Writer: Ron Marz
Artists: Luke Ross, Rob Schwager (colors)
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Up to this point in Ron Marz and Luke Ross’ epic Samurai: Heaven and Earth, Lady Yoshiko has played the powerless victim, having been abducted in Japan by Chinese forces, then sold to the Arab slave trader Safwah Ibn Badr who dragged her across Asia and Europe to Paris where she eventually was snatched by the Spanish noblemen Don Miguel Ratera Aguilar who sought to escape with her to the New World, but when Barbary Pirates seized their merchant vessel, she was brought to Tripoli where she became enslaved anew into an Egyptian Pasha’s harem.
I feel like I just described a variation of Voltaire’s Candide and indeed, Yoshiko has suffered the most horrible experience possible as her dialogue suggests she has endured numerous episodes of sexual abuse since she’s been separated by her lover, the samurai Asukai Shiro. Her physical brutalization has thankfully occurred “off-panel,” but the fact remains that Yoshiko has truly been a passive object throughout the first seven issues of Samurai: Heaven and Earth, pulled and pushed against her will by the force of other men. Yoshiko does not even control her own identity as in this issue the Pasha’s first wife renames her “Nadirah.” I’ll admit that any scene involving Yoshiko has been a bit frustrating for me to read because all she does is remain steadfast that Shiro will find and liberate her. And I almost wish that Yoshiko would finally get sick of her own victimization, grab a sword and go into full “Red Sonja-mode.”
That move, however, certainly wouldn’t be historically authentic. It’s important to remember that this story takes place at the very beginning of the 18th century, NOT a particularly shining moment in time for women’s self-determinacy. Marz’s characterization of Yoshiko, rather than being misogynist, has been historically accurate, which is what Samurai: Heaven and Earth has strived to present itself as from its very first issue.
Marz, however, plots a move in this issue that brilliantly illuminates Yoshiko’s inner resolve. Most of this issue presents the new conditions to which Yoshiko has been enslaved, and as one might expect, the Pasha’s harem is a situation involving luxuries, security, comfort, and companionship. Despite her recent ordeals though, Yoshiko isn’t seduced by any of this, and at the first opportunity, she attempts to escape…, only to be grabbed by Don Miguel, whose obsession with Yoshiko drove him to become enslaved by the same Pasha who made Yoshiko part of his harem. So with Don Miguel back in control, Yoshiko’s captivity changes hands again. Once more, she gets moved from one position of passive victimization to another, right?
Yoshiko’s next move adds another dimension to a character that, up to this point, has just been presented as a devoted, helpless lover in need of rescuing; Yoshiko actually uses her enslavement to enact revenge on the man who has tormented her. In other words, she finds a way to empower herself WITH her powerlessness. Yoshiko’s predicament remains relatively unchanged (she’s still stuck in the Pasha’s harem), but I’m most impressed by how she uses the conditions of her enslavement to engineer Don Miguel’s demise (though I suspect that we haven’t seen the last of Don Miguel). Perhaps this issue’s cover image best presents how Yoshiko is transformed in the readers’ eyes. There she sits in classic “feminine swoon” pose while the knife she holds behind her portrays her “concealed determination,” the willingness to commit the necessary action to reunite with Shiro.
It’s one of Luke Ross’s best Samurai covers, and of course, his art on the interior pages doesn’t disappoint either, from the splendor of the opening splash page to the important details supplied on all the harem pages to a wonderful face-to-face encounter between Shiro and a camel at the end of the issue. Luke Ross’s work is arguably the most magnificent in comic books today, but I don’t think he gets enough credit as a story-teller. We reviewers always remark on the distinctiveness of his characters’ faces and the stunning vistas he provides, but we seldom comment on how well he presents the story. On a couple of pages in this issue Ron Marz gets the hell out of the way to let Luke Ross tell the story on his own without ANY dialogue balloons or caption boxes. Relatively speaking, this entire issue is light on lettering, but that doesn’t mean the issue is “decompressed.” Quite the opposite, it’s effectively packed with another opening flashback to Shiro and Yoshiko’s past in Japan, a couple of scenes revealing a developing symbiosis between Shiro and Safwah, besides the aforementioned initiation of Yoshiko into the harem.
Samurai: Heaven and Earth remains a prime example of how wonderful and mature comic books can be. I’m excited about the possibility that Samurai may be extended by two more volumes…, although I would encourage Marz to give Yoshiko a break at the conclusion of this volume. Even Candide’s suffering eventually ended.
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