Saturday, February 7, 2009

Lone Wolf and Cub month: The artist's arsenal on display in volume 7: Cloud Dragon, Wind Tiger

Insofar as any posts on this blog may be reckoned "popular," those in the Swipe File series seem to be: at least, they tend to get more than the usual share of hits, probably because they lure web-surfers searching for such names as Botticelli, Klimt, Hokusai. Well, we're not the only ones who swipe great Japanese woodblock artists on occasion. Behold this panel from "Inn of the Last Chrysanthemum," the fourth tale of five in Lone Wolf and Cub volume 7,Cloud Dragon, Wind Tiger:
Not a bad bit of ink and graywash, no? But much as Itto Ogami is a master of several weapons—including the dotanuki, the naginata, and the nagamaki among blades—so too is artist Goseki Kojima a deft hand at other tools and drawing styles. Here's a painted portrait of villain Retsudo Yagyu from the opening panel of "Dragnet" (the first tale in volume 7):

I tell you, that guy pictured above is trouble. And he tries to make more trouble for Ogami by setting the police after the Lone Wolf—until the Lone Wolf manages to scare them off without killing a single cop, owing to the fourth and fifth weapons he wields with such fearsome skill. One of them I'm not naming here (it's a spoiler!). The other is his tongue, armed with equal proportions of malice and honor, both of which suffice to stop many opponents.

But all too often Ogami's opponents from the Yagyu clan show themselves lacking in honor, pressing for battle when they have no real right to it under the samurai code of bushido. At such points Ogami is happy to shut up and let one of his trusty blades do the talking. And in this drawing, which Kojima has rendered in trusty pen, brush, and ink (with no halftones or graywash), we see Ogami facing one such Yagyu attacker with a single blade-end of his naginata (its other blade is still sheathed at the opposite end of the handle, which you may recognize from its other function as the handle of his baby cart):

Each of the three panels above provides an attractive example of Kojima's drawing skill with various main tools. This third panel also showcases one of his main techniques for staging a fight scene, with a key moment of attack depicted just after the crucial stroke. (Note that sound effect, skusssh, and see the direction of Ogami's blade? He must have just swung upwards across the body of his foe, who starts falling on the next page.)

It's characteristic of many Kojima fights to zero in on such poses with no action lines that describe the motion of the combatants or their weapons. I mean, there are lines aplenty in that panel above (what to call them? "Excitement" lines?), but they don't show you which character is swinging what weapon in which direction. On other occasions, however, the fight scenes emphasize the stroke, with appropriate action lines and additional parallel lines that echo the movement. I quite like the following two panels, all scratchy pen action, particularly for the downstroke swung by Ogami's foe (whose face is obscured by the blur of his blade striking right at you, the reader):

These panels come from a flashback scene. Neither Ogami nor his oponent dies in this battle, which was staged as a demonstration for a daimyo about to commit seppuku. Years later, however, in the present-day of the series, they get a rematch to the death in the title story of volume 7. Ogami's foe meets his death with great honor and with the full respect of Ogami, and I suspect that writer Koike and artist Kojima pay him their respects as well with the subdued stillness of this image, another moment just after Ogami has delivered the deathstroke:

No action lines here, and none of those other "excitement" lines, either: just a moment of repose, probably a millisecond in elapsed time but lingering here in an eternity befitting the honor of the opponents.

There are many, many fight scenes in this series, but they retain interest over many pages because of Kojima's other great weapons besides his pens and brushes: taste and skill in panel composition. Those weapons even help him see out the final story of volume 7, "Penal Code Article Seventy-Nine," without a single blade being drawn, whether from a samurai's scabbard or by Kojima's pen.*

*Fun fact: in this last story, Itto Ogami himself doesn't appear at all, nor does anyone die...but I'm sure he'll get his numbers back in subsequent volumes.

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