Saturday, August 08, 2009

Out of the Vault - The Blood Sword #1

In 1987, manga began to make a big splash in the U.S. market with the publication of Lone Wolf and Cub from First Comics and several titles from Viz Studios and Eclipse Comics. The following year, 1988, Hong Kong publisher Tony Wong decided the time was right for his Chinese comics to break into the U.S. market.

Wong kicked off the line with a comic called Jademan Kung Fu Special #1, which bore a cover illustration with a gaudy but distinctive golden border. Inside, the book told the legend of the colorful and flamboyant Tony Wong, who had come to dominate Hong Kong's comic market (you can read an entertaining account of Tony Wong's career here-I love how several of the covers show his main characters not only losing the fight, but actually being disemboweled, like, every other issue). The book also contained previews of the four titles Jademan would be offering in the U.S.--Oriental Heroes, Drunken Fist, The Force of Buddha's Palm, and The Blood Sword.

Of the four, only The Blood Sword was not credited to Tony Wong. Instead, it was written and illustrated by Ma Wing Shing. Turns out, The Blood Sword is cited by Hong Kong comics historians as having single-handedly transformed the industry. Ma Wing Shing's artwork introduced greater realism in drawing style to Chinese comics and spawned a host of imitators. Even Wong's most popular title, the disembowelathon Oriental Heroes, changed its more cartoony style to follow Ma's lead.

The Blood Sword #1 was published in the U.S. with a cover date of August 1988, with a gorgeous cover illustration featuring very sophisticated colors. Ma Wing Shing was credited with the story and illustrations and the scripts were credited to Mike Baron.

I was looking forward to the line with great anticipation. I liked martial arts movies, I liked the freshness that that the Japanese releases had brought to the U.S. comics scene, and I was a big fan of Baron, who had written Nexus and Badger, as well as DC's update of The Flash and Marvel's The Punisher. There had been a previous attempt to export Chinese Kung Fu comics to the U.S., but it had been poorly translated and sank without a trace after one issue. But if Baron was on board, I was sure this time, everything would come together beautifully.

So it was with great anticipation that I bought all four titles in Jademan's initial line, expecting to be dazzled.

I wasn't.

The Blood Sword opens with this caption:

Life in the village was hard enough after the war. They didn't need gangs of pimps catering to the foreign devils.

That shows you right off where the story is headed.

The Blood Sword stars Hero, an idealistic young man from tiny Clear Stream Village, son of a blacksmith. His mother is also a talented swordswoman and has taught Hero her kung fu techniques. Clear Stream Village is being terrorized by evil white slavers kidnapping and raping the women, in collaboration with corrupt local Chinese officials.

When Secretary Wan refuses to pay for some knives made by Hero's father, young Hero beats him up, earning his enmity. The secretary then tells his boss, Master Man, that Hero's parents own a magical sword that can "slice through iron like butter." Man naturally decides he must own such a sword and confronts Hero's parents, demanding to be given the sword or else they'll burn the blacksmith's house down.

So Hero's father pulls a box out of a hidden niche in his house and pulls out the sword made by one of his ancestors. But when Hero looks at the blade, it's rusty and dull. They hand the sword over to Master Man anyway (much to Secretary Wan's surprise, since he'd apparently been making the whole thing up), but Man throws it back at them and demands the real sword. Hero's mother then appears with her own sword and challenges Man's bodyguards, and the foreign devils accompanying him, to take her sword if they can. Hero's father tells him to run.

Hero runs away, taking the rusty sword with him. Hero's mother fights valiantly, and seems on the verge of defeating Grasshopper, Secretary Wan's Chinese bodyguard who is a master of Praying Mantis style, but she is shot in the head by one of the foreigners. Hero's father is also killed.

Hero flees to his girlfriend's house, where he apparently spends the night getting busy. When he returns home, he finds the house burned to the ground and his parents dead. Master Man's men throw a net over Hero, and he uses the rusty sword to try to fend them off. At its first taste of blood, the rusty blade suddenly begins to glow red and can now literally slice through iron like butter. Turns out, it really is a magic sword. Hero kills Master Man, Secretary Wan, Grasshopper and the foreign devils.

But now he is wanted by the law for murder. So he says goodbye to his girlfriend Kittu and takes passage on a ship full of laborers going to work in America. When the ship reaches its destination, Turtle Island off the coast of California, Hero's sword is stolen by a man named Schemer. Hero chases him overboard to try to get it back.

Hero and Schemer battle a school of sharks in the water while the crew of the ship, actually foreign slavers who lure the Chinese onto the boat with promises of good pay only to slap chains on them and put them to work in a mine, shoot at the escapees. One of the stray bullets kills a fish, which results in the ship being attacked by the Sea God, a green fish man who protects all the fish around Turtle Island.

Both Hero and Schemer survive the sharks, but Schemer gets away with the sword. Hero rides a turtle to the beach and passes out. When he comes to, he encounters an escaped slave being chased by the mine's enforcers, the Four Furies, which leads to the first really off-the-wall Mike Baron moment in the book, when Tall Fury grabs the escapee and says, "Lemme brush your head, Fred."

Hero is captured and taken to the mine, where he discovers that one of the bosses there is none other than Schemer.

Overall, the issue didn't grab me. Its "Chinese Hero Battles the Foreign Devils" storyline may have thrilled Chinese audiences, but it did nothing for me (and I was surprised that Wong would choose such an anti-American story to introduce his comics to an American audience).The story was certainly action-packed, breathlessly so, but it pushed forward too quickly to ever more ridiculous extremes. The magic sword I could accept, slavers on the ship I could tolerate, but when the ship is attacked by Sea God, followed quickly by Schemer choking out a shark, followed by Tall Fury the Rapper, I had reached my Silliness Tolerance Level and could go no further. Baron's scripting, aside from a few off-the-wall dialogue choices, didn't really grab me either.

There was also a problem with the production of the book. A text page at the end of the comic claimed that "I am sure you will agree that this comic features some of the most outstanding artwork and quality printing ever seen in America," but it was just not true. The original Chinese comic was published to read right to left, so they had to flip the artwork for American release (and they apparently actually cut the pages apart and pasted the frames down in proper order). But when they lettered new word balloons, they were careless in the placement, so lines were often printed in reverse order. Also, Grasshopper for some reason only spoke in thought balloons. I'm not sure if this was a mistake or supposed to mean that he never actually spoke. It's a mystery.

And while the artwork was pretty good, it came nowhere near the level of sophistication of the Japanese comics I'd been reading for the last year, though it showed clear signs of Japanese influence, especially the realistic sharks and Sea God, who looked as if he'd been swiped directly from the work of Ryoichi Ikegami, artist of Mai the Psychic Girl (published by Viz/Eclipse at the time).

The colors were strange as well, delicate airbrushed tones that nevertheless showed too much white through. No other comics in America had that sort-of half-colored look. On the other hand, in several places, they used color holds to do some really outstanding effects, like this portrait of Hero superimposed over a river scene. It was a breathtaking hint of awesome in a story that was otherwise mediocre.

I ended up not buying any more issues of The Blood Sword. I don't have everything out of the Vault yet, so I don't know if I bought more than one issue of the other Jademan titles, but I don't think I did. (ETA: However, just becaue I didn't like it, don't assume the book faded away quickly--it apparently ran for something like five years in the U.S.)

But the story doesn't end there. See you Monday with a new feature and the rest of the story.


Anonymous said...

You made a huge mistake, I got them all, the book as far as art get better, but then I am a huge fan of MA movies. Old ones. These books are aimed at Chinese so cutting them a little slack would only be fair. I bought all the books except oriental heroes. Own then to this day and read them often enough.

TheyStoleFrazier'sBrain said...

I cut the book all the slack it deserved. It may have been originally a Chinese story aimed at Chinese audiences, but that's not what I was reading. I was reading the comic's American debut, aimed at winning over an American audience, and in my view, it did not succeed at that nearly so well.