"And the wind will blow my fears away, will dry my tears away"
I don't read a ton of European comics, mainly because so many haven't been translated and because of the prices. Humanoids reprints a lot of these, but they tend to be quite spendy, and for the length, it just doesn't seem worth it. Legend of the Scarlet Blades is a big chunk of comics (it's 200 packed pages), and while the Humanoids web site claims it's fifty dollars, I think it was cheaper when I bought it in the store.
Either way, fifty bucks for 200 pages is about as high as I'm willing to go, and very often, they have books for that much money or more with far fewer pages, and I just don't have the coin for them. But I really like European comics, and I wish I could read more of them. Maybe it's the fact that other cultures take comics more seriously than Americans do (even now), but the production values on European books seem higher, and creators are willing to do a lot of non-traditional things. Legend of the Scarlet Blades is a somewhat typical "mystical samurai" story, but Saverio Tenuta does some things with the story that seem to be more ... "European," for lack of a better adjective. Anyway, this is translated by Samantha Demers and edited by Alex Donoghue, because I know you were wondering!
Tenuta doesn't do anything surprising with the set-up the comic, as he gives us a situation that is common in all fiction, not just samurai stories. Raido suffers from amnesia at the beginning, so he doesn't know why, for instance, he only has one arm.
He knows he wants to help people, so he rescues a girl named Meiki from the brutish captain of the shogun, who tries to arrest her because her puppet show seems to mirror reality a bit too closely. So it's a fairly classic set-up - the hero has to save someone - usually a girl - and he has the power of the government against him. It's a classic because it works - no one wants to root for the government, especially a corrupt one, so Raido is a lone hero, and the fact that he doesn't know what happened to him allow him to recover his memory slowly and provides justification for flashbacks. Of course, we do learn about what happened to him, because Tenuta isn't going to tease that and not follow through and, furthermore, it's fairly crucial to the story. But as we get more of the story, we get a far less black-and-white story, despite the fact that there are clear villains in the comic. Raido is a noble samurai, and there's an evil samurai, and they fight, but Tenuta subverts our expectations by putting their fight in the middle of the book, and Raido wins decisively. It sets up a confrontation later in the book, more where the traditional climax would be, but it's interesting that Tenuta moves quickly to the first fight, as Raido's battle against the evil samurai is kind of beside the point.
Meanwhile, the shogun, Ryin, is a wonderfully tragic figure who rules with an iron fist because she doesn't know how to do anything differently. We first meet her in the present which quickly transitions to a flashback in which she and her father, Totecu, are watching Raido and the evil samurai (who at this point is only a blowhard) spar in the garden of the shogun's palace. She's wearing a hat made to obscure her features, and we learn that it's because she is horribly disfigured. However, when we see her in the present, she's a beautiful woman. The reasons for all of this are terrible and tragic, and we can understand why she became so evil. Tenuta does a wonderful job showing how different people can perceive different things, in this case Ryin's father. Raido has a good relationship with the old shogun, so he sees him as a benevolent and strong leader. In other scenes, we see that he's not quite so benevolent, and his strength comes from cruelty. Tenuta never judges Totecu, just like he doesn't judge Ryin - he just shows how they act and the reasons behind it, and lets us draw our own conclusions. The book is so long that Tenuta can add a nice sub-plot about the villagers rebelling against Ryin's rule, and he does some nice work with that, as well. Tenuta sets this in a mystical Japan, so magic is ever-present and the plot hinges on a pack of wolves that seem fairly sentient.
Tenuta doesn't rely too heavily on the magical parts of the story, which is nice, because it doesn't become a shortcut to resolving the problems of the plot. It just means that we get some strange visuals occasionally and that people are literally haunted by the past rather than figuratively. The only real misstep in the narrative is when Tenuta hints at a love story between Raido and Meiki, because there's very little of it before the scene where they kiss. He's old enough to be her father, too, and while that has never stopped writers from this kind of romance before, Tenuta draws her so she looks quite young, which adds an extra layer of creepiness to it. He doesn't pursue it too much, which is nice, but I wish he hadn't pursued it at all!
Tenuta's art is absolutely stellar, and a big reason to pick this book up. His line work is beautifully delicate, which adds to the haunting mysticism of the book, but it's also wonderfully detailed, so the world of Raido and the others comes to life dramatically. His characters are distinctive and their clothes, especially, are terrific, from the armor the soldiers wear to the silkin robes that Ryin drapes herself in as she paints her fate. The wolves that assist Raido in his quest are beautiful, too, yet Tenuta gives them a rawness that shows their power as they become more integral to the story. Tenuta sets the book in winter, so we get a lot of white, which of course makes the reds pop quite nicely, but also adds to the slightly unreal feeling of the book.
Ryin's palace is inexplicably built inside a volcano's caldera, which is a neat visual but which turns out to be foolish when the volcano inevitably erupts. In a book like this, Tenuta better be good at sword fights, and those are amazing, as he twists and turns his characters and extends their robes out unrealistically to give us a great sense of movement as the battles occur. Tenuta uses a lot of cool colors, obviously, which only helps set up the hotter colors when tempers boil over. It's not original, but he uses the contrast very well, especially as the book builds to a climax. He uses silhouettes exceptionally well, as we see in the opening scene when Meiki does her puppet show. It's not a dark book at all, but Tenuta still uses shadows well when he wants to. The battle between Raido and the black wolf is stunning partly because it takes place in a snow-filled forest, but Tenuta uses the reds for the blood and the blackness of the wolf for brilliant effect. The limited use of silhouettes is why it's so powerful.
Legend of the Scarlet Blade is a superb book, one that looks amazing and tells a story that, while it feels familiar, is full of powerful psychological dramas and haunting statements about loss and what can push people down a certain path. There are villains and heroes, of course, but the villains aren't completely evil and the heroes aren't completely heroic, and Tenuta constantly does things we don't expect to bring us to a stunning climax. The art is beautiful, the story works very well, and it's a nice thick hardcover. Give it a look!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆