A review a day: <i>Pang, The Wandering Shaolin Monk volume 1: Refuge of the Heart</i>

Yes, that's really what it's called. Would I lie to you?

Ben Costa was kind enough to send me a very nice hardcover edition of his webcomic, Shi Long Pang, the Wandering Shaolin Monk, which collects the first long story arc. You can keep up with the series on-line, or you could throw $19.95 Costa's way and pick this up. Books look nice on the shelves, you know!!!! (This is self-published, but Costa names his publisher "Iron Crotch University Press," which I thought was pretty fun (and actually has a connection to something in the book). I definitely want to matriculate there!)

Costa tells the story of ... well, a wandering Shaolin monk named Pang, surprisingly enough.

He sets his story in 1675, not long after the ascension of the Manchu emperors as the Qing dynasty (the Manchu were from Manchuria and were regarded as filthy foreigners by the Han, the "real" Chinese). They displaced the Ming dynasty, and Costa makes clear that only 30 years later, many southerners were still trying to restore the Ming. Costa sets the book in 1675 because he uses the backdrop of the Three Feudatories War to tell it, and the events in southern China are fairly important to his story. So this book, being all historical and shit, is kind of right up my alley. Plus, who doesn't love Shaolin monks?

This volume is 188 pages long, and Costa takes some time getting into it, unfortunately. If you read the comic on-line or buy this book, I encourage you to stick with it, because the first 50 pages or so are a bit of a slog, and that's coming from someone who really likes history. Costa tries to pack a ton of obscure Chinese history AND lots of Buddhism into the early pages, and it's tough to get through. Basically, what you need to know is: foreigners have taken over China, several groups in the south don't like it and exist in various stages of revolt, and a rumor begins that monasteries are harboring Ming loyalists, which means the Kangxi Emperor (who ruled from 1654 to 1722) ended up besieging Pang's monastery. And there's a mysterious monk searching for Pang.

Pang tells the story of his monastery in flashback - Costa begins the story with Pang on the road, entering a new city and asking about other monks, even though he's careful to avoid mentioning that he's a Shaolin monk, because of the treason and all.

He ends up at an inn, where the owner takes a liking to him and gives him a room, and of course the innkeeper has a beautiful daughter, with whom Pang becomes enamoured and to whom he spills his guts. He gradually tells her the story of the monastery, and how the emperor's army destroyed it, and how he and two others, tasked with guarding the monastery's holy writings, were the only ones to escape. Pang was wounded and hidden, so he believes the other two thought he was dead. So he's searching for them.

Of course, an attraction grows between Pang and Yang Yang, the innkeeper's daughter. Pang accompanies her to a festival and is forced to reveal that he's quite good at martial arts, betraying his Shaolin origin. And because the magistrate in the town distrusts Shaolin monks, Pang is forced to fight even though he doesn't want to. Isn't that always the way? There's also a mysterious dude in a big hat tracking Pang, which can't bode well for our hero. So there's a lot going on in the book, and once Costa gets past the introductory stuff, it moves along a fairly good clip. We still get a lot of exposition, but we also get plenty of action, and it's a good blend. We get some tremendous fight scenes, but also get some nice character development, as Pang and Yang Yang talk about their lives and their dreams, coming closer and closer even though they know that their lives are probably destined for different paths. Costa does a good job showing that the two characters are bound by their culture and society, which exerts an inexorable pull on both of them. This is evident both in their budding romance and the way they must deal with the political forces in the town. It's not terribly original to place two lovers in a situation that keeps them apart, but that doesn't mean it's a bad idea.

Costa's art is cartoony but very rich in details, giving us a very nice sense of 17th-century China. It's a crowded book, with many panels per page and a lot going on in each panel, but he's able to open it up nicely when he has to. The attack on the monastery and Pang's attempts to get through the fog that has draped itself over the surrounding forest is a haunting set piece - the fact that Pang can't see what is happening adds a lot of tension, drama, and tragedy to the scene.

Then, when he reaches the battle, Costa crowds the panels with soldiers and monks, giving us a good sense of the cramped conditions of a fight to the death. The fight against the magistrates is choreographed very well, as Pang and his attackers need to work within the confines of a small room. Costa can't mimic the smells of the time period (the biggest problem with depicting a historical era on film or in comics is the lack of smell, because that makes up such a big part of it, I would imagine), but because he makes it clear how cramped the towns of the time period were, it makes it easier to imagine what it would smell like. It's not perfect, but it's better than nothing. The only complaint I have about the art is Pang himself. Costa draws his head as a circle with dark blobs for eyes and a line for a mouth. Every other character is drawn with much more precision. I'm sure Costa has a reason for drawing Pang that way, but I honestly don't know what it is. He looks really out of place, though. Maybe that's the point?

That's a minor complaint, though. Pang is an interesting and exciting comic, with a lot of information about the time period (complete with many footnotes!) and a grand story that has potential to run for quite a while. I don't know how long Costa plans to do his comic, but it's cool that he thinks big. Head on over to his site and read up on the wandering monk, and if you want a nice collected edition, I'm sure Costa would be happy to sell this to you!

Tomorrow: A food anthology? What?

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