wiseman said. “Jun is the master in this relationship and he’s just finding his way and coming into his own. He’s from a small mountain village so he’s not super worldly, but he has an almost preternatural intelligence about him. Then as the retainer we have a young man named Kajiro Katashi who is the son of the blacksmith in the local mountain village and is Jun’s best friend. He wants desperately to earn the rank of samurai and becomes Jun’s retainer as they enter the world seeking their vengeance. But, he also has his own ideas about honor and they’re not necessarily the same as Jun’s, so those two will come into conflict in the first issue and then throughout.”
The third member of their group is Jun’s younger sister and Katashi’s love interest Mayuko. Thanks to this triangular relationship, plenty of problems arise as Mayuko often finds herself in the middle of Jun and Katashi’s battle over honor versus vengeance, an idea Wiseman enjoyed exploring in the series.
“The central relationship that I’m examining is the relationship between a samurai master and a retainer,” Wiseman explained. “It’s the idea of what is owed by the retainer to the master and what is owed by the master to the retainer and how do those limits and those different problems clash with things like friendship and love. There’s these natural human emotions and the very formal and intellectual commitment to honor. There’s a lot of big time conflicts there. The central moral or emotional theme of the story are those things, if you don’t want to kill somebody but your master says you have to, what is the end result? How does that work itself out. And, is there wisdom in those types of relationships and dynamics that we’ve maybe lost in this era when that relationship doesn’t really exist anymore.”
These relationships are put to the test as our trio of heroes find themselves on the run thanks to the actions of two very, very bad men readers will meet in the first issue. Wiseman described villains Gakushi and Araku as “pure evil,” a purposeful distinction he created for specific reasons.
“One, it’s a complicated enough story, so I think it’s good to have some bad guys whose destruction you can flat our root for,” Wiseman said. “I really like stories like that. Also, I’m not as comfortable portraying Japanese samurai as evil. I want to try to present it with more nuance and present the ideas of the samurai through the eyes of these three characters who are young and discovering it for themselves. So the bad guys are more like forces of nature, they’re malevolent and truly evil so we can focus more on these three than those two.”
That focus on Jun, Katashi and Mayuko continues throughout the series as the trio find themselves fighting for their very lives, trying to survive in a dangerous world that is both uncaring and out to get them.
“A lot of what gets in the way of their vengeance is the rough and tumble world they live in,” Wiseman said. “It takes place in the first few decades of the Ado period which is the beginning of the 17th century. It’s a brutal world. There’s no social safety net or anything like that. People really did slip through the cracks quite often. A big part of their struggle is just to survive in this world and learn how to get enough coins to get a bed and put food in their bellies. They all come from this fairly small mountain village and are all competent and smart and good fighters, but they’re not worldly in the sense that you would need to navigate a big city. The conflict between what they want to do and what they have to do is really the central crux of what I’m writing about.”
Delighted with the results, Wiseman credited editor and “overall guru” Dave Elliot with putting together an art team that excelled at balancing the fluidity of action sequences with the historical settings and the smaller moments between the characters that are so important.
“I think there are so many ways that it could have been done wrong, but I think we got really lucky,” Wiseman elaborated. “In the wrong hands, a subject like this could be treated really badly and could come off as hokey. We were really lucky to find the artists we did, particularly [penciler] Nam Kim. He’s a guy out of Philadelphia. He’s amazingly talented in terms of not only his visual style and putting panels together — which he’s great at — but also in terms of capturing a world. I’ve done as much work as I can to make it authentic in terms of detail and doing historical research and being enthusiastic about the culture, but I can’t draw it. He has taken it upon himself to really really get the details right and I think the work speaks for itself. When you see it, the pencils and how they are, you can see that every one has been crafted with care.”
Wiseman went on to praise inker Matt Dalton, who works with Kim on a daily basis to get everything just right, and Jessica Kholinne and Josh Aitken who handled colors and letters, respectively. The writer went on to discuss the importance of creative lettering in his book which includes thought boxes, samurai history and dialog all on one page and sometimes even in the same panel. He couldn’t be happier with the whole team and the work they’ve done to bring “Samurai’s Blood” to life.
“In working with all these artists I have been pleasantly surprised over and over and over where I have an idea about what’s going to happen and then they take it and make it better than I thought it could be,” Wiseman said of his collaborators. “At every stage of the process they’ve taken my best ideas and added that one extra twist. The letters are absolutely no exception. I would also agree that it’s an often overlooked feature because it’s easy to think, ‘Oh, I’ll just slap some stuff on there,’ but if it doesn’t look quite right, it’s incredibly noticeable. It’s like the goalie in soccer, if they’re doing their job, you don’t notice them at all, but if something goes wrong it becomes quite obvious.”
The culmination of several years’ worth of study and fandom, “Samurai’s Blood” might take some cues from the novels of James Clavel and Akira Kurosawa’s movies including “Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo,” but Wiseman said this story was always planned as a comic book.
“We always have envisioned this as a comic book,” Wiseman said. “We want to take it across a lot of different platforms and you always want to expand your world, but I think there are things about the comic book form that I find interesting and unique, in particular the idea that you can talk about big moral ideas in a comic book and big issues. The superhero stuff I grew up on is fraught with moral issues, big questions and that kind of stuff. I wanted to do that for the samurai. I wanted to think about what their world view would be, what problems that would result in and how are they going to get around those things and with the eagerness for death some of them seem to have, how do they stay alive? Comic books are a very unique form in that they allow you to do that because they have streams of text and streams of meta voice in addition to the dialog.”
“Samurai’s Blood” is on sale in June from Image Comics.