Samurai: Heaven & Earth Vol. 1
By Ron Marz, Luke Ross, Jason Keith, and David Lanphear
Published By Dark Horse; $14.95 US
Collects Samurai: Heaven & Earth #s 1-5
Just before CrossGen folded I had all of their books on my pull list. I didn't like all or even most of their titles, but I had what I thought was a great idea supported by providence. I was living in Albany but I had gone to school in Tampa. I was forced to leave because I couldn't afford tuition. I was sharing my snacks with mice in a basement studio apartment in Albany and concocting schemes to return to Florida when I learned that CrossGen, like my old school, was headquartered in Tampa. I decided this was no coincidence and set about researching the comics for the company I would convince to hire me as soon as I could figure out how to afford around $10,000 per semester. It's just as well that I couldn't find a way back to the sunshine state, because CrossGen tanked. All I had to show for it was a stack of overpriced comics (if memory serves, all of CrossGen's books cost $2.99 back when the industry norm was $2.25). Of the company's many titles, there were 4 that I would miss; among them Ron Marz's samurai epic The Path. It had a different tone and rhythm than just about anything I was reading and it was the first samurai comic I read on a regular basis. I was sorry to see it go.
Luckily, Marz wasn't done with samurai books. Unlike the fictional Japan-inspired setting Marz used in The Path to keep in step with CrossGen's sigil storyline, Samurai: Heaven and Earth begins in Japan itself. The protagonist, Shiro, is a loyal retainer of Lord Tokudaiji. Shiro, like any good samurai, is more than prepared to lay down his life when unstoppable Chinese hordes lay siege to Tokudaiji's fortress. Expecting and accepting death, Shiro spends a final night in the arms of his lover Yoshiko (I don't remember whether or not they are married, though I think I assumed it when I first read the book) and tells her that "nothing in Heaven or on Earth" will keep them apart; hence the subtitle. Shiro is buried under a pile of rubble, survives the battle, and wakes to find most of his fellow samurai slaughtered. From one of his few surviving comrades he learns that Yoshiko was taken by the Chinese soldiers. Because of his pledge to Yoshiko, he refuses to commit seppuku and instead hunts for his captive lover. He travels first to China where he learns Yoshiko has been sold as a sex slave, follows her through mainland Asia and Europe, and finally comes to Paris where he must face the Three Musketeers among others before he can fulfill his promise to Yoshiko.
Luke Ross is a perfect artist for the book. Though it's a samurai comic, it's hardly all hacking and slashing. Ross's range is impressive. His love scenes and exposition scenes are just as engaging as his battle sequences, and in some of his love and battle scenes he uses a similar technique; many tiny panels featuring slivers of the action, not necessarily in order, each showing enough that they don't need to be in order. Parts of some fight scenes have a great noiseless quality to them; in particular I loved a sequence towards the end when a villain is beheaded and it's done in such a seamless manner that truly defines the phrase "he didn't know what hit him." His renderings of Japanese gardens are as convincing as those of the court of Versailles and his characters' facial expressions are subtle and familiar.
Marz is at the top of his game here I think, telling the story in a perfect rhythm, making great choices as to what to show and what to leave to our imaginations. There's a particular scene, for example, when it looks like we're about to get one more bloody sword fight with a prominent villain, but Marz fast-forwards from a panel of the bad guy lifting his sword right to the aftermath with the jerk's lifeless head on a pike.
Shiro isn't particularly distinguishable as far as samurai heroes go. He's fiercely loyal, driven by demons, and refuses to welsh on a promise. It's surprisingly novel to read a samurai comic in which the hero's quest springs from his love for a character, rather than out of revenge or simple obligation. I love samurai comics - Lone Wolf & Cub is my favorite comic book series - however just as it's tiring to know that most western action flicks will end with the hero and his buds living happily ever after, it can be equally as frustrating reading samurai comics when you know you're investing in a hero who will probably spill his guts all over the ground before the comic's over. The fact that Samurai: Heaven & Earth's characters are on a quest that at least has the potential to send them to happily-ever-after land is refreshing.
The only thing I didn't like about Samurai: Heaven & Earth Vol. 1 that stands out in my mind is the use of the Three Musketeers. The scenes with them are fun and while it's been a while since I've read Dumas's Three Musketeers, Marz's characterization seems spot-on. I simply didn't like that they were in the series. In a comic this bloody, I don't think any character should be safe. Since they are The Three Musketeers, as a reader I never questioned whether or not they would survive and as a result their presence came off largely as gimmicky. It's a minor complaint though and, gimmick or not, Marz uses them well.
Samurai: Heaven & Earth is a great samurai comic that stands out from the rest. I need to get off my ass and grab the second volume which has been out for a while now. Ever since finishing Lone Wolf & Cub I've been hungry for more funnybook samurai epics. I hope Marz keeps enjoying writing these books as much as I enjoy reading them because there just aren't enough good samurai titles out there.