Writer: Ron Marz
Artist: Luke Ross, Rob Schwager (colors)
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
EDITORíS NOTE: The second issue of the second Samurai: Heaven and Earth mini-series arrives in stores this Wednesday, January 24.
The end of the first issue of this second volume of Samurai: Heaven and Earth suggests that the story is bound for ďThe New World,Ē specifically Veracruz, Mexico, and the potentially bizarre juxtaposition of a feudal era samurai (Asukai Shiro) and colonial Mexico really intrigued me. Alas, itís not to be as this issue makes clear the story is destined to be played out in a different part of the world. Rather than be disappointed, I instead applaud Ron Marz for plotting such misdirection as the reference to the New World reminds the reader of just how much bigger the globe was 300 years ago (metaphorically speaking, of course). This ďsimple adventureĒ (essentially, Shiro strives to reunite with his lover, Yoshiko) started in Japan and progressed with chapters set in China, France and Spain. All these locales demonstrate not only how much research Marz performed while constructing this story but also how arduous, epic and heroic Shiroís quest is.
Like the previous issue, this issue begins with a flashback to a time before Shiro and Yoshiko became violently separated. I find these flashbacks very useful as they inform new readers (and remind old readers) of the Oriental origins of the main characters as well as their passionate bond. Itís a clear case of ďshow vs. tellĒ; itís more effective to show how these characters love each other than to have them tell other characters they love each other. This issueís first page contains 16 panels (how many comic books these days can boast that?), each detailing the removal of a different part of the samuraiís costume until all that is left is a disrobed Shiro and the unique tattoo on his back. This tattoo, Shiro later explains, is a symbol of his own fortitude, and I wonder if it will receive additional commentary in upcoming issues. Regardless, it is an interesting detail added to an already interesting character.
Shiro is not multi-faceted enough though to carry a story without a supporting cast, and appropriately, the bulk of this issue focuses on Shiro and his ďcompanion under duress,Ē the Arab slave trader Safwah Ibn Badr Al-Din, who Shiro needs in order to locate Yoshiko. An absolutely hysterically abrupt transition from Barcelona to a vessel in the Mediterranean emphasizes the hegemony of their relationship: there is no escape for Safwah. Unfortunately for him, his immediate destiny is linked to Shiroís. Itís unfortunate for him because itís clear that the pursuits and perceptions of these two men could not be more different. That, of course, creates some humorous tension between the characters, but the fact of the matter is that the interaction between Shiro and Safwah in this volume of Samurai: Heaven and Earth is not nearly as entertaining as the interaction between Shiro and the Parisian Muskateers in the first volume. Perhaps itís unfair to judge the particulars of this second volume against the unique virtues of the first volume (we are, after all, talking about The Muskateers, who canít be removed from their Parisian setting), but then again, this is also one continuous story, despite being divided into two volumes.
Thatís my only complaint about a comic book that remains one of the industryís treasures. If you donít like comic books that have intricate plots, interesting characters and majestic artwork then yes, you should be passing this by and reading something else.
Shiro and Safwah learn Yoshiko has been taken on a ship to the Americas. Shiro drags the reluctant Safwah on a boat to follow. They find a castaway from the previous ship who reports they were attacked by pirates. Yoshiko had been taken to Tripoli to be sold back into slavery.
I canít help feeling Ron Marz is spinning his wheels with this issue. Thereís very little action, a flashback with Shiro and Yoshiko takes up four pages and adds nothing to the current story, and our hero is still two steps behind his lover. Next issue holds the promise of a samurai/pirate fight, but thatís a long time away. I think much of this issue could have been combined with the first issue, then this 2nd issue could have focused on Yoshiko and the flashback.
The art is still impressive. Luke Rossí pencils and Rob Schwagerís colors still create a rich, vibrant, living world. The opening sequence with Shiro and Yoshiko is well paced and romantic. Too bad thereís not much for them to draw. This is one of those ďtalking headsĒ issues that tends to slow a comic book down. The first Samurai: Heaven & Earth volume had great pacing with every issue delivering at least one fantastic scene. The second mini-series is already moving too slowly. There are three issues left; hopefully theyíll prove to be more exciting.
Now this is the Ron Marz I know and love! This is the writer responsible for The Path and Scion (Cripes, any of his Crossgen stuff was great!). Itís good to see this kind of quality work from him versus his less-than-stellar input on Batman vs. Aliens and Star Wars. My biases are definitely apparent and probably unfair: I like Marzís work on comics without many editorial strings attached, because I think he is one of the best paced comic writers out there and he understands the importance of characterization. Also, Marz possesses characteristics of the cinematic mind-set, realizing the importance of combining humor, drama, and action in order to make a universally entertaining product. Samurai: Heaven and Earth #2 fits this description, as it nicely blends themes common in Asian samurai fiction with timely humor and an undercurrent of romantic drama. In addition, the incredible artwork by Luke Ross adds an aesthetic quality that makes this mini-series a must have for mainstream comic book enthusiasts, even with its lack of super-hero action.
Even if you havenít read an issue of this series yet, including the first mini-series, youíll still be able to catch up fairly quickly with this second issue. Marz creates a nice opening scene that brings you into the story very quickly, as Shiro and Yoshiko enjoy a bath together after a battle. He has some flesh wounds but is otherwise okay. To those who have followed the series, Shiro makes mention of Masahiro, saying ďI think he will die only when he chooses to. And then only by his own hand.Ē This is an astute observation by a very keen observer, as this is precisely what Masahiro did in the first series. Anyway, Yoshiko and Shiro spout off pronouncements of love that maybe sound a little forced, but help a new reader understand their feelings for each other. At the end of this flashback scene, in an appropriately subdued style, the two lovers become passionate, which is only indicated by water splashing over the sides of the tub. This is a classy old-school cinematic touch, providing a sensual object that the reader can actually hear as well as see. Immediately following this image, we are brought back to Shiroís present day, where he is gazing with a far-away glance at nothing, obviously feeling the power and sadness that the memory of Yoshiko has brought to him. After Safwah has brought him back to reality, itís on with the quest again. Nothing will stand in Shiroís way. Itís a story of true love, possessed by a man who is already uncompromising as a samurai, meaning that the outcome of his quest will either be death or a wonderful reunion with his lady love. For Shiro, death is not a consideration when it comes to his quest, and this lack of fear is displayed near the end of the issue, in a scene that might remind you of a certain George Clooney/Mark Wahlberg movie. Like I said, Marz likes the cinematic! This is an entertaining comic that might not break any boundaries but is consistently more entertaining than most of the things Marvel and DC are putting out right now.
Much of this consistency and entertainment comes from the outstanding artwork by Luke Ross and the nice coloring by Rob Schwager. The images we see throughout this issue hold realism as the main goal, creating characters that are true to life in this 18th Century world. The emotions that Ross conveys are moving, similar to the work Greg Land produced for Sojourn (Yes, another Crossgen comic! I really miss those comics). From the fight scenes midway through the issue to the realistic expressions by Yoshiko in the final scenes of the issue, everything about the artwork is top-notch, producing a comic that looks amazing and lends the story even more quality. Like I said earlier, this is Marz at the top of his game. With Ross providing ample support, this is another quality addition to Dark Horseís terrific library, and a worthy addition to your subscription list for the next few months.
I was skeptical about reviewing this title at first. Reason being, I donít usually stray far from the realm of costumed superheroes. However, always feeling the need to expand my horizons and expand the comic book genres I read, I decided to give this book a look. I havenít read the first issue so you can imagine why I was a bit skeptical and wondering how that would affect my reviewing ability for this title.
While I tend to avoid most things that have to do with Samurai and Ninjas (save for Snake Eyes and Batman), I knew this title wasnít going to be my forte based on the title alone. That would be enough of a reason for me to quickly run through this and fall into the pattern of writing a review based on my likes and dislikes. However, just looking at the first three pages I felt that this title was something special.
Right off the bat, the artwork had me locked into this title. I mean itís simply amazing; itís subtle yet detailed, romantic yet dark and it alone kept me from disregarding my tastes and interests and going into this book with an open mind. Itís rare that such artwork is magnificently cinematic, and both the dialogue and the art in the first few pages provide a sense of the protagonist and the warrior lover that he is. If you havenít read the first issue like I hadnít, the writer very intelligently offers this intimate portrait of Shiro (the protagonist) in a flashback and immediately I liked the character and donít feel like I have missed anything. For me, thatís enough to keep reading with my full attention on the story.
There is a great cast of characters involved in this story. It really feels like there is something for everyone. While there is a main character, a man who you really root for, thereís a great supporting cast that youíre bound to really latch on to someone in this story and want more. For example, thereís our Samurai hero, a Muslim guide and pirates! With the popularity and the sheer enjoyment of pirates in todayís culture, thanks to one sexually ambiguous Jack Sparrow, anything with pirates is almost pure gold.
Each of the characters is written masterfully; they all serve their purpose. The one thing that really stands out about these characters, however, is that they know they are there to serve their purpose. It may sound confusing, but itís actually quite well done. Shiro is on a quest, just as any protagonist should be, and on that quest he is meeting this cast of characters, but to me they all seemed to know there was something larger going on. I love comic books that play out cinematically, as if they were actual movies, and that is exactly the way that this issue plays out.
What I love most about this title is the way that racial barriers are almost non existent. These characters arenít exactly bending over backwards to help each other out of plain human kindness by any means, but they all need each other in some way or another. Or in the case of the pirates, anyone can really tag along.
It is really fascinating to see people working together as human beings and not as members of a specific ethnicity. What also makes this work very well is the fact that each character has his own agenda. With this, each characterís motivations are clearly laid out and they will either do anything to satisfy their own goals or they will do anything to keep from having their goals sidetracked or changed.
I really respect the work and the thought put into this title. Thereís a great sword fight that really shows the clash of cultures in the early eighteenth century. Itís got action and violence, but I played out the fight cinematically in my head and it seemed that the battle itself was not meant to be violent nor action-packed. Rather, the battle is mystical; it is artistic and epic.
Something else this issue and title does very well is hit on cultural and social issues that existed in the early 1700s and still exist today. This is clear in the last scene of this book. Currently, comic books are a medium of cosmic crises, deadly civil wars amongst friends and non-stop battles with aliens, but there is a level of unparalleled humanity found in the pages of Samurai: Heaven and Earth.
As a human being and a reader, you easily get involved with Shiroís quest. Itís easy to see how he balances his personal life and his warrior life and how they mesh. Thereís also an almost clear line (so far) about what is right and wrong and how different cultures clash over such an issue. But what really has turned me on to this title is the pure humanity that comes through in each characterís journey.
I really want to take another moment to really stress the beauty of the artwork. Everything from the penciling right down to the coloring is really well done. The level of detail in both character and background is really phenomenal and worth the price of the comic and even more importantly, your time.
What did you think of this book?
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