Saturday, February 28, 2009

Lone Wolf and Cub month concludes with Volume 28: The Lotus Throne

The Lotus Throne, the twenty-eighth and final volume of Lone Wolf and Cub, has about three hundred pages of comics; of these, 172 are wordless and lacking even in such human utterance as shouts or groans, though they may occasionally feature a sound effect; and in the one hundred forty-second and final episode, "Arms," only fourteen of its sixty-one pages feature text. Accordingly, the images for this final post are all wordless, and I'll try to keep my remarks brief.

Because really: it's a bit daunting to approach the end of such a long and compelling narrative, and I really don't want to provide any major spoilers. The last image I've scanned comes with over a hundred pages left in the volume, so I think it's safe to keep reading—even if I show you this:

That's the blade of Itto Ogami's dotanuki, the sword that has sustained him in his four-year path of vengeance. The sword-polisher spy who offered to sharpen it the night before the day of battle sabotaged it, and finally it snaps off as Ogami faces the last thirty-six surviving grass ninja who stand between him and Retsudo Yagyu. He finishes them off—he's still pretty nimble, and there are lots of unused swords lying around in the hands of corpses, after all—but he gets a serious wound right after the blade breaks, and that wound doesn't want to close up.

The last sword he uses on the grass makes its final cut when Ogami uses it to slice through a strand of Buddhist rosary beads (as it were), draped across the blade by the dying ninja who revealed the treachery of the sword-polisher. Take a look at this page and tell me that Frank Miller didn't have it in the back of his head when he drew the murder of Martha Wayne in The Dark Knight Returns:

But, as I say, that's the last stroke that Ogami cuts with a sword from the grass [and Isaac, I'm using every fiber of my being not to make the obvious pun, here]. When Retsudo finally appears, he suggests that Ogami take up one of those whole weapons to face him, but Ogami declines, declaring that the souls of the grass could never rest if one of their swords chopped down the great tree of the Yagyu (these are Ogami's metaphors, not mine). So he begins the battle armed with just a hilt and a shard:

I should note that artist Goseki Kojima very rarely breaks the panel borders, even in scenes of high action, so it's quite an emphatic choice for him to put the broken blade outside the panel, and at the top of the page, yet, where the margin is widest. But look what he does with that broken blade here:

No, it hasn't grown back, nor is Ogami suddenly wielding a lightsaber. But this image shows something of the force of Ogami's connection to his sword: like a phantom limb, he can feel it though it isn't there.

And that magical image is one of several non-literal images that appear in this volume, adding to the grandeur of a work that must be one of the few comics that deserve to be called epic. Here's an earlier non-literal image, a stunner of a double-page spread:

This image gets extra force by way of contrast, coming right after a quiet page where Ogami and son Daigoro prepare to leave the opening scene of battle against the grass. It's also forceful as a terrible echo of an earlier image from way back in volume 3. In the central episode of volume 3, "The White Path Between the Rivers," the origin of Ogami's feud with the Yagyu is revealed in a conspiracy to disgrace Ogami and murder his wife. It is then that Ogami abandons the way of men to walk the demon path to hell, meifumado, a narrow road that he must navigate with a pure heart to avoid falling into the river of fire, greed, and the river of water, jealousy. There are drawings of that path in volume 3—but the rivers are not then choked with corpses, as here, and Ogami's footprints do not stain the path with blood.

Another non-literal image earns a double-page spread in this last volume to illustrate something of a little speech that Ogami gives to Daigoro. It's about the persistence of life even after the death of the body, and it uses metaphors of ocean waves to describe the ebb and flow of life across endless generations of reincarnation. After the speech, Ogami rests in his rude hut while Daigoro stares out toward the riverbank, where he sees this scene play out in his mind's eye:

But the unreality of this scene is broken by the arrival of the all-too-real figure of Retsudo, who comes striding up at last. The end is really about to begin. And before the epic duel is over, forces conspire to attract all the ruling class of Edo to the scene of the battle. The reasons why don't matter for this post. They may have intended to intervene, on one side or the other, but ultimately those assembled are hushed and stilled by the fight playing out before them. Here they are, watching:

And what do they see? I have chills just thinking about it. It goes on for a hundred pages, what they watch, and it includes such scenes as this three-way battle of wills and hearts:

It doesn't end here, but it does end. The ending is stunning, moving, epic. Amazingly, the conclusion feels both inevitable and worthy of the thousands of pages that have prepared for it. Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima: it's for the ages.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Lone Wolf and Cub month: The beginning of the end in Volume 27: Battle's Eve

"Kill Itto! Whatever it takes! Understand?!"

So says Retsudo Yagyu to the assembled survivors of the undercover grass ninja, gathered before him in Edo after they have helped to engineer his release from house arrest. And over the last hundred or so pages of Battle's Eve, the twenty-seventh and penultimate volume of Lone Wolf and Cub, we start to see some of what it takes for the ninja to try to kill Itto Ogami before Retsudo comes to face him.

For starters, they send the "freshest shoot" of the grass to face him first: a twelve-year-old boy.

He doesn't have what it takes:

Itto doesn't look too happy about taking his life, though, does he? A small group of ninja who have accompanied the twelve-year-old begin to charge Itto, but stop when he takes the child's corpse in his arms. They escort him back to their camp, where he returns the child to the rest of the grass. And the grass leave him alone 'til the next morning, the day of the battle.

So what does it take for the grown-ups to try to kill Ogami? Maybe booby-trapping their bodies with explosives, so they can have a chance at killing Ogami even after they've been struck down?

Maybe not. What if they gang up on him in threes?

Well, that's a better shot, I guess. Really, though, I scanned these two pages because I like what artist Goseki Kojima does on the left page, to suggest the passage of time by spacing out a single action across three different ninja. One of the most famous Hergé panels does the same trick, with a gradual movement of desert fighters laying down their rifles and running away from something off-panel. And in the right page, I like the shot of Itto crouching in one of many holes he and Daigoro have dug on the field, suitable both for Daigoro to dive into to avoid debris from explosions (or to duck an attacker's sword-stroke) and for Itto, as pictured, to assume the characteristic crouch of the suio-school wave-slicing stroke: helpful for those times when he's still on land.

He does finish the volume in the water, though, both to perform his trademark moves to best effect and to get an extra cushion from the blast concussions as more and more ninja hurl themselves at him as living bombs, even jumping off their fellows' backs for more elevation in a murderous gymnastic routine:

And no, the fuses do not extinguish under water, and this volume ends with a huge explosion and no immediate sign of Itto or Daigoro.

There is one more volume, however, so I can assure that even these ninja-bombs don't yet have what it takes to kill Itto Ogami. Something else occurs earlier in this volume, however, that outraged me when I first realized what it meant on my initial reading of this series seven years ago. Let me just say this one last thing for today, in light of that event and in light of the tactics that send a twelve-year-old boy and human bombs to gang up on Itto in uneven numbers:

Retsudo Yagyu doesn't deserve the support he gets, and he doesn't deserve a foe like Itto Ogami.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lone Wolf and Cub month: Death of a Clown in Volume 26: Struggle in the Dark

SPOILER ALERT: This post concerns a major development in the antepenultimate volume of Lone Wolf and Cub, volume 26: Struggle in the Dark. However, it's a totally predictable development and the title of today's post pretty much gives it away already. If you'd prefer not to see details about it, however, you may want to skip this post. (Even if the images it contains are mighty cool.)

That's right: after dogging the steps of Itto Ogami and Retsudo Yagyu for seven volumes, a full fourth of the epic series, the poisoner Abe-no-Kaii meets his end in the last pages of this volume, finally checking out on page 304. And the hell of it is, he's a marked man as early as page 111, when Retsudo—still Kaii's prisoner!—manages to pass instructions to one of his ninja to arrange an accidental fire that will have Kaii sentenced to death by the shogun himself. Even before then, however, Retsudo's hatred for Kaii has become rather plain:

I think Kaii's expression in response to Retsudo's words is pretty priceless. He doesn't even look scared, just incredulous—and yet all too aware that, in a way, Retsudo means it.

The first time Kaii sees Retsudo again after the instructions have been given to cause the fire—but even before the fire has taken place—Retsudo plays with his head by giving him instructions in the proper performance of seppuku, the ritual suicide to which Kaii will be doomed shortly thereafter:

This scene is exquisitely cruel because, again, the crime that condemns Kaii hasn't even occurred yet. But immediately after the seppuku lesson, the alarm bells go off, Kaii rushes to the fire, and then, at the end of this titular episode, "Struggle in the Dark," he realizes that he is doomed.

For almost two hundred pages, then, the volume strings out the slow culmination of Kaii's doom. At first, the suicide-execution plays out as a disgraceful farce: Kaii has no dignity, blubbers and pleads for mercy, even picks up the knife with the wrong hand before he tries to run away. At that point, the administrators of the execution hold him down bodily and start cutting his stomach open for him. But, holy mackerel, the cowardly clown fights his way to his feet—and it's hard not to hear a certain justice in his words here:

By one of those coincidences that make this series great, who should happen along next, as Kaii defends himself with the knife that was plunged into his own belly, but Itto Ogami, newly dressed in his old formal attire, with family crest and all. Incredibly, a sorely wounded Kaii has managed to slay three of his would-be executioners already; but when he sees Ogami, he knows it's all over. And, wouldja believe? Ogami actually has some soothing words for him:

Ogami's words give Kaii the strength to face his final end with a measure of dignity, after all. He lives up to Retsudo's cruel command to be a bushi (warrior) in death at last.
But even though Kaii's head is taken by the most skillful executioner of them all, Retsudo is wrong about it dangling by a strip of skin:

Well, let's let the clown have his last laugh. For he knows that just as his summer is over, so too must an end come to Ogami and Retsudo, the autumn and winter. No telling the fate of that little spring chicken Daigoro...though the end is nigh. Two volumes to go!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lone Wolf and Cub month: Parenting tips in Volume 25: Perhaps in Death

After the very continuous storytelling of the previous five volumes of Lone Wolf and Cub, volume 25: Perhaps in Death presents something of a return to the episodic style of still earlier volumes. Partly this is owing to the separation of the antagonists: some of the volume concentrates on Retsudo Yagyu, under house arrest while his jailer Abe-no-Kaii tries and fails to poison him, and some of it focuses on Itto Ogami and Daigoro as they prepare for the final rendezvous with Retsudo, not knowing (at first) that he has been forcibly delayed. But the central three episodes of the volume involve none of the four principals directly. Instead, they offer three "Tales of the Grass": stories that show how three families of the undercover grass ninja respond to signal flares summoning them and their brethren to Retsudo's aid in Edo.

In looking at these three families and at Ogami and Daigoro's preparations, the volume spends a fair amount of time considering the high personal cost paid by families who are committed to the claims of a demanding code, be it that of ninja, for the grass, or of bushi (samurai warriors), for Lone Wolf and Cub. And one of the lessons that these comparative stories convey is the importance of teaching your children well in order to inculcate shared values and to prepare them—along with their parents—for terrible heartbreak.

This older couple, for instance, clearly has had open, honest conversations about their duties as ninja parents. Neither they nor their adult son seem too torn up about the fact that soon they'll never see each other again:

The son is alive at the end of the episode, having abandoned his civilian life to send out another signal flare to grass in other regions before heading to Edo himself. But his parents, compromised now by their son's "activation" as grass, set themselves afire, to perish in penance for their disloyalty to their han (feudal domain) in serving the Yagyu as ninja spies.

If you're going to disappoint a child, it's best to explain the reasons why, as Ogami does here when he discourages Daigoro from sucking on some sweet cane:

But it's even better if you can make up for the child's disappointment in one area—eating a sweet, for instance—by making up for it in another, say by fashioning a clever waterwheel out of that very cast-off bit of cane:

I find Daigoro's apparent delight in so simple a toy a little heartbreaking, given what lies ahead for him.

But at least his father would never do to him what this other member of the grass does to his son. It's one thing to disappoint your child and then play with him to make it up; it's another to play with him first...

...only to lull him into an unsuspecting position where you can drown him:

That's no expression of glee on that poor boy's face. And his father looks no happier—looks rather anguished, in fact—when he emerges from the water to continue his duties as a lonely grass ninja. The big problem in his family, you see, is that he hadn't prepared his child for his destiny as the next generation of grass. Communication. Parents and children need it.

Still, the messages can be pretty tough to take, even from a father who clearly loves his child. Itto Ogami loves Daigoro very much. And here toward the end of volume 25 he lays a heavy charge on him:

Daigoro's a good boy, and a good samurai boy, at that. He'll do what Papa tells him, even if he'd be happier sucking sugarcane and playing with toys. But even if his papa might not intervene to save him from the threat of drowning, he knows that at least his papa would never drown him himself.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lone Wolf and Cub month: Tiger outfoxed by chicken in Volume 24: In These Small Hands

There are numerous pleasures to be had in revisiting a series like Lone Wolf and Cub after a seven-year gap. For one thing, I've forgotten enough details to be surprised all over again by a great drawing, a moving scene, or even a crucial plot point—such as the revelation here, in volume 24: In These Small Hands, that the McGuffin in volume 22 was no McGuffin after all. Lo and behold:

Your eyes do not deceive you: that is the cowardly poisoner Abe-no-Kaii, and he is clutching the notorious Yagyu letter, whose importance was first hinted at way back in volume 10.

I'll spare you the details of how Kaii got hold of it, or how it is that he, Itto Ogami, Daigoro, and Retsudo Yagyu are still alive after the end of the preceding volume (I should leave some reading pleasures to those of you yet to reach this volume in the first place!). Suffice it to say that they are all battered, but all recover sufficiently for Ogami and Retsudo, the Lone Wolf and the tiger, to set a second day of meeting for the conclusion of their final battle...and for Kaii to nab the letter from its hiding place, wrapped around sleeping Daigoro's topknot like a hair elastic.

But where Ogami's honor had prevented him from exposing the letter's contents—always alleged to be such as would "shock the nation"—Kaii has no such honor and therefore no qualms about taking his discovery to the shogun himself. In an amazing reversal of fortune, Kaii finds himself denouncing Retsudo Yagyu before the shogun while revealing his secrets (in the panel below, han means "feudal domain" and go-roju refers to the shogun's inner circle of counselors):

But where any other man might squirm at the accusations hurled at him by an angry shogun, Retsudo manages to face down Kaii, the investigating counselors, and the shogun himself for several pages. He claims the privileges of secrecy to protect the identities of the two hundred or so grass ninja under his command, and he reminds his accusers that the shogun's ancestor Ieyasu Tokugawa, the founder of the shogunate, had issued the command: "Never reveal the grass, or the Tokugawa clan shall perish!"

For a while, this argument stymies the frustrated shogun and his advisors: they all suspect that Retsudo has subverted authority to his own ends, but they lack direct proof that he ever personally received and read the secret correspondence known collectively as the Yagyu letters. They're about to condemn Retsudo to nothing more than house arrest when Kaii interrupts to make two salient points.

First: Itto Ogami, who first discovered the letter and cracked its code, must presumably know the identity of its author and its intended recipient. Therefore, if Ogami could be found and brought to the shogun's court, the truth might at last be known.

Second: Retsudo Yagyu has lost all his children, indeed all the male members of his clan, in his feud with Ogami thus far, and he might well die in combat with Ogami—which would mean the loss of all who know the identities of the grass:

Kaii is quite right, as an earlier scene has revealed to the reader already (in this panel, satoiri-nin[ja] is another term for the grass):

It certainly looks as if Retsudo considers the grass his personal army of ninja, and one wonders why a man who has lost all his clan in a battle with Ogami (and flood) would need to summon still more secretive warriors. I'm sure we'll find out soon enough, with only four volumes to go (!); but surely Ieyasu Tokugawa never intended the grass to be the private militia of his successor shogun's chief inspector. And the current shogun, hopping mad, commands Retsudo to wait in the castle—under Abe-no-Kaii's supervision, yet. The chicken clucks triumphant over the tiger.

That's not to say that Kaii gains a new dignity in this volume. He's still a figure of fun that edges into contempt, and even as he puts Retsudo at ever greater risk he cowers before his foe when reminded of their difference in status. Indeed, numerous pages of this volume see Kaii reflecting to himself—volubly—about what makes Ogami and Retsudo such consummate bushi (warriors) and why he falls so short of their ideal. Still, Kaii's un-bushi-like cunning, ruthlessness, and luck—to say nothing of his deadly expertise with poison—have kept him alive far longer than any other foe of Ogami and Retsudo (excepting, of course, each of those two as the other's chief enemy), and thus far he has made the most credible threat to Retsudo's position in the shogunate. In this volume, the worm turns (and I mean that both figuratively and literally...but I'm not sayin' how for now).

Meanwhile, what about the Wolf and his cub? Well, little Daigoro himself set up the swords of a still-groggy Itto and Retsudo in anticipation of their final battle...

...and after he and Papa are both sufficiently recovered from bouts of poison, exposure, and (in Itto's case) sword-attack, they head for their former home in an effort to pay last respects to the site where wife and mother Azami perished some four years ago. Sadly, their white funeral silks are no longer quite so pristine:

...but, God bless 'em, they're not dead yet.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Lone Wolf and Cub month: The fight of the century starts in Volume 23: Tears of Ice

"The fight of the century!" That's what poisoner Abe-no-Kaii says (blurrily) in the panel above, as he takes in the field of battle from his seemingly safe perch atop a roof. And what he says just might be an understatement when Retsudo Yagyu and Itto Ogami finally take up swords against each other with only Daigoro at hand on the sidelines:

The face-off pictured above comes on page 139 of Lone Wolf and Cub volume 23: Tears of Ice. To reach this point, our four main characters have had to survive the surging flood of the previous volume. During the turmoil, Daigoro was saved from drowning by the hands of Retsudo, who brought him back to his compound to nurse him back to health:

"Feeling better, are we?" asks Retsudo, fist clenched (apologies for the blurry scan!). Retsudo explains to Daigoro that he and Itto had made a pact to return to the field of battle after dealing with the flood, so Daigoro puts down the weapon and suffers himself to be carried by his enemy to the rendezvous. And Retsudo is indeed an enemy, assuring the boy that, once Itto is slain, he'll have to kill Daigoro next. But give credit to the little guy: the first thing he does on rousing from his sickbed and recognizing Retsudo is to grab the nearest weapon and assume a fighting stance. His papa raised him right.

But back to the battle:

Retsudo and Itto face each other on page 139.

On page 140 they grab their swords to begin fighting.

On page 150 they shift their grips.

On pages 152 and 153 they alter their stances (prompting a stunned Kaii, still peering through his telescope, to cry out "Th-they moved!"). There are a few more changes of grip and footing until the first blows are swung on pages 160-161—a full twenty pages after the battle commenced:

After a lot more grappling, the first blood is drawn—from Ogami's cheek—on page 172, after devoting more than half of this episode, "The Day of Meeting," to the first few movements of the battle. And it continues in much this way till the end of the volume on page 308: lots of closeups, lots of small movements, lots of waiting around until a sudden burst of action, occasionally with the edifying identification of a special move by either Retsudo or Itto. I count 89 pages of wordless combat, with another half-dozen at least where the only words are grunts or war-cries. Yet the pacing is so good, the composition so gripping, that the story doesn't drag; nor does it stop being a story. Retsudo and Itto keep finding ways to test and challenge each other, keep provoking each other to still more superhuman feats of endurance, keep refusing to back down.

Ultimately, however, they do come down: not back but forwards, falling headlong into the now snowy fields of Edo as the rain has begun to freeze. Mere weariness and cold suffice to send Abe-no-Kaii tumbling from his rooftop, hours and hours after the noontime battle has stretched into the moonlit night; and he doesn't look so good where he's landed, feeling no sensation in two limbs and coughing up blood:

And before him, little Daigoro could hold out no longer, having endured longer (and endured more) than any other almost four-year-old tyke could imagine:
And then, our swordsmen fall, victims to Kaii's wicked stratagem of coating their blades with poison as the swords awaited their return to the field of battle. Cunning warriors that they are, Retsudo and Itto figure out that someone must have poisoned their blades prior to their rendezvous (and they have a good idea who that someone might be), but even they cannot hold out indefinitely against poison. Retsudo falls:

And then Ogami:

And that looks like it could be all she wrote, but for those last three words there—"To Be Continued"—and the knowledge that, with five volumes to go, there's still about fifteen hundred pages left in the series. But the end is in sight!

It's a bit depressing to end with the four main characters all face-down in the snow, so here's a page where both Itto and Retsudo display their mastery of a crucial Yagyu sword-capture technique:
Note that Itto is grasping Retsudo's sword with his hands flat on the blade's side, the point facing him—but not piercing him. Retsudo, on the other hand, has used the more classic Yagyu sword-capture technique, as featured many volumes ago, in which the tip of the blade actually digs into his brow slightly. He's bloodied but far from finished. Anyhow, this panel gives one example of the kind of sword-fighting clinic that makes up much of this book, and since I hadn't yet shown any panels of the classic sword-capture move I figured it was time I did so...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Doodle Penance: "jimmy corrigan in the classroom"

This week's "Doodle Penance" comes from a pretty reasonable request, posed by an anonymous Google searcher (as usual): "jimmy corrigan in the classroom."

I feel pretty well prepared to talk about lesson plans or whatever on Chris Ware's awesome Jimmy Corrigan.

I've read it carefully nearly a dozen times, and I've taught it to college students six or seven times at least. (I lose track. It hasn't been on all of my comics syllabi, but it has been on most of them.) I feel sort of like I'd be disappointing my colleagues at NACAE if I didn't approach this seriously. On the other hand, after last week's penance, I'm convinced none of our readers need me to take another of these prompts too seriously.

Perhaps our Google searcher was just a schoolteacher looking for a nice graphic to use for an upcoming snow day, in which case, let me recommend this:

Ah, carefree youth!

The nineteenth-century Jimmy (I guess we normally call him James or Granpa) doesn't spend a whole lot of the book in the classroom, but apparently he's a good student. Or maybe his teacher's just sympathetic because James's mother just died. But in this sequence, his teacher taps him to be one of four children participating in a parade-stand display connected to the World's Fair.

... But she might just have picked James because he's one of only a few children enrolled at the school. I mean, his classmates look amazingly middle-aged. The poor little runt really is a fish out of water.

I'd never noticed that before. It seems like I notice something new in this book every dang time I pick it up.

Where was I?

Oh, right. Doodle penance. I'm not supposed to be scanning Chris Ware's work and discussing its nuances. I'm supposed to be drawing something of my own, preferably something stupid, and posting that.

Well, having taught Jimmy Corrigan several times now, I can say that the first hurdle is just getting the students to read the whole thing. It's a "bold experiment in reader tolerance" in more ways than one. (Actually, that's how I often start my lessons on Ware: "In what various ways is this book a test of your tolerance? How is it difficult, and to what ends?")

... But at some point, there's inevitably another moment of awkwardness, when we start asking about the weird semi-Freudian, often-Oedipal imagery of Jimmy's dream sequences. What does the robot mean? Why is Superman acting like such a jerk? What's the allegedly symbolic fascination with peaches? And why is the book so interested in horses?

These questions really aren't difficult because they're obscure; they're difficult because I don't want to be too explicit about the answers.

Hm. That picture didn't turn out so well, though I think swiping some of Ware's colors helps it out a little bit. But using a Rapidograph really killed my pencils this time around: the lines of Jimmy's face need to be finer than I could make them with that pen.

Mike? What have you got?

—Hey, Isaac...Sorry for the slight delay, but I was at an Oscars party. Perhaps you'll accept that as an excuse if I tell you that I came home with a copy of Hellboy: Seed of Destruction AND a Hellboy figurine, thanks to the missus's winning of a prize for her Oscar prognostication?

Perhaps not. Regardless, here's what I got. First, Jimmy Corrigan in "the classroom," which is to say a drawing of young Jimmy made up of the letters in the words "the classroom" (the "E" is turned sideways):
I figured that I wouldn't try to compete with your account (and doodle) of teaching the graphic novel, since I've only done so once, myself. However, I can also fight back with a previously unpublished drawing by Chris Ware, which he sketched for me in November 2007 at the "Graphic Novels in the Classroom" event where I pontificated on a panel with some other DC comics scholar types:

Maybe that'll get me some points in this non-competition!