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“Gara Gara!” COMICS! Sometimes They Are MANGA!

John Kane

Konichiwa! What follows is almost Zen like in the purity of its pointlessness. Unless…unless you are one of the three living people who have not already read these old manga comics. Comics which are now available again in a new series of petite omnibooks. So someone must not have read them, right? C’mon, throw me a rope here!

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Anyway, this…

If you have never read any of the manga comics and are a bit trembly about starting then this one’s for you! Because cards on the table; fox in the henhouse; monkey in the nunnery; I know sweet FA about the manga comics. When it comes to the manga comics I’m not your man. Gah! So, given my impressive indolence when it comes to the appreciation of other cultures I just read these as comics. Just opened ‘em up and read ‘em. Treated ‘em like comics, see. Crazy.

Art by Goseki Kojima
Written by Kazu Koike
Translation by Dana Lewis
Lettering by Digital Chameleon
Lone Wolf and Cub created by Goseki Kojima & Kazu Koike
Dark Horse comics, $19.99 (2013)

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Hey, as far as I can tell (and I may tell a lie, inadvertently) these comics originally appeared in 1970, as indeed did I. Bouncing Buddhas, these comics are as old as I am! Luckily they seem to have aged somewhat more gracefully. Unlike Lone Wolf & Cub I was not originally created by Goseki Kojima & Kazuo Koike and serialised in Weekly Manga Action Magazine, nor did I form the basis of a television series and a string of successful films before being reprinted in English by FIRST! comics in 1990 and, following FIRST’s demise (but no demise in the thirst for these comics) thereafter by Dark Horse Comics. This is Dark Horse’s second third (thanks, Ben Lipman!) go round at the material. This iteration is digest sized but impressively girthed. It’s a thick little brick of a book is what it is. This edition of Omnibus Vol.1 ends with Half Mat, One Mat, a Fistful of Rice in case anyone with an incomplete collection of the previous volumes wanted to know when to hop on board.

At the back of the book there are some author bios from which I cravenly cribbed the previous factual bits and a glossary of terms pertinent to the Edo period Japanese setting. Initially you’ll be flicking to this glossary every time you meet an unfamiliar word but you’ll soon get caught up in the flow of the narrative stream and your insecurity will erode to nothing as you use context to impose meaning; much as you do with your native language. English, I ‘m talking about English there, in the case of our American friends. Look, I don’t want the elbow patches and chalk dust connotations of a glossary to put anyone off; it’s useful and a nice touch but you’ll be too busy reading some 700 pages of great comics to bother with it, or as the experts would have it: 700 pages of great manga.

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Don’t worry about the words and the possibility of babel-jabber. In fact the translation by Dana Lewis reads smoother than a lot of English speaking comics writers’ work. Since the top names in US comics write like they learned English via correspondence course (and a lot of the lessons went missing in the post) I’m not sure who this reflects best on. The only jarring note is struck when sometimes the speech of the peasantry mimics that familiar from Westerns; this may sit oddly atop the images of Edo period Japan (“Consarn that dangdurned Emperor!”) but the genres have enough surface similarities to make this decision explicable. And it does create a clear divide between the scrofulous ones and their betters (who aren’t; they never are). On reflection this contrast between the earthier utterances of the proles and the formal rigidity of their masters nicely reinforces the divides. It’s such a good translation that it enables the quiet genius of the original writing to shine. Lone Wolf & Cub does many things but one of the things it does best is present a portrait of a repressive society and all the unhealthy sexuality and violence roiling beneath the social constrictions. The storytelling is remarkably convincing in its period detail although, full disclosure, I am neither Japanese nor a historian; so the fact that there aren’t any car chases and no one checks their wristwatch is the only level of historical accuracy I can vouch for.

I hear that all reviews must now contain some words about the art. So, yeah, let’s do that. Sadly I have sod all reference for Japanese art except for that Great Wave by Hokusai I had on a calendar once and a picture of a lady with a squid I saw in The Guardian the other week; one that was altogether too rude by half. Luckily for all of us inadequately prepared reviewers Lone Wolf and Cub has a built in entry point for palettes moulded by the North American comics tradition. The sentient reader will note that the cover to this first volume is by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. This dynamic duo provided the initial run of covers for the FIRST reprints (followed by Bill Sienkiewicz and then, I believe, Matt Wagner. Pedigree stuff there, kids). The art of Miller and Varley’s Ronin (DC Comics, 1984) had been cheerfully blatant about showcasing its debt to the work of Goseki Kojima and Miller had vocally championed Lone Wolf and Cub in interviews at the time. Miller’s stylistic lifts are revealed to even my uninformed eye at certain points in this volume (the straw of hats, motion lines forming figures, etc and etc) and nowhere are these lifts more apparent than in the graveyard scene which closes out this book. That’s how good Goseki Kojima is here; Frank Miller took a leg up from him to reach his pinnacle.

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And make no mistake Goseki Kojima is damned good here. The world the series inhabits is concretely defined with clear demarcations between the austere human constructs and the lush natural sweep of the land itself; the similar socio-economic demarcations between the folk populating the book are also succinctly sketched. So much so that one who knows less than zero about Edo period Japan grasps instantly and easily a wealth of information about what was seconds ago unknown and alien. And then there’s the action. The savagery of which, with its barrage of brutality and people coming apart like mud in heavy rain, is never in doubt. The violence in Lone Wolf and Cub is awful in exactly the right way.

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Lone Wolf & Cub is, I guess, primarily about Fathers and Sons. It can’t help but be about Fathers and Sons because when you are an itinerant assassin for hire saddled with a son, every day is Bring Your Child To Work Day. Usually comics about Fathers and Sons continue the bad rap Dads have. This very comic might be about how bad this dad is too, it’s hard to tell; it’s open to interpretation. He clearly loves his son and this love is reciprocated. Lone Wolf so loves his cub in fact that he is taking him to Hell with him. Sometimes you can love too much. Obviously Social Services might have something to say about having the kid feign drowning to lure an enemy into an unarmed swim or riding his dad’s back in a swordfight with a mirror strapped to his head in order to provide a surprise advantage.

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But there aren’t any Social Services, or indeed any form of supportive infrastructure for those less fortunate. Which is odd because everybody here is paying taxes, some people are paying so much tax it is killing them. And you pick this up as you go along; Lone Wolf and Cub is really quite political. But it is so in a very gentle way. The squalor of the peasantry, the machinations of their betters (who aren’t; they never are. It bears repeating) and the way a whole Society can be its own worst enemy are powerfully but subtly conveyed by every page. But never, ever, in a dull, dry or dreary way. All that smart stuff is smuggled in under cover of a series of chapters that hop from genre to genre with no sign of sweat or effort. There’s a chapter with the grubby brio of High Plains Drifter but set in a spa town; an episode recalling nothing less than Inspector Morse; an excursion into religious symbolism; a prison break revenge saga cum murder mystery; never a dull moment is what, I’m saying.

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Lone Wolf & Cub is truly humbling in its mastery of comics and the heights of entertainment it reaches. It’s from the past and another country and they really do things differently there. For the duration of Lone Wolf and Cub it’s hard not to think that they do things better.

Sometimes Lone Wolf & Cub is still as a pond; sometimes Lone Wolf & Club dances like the fire. But Lone Wolf & Cub is always EXCELLENT! Because Lone Wolf And Cub is always – COMICS!!! (or MANGA!!!)

(I’m worried about the kid though.)

10 Responses to “ “Gara Gara!” COMICS! Sometimes They Are MANGA! ”

  1. I am one of the ones who have managed to not read the Lone Wolf and Cub, nor even the Akira. This might seem strange, because I’ve lived in Japan, but in my defense, all the comics there are in Japanese.

    I have enjoyed the mightily excellent Pluto, but LW&C seems to invert the motion-lines-to-depressed-staring-into-space ratio of that series. Battle Angel Alita eventually wore me out, and I got lost in the footnotes of Ghost in the Machine and haven’t been seen since.

    I’m not sure I could take the cognitive dissonance of Edo-era Japanese characters saying “gol’durn” it, or whatever. (Strangely, it sounds just right from a bartender in modern Shinjuku.) But I get the intent.

    For some time, I have been thoroughly convinced that all I need in the way of Japanese-flavored comics is Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, but you make a strong case for LW&C, and the bit about the deeper themes lurking therein is tempting. So I’ll give it a one-over at my local emporium, and know what to do next time I recover a forgotten twenty from a long-unworn coat. All of which was a 400-word version of, “Entertaining and interesting review, thanks!”

  2. “I’ve lived in Japan, but in my defense, all the comics there are in Japanese.”

    I don’t see how living in Japan and not learning enough of the language to read it is any kind of defense.

    “Battle Angel Alita eventually wore me out, and I got lost in the footnotes of Ghost in the Machine and haven’t been seen since.”

    Well, I guess since you didn’t enjoy two science fiction stories, you couldn’t possibly enjoy historical samurai fiction.

  3. Well, I thought the, I dunno, ironic tone of the post would stand on its own. But man, Japanese is one hard language to learn. If I’m recalling correctly, you need to memorize about 1000 individual kanji characters read, mostly but imperfectly, a daily newspaper. that’s in addition to the two syllabaries of 25ish characters each, a comparative cake walk. But we didn’t come here to discuss my failings as an expat some two decades ago. Wait, did we?

    Shellacked to better withstand random hostility: I’ve read very little manga, some of which I lost enthusiasm for, other of which was Pluto. However, John, your review of LW&C makes it sound very interesting and I will give serious thought to picking it up. Thanks very much for this fine review. Random aside: I like Stan Sakai a lot.

  4. @BrianMc: They can be quite lengthy can’t they, the manga comics? I can easily see how you might not make it to the end of a series. I know I was dismayed to find on a recent trip to the garage that I had failed to follow Battle Royale past Vol. 11 (the local bookshop I was picking them up from went bust and it slipped my mind for several years). So last week I pestered my LCS but they say the publishing company also went bust (when does a trend become a curse?) and now I will never know how it ends! I don’t know how long LW&C is but I have put in a standing order for the omnibooks so I will get to the end no matter what. Vol.2 is next to the lamp and LW&C Vol. 3 will be on its way this week!

    I like Usagi Yojimbo too! I am a recent convert (in the last three years or so) and I was always a bit unsure why everyone was a woodland critter. I quite like that they are now. It hasn’t come out for a bit, I hope Stan Sakai is okay.

    Oh, I bet living in Japan was interesting. It’s not all like that there Blade Runner though is it? Spread out over a spray of islands, I hear. Probably some quiet bits without flying cars and all that. I’ve been to Blackpool you know. When you were an ex-pat did you sit outside cafes in a big white suit with a straw hat reading papers “from the home country” bought at extortionate prices? Wait, are you CIA? It’s okay, I won’t tell anyone. Everything’s private on The Internet.

    @oh well: Steady on, old boy. I’m pretty sure he was being self-deprecating. We’ve almost got him to try LW&C so don’t go scaring the horses just yet.

    Cheers and good health to all!

  5. John of the UK,

    Your post made me want to paraphrase Mark Twain’s quip about the weather: Everyone always talks about LW&C, but no one ever reviews it. Thanks for taking the time to review this and all the other comics posts. (But my favorite post of yours in recent memory has to be the piece your wrote about quitting smoking. That was just an amazing piece and it resonated with me even though I’ve never been a smoker. I wanted to say it’s one of the best things I read in awhile, but then I realized you have no idea what I’ve been reading, so that could either be a straightforward compliment or a damning with faint praise thing that’s making the rounds on the internet of late. But I digress.)

    Your review has renewed my interest in reading LW&C. I live in Japan, and have the first volume of a reissue that came out a few years ago sitting on my shelf. I just can’t work up the energy to read it and I don’t know why. Maybe I feel too familiar with the material from watching the movies, Frank Miller comics, and all the parodies in between so I don’t feel the need to catch up on it. It’d probably be like coming to Watchmen after reading 20 years of all it’s heirs, goof and bad, like The Authority, Ultimates, et al. Watchmen may even be superior to everything that’s come out since, but if by osmosis or direct input you’ve engaged with comics since it came out, going back to it might feel like retreading a well-worn word.

    The reissue I bought is 428 pages thick, and there are 20 volumes in the series, so that’s a lot of reading. And a lot of cash, but probably relatively cheap compared to what the translated editions go for.

    Anyway, here’s one of the most famous parodies of LW&C. The joke is that the actors playing Ogami and Daigoro can never remember their lines. Ogami is supposed to shout, “Daigoro!” and Daigoro is supposed to correct him by adding the diminutiave “Chan!” to his name. In the second take, Ogami shouts, “Akira Toriyama’s comics can only be found in…” and Daigoro completes it with, “Shonen Jump!” (Not word for word; translator’s license, lost in translation, etc.) More of a parody of uppity actors in periods pieces than LW&C itself, but I find them hilarious.


    Now to catch up on those podcasts so I can comment on that calisthenics cat below.

  6. Miguel Corti: What nice words! What a nice man! But I do know what you have been reading – David Peace! Or The Hunger Games. No, Jo Nesbo! No, wait, is this your card?(Thanks for liking the smoking thing; I’m not really Mr. Share My Feelings so I was a bit wary of putting that up, so thanks muchly.)

    Ah, well then, if you live in Japan and are surrounded by the cultural descendants of LW&C then, no, I can’t guarantee its freshness. But to go back to your perceptive Watchmen talkery – everyone, I maintain, just stole the sizzle off Watchmen; all the easy, “edgy” elements. very few had the nous or skill to bring the meat. (Some did, not many.)And I think that might (maybe)be the case with LW&C? You might find it’s a lot more interesting than you thought beyond the surface trappings? But, to be frank (Miller(Hic!), the chances are probably slim if you actually live in Japan and are surrounded etc….

    Hey, I just started Vol.2 and there’s this awesome smack talk from Ogami’s nemesis:

    “Wash your neck and wait.”

    &*%$ yeah! That’s just mean as snake spit! Lone Wolf & Cub!

    “Wash your neck and wait.”

    Hahahahahahahahahaha! Great stuff.

    Speaking of laughs: I enjoyed your link and truly appreciate your explanation for the more culturally, uh, barren as myself. I particularly enjoyed the way everyone was corpsing at their own jokes and the fact that Daigoro looked like a surly teenager with a pot on his head.

    Thanks and I think that’s actually your cat!

  7. Nicely done, John. Wasn’t expecting a manga column from you, but Of course you’d like Lone Wolf!
    A minor note of pedantry, I believe this is at least Dark Hors’s third time out with the material, as ten years ago they did smaller digests of Lone Wolf, with Miller covers, right at the tip of the ‘manga boom’. I believe this omnibus collects three of them.

    I was wondering, why does Lone Wolf read fine left to right to our western eyes, but other Manga needs to be presented in it’s original right to left format? I thought flipping the art was bad, but it doesn’t read that way in these volumes. Is the art horribly unbalanced right to left, and the flip helps it? Was it designed with both in mind? Is it just timely and costly to flip the art and not have it be a big mess? Anyone know?

  8. John, seconding the belated praise of the smoking piece. And for what it’s worth, my hazy memories of Osaka in the mid-90s match up with Blade Runner a lot more than you might expect.

  9. “I just can’t work up the energy to read it and I don’t know why.”

    It’s not a series that really goes anywhere in general. They’re just all one-off stories that are told really well. That kind of thing can be frustrating to read over 28 volumes (though I bet it reads a lot better when serialized in a weekly comics anthology magazine, as I assume it originally was).

    I love Tezuka. I bought all 17 volumes of Black Jack. But it’s a slog to go through when you’re reading it all at once. The material just wasn’t intended to be read that way.

  10. @Ben Lipman: Manga!?! Well I said I was going to vary this stuff up a bit and I fibbed not! Of course I’d like Lone Wolf; after all the excellence of my taste is exceeded only by my modesty! Ah, three times? Sorry about that, you are correct as ever. So Dark Horse have squeezed LW&C until its pips squeak! Yeah, you’ll need someone else to answer your direction of motion lines stuff. The art worked for me, but I was just reading rather than analysing it.

    @BrianMc: Ha! I can just see you in Blade Runner. “Let me tell you about my mother…Wonderful woman, baked great pies, always singing along to the radio. Salt of the earth that woman. Here, I’ve got a picture of her…” Osaka, ey? Nice!

    @Lumpy Dan: Oh, I see, similar to collected 2000AD strips! Good point there. Well, LW&C does have an uber plot and it leisurely works towards a, so I hear, very definite ending but, yes, I should have stressed each episode is enjoyable in and of itself.

    Cheers, everyone. Thanks for humouring me going on about the manga!

    And while we’re here:

    Happy Thanksgiving to the people of The Americas!

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