Lone Wolf and Cub Omnibus Volume One by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
Dark Horse has just started reissuing one of the best manga collections of all-time: Lone Wolf and Cub. If you are interested in Japanese art and culture, this volume is one you want to order immediately! Even if you aren’t interest in the historical role of the Samurai warrior in Japan, you’ll want this book for the beautiful black and white artwork.
In the U.S., we’ve been inundated with manga aimed primarily at teenagers, so we’ve gotten a warped view of what is actually available in Japan. Lone Wolf and Cub is a wonderful reminder that in Japan, manga is written for all audiences. Lone Wolf and Cub, however, is not just an example of what manga for adults looks like, but also representative of what the greatest manga can do when used to convey moods, meditations amidst action, and a sense of place.
The story is of a ronin assassin and his son, travelling alone around the Japanese countryside. The boy seems to be between one and two years old, and his presence drastically changes the dynamic of what might otherwise be solely a series of action scenes. The father, once a great Samurai and the shogun’s executioner, is now a lone ronin, a paid assassin with his own code of honor. Each short episode serves a double-purpose: It both gives us greater insight into the ronin’s character and his relationship with his son as well as reflect on larger issues dealing with seeking meaning in life.
Both these purposes lead the author and artist to work together to create a very lyrical, poetic work of art in what would otherwise be merely an action comic. Often, entire pages go by without any text at all. In the last story in the volume, for an extreme example, twenty-four pages pass by with only three words said by a single character! Most of those pages are devoted to the characters’ internal visualizations of the battle in the seconds before it happens, a device that the author and artist have not used regularly at all. It works very well, as do all the other unique devices they use.
But the book is not too repetitive. There is repetition, of course: The book is about a paid assassin so battles are inevitable. What is amazing is how much variety there is to the plots of each story. Often the stories even have an O. Henry-like twist at the end. Even though we know our main character is an assassin, we don’t always know who he’s going to kill, or if we will be bothered by his mission or want to cheer him on. Also, we often are surprised by the manner by which he goes about his business, as are those around him.
What I love most about this book is the visual poetry of it. The images of scenery beg the reader to slow down and pay attention to detail. Japanese manga use image-to-image transitions in a much more obscure fashion that are used in Western comics, and many of those transitions are scenery-based. The imagery varies, however, since at times we are given a wide-angled view of a scene that crosses over two pages, and at other times we are shown a small corner of a roof or a tree branch or a teapot. From the microscopic to the telephoto, the panels with no figures in them are used to convey both mood and place in a way quite different from what we are used to in Western comics. The wordless sequence of images often creates what I would describe as haiku-like visuals. I’ve often heard those who have read only a few comics complain that they don’t like black-and-white comics. Lone Wolf and Cub will make even readers such as these aware of the beauty of black-and-white images and how much adding color would ruin those effects.
This latest edition by Dark Horse is much better than the last edition. Though each volume is twice the cost of each volume in the last edition, they have more than twice the content. So, this first Omnibus Volume One edition contains all of the older editions of volume one The Assassin’s Road and volume two The Gateless Barrier. It also includes the first two stories of the third older volume The Flute of the Fallen Tiger.
Plus, more importantly, the new omnibus volumes are printed in larger dimensions — a major problem with the older collection since the print is very small and very difficult to read (I need reading glasses for those volumes). Presently, Dark Horse also has available Volumes Two and Three of the Omnibus versions, and they have set release dates for the near future for at least Omnibus Volumes Four and Five. My guess is that Omnibus Volume Six will get us about halfway through the entire series (previously 28 smaller volumes).
Lone Wolf and Cub may not fit neatly into our expected SFF and horror genres here at Fanlit, particularly SF and horror, but it takes place enough in the past to create the feeling one often gets in the best Fantasy — a place out of time with a lone character facing the world and its dangers, wandering across the vast landscape with only his strength of mind and muscle to protect him in his endless search for something not yet even defined. Western comics in general and Manga for adults specifically often go out of print very quickly — don’t let these pass you by if you are even slightly interested. Along with a few books by Tezuka and Tatsumi (mostly out of print), the stories in Lone Wolf and Cub are undoubtedly the best manga ever produced for adults.