Lone Wolf and Cub, written by Kazuo Koike, illustrated by Goseki Kojima
The final volume of this series is finally out, completing the long-overdue English translation done by Dark Horse. Originally published in Japan in the 1970's, this 28-volume, 142-chapter tale has long influenced American comics creators such as Frank Miller and Matt Wagner. But not until now has the entire series been published from beginning to end in English. The volumes are beautifully presented in a format faithful to the original (except for the fact that Japanese comics are read from right to left and thus everything has been meticulously reversed), and run about 300 pages, with occasional appendices on Japanese History, swords, film adaptations and critical essays specific to the series.
But enough about presentation. It's spectacular, but just 'cause it's pretty don't mean it works.
This is, in my opinion, the greatest work of graphic storytelling ever done. You can throw names at me all you like: Hernandez, Moore, Clowes, Spiegelman, Ware--they all fall short. The focus of this series is so intense and its emotional impact so devastating that it should be required reading for everyone who walks into a comic shop.
The story--and I'm not going to spoil anything big, this is all set up in the first volume--runs something like this: the Shogun's executioner, his kogi kaishakunin, is a man named Ogami Itto. But the rival Yagyu clan wish to discredit him, and do so by making it appear that he murdered his wife and disrespected the Shogun. So Itto renounces his service and goes to work as a hired assassin, traveling with his three-year-old son Daigoro and charging five hundred ryo for assassinations.
What follows is an odyssey through Japanese society in general, and samurai society specifically. Itto and Daigoro walk the path of meifumado, the Buddhist hell; this means that Itto (and Daigoro, who "chooses" this path with his father, in a way that I won't explain here. It has more impact in the text) expects damnation and can therefore afford to be ruthless in his pursuit of vengeance against the Yagyu. Despite this, we find that Itto is one of the few (and perhaps the sole) true samurai remaining. His adherence to the code makes this perhaps the best gloss of samurai society available, and yet at the same time it illuminates the fact that the code is crumbling, and the samurai way of bushido is falling away. Yet Koike and Kojima do not tell the story of samurai alone; the peasants of Japan are also depicted, their lives unglamorous, difficult and often short. Some of the most affecting episodes concern Daigoro's interactions with young peasants while his father is off performing his assassinations.
The assassinations are stories in themselves, often Shakespearean in their tragedies. Bushido dictates these things, and often killer and killed recognize the inevitable tragedy of their confrontations. The violence of is alternately quick and graphic, measured and balletic. Whether hunter or hunted--and the Yagyu are not the only ones who hunt Itto and Daigoro throughout their murderous trek--Itto is a terrible opponent to have to face. He is swift and unstoppable, with a will born from his utter commitment to the path of meifumado. The effect this has upon his son is often one of the most heartening and heart-breaking aspects of the story.
A word about the art: this is not manga as it is done today. There are no exagerrated facial characteristics, no whimsical touches. Kojima's line drawings are gritty and dark, his paintings evocative of a Japan long gone. He flinches at nothing. Many of the most powerful scenes have no words at all, merely pages of Kojima's art, eloquent enough to bring tears to my eyes. Words fail, as they should. You must see it to understand.
I won't reveal more of the story here; you should read it yourself. It's an investment, true: 28 volumes at $9.95 each. But if you are a person who appreciates comics, this is one you must read. I say must. I mean it.