Elsewhere in manga...

Afro Samurai Vol. 1 (of 2)

This is in bookstores now, and I'm sure it'll find its way to Direct Market shops soon enough. It's a left-to-right manga from Tor/Seven Seas, 176 pages for $10.99. The left-to-right is important, because we're in cross-cultural territory.

I'm willing to bet you've at least heard of Afro Samurai, as a franchise. It started off years and years ago as a series of dōjinshi and toys by illustrator and visual designer Takashi Okazaki, all of it centered around a big-haired black samurai on a mission of vengeance against the man that killed his father. Some North American producers took note of the concept's cross-cultural basis, and an animated promotional reel was put together. It, in turn, caught the eye of Samuel L. Jackson, which really got the multimedia ball rolling - the most visible iteration of the franchise has since been a 2007 animated miniseries for television, starring Jackson in two lead roles and budgeted at a huge-for-anime one million dollars per episode. It did well, so a sequel anime, a videogame and live-action film are being developed to follow.

I've seen the television show - it aired in the US on Spike TV, and a longer dvd version has been out for a while. It was a mild success of lowered expectations, starting off as a nondescript, action-heavy revenge story, barely more detailed than the concept I tossed out above, then building into a slightly more ambitious thing about people being so damaged by personal trauma that, for all their drive, they become unable to affect the genuine change in their environment necessary to actually improve their situation in a meaningful way.

It was pretty downbeat stuff, conveyed for the most part through time-honed narrative clichés and gory action scenes, though by the end I sort of got to liking how emphatic it was about the old revenge-causes-ruin theme. And if nothing else, the show proved that Studio GONZO could produce consistently not-bad animation, should enough money be thrown at it.

All of this brings us to the present book, by original creator Okazaki. I think it's a tie-in manga, which many high-profile anime manage to spawn, although I'm not entirely sure; the book itself and its attendant promotion are silent on the details, probably because anime tie-in manga have a reputation for being absolutely horrible. It does appear to have been produced at least in tandem with the anime, since they share character designs created specifically for the show (or that's the impression I got from the dvd's supplements), although it also seems to be purely the work of Okazaki, expanding on his original concepts. There's going to be some extra appeal there.

But while this Afro Samurai is certainly more visually unique (and likely more personal) than the average franchise manga, it's still pretty awful. Worse, its primary problems don't appear to be rooted in any of the narrative circumscription that can result from translating another art form's story to comics form - it's really all down to Okazaki, whose visual design skills do not particularly translate to effective sequential art.

Put another way, while Okazaki manages some striking images, his panel-to-panel storytelling suffers badly from a lack of clarity. There are some nice character designs in here, and a few decent evocations of grimy mood - he uses a few more digital effects than I'm comfortable with, and his tones give everything a very shiny, artificial coating that's not to my taste, but he does throw in the always-great flourish of making all the blood red in his otherwise b&w world, lending things a nicely disreputable splatterpunk air.

And, unfortunately, you'll sometimes be leaning on those splashes of color just to figure out which character is which in the book's many action sequences, which swirl Okazaki's lanky characters around until they're nearly indistinguishable. I tend to be pretty liberal with action -- if I at least get the impression of what's going on, I don't need follow each and every move in a spatial sense -- but this stuff tends to be frantic and cluttered to the point where it veers in and out of sheer visual noise, aggravating the artist's already noticeable storytelling problems to the point of unreadability. I might have taken it as a deliberate illustration of how gross and bereft of pleasure the main character's killing quest is, had Okazaki not sometimes dragged himself into action clarity.

I haven't gone into the plot much, since there isn't much to get into. Afro Samurai's father was killed by Justice, a mutant gunslinger type who desired the massive power contained in the #1 World's Greatest Fighter headband wrapped around Afro Sr.'s head. Stuck with the #2 headband, and the endless fighting challenges that come with it, Afro wanders the ancient-modern cultural mash-up world, striving for revenge in his search for Justice (tee hee).

That means lots of killing, lots more than in the anime. I don't know if Okazaki is saving the television show's laborious backstory for the second half, or if he's eventually going to get into a sawed-off version of such, but this volume's content is nothing but fights fights fights, with a soppy 'tragic' subplot sometimes tossed into the odd chapter. The anime was no masterwork of depth or insight, no, but this is aggressively vapid stuff, robbed of surface pleasures (or coherent disgust) by the artist's faulty visual approach.

On top of all that, maybe worst of all, it doesn't even convey much East-West kick. Maybe that's side-effect of the work's individuality; the anime leaned heavily on elements like Jackson's vocal work and the RZA's soundtrack to shore up the Western details of the project, while the manga could only be the work of one Japanese guy. And aside from the afro, there's little in this comic that inspires much cross-cultural thought; it could be any old samurai swinging that sword. Maybe the project could only really blossom as an expression of Western star power willing this stuff into more vivid life. It doesn't look like much here.