Really? Are you sure you’ve never heard of Lone Wolf and Cub? This is one of the most definitive comic books in Japanese history – in all of comic book history. It is a true classic. First released in 1970, there have been six films, four plays, a televisions series (Thank you, Wikipedia – seriously, donate some money to them.), and is, as far as I’m concerned, a masterpiece, high art, and fricking awesome.
It is a Samurai tale that takes place in the Tokugawa period in Japan (1603-1868). Ogami Itto is our hero executioner for the Shogun. He is falsely disgraced by the Yagyu clan. His wife is murdered, and he must go on the run with his three-year-old boy, Daigoro, becoming an assassin for hire. He walks the country side laying waste to anyone that challenges him while seeking out revenge on the Yagyu clan, with his kid either attached to his back or in a little baby cart or spending days and days all by himself in the streets waiting for his dad to return. Very few words are exchanged between the two of them – very little is needed, they are one and the same.
At the very beginning of the series, Ogami lays on the ground a toy ball and a sword. If Daigoro crawls to the weapon, he will take his son with him. If he crawls to the toy, he will kill his son and lay him to rest with his mother. That’s the kind of powerful storytelling we’re dealing with here. The boy chooses the path through hell.
It’s epic, personal, poetic, violent, and full of sorrow. It’s a truly beautiful creation.
I opened up the 679-page Omnibus Volume 7 last night at 11 p.m. and didn’t stop reading until 2 a.m. This is powerful stuff, folks. The first story is called The Women of Sodeshi, and by the end I felt tears coming. Another story, told mainly through visuals, has Daigoro waiting in the streets for his father to return. One day after the next, the boy witnesses two wealthy women beating on their servant girl, but the servant girl always smiles as Daigoro as she walks away. He wants to be a man like his father and do something, but he is only three. What can he do? It only escalates from there. The next page is always as stunning as the previous. There are 11 tales collected here. Individual stories that build to a whole, as the war between Lone Wolf and the Yagyu clan grows more intense.
The storytelling is a patient kind. Pages of beautiful artwork and zero dialogue. People walking through the landscape, looking into the sun. It makes the world feel that much more real and the tension that much more profound. This is an excerpt taken from an interview between Roger Ebert and Hayao Miyazaki after the US release of Spirited Away that will explain exactly what I’m talking about. (Take note, future filmmakers and storytellers.):
“I (Roger Ebert) told Miyazaki I love the ‘gratuitous motion’ in his films; instead of every movement being dictated by the story, sometimes people will just sit for a moment, or they will sigh, or look in a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are.
‘We have a word for that in Japanese,’ he said. ‘It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.’
Is that like the ‘pillow words’ that separate phrases in Japanese poetry?
‘I don’t think it’s like the pillow word.’ He clapped his hands three or four times. ‘The time in between my clapping is If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness, but if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time. you just get numb.'”
You can check out the rest of the interview right here.
Kazuo Koike, the writer, and Goseki Kojima, the artist, of Lone Wolf and Cub are incredibly smart in how they tell their stories. They never pander to the reader, there’s a true rhythm and flow to the story, and the characters are never cheapened. Reading this is a master’s class in storytelling. Often writers want to over complicate things, when simplicity is most often the way to go. Connecting with your reader on a personal level, not a grand scale, will win you more emotions than the biggest explosions ever can.
As a reader (not even of comic books) or a creator, I beg of you to read these stories. There’s very little that’s better in the comic book world. This is Omnibus Volume 7, and there are more to come. You’ll have plenty of reading material to last.