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A review a day: Madam Samurai volume 1

by  in Comic News Comment
A review a day: <i>Madam Samurai</i> volume 1

Is it “madam” or “madame”? Discuss!

This is a true volume 1, as it ends almost in the middle of a scene. It’s supposed to be a movie as well, so I do hope it gets finished! Anyway, the initial idea for Madam Samurai came from Gael McLaughlin, and the actual comic was written by Gary Young and drawn by David Hitchcock. Scar Comics published it, and it costs $12.99.

I got this solely on the strength of the high concept – a female samurai goes to Victorian London on a mission of vengeance. Sold! Also, I like David Hitchcock’s art. So there’s that.

And Hitchcock’s art is quite excellent – given that this is a samurai epic, there are plenty of sword fights, and his action scenes are fluid and dynamic, never confusing the eye but packing plenty of visual information into them. He switches easily from Japan to England, giving us the still-medieval scenes of rural Nippon (this is around the time of the Meiji restoration and the opening of Japan to the West, so I don’t know how accurate Hitchcock’s vision of the country is, but it still looks great) and the cramped conditions of London and making them both feel real. His intricate linework is amazing, as he adds heft and texture to the clothing and the armor that the characters wear. The main character never speaks, so Hitchcock has to get all her feelings across through her body language, and he’s quite adept at it. Our heroine tries to remain impassive throughout the book, but Hitchcock does a fine job showing when she’s about to lose it but manages to keep it together. It’s a nice highwire act that he pulls with the main character, but he succeeds. He’s also not afraid to have a sense of humor with some of the ancillary characters, as he caricaturizes some characters to get across how grosteque they are. He also uses some nice, unusual camera angles – in the beginning, he presents a samurai towering over a small boy, and we see him from the boy’s point of view, making him loom larger in the frame. Later, a warrior chops off a thug’s tongue, and Hitchcock shows the tongue in the foreground, large and severed, with the samurai in the background, almost ethereal. It’s an odd way to show the scene, but it highlights the horrific nature of the injury. Hitchcock does this quite often throughout the book – it’s not wildly experimental, but the times he does it, combined with his strong design work and rich attention to detail, make this a very interesting comic to look at.

Young’s story doesn’t hold up as well, mainly because once you get past the hook (a girl learning how to be a samurai? SCANDALOUS!!!!), it’s a fairly standard action/adventure/revenge thriller.

Young ties it into the Jack the Ripper killings, which adds a bit of unusual flavor to it, and the fact that it’s a Japanese woman arriving in Victorian London is also something different, but he still hits all the beats you would expect with a story like this. We begin with a young boy witnessing his mother’s suicide after her husband loses his life, showing him great honor (actually, we begin in 1888 London with a Ripper killing, but that’s just a brief prologue). The samurai he served takes in the boy, whose name is Kazuo, and raises him as his own. Kazuo and the man’s natural son, Toshiro, begin a rivalry that ultimately tears their world apart – Kazuo is good at everything, but Toshiro is just a bit better, poisoning Kazuo with jealousy. Kazuo rapes a woman who Toshiro fancies and then flees, eventually returning with an army. The woman’s daughter grows up with her grandfather (the woman dies giving birth), who, through the machinations of fate, harbors Toshiro after Kazuo wipes out his retainers and humiliates him. So of course Toshiro teaches the girl (who, along with never speaking, has no name) to be a samurai so she can take revenge on the man who raped her mother. Kazuo, meanwhile, has gotten a taste for killing women, and his issues with his mother are wrapped up in that, so he heads to London – because it’s the whore capital of the world? It’s not clear.

The volume ends with Madam Samurai in London, caught in a bit of a culture clash. She’s accosted by a countryman who pretends to befriend her but is really just a con man, and she gets swept up by the police in a random search, and they don’t take kindly to her carrying around a big-ass sword. Presumably there’s another volume planned!

There’s certainly plenty to enjoy about Madam Samurai, but the problem with Young’s use of familiar tropes is that he doesn’t enliven them at all. Everything plays out pretty much as you’d expect once you figure out that Kazuo is bad and Toshiro is good. Will Kazuo kill his nemesis in front of the girl? Will the grandfather get slaughtered? Will Madam Samurai try to fight Kazuo when she’s not ready? Will she run into trouble in a foreign culture? If you’ve ever seen a movie like this, you know the answers to these questions. It’s rather frustrating, because it’s an intriguing idea for a story, and you’d hope Young would do more with it.

I didn’t hate Madam Samurai, and if another volume comes out, I’ll probably get it (mostly for the art, but also because it’s just interesting enough for me to wonder if Young is going to do anything with it). If you like action/adventure movies, it offers you a non-standard way of presenting that sort of material. Hitchcock deserves a wider audience, because he has a very cool style, and while the story is familiar, it’s still a fun read. If you’re thinking of getting it, I should just warn you that there are no surprises in it. Maybe that’s your thing, though!

Tomorrow: Thinking outside the box!

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