BLADE OF THE IMMORTALThe Overview
Simply put, Hiroaki Samura's BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL (published by Dark Horse) is the best-looking manga I've ever read. It may be some of the prettiest art I've seen in any comic anywhere, bar none. Even worse – the story is engaging, and you will care about the characters in fairly short order.
BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL begins as the story of Manji, a gifted swordsman who has a bit of a curse placed on him. After killing 100 good men, he's promised to atone for those sins by killing 1000 bad men. Upon doing so, the worms will be removed from his body that keep him alive. Manji is a killing machine who can't be hurt. The worms will repair any bodily injury he may receive short of getting his head lopped off. That includes just about everyone you can imagine. Separated at the trunk. Arm and leg amputations. The works. But the scratch across his face and the scar on his right eye stay. (Don't ask me to explain those. I imagine he got them before he had the worms, and that the worms don't act retroactively.)
Manji meets up with Rin, a gifted swords-women who is a teenager looking to avenge her father's death. Rin hired Manji (as her non-rabbit Yojimbo) and away they go, up and down the Japanese countryside looking to kill her father's murderer.
That's the short version of the story told in the first trade paperback, "Blood of a Thousand." I don't want to hang you up with all sorts of technical terms, additional character names, or sword school names. It's better to ease into it. If you're like me and not terribly knowledgeable in the area of Japanese traditions and (to a lesser extent) language, it takes some time to get into parts of the book. But it's an investment of time well-rewarded.
To that end, this book lacks something that's been very valuable to me in the LONE WOLF AND CUB books so far, also from Dark Horse: a glossary. This doesn't usually prove to be a problem. The words are used in context, and it's easy enough to figure out their meanings that way, but I find it handy to have the list in the back to go to. Either that, or all the words I would have had problems with are ones I've read definitions for from LW&C. (In the most recent pair of trades, there are short glossaries, but they're not quite as extensive as the LONE WOLF ones are.)
The book changes over the course of time, however. What starts off as a simple buddy book gone wrong morphs into a larger story arc. The first trade starts everything off and shows us what the characters are ultimately looking for. The first steps towards understanding follow that, as Manji and Rin take off and have some adventures. The second trade, "Cry of the Worm," explores how far Manji can go with the healing worms in him. The third book, "Dreamsong," relegates Manji and Rin to supporting characters in their own book, as Samura tells the beautiful/tragic story of a geisha in love with Rin's father's killer, who gets sent out to murder Manji. This one may be the best self-contained story of the lot. And never has the story of the circle of vengeance being a cruel fate been told more beautifully than in "On Silent Wings II."
Rin begins to confront her inner demons and her ultimate destiny as the story moves along. She skirts around the edges of confrontation with her father's murderer. Slowly, but surely, she steals the book from Manji.
The relationship between the two is believable. Manji is the older brother to Rin's little sister. He tries to protect her as best he can, all the while keeping an emotional distance from her. Many of the stories, however, end in playful teasing between the two. Although Rin is quite skilled with the sword, she's not as emotionally mature or stable as you might like for a person who has this quest in mind. At one point, she even displays some jealousy for Manji's affection, something that he laughs right off.
It's been likened to the early days of the relationship between Wolverine and Kitty Pryde. Heck, it's downright eerie how similar it is. Wolverine's gruff manner is perfectly embodied in Manji, and Rin often comes across as a newbie in the world she's locked herself into, capable of defending herself but still scared.
Hiroaki Samura is the writer and artist. He varies the medium he uses from page to page - and sometimes panel to panel. Sometimes it's straight pen and ink. Sometimes, he uses beautiful and meticulous pencil work. No inks on there, just the point and side of a pencil. It's those pages that stick out in my mind the most and make this series so great. The only question that remains is "Why?" What's the difference thematically or in the narrative that a sudden change to pencil-work is necessitated? After reading the first five trades, I'm still not entirely sure. I suppose it's done at the whim of the artist, but it looks so cool that I've grown to accept it.
The sword fights in this series are a little more pronounced than in LONE WOLF AND CUB. They're easier to follow for me, and don't rely so much on the speed lines distracting from the art. I don't mind having some things left up to my imagination, but when the entire fight is lost in a sea of lines, it's a bit disappointing. BLADE doesn't have that problem. The final attack of the sword is often rendered in a double-page splash. It's not so much an action-packed page as it is just well defined. This one is usually done in pencil. Picture it as a slight tip of the hat to art nouveau, if you're into that kind of thing.
This isn't to say I didn't initially have problems with the book. For one, its author doesn't use captions to delineate time shifts. You're stuck in a guessing game sometimes about whether you've just flashed back or jumped forward in time. It was so difficult for me with the first trade; I had to read it a second time after I knew the story so I could put everything in the proper perspective. After that, though, I knew enough to pay attention closely to whatever clues might be on the page to suggest time frames. It got much easier.
Another problem often adding to the difficulty level in reading this book is the word balloons. Too often the balloons don't have tails when the speaking character is on-panel, or the tail is so short that it gets lost in the art. It's just another minor annoyance factor in reading this story, but one that you come to accept over time and deal with.
Dark Horse publishes the title every month in standard-sized 32 page pamphlets. It's past its 50th issue now in that form, as translated by Studio Proteus. If you're new to the series, you don't have to worry much about catching up. BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL is collected in a series of black and white trade paperbacks, measuring about eight inches tall and six inches wide. The books collect about six issues of the series at a time, and use high quality solid white paper. It's not glossy, but you're not going to have the pages disintegrate in your hands, either. It's high quality printing stock. That's especially good for the pages shot from pencil.
Each book holds a run of about six issues of the series. The shrunken size only improves the art, in my opinion. Picking up an issue of the on-going comic series after reading the trades is like looking at a blow-up of a picture. The picture is still there, but it seems less focused and less resolved.
One weakness of the trade dress, though, is that there's no definite reading order suggesting on the outside of the books. You have to flip to the indicia to see which issues are collected. Or write this order down:
- "Blood of a Thousand" collects issues 1 through 6.
- "Cry of the Worm" collected 7 through 11.
- "Dreamsong" weighs in with 12 through 18. (Oddly enough, it's the thickest book, yet two bucks cheaper than the others.)
- "On Silent Wings" holds 19 through 23, but ends mid-storyline.
- "On Silent Wings II," then, finishes off the storyline with issues 23 through 28.
- "Dark Shadows" collects 29 through 36. (I haven't read this one yet.)
In March, "Heart of Darkness" will be released, collecting an 8-issue storyline, for the new price of $16.95. (Unless otherwise mentioned, the trades run $14.95 per.)
And just to sum up…
I can't recommend these books highly enough. If you enjoy fine pencil artwork, you'll like this. If you like a book by a single creator that has a definite plan going for it, you'll like this. If you don't mind some creative dismemberment and unattached appendages, you'll like this. If you like a book that can mix strong character-centric stories with plot-heavy stories, you'll like this. It doesn't fall into any of the stereotypically negative manga stereotypes. There is no nudity. There aren't speed lines in every panel. The characters don't all have button noses, huge eyes, and weirdly shaped mouths.
Best of all, it's a great story combined with art that you'll want to look at again and again. How can you go wrong?
ERRATATHE SAVAGE DRAGON is up to issue #81 now, not #80, as mentioned in yesterday's column before it was fixed.
It is Terry Beatty who provides inks over Tim Levin's pencils on BATMAN GOTHAM ADVENTURES. Scott Beatty is co-writing the excellent ROBIN: YEAR ONE with Chuck Dixon.
Also, my letter in THE PUNISHER #12 was my second of the year. The first? SAVAGE DRAGON #81.
And now that everything's come full circle, I present to you the standard ending: Special thanks to Michael Ring over at Dark Horse, who convinced me back in San Diego that this series would be worth a read. It only took me another four months to read it, but I think the wait was worth it.
I also can't recommend the first AKIRA trade paperback highly enough. Great stuff there.
In case you missed it, there was a PCR Extra posted late yesterday. It included three new reviews (BATMAN GOTHAM ADVENTURES #34, SAVAGE DRAGON #81, and ACTION COMICS #774), a New Year's Resolution, and the first part of a look back at the year 2000 in comics.
You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board. It's another New Year's Resolution of mine to get that thing jumpstarted, and it seems to be working so far. I'm posting Quicky Reviews of books as I read them, so feel free to jump in on those conversations.
There are now just over 175 columns archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML. Those columns are even migrating over here in drips and drabs. Eventually, they'll all be on CBR.
And, finally, I've begun writing DVD movie reviews for the gang over at DVD Channel News. If you're into DVDs, check out my stuff there.
Have a great weekend and I'll see you on Tuesday!