J.G. Keely's Reviews > Lone Wolf and Cub, Vol. 1: The Assassin's Road

Lone Wolf and Cub, Vol. 1 by Kazuo Koike
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's review
Sep 28, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: japan, comics, adventure, short-story, manga, historical-fiction, reviewed

The role of comic books in America is in transition, and so comics hold a tenuous and unusual position in the American psyche. To some degree, they are still considered dirty and cheap, still artistically bankrupt, and there are good reasons for this. For a long time, the industry had its hands tied by the 'Comics Code', a punitive ratings system. One can realize the effects the code had by imagining what movies would be like if the government stated that all films released must attain a 'G' rating.

Imagine a G-rated Star Wars, a G-rated Godfather, a G-rated Blazing Saddles, and you may begin to understand the impossibility of trying to write quality comics under the code, which held sway over comics for thirty years. Here are some examples of rules that had to be followed under the code:

*Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal
*Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority
*In every instance good shall triumph over evil
*Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden

It was positively Orwellian, and it wasn't until the early eighties that publishers began to break away from the code, first under the daring pen of Steve Gerber, who lost his career in comics over it, and then under Alan Moore, who was made a household name for helping break the grip of the code. But comics are still fighting a bad reputation, as evidenced by the fact that the term 'graphic novel' has been coined solely so people who consider themselves sophisticated don't have to condescend to read 'comics'.

But this struggle for recognition as an art form has played out very differently around the world. In Europe, the revolution took place in the mid sixties, so that today, an individual can get a government grant to work in the field of comics, so that, instead of trying to please the narrow requirements of a multimedia conglomerate bent on cannibalizing old stories (like Marvel and DC), they can freely bring to life their meticulous, experimental visions, pointing towards a future for comics, instead of a well-thumbed past.

And it's this level of experimental artistry that I have come to expect from comics, since my experience with them has been primarily from foreign authors. Even the early books I read from the big publishers were mostly the result of their hiring British and Irish authors. After this experience, I explored the Franco-Belgian and Italian traditions, much to my edification.

But oddly enough, I had never read any Japanese manga. Here I was, searching the back shelves fruitlessly for English translations of rare European comics when every bookstore has a thickly-stocked manga section. It's partially a sense of stubborn iconoclasm I can't seem to shake, but there are other reasons I have remained wary.

Like anyone my age, I'm familiar with 'anime'--animated cartoons from Japan. In fact, I got into them fairly early, around '94, before we had the word 'anime' to describe them. So it's odd that I never became a committed japanophile like so many of my peers.

Most of the anime I've seen is just repetitive escapism, but there have been a few works, here and there, that impressed me. But then, that's true for any medium: most books are sub par, as are most movies and comics, and we hold out for the rare good one.

But there are some larger complications to get around. Firstly, America has an Animation Age Ghetto to match its Comics Age Ghetto, meaning that when companies bring in animation from Japan (or Europe), they are looking for something to sell to kids, and aren't very picky about the quality of the writing or acting.

But, even when this isn't the case, and we've got entities like Cartoon Network who are deliberately trying to bring in adult animation fare, we aren't getting the most conceptual and experimental stuff from Japan, because translating such a work is no enviable task. The wordplay, allusions, cultural content, and literary traditions are just not in the reference pool for Americans. Hence, the average American can only appreciate a story which is simple enough to translate clearly.

Even with European comics it's less challenging, because we are culturally and linguistically closer to France than we are to Japan. Unless you're willing to go in there and learn the language, culture, and history, the most complex and involved works will remain remote. Eventually, when you get a large academic community committed to the works of the culture, you can start producing expert, informed translations, but it's only recently that we've begun to look seriously at our own comics, much less those of Japan.

But there are still those stories that translate well, even across such boundaries, such as the film work of Akira Kurosawa, which I loved as a child, long before my occasional studies of Japan. But then, Kurosawa is, in many ways, reflecting our own culture back at us: he takes American film and story techniques--most notably Westerns and Shakespeare--and adapts them to his culture.

Even though the content and language are different, the film techniques and literary tropes are recognizable. But then, that should also be true for comics and animation, both of which were explored and refined in America three-quarters of a century ago. In both Disney's Fantasia and McCay's Little Nemo, we have visions of great experimental artistry in both animation and comics.

Unfortunately, the great conservative backlash of the nationalistic fifties put an end to that. The intense controls put onto films and books hurt these fledgling forms, who had few defenders in the arts and academia to keep fighting for authorial rights.

So, our comics and animation were sent out, all over the world, inspiring both Europe and Asia, where Carl Barks is still a household name. Without the same cultural controls and juvenile expectations, they thrived. And they have provided great inspiration for American authors and artist throughout the years, from the Spaghetti Westerns to Valerian and the abortive European 'Dune', which birthed Alien, Blade Runner, and Star Wars, the cultural exchange of ideas continued, though other media.

So it is far past time for me to crack open some of the great Asian works, daunting as their unfettered length might be (no thirty page issue limits, here), and see for myself how the visions of Osamu Tezuka--the innovative father of both manga and anime--have played out. After all, Tezuka based his stories off the works of Disney and Carl Barks, so in many ways, manga and anime are prodigal children, finally returning.

We should thank the Japanese and the Europeans for keeping the artistic vision alive and thriving for those long decades when we, blinded by fear and nationalism, had forgotten them. And now, they deliver them back to us, fully-formed, and I can only hope that some American artists will be able to help us get back on track, moving forward to a bright, innovative future for comics and animation.

Though perhaps I should have started with Tezuka, the appeal of the traveling ronin story was a great draw for me. As epitomized in the Kurosawa/Mifune films (Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and Seven Samurai), and also in the Zatoichi films, such stories, while straightforward in concept, allow for many variations of theme and many explorations of characters and cultural elements.

Lone Wolf & Cub takes the form of a series of vignettes: small, self-contained stories. Each one has its own theme and tone, each shows the complete arc of an idea; but, like a poetic cycle, these stories are greater as a whole than they are alone. We return again and again to concepts, and each time, a new layer is added, a new side of the story is explored.

Gradually, these small stories build up into a much larger arc. They are not related by a continuous plot, but by continuous thematic explorations. I often find such collections of short stories are much more effective in creating intriguing settings and characters than a protracted plot full of exposition. The author is free to move through time and place, exploring character and world elements as they come up, and is not forced to create tenuous, convenient connections to string the plot together. The characters and themes anchor the story more deeply than a simple sequence of events.

The art takes its cue from traditional sumi-e ink and wash painting, with the swift, decisive strokes which were so equated with sword strokes that it was said you could read a man’s fencing style in his art and calligraphy. The marriage of this style with Western sequential art is seamless, and it’s hardly surprising that the stylized forms displayed here have proven so inspirational in the visual arts.

Some of the story comes off as cliché, but it’s always difficult to say with an original work how much of that is because other artists have copied the style in the meantime. We have the amusingly esoteric discussions of styles, attacks, and schools which grew up as Japanese society formalized and striated, turning death-dealing into an academic exercise for the literate. But that’s part of the charm for adherents of samurai and wuxia.

We also have the inevitable ‘passing stroke’ which dramatically ends every battle, which might seem repetitive to a Western eye, until we recognize that every Western fight ends with a haymaker. The scenarios which play out prior to this final blow are widely varied, action-packed, and fully realized in the onrush of dark, ever-moving lines.

Many of the plots are likewise variations on a theme, presenting us briefly with a complicated bit of feudal shogunate politics which necessitate our protagonist’s intervention. Though he is an impossibly strong, invincible warrior, sometimes to the detriment of tension, his methods of solving these problems are often surprisingly insightful and subtle, showing a deep and shrewd intelligence behind his mighty sword arm.

The stories are unapologetically violent, which includes graphic sexual violence. However, the sexual violence is not pornographic: it does not linger upon carefully detailed forms, but is used to tell a realistic, if sometimes unsettling story. Nor does the book get drawn down into taking itself too seriously, as so many of its imitators have. Violence is only one part of the human story, portrayed in equal footing with love, honor, sorrow, hope, and humor. It is the nature of the story that physical conflict often takes the forefront, but never to the exclusion of other human desires.

It is, in short, a familiar story to anyone familiar with Kurosawa’s great samurai films, and if it does not reach the depth or variety of those films just yet, we must recall that this is only the first volume of twenty-eight, while those films are amongst Kurosawa’s best.

My Suggested Readings in Comics
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Reading Progress

September 27, 2011 – Started Reading
September 28, 2011 – Shelved
September 28, 2011 – Shelved as: japan
September 28, 2011 – Shelved as: comics
September 28, 2011 – Shelved as: adventure
September 28, 2011 – Shelved as: short-story
September 28, 2011 – Shelved as: manga
September 28, 2011 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
September 28, 2011 – Shelved as: reviewed
September 28, 2011 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-24 of 24) (24 new)

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message 1: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Nice. One of the most considered reviews of a manga that I've read.

message 2: by Manuel (new)

Manuel De Pool Great review Keely! Very informative and thorough, compliments.

message 3: by Velvetink (new)

Velvetink Great review!

J.G. Keely Thanks, everyone. I was worried I might have gone too far afield, I'm glad I didn't lose anyone by starting off with a wider vantage.

message 5: by mark (new)

mark monday excellent and insightful review, per usual.

however i do feel that you are off the mark when it comes to your overall analysis (first three paragraphs or so) of how comics are currently viewed - and how they've been viewed for many years now. your analysis seem more appropriate to public and critical reaction from decades ago. there have been many changes since the mid-80s, old man! whether it is classics like Maus, modern classics like Persepolis and the works of folks as different as daniel clowes and gilbert hernandez and alan moore and grant morrison...many comics have been garnering a large amount of acclaim for a while now.

J.G. Keely From my review:

"But comics are still fighting a bad reputation, as evidenced by the fact that the term 'graphic novel' has been coined solely so people who consider themselves sophisticated don't have to condescend to read 'comics'."

Certainly we are progressing towards a more inclusive and academic view of comics, but I'd hardly call the fight won. If people see a forty year-old man on the train reading a comic book, most of them are not likely to think "what a refined and intelligent individual to cultivate an appreciation of The Arts in his free time". They're probably thinking "what a quirky, aging dork".

Sure, there are some academic examples like Watchmen and Maus that everyone reads these days, but I think it's rather telling that most people who read Watchmen aren't familiar enough with the tropes of the medium to be able to recognize what Moore actually achieves. Sure, many of my young, liberal, white, college-educated friends read comics, but I'm not yet willing to call it culturally pervasive.

message 7: by mark (last edited Sep 30, 2011 12:50PM) (new)

mark monday If people see a forty year-old man on the train reading a comic book, most of them are not likely to think "what a refined and intelligent individual to cultivate an appreciation of The Arts in his free time". They're probably thinking "what a quirky, aging dork".

interesting point, but i think the same could be said for a grown man (or woman) reading a YA novel or a fantasy/scifi/horror novel with a lurid cover. and those are all genres that continue to receive a certain amount of critical eye-rolling...yet are also respected by many and certainly can be considered culturally pervasive. much like comics (although i do think that comics still have a longer way to go than those genres i mentioned)

good point regarding "comics" vs. "graphic novels". it's one that's been made before of course, but it continues to remain relevant. a friend of mine just made that comment the other day when he felt he had to explain what he was reading to a co-worker. he needs to flush that shame away!

message 8: by Slap Happy (new)

Slap Happy Some just can't get around the prominent characteristic of boyishness that has been a defining part of comics. They want comics that reject all boyishness, or laughs at it, points fingers, casts a critical eye; then it's ok to enjoy the comic.

I don't like this manga very much, but good review.

J.G. Keely "he needs to flush that shame away!"

Well, if the shame is due to the cultural reaction he gets from others (needing to explain what comics are and why he reads them), it indicates its more of a social than personal issue.

Black Cynocephalus said: "Some just can't get around the prominent characteristic of boyishness that has been a defining part of comics."

Yeah. I understand a reactionary reversal can sometimes be useful in forcing change when something has grown stagnant, but reactionary movements are self-limiting, since they are still only posturing in relation to the thing they mean to reject. At some point, if an author wants to seek out an original voice, they cannot indulge in either the traditional camp or the reactionary camp, but must find an idiomatic voice based not on accepting or rejecting modes, but on a coherent, well-developed philosophy (or aesthetic).

Glad you enjoyed the review. Thanks.

J.G. Keely I've heard of it--he considered it his most ambitious and personal work, in fact, he failed to complete it before his death. Definitely one of the manga I'm considering reading next.

message 11: by Wilcott (new)

Wilcott I just watched Seven Samurai, and it reminded me of this review. You didn't go too far with your thoughts on this one, they carried as much scope as the film did.

J.G. Keely Yeah, I figured it was as good a place as any to talk about the curiously circuitous path that comics have taken going around the world.

message 13: by [deleted user] (last edited Feb 02, 2013 06:36AM) (new)

" 'graphic novel' has been coined solely so people who consider themselves sophisticated don't have to condescend to read 'comics' "

I honestly thought there was a difference, heh. It's as bad as when anime fans crucify other fans for calling it Japanese cartoons... which it really is.

Anyway. It was a great review as usual. I'm reading it at the moment and its a shame there'll never be something as good as this again. These days, each time a writer has the balls to start out with a similar atmosphere, they end up changing the tone in order to appeal to a wider audience (especially to those who like Bleach, Naruto etc). Berserk did this and I've pretty much disowned it, but it explains why how suddenly it hit the no.1 spot on other manga/anime databases. I remember recommending it to you, actually. It managed to get too long and worn out. But judging by your love for fantasy, I have a feeling you are bound pick it up one day.

A lot of mangaka are doing the same. And I believe it too. The financially strained industry is to blame equally as the weird otaku fans out there who continue to love their little school girls. Oh and the people illegally downloading stuff.

J.G. Keely "I honestly thought there was a difference, heh."

Well, when the term 'Graphic Novel' was first used, it was for a type of comics with different tone, themes, and pacing. Nowadays, however, it's used interchangeably with Trade Paperback collections, where parts of a longrunning comic series are published in one big book.

"Berserk did this and I've pretty much disowned it . . . I remember recommending it to you"

Yeah, I remember that. It's another manga that I've been meaning to read. It's too bad it loses its tone as it progresses on, but that seems almost inevitable if you continue the same story on for long enough.

message 15: by Momentai (new)

Momentai Sorry, but Augustin, are you referring to when Berserk took on a more fantasy based approach or something else entirely? It's been a while since I've read it and want to make sure I understand your comment.

message 16: by [deleted user] (last edited Feb 03, 2013 11:52AM) (new)

I feel as if I'm reading a shonen manga now. There's a lot more to my problems than that. Things are starting to stray. Gut's new crew are of no value except to serve Guts. It reminds me of a JRPG game where you have these characters, their back stories then they remain to serve the main character.

The world building is not so great and
(view spoiler)

The Golden Age Arc was the best. I can feel where Miura got some of the ideas from. Macbeth, Devilman and Griffith reminds me a bit of Reinhard from Legend of the Galactic Heroes. But then these other pointless arcs are building up to nowhere. There was a lot of good ideas packed in it. But things start to wear...

There's 333 chapters. Miura releases them slowly; there was a good reason which I can't remember. The problem is with these rather pointless arcs that don't go anywhere, there's times I can't remember the previous important details. One example is when Miura put the story on hold to talk more about Gut's back story. It had no value; everything that was needed to be told was told before.

I can't even remember the point of the whole (view spoiler)

I think things went bad from volume 20 and beyond. But I can't deny it's good fun to read; I just don't think I can give it a 10/10 as I used to. It's not totally damaged beyond repair though.

I was exaggerating when I said I disowned it, but I can't look at it the same again.

There's a bit more I'd like to get into but I think I've said my main problems.

I plan to re-read it so I can add them onto GR. I don't think I can remember each volume enough to rate them. Perhaps my mind will change.

message 17: by Momentai (last edited Feb 03, 2013 02:32PM) (new)

Momentai Augustin wrote: "I feel as if I'm reading a shonen manga now.

You know, I picked up Berserk later than I wish I had, so the first thing I read was the (view spoiler) I ended up reading to the part where more magic gets introduced into the series and then I decided to go back and read what I should've in the first place. I watched the anime series which is basically the Golden Age Arc, right? But I'm afraid I'll have to read it again to give a really well formed reply, you know? The last time I read Berserk was last year and I didn't read much of it.

So basically it all comes down to wasted potential then?

message 18: by [deleted user] (new)

Sorry for the long delay. But yeah it sorta is wasted. I'm sure Miura can redeem himself somehow so I'll just wait 'til its finished.

message 19: by Suraj (new)

Suraj Loungani Keely wrote: "Thanks, everyone. I was worried I might have gone too far afield, I'm glad I didn't lose anyone by starting off with a wider vantage."
Well, friend, you rarely go astray from the true purpose of the review, and express all your thoughts and explain all the bases upon which one actually decides to read a book. Keep the good work up, friend (y).

J.G. Keely Thanks, glad you think so.

message 21: by [deleted user] (new)

"To give you an example of just how punitive the code was, at one point author Marv Wolfman was not allowed to be credited with his real last name because under the code, it was too scary."

That's actually an urban myth, as you can see here: http://goodcomics.comicbookresources....

message 22: by Caleb (new) - added it

Caleb I wasn't sure at first if I was reading a review on history, or the actual series, and it seemed to cover more of the first, but it kept me interested enough to keep going until I got to the end, and I'm just glad I could see a more intelligent analyzation of not just my favorite manga, but possibly some of my favorite stories ever drawn. Rather than just some brush over with a disregarding action romanticization, or some all too common alienizing western cold hearted break down, you actually manage to touch on the dichotomous perspectives of our two worlds, east and west, and you touch the soul of why this work achieved some greatness rather than break it down into the lesser sum of its parts that I'm sure is all many others might see. And for this, I salute you.

You just spoke for me on one of my very own issues. I wasn't born a Japanophile. I didn't even know what anime was until some parental Japanese friends introduced us while I was young. And from that point on I always had trouble finding anything that I liked, manga, anime, or otherwise. Most tv series seem to be an epileptic acid trip of "Yeah! This is my super power! We're awesome! We'll become the best and defeat the bad guys!", and it took me time to find the likes of Miyazaki and Kurosawa which immediately become my favorites since childhood.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not here to bash on anybody's taste or perceived lack of, I've spent time at my library (at some points masochistically) reading through its limited selection and found some limited enjoyment (*cough*Natuto). I digress. How many artists now days, and in all of time for that matter write stories and draw with heart for the sole desire of expression? I'm not looking for an answer to that, but rather to pose the point, "look how many are not". Maybe the stories started out honest, but now even art is being outsourced, is it even art anymore when we hire other people to draw panels and frames and filling animation for us? No, not everyone is Miyazaki, not everyone has the talent, and not everyone has the will and funding to do what he does, and it doesn't make the stories they create any lesser. But in the process so much of what we have today is what you refereed to as animation age ghetto; de-evolved expression that's become an amorphous act of addicting epilepsy designed that, when you break any of these series today down into its core parts, you get a primal drug like media designed to please the senses and not stimulate the psyche, and the very best of the worst even convinces people that their is some "story" going on that deems it an intelligent piece of work. Its designer sugar cubes, you eat one and want another, you think it has a multitude of dimensions and tastes, but it really just has one, and you're the rat that keeps hitting the "give me another bar".

- Holy crap I'm going on, I don't really care.. I don't often write like this, feel free to hate on it pick apart and say what you like, I'm just enjoying this. -

Works like Lone Wolf and Cub were (and still are) a sharp whiff of smelling salts and sobering surprise dunk into the chilling waters of awakening. I had never experienced anything like it before except for the likes of Miyazaki's Princess of the Valley of the Wind (anyone getting this far that hasn't read it, please do so). When I "read" an artists panels, I feel a little of his heart in it if he is honest. When the art is industrialized, its like looking at pornography and I mean this in a negative way, it feels cheap, it is forced, you know its a lie and all you're hoping for is to get satisfied in the cheapest way possible. It leaves you with a bad feeling. It is just a means to an end and bad books and other media often leave me feeling like this (I'm looking at you Hollywood). Like I was starving and ate wonderbread. It filled me up, but with what? I'm full but I still feel hunger. When the art is his or her's honest expression, not made just to please masses, but is a whisper from their heart, I get shudders, I'm excited. Lone Wolf manages to show a grand display of violence that is integral to the story, and not once does it ever feel objectively gross. It is not always "cool", often it is sobering. You know that when someone can pull this off, they are talented. Knowing that death is coming by the *squeak squeak squeak* of a baby cart's wheels is at once an amusing and twistedly powerful statement. There is so much fan drooling I could go on about, but I'll stop myself for now.

So with a certain amount of cheese, thank you, Keely, for being awesome and being able to point out these vital essences in medium that I never really see a lot of people able to do (or I myself am unable to usually form into coherent English and so it remains trapped in the grey cells). That made my day. =) And now I'm curious about you, Do you have a background in writing? You come off like a well polished critic, not just of writing, but the world. For aren't the best writers also the best critics, for if they aren't analyzing their reality and others', they are just mindlessly spewing, duct taping together what comes out, and hoping it all comes together to sound "cool". And if one cannot write, then who is one critic to judge another that can, as the bird that mocks the fish for swimming. Somebody turned my over active ramble-switch on today, apologies.

message 23: by The_Mad_Swede (new)

The_Mad_Swede http://the-mad-swede.blogspot.se/2009...

"The term first seems to have appeared in print on Richard Corben and John Jakes' Bloodstar (an adaptation of the Robert E. Howard short story "Valley of the Worm"), which was published in 1976 as an original large format volume as opposed to a trade paperback of reprinted material (see "Richard Corben's Bloodstar: A Look Back at the First Graphic Novel"). It is, of course, worth considering that the phenomenon of TPB reprints itself was not as common at the time as it is today, where TPB reprints are commonplace.

However, the term is more oftenly traced back to Will Eisner. As Denis Kitchen puts it, "Eisner created the very first successful graphic novel ---and popularizing the term--- with the publication of his seminal A Contract with God, (1978). The semi-autobiographical 'graphic novel' revolutionized the art form, inspiring countless fellow professionals worldwide to follow" (Denis Kitchen's Eisner biography; see also Andrew D. Arnold's "The Graphic Novel Silver Anniversary"). The key point here being the fact that Eisner's success and use popularised the term in a way that Corben and Jakes' effort obviously did not (at least not in historical hindsight)."

message 24: by Cassandra (new) - added it

Cassandra "So, our comics and animation were sent out, all over the world, inspiring both Europe and Asia... After all, Tezuka based his stories off the works of Disney and Carl Barks, so in many ways, manga and anime are prodigal children, finally returning."

Thank you for sharing this! It's so fascinating to look at how art changes and morphs as it crosses borders.

I found it interesting, though, that you didn't mention the works of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Have you seen any of those films? What's your take on how they fit into all this?

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