Lone Wolf and Cub
 
Kazuo Koike, writer, and Goseki Kojima, illustrator, Lone Wolf and Cub, Volume One: The Assassins' Road (Dark Horse, 2000)
Kazuo Koike, writer, and Goseki Kojima, illustrator, Lone Wolf and Cub, Volume Two: The Gateless Barrier (Dark Horse, 2000)

Lone Wolf and Cub is an ultra-violent samurai manga series. It's also a remarkable work of art.

Ogami Itto is the Lone Wolf, a ronin assassin and the deadliest man alive. Daigoro is the Cub, his toddler son who rides in a lethally souped-up baby cart. Ogami was once the shogun's executioner, but the treacherous Yagyu clan murdered his wife and framed him. Now he's an outlaw who cuts a bloody swathe across Japan in his quest for revenge.

It's an epic of a father's love and a child's damaged innocence, an intensively researched portrayal of high and low life in Edo-period Japan, a vehicle for outrageous and inventive scenes of mayhem, and an exploration of the attraction and absurdity of bushido, that austere code of honor whose ultimate expression is pointless and brutal bloodshed.

The elegant black and white illustrations sometimes portray the delicate beauty of the Japanese countryside, and sometimes the blurred and furious action of a sword moving faster than the eye can track. The characters are archetypal but realistic rather than the stylized, big-eyed, spiky-haired sprites common to contemporary manga. Page after page may go by with no words whatsoever, as the story is told in the play of expression over a man's face, or in a battle raging in silent fury.

Above all, the illustrations are cinematic, making extensive use of moment-to-moment transitions, zooms in and out, pans, and odd angles. The splash pages are often of the variety which make you turn the page, gaze in awe, then grab a nearby friend to say, "Look at this!"

The comics have been adapted into films and collected in various editions. But for the first time, the entire classic manga series has been published in English, in twenty-eight pocket-sized volumes. Each book collects stories which were originally published separately. While there is an overriding storyline, many of the volumes stand on their own.

The epic begins with The Assassin's Road. The plots aren't as clear or clever here as they get later on, but the drawings are stunning right from the start.

"Son For Hire, Sword for Hire" starts the series with a spectacular fight sequence in which Ogami Itto and Daigoro are set upon by ninjas and a trained hawk. A panel showing the hawk reflected in an eye is an early indication of the cinematic techniques used to tell the story visually.

"Eight Gates of Deceit" is undoubtedly the first comic to depict eight naked female ninjas doing full-frontal kata.

"Wings to the Bird, Fangs to the Beast" places the Lone Wolf in a sleazy inn populated by sleazy people, where a prostitute attempts to save his life and is repaid when he saves hers. This one also involves nudity, a sex scene which is more poignant than erotic, and a nod to Shane at the end.

In an extended flashback, "The Assassin's Road" explains how Ogami and Daigoro came to hit the road as ronin. It's also notable for the use of a memorably scatological children's rhyme.

Book Two, The Gateless Barrier, takes the series to a new level. The stories are fewer but longer, the plot twists are trickier, and they have more emotional and thematic depth. All but the first take place in winter, and the snow settles elegantly on rooftops, crashes down in avalanches, and provides a surface on which to leave incriminating footprints.

"The Red Cat" (slang for "arsonist") uses a series of flashbacks to explain why Ogami is in jail with a pyromaniac. The intriguing details of arson and the rules about what to do when a wood prison catches fire hold the key to Ogami's solution of an unusual murder mystery.

"Tragic O-Sue" is the first story in which Daigoro takes action of his own accord. Not for the last time, he befriends a girl in an difficult situation -- in this case, a lowly servant girl. While Ogami languishes in a temple, feverishly dreaming astounding tableaus of battling demons, Daigoro goes to the girl's defense, and proves that all that time spent sitting in a baby cart watching his father kill people was not wasted.

"The Gateless Barrier" is a weird and atmospheric tale of enlightenment and death, set mostly in a cobwebby temple. People who think Zen Buddhism is nihilistic will find plenty of ammunition here. It refers to the famous koan "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." This is usually taken to mean "Kill your grandiose dreams of enlightenment," but this story takes it more literally.

"Winter Flower" is another murder mystery. From the opening overhead point of view on a doomed man and woman making love, to the conclusion of flames in snow, the visuals complement the unraveling of a tragedy of love and honor.

As the series progresses, more of the backstory is revealed, the Yagyu clan's plots grow more intense and involved, a letter written in glowing ink comes into play, the babycart is modified until it becomes Edo-period equivalent of a James Bond car, and little Daigoro becomes a real and active character, not just a bundle handy for kidnapping; but when you read the first two books of this epic journey, you'll see that its violence and beauty, irony and sentimentality, philosophy, history, and headlong inventiveness were there right from the start.

[Rachel Manija Brown]