J.G. Keely's Reviews > Lone Wolf and Cub, Vol. 2: The Gateless Barrier

Lone Wolf and Cub, Vol. 2 by Kazuo Koike
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's review
Sep 28, 2011

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

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.

My Suggested Reading In Comics
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Pranay Thats really a poignant review. It sheds light on the work/book in a new way.

J.G. Keely Thank you. I'm glad you found it interesting. Exploring the world of comics beyond America certainly gives me pause to think about the way culture and art works across boundaries.

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