Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Lone Wolf and Cub, Volume 1: The Assassin's Road Review (Kazuo Koike, Goseki Kojima)


Lone Wolf and Cub are a disgraced samurai and his infant son travelling through Edo-period Japan (sometime between 1603 and 1868) working as a sword-for-hire. He kills lots of people, some of them try to kill him and his boy and fail (that’s not a spoiler, there are several more books after this so of course he’s in no real danger), and that’s about it! 

I’ve heard nothing but good things about this title and I enjoy samurai comics too so I was disappointed to discover it’s actually a pretty boring read. The stories are drearily episodic and repetitive: Lone Wolf and Cub rock up somewhere, someone hires him to kill someone, they’re put in faux peril, and he kills the target successfully. There’s no sense of an overarching story like why these two are wandering about or what Lone Wolf does with the money he earns from his hit jobs or whether he’s working towards something or this is just it. 

The action is always the same: Lone Wolf and his opponent stand opposite each other about to draw swords, they run at each other, then stand a few feet apart, backs to each other, swords out, and the opponent falls. So clichéd and boring with zero tension because you always know the outcome. 

It doesn’t help that all of the characters are ciphers. Lone Wolf is the archetypical silent unstoppable tough guy and Cub is just a kid, his visible Achilles’ heel. Everyone else is disposable - the bad guys are there to be slaughtered by Lone Wolf, the innocents are there to be rescued by Lone Wolf; they’re not characters so much as plot points. 

To be fair, there’s one scene - one! - towards the end when Lone Wolf gives his son a choice to his life’s path: stay on the assassin’s road with him or choose peace. The decision was inevitable given the title but it showed how on the edge Lone Wolf lives and how far he’s willing to go. It only lasted a few pages though and then we went back to the predictable action. 

Writer Kazuo Koike faithfully uses Edo-period language in his script but quite often there’s no English translation to the words used and no footnotes to help explain the dialogue. Lines like “Does he think he can defeat the Mugyo-Ryu Suemonogiri technique of Bessho-Sama, the fencing master of Mito Han?!” left me puzzled as to their meaning and, long before the halfway point after being bombarded with similarly baffling lines, eventually ambivalent about what I was reading. There’s a glossary of some terms included at the back of the book but who wants to keep flipping back and forth when you’re reading? 

Goseki Kojima’s black and white art is quite nice when it comes to scenic backdrops and the Japanese countryside but I don’t think he handled the action well - it’s hard to tell in quite a few scenes exactly what’s happening. Also, the character designs are extremely limited with nearly all of the male and female models looking identical - in some of the stories a number of characters look like Lone Wolf so it’s difficult to follow. 

Maybe back in the ‘70s when this comic first came out, the samurai action wasn’t clichéd and these genre stories still felt relatively fresh, but, 40+ years later, Lone Wolf and Cub fails to impress. I’ve read much better samurai comics like Vagabond and Usagi Yojimbo, all of which came out after Lone Wolf and Cub so perhaps owes a debt of influence to Koike and Kojima, but I’d still check those out instead of this stale, dull “classic” instead.

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