The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 34 | A look back on Lone Wolf and Cub

Leaving Proof 34 | A look back on Lone Wolf and Cub
Published on Friday, July 8, 2011 by

Thanks to a discussion with Kitty’s Pryde newshound and all-around smart-guy bigiv, I’ve been inspired to dig up my old Dark Horse Comics trade paperbacks of Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s seminal samurai epic, Lone Wolf and Cub. I just finished re-reading the first trade paperback, entitled The Assassin’s Road, and it holds up remarkably well. In fact, I’d say it reads better now than it did when I first read the stories (as individual chapters published by First Comics) over a decade-and-a-half ago, primarily because I’ve learned so much more about the context of the stories’ setting and gained a much broader and deeper appreciation of sequential art since then.

Lone Wolf and Cub occupies a curious space in the collective consciousness of the Western comics readership. Most people in a certain age range who can honestly make the claim that they’re fans of the comic book medium have certainly heard of it, and I don’t think it’s too far of an assumption to make that most of these folks are aware of, or have actually read, popular Western comics that have been directly or indirectly influenced by it (whether it’s Frank Miller’s Ronin, Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Marvel Comics’ Nomad, Max Allan Collins’ Road to Perdition, Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, or any number of other works) or have been exposed to other, non-comics media—such as films, video games, and music—that owe a creative debt to Koike and Kojima’s opus to varying degrees. That being said, I haven’t talked (in person or on-line) to many people who’ve actually read the series. I get the feeling that a lot of what is known about Lone Wolf and Cub on this side of the Pacific has been filtered through second-hand and third-hand sources.

Part of this, I think, had to do with the cost and inaccessibility of the original translated works. Despite Frank Miller singing Koike and Kojima’s praises throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s and helping create an almost mythic aura about the title, it wasn’t until 1987 that the first English translations published by First Comics started appearing in American and Canadian direct market shops. These black-and-white comics were initially priced at $1.95 per issue (at a time when full-colour comics from DC and Marvel sold for anywhere between 65 and 75 cents an issue at the newsstands), before peaking, right before First Comics’ dissolution, at the then unheard-of (for a monthly comic book) price of $3.25 an issue in 1990. Whereas Lone Wolf and Cub was overwhelmingly popular with the general comics reading population in Japan throughout the 1970s, in the States, it passed into the languor of the imported curiosity, of interest primarily to older readers and Japanophiles more willing to gamble on a relatively pricey, translated commodity. Even the current Dark Horse trade paperbacks are on the rather high end of the cost spectrum, given the small page dimensions (4″ x 6″) of their reprints (much to bigiv’s surprise), even though I’m of the opinion that the small page area is more than made up for by the sheer page count—averaging at around 300 pages— crammed into each volume.

So what makes Lone Wolf and Cub so special, anyway? I can’t really speak for anyone else, but for me, more than the riveting thrills afforded by the balletic depictions of violence or the endearing samurai period melodrama, it was a revelation in both art and writing and how they could work together to produce a wholly unified comics-reading experience. Kojima’s ukiyo-e inspired art style mirrored the stark quality of Koike’s plots and reflected the Zen philosophy that infused much of his dialogue. The book’s not perfect, but even the relatively weaker stories in the series still manage to be entertaining.

I never did finish reading through the whole series, but I’ve been motivated by bigiv’s enthusiasm for the title to read through the whole lot. I’ll be posting summaries (with minimal spoilers, don’t worry), scanned art samples, and my thoughts and observations in future columns as I work my way through the Dark Horse Comics trade paperbacks. I hope you guys will join me in my journey re-tracing the Assassin’s Road.

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