Every day this year, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. Today's page is from Samurai: Heaven and Earth (volume 2) #4, which was published by Dark Horse and is cover dated March 2007. Enjoy!
For a comic that is pretty good, this is an uninspired first page. We do get a recap on the inside front cover, so Ron Marz (who wrote this) doesn't need to bring us up to speed too much and can just launch into the story. He tells us where and when we are, and we find out in the sixth panel that the dude who gets knocked down is named Kanzaburo. Other than that, we don't get much from this page.
Luke Ross does very nice work on this series (it was supposed to be a trilogy, but only two parts came out, and I doubt if it will ever conclude), but again, this page doesn't show it much. Look at the waste on this page. We get an establishing shot of one combatant (his name is Masahiro), which is fine. Then Ross pulls back to show us his strike at Kanzaburo, which the other man parries. Masahiro, you'll note, is looking slightly to the right in Panel 1, which directs us to Panel 2, which is angled from upper left to bottom right as our eye follows Masahiro's swing toward Kanzaburo. The two sticks meet across the two spectators, making us aware of them. Then the pace slows down for no apparent reason. Ross gives us two panels of Kanzaburo posing with his stick held high. This is a school and Masahiro is apparently the teacher, so perhaps Kanzaburo is trying to impress him, but that's just speculation. Neither drawing is particularly dramatic, either - in Panel 3, Ross eschews backgrounds completely, making the two men appear in a vacuum, while in Panel 4, we see almost the same angle as in Panel 2. Masahiro doesn't appear to be swinging his weapon, even though in Panel 5 he connects with Kanzaburo's midsection. In that panel, Ross draws Kanzaburo flying into the air, an exaggeration that robs the scene of any drama - it looks very cartoonish, undercutting the fairly tense tone of the first four panels. It's a moment after Masahiro's weapon makes contact, of course, and our rational brain understands that, but because of Kanzaburo's overreaction, it almost appears as if Masahiro didn't even hit Kanzaburo and the latter man flew backward, movie-style. Panels 3-5 are not a very dramatic statement in this scene, and it's too bad. Ross sets up the scene well, and the final panel, with Kanzaburo's looming head rising from the bottom of the panel and encountering Shiro's foot (the foot belongs to the comic's hero, Shiro), is a nice, comedic touch and leads us nicely to the next page. Those middle panels, however, are poorly laid out.
This series came out after Steve Epting and other artists began working on Captain America, which showed how colorists could make different artists look similar. It's not surprising that Ross worked on Cap as well, although I'm not sure if it was after this series or not. I don't know if Rob Schwager or Dan Jackson colored this page (they're both credited as colorists), but you can see how they soften the pencils, emphasize the dark folds in the clothing, and render the entire thing more "realistic" and slightly muted. Ross used photo references in this comic (Shiro's lover, Yoshiko, is pretty clearly Kelly Hu), but I'm not sure if he did so on this page. If I knew more about coloring, I could discuss the technical aspects of it, but you can notice the use of gouache in some places (or its computer-rendering equivalent), which lessens the crispness of the pencils. I'm not a huge fan of this kind of artwork, but it can look nice. It doesn't look too great on this page, but in much of the series, Ross' artwork in conjunction with this kind of coloring does indeed look good. For some reason, it doesn't work too well here.
Next: The vagaries of randomness mean that only a few days after Bad Milligan, we get Good Milligan! But which series???? Ah, there's the rub! If you're really feeling like it, you can find some Bad Milligan in the archives!