Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Where are all the good sword fights in comics, my dude?
Swords fights are fucking rad, aren’t they? I’m being dead serious when I answer your question with a question there. A good sword fight can contain all of the best elements of action. You have two human bodies engaged in violence that utilizes both raw strength and delicate skills. You get plenty of blood and gore from neat Katana cuts or brutal rendings delivered by glaives. You can examine fine craftsmanship or unique relationships in the wide variety of weapons on display. The breadth and variety of sword fights are massive, and it absolutely shows in movies like Kill Bill and shows like Game of Thrones.
Sword fights. Are. Fucking. Rad.
So, yeah, that’s a good question. Why do sword fights in comics suck most of the time?
I’d wager it’s for a lot of the reasons they should be awesome. American comics do a few things very well in regards to all that stuff I spilled out at the start of this answer. For one, they do an exceptional job of detailing and showing off weaponry. Designing the fuck out of every little element in a badass’s outfit never went entirely out of vogue after Rob Liefeld made it the fashion of the 90s. Whether it’s a scabbard with ornate runes, a handle with more elements than most statuary, or a blade so big it could knock down an elephant, comics can deliver.
Comics can also consistently deliver a great killshot. That moment when your opponent realizes they’ve been bisected with a sickening squelch as their top half slides to the ground? There’s a panel that comics artists can consistently land. Even the less outlandish moments of a blade through the belly or a sickening new scar across a cheek can be reliably delivered.
That delivery also highlights what is lacking: build. American comics are all about the big moments, making the climax stand out as much as possible. But sword fighting is a lot like fucking and if you’re only focused on the finish, then you’re probably (read: definitely) in for a bad time. What really makes a sword fight stand out is everything that builds to the climactic cut, slice, or stabbing. That’s where American comics almost always fail.
If you’ve ever taken courses in fencing or watched a shit ton of samurai movies, then you’ll appreciate the nuances of a sword fight. Unlike a gun battle in which every shot is deadly and the noise is constant, swords allow for an increased variety and rhythm to violence. You can feel out your opponent, get a sense of their speed and skills, test strategy, all before things suddenly become very heated. A sword fight can be just as much about what is not happening as what is. It’s like if the stare down at the end of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly could be interjected between rounds of bullets, because you can naturally pause and experience a lull.
In the meantime though there are always at least two pieces of deadly steel on display. Even in the calmest moment of battle, there’s a constant source of tension. So no matter how long a fight lasts or how peaceful a pause may seem, death remains in the air. Ugh… It’s thrilling to just think about why the great sword fights are great. But we’re also getting to the heart of why they don’t adapt well all of the time.
In order to portray the nuance of a sword fight and to create the rhythm of battle, you need space. You have to be able to show the small flick of a blade or 1-2-3 of attack, parry, and counterattack. Each piece of the puzzle has to be there to really experience a sword fight. Leaving pieces in the gutters and hoping the reader figures out what led to each assailant falling in a big battle simply doesn’t capture the full motion and movement that makes these things thrill.
Unfortunately, space is something that most Western comics lack. When you’re on a monthly schedule with 20 or so pages to use, there’s an expectation that you deliver big moments each go around and plenty of plot. Honestly, a great sword fight is going to require an exorbitant amount of that space, unless it’s one of those real “so short, so sweet” deal where the fight is begun and ended in just a few strokes. That’s possible, but it shouldn’t be the standard and would still require a lot of detail to pull off well.
So when you’re making comics in pamphlets like that, I think the default is to deliver a greatest hits reel as opposed to a real sword fight. You get big moments, but they land the same as gunfire or super-powered punch. There’s a big “BANG” or “SLASH”, but no rise in action or tension to accompany it. Again, it’s all climax.
And of course there are some exceptions. Tom Scioli is a man who knows how to deliver in American Barbarian. Stan Sakai manages to cram some great samurai action in Usagi Yojimbo. Walt Simonson gives action all the space it needs to breathe, even if he’s typically more focused on hammers than swords. But these guys are the exceptions to the rule and there’s a reason their comics stand out as being part of our canon. When they tackle action like what we want and need in a sword fight, they acknowledge what is needed to make it land. These guys are all killer, no filler.
But if you’re searching your run-of-the-mill monthly superhero or sci-fi book for great crashes of steel and slick moves designed to slice and dice? Good luck.
Oh. Wait. You wanted to know where the good sword fights in comics are?
Japan. Go read some Lone Wolf and Cub or Vagabond, my dude.