Saturday, August 15, 2009

Out of the Vault - The One-Arm Swordsman

So I mentioned last week that before Jademan made its big U.S. debut in 1988, there had been another attempt at bringing Chinese Kung Fu comics into the U.S. market. That was Victory Comics with The One-Arm Swordsman in 1987.

One thing stands out right off. Like the Jademan Special with which Jademan launched their line of comics, The One-Arm Swordsman uses gold ink to give it the look of superior quality. Not only do they use it in the title on the front cover, but it is also used on the back cover to hype their upcoming second book, The Invincible Four of Kung Fu & Ninja. Sure the title may be crap, but look at that gold printing; that's the mark of quality, right there. Also like the Jademan books, a poster is included, as well as a mailing address where you can write for even more cool swag.

The story is pretty standard kung fu movie fare. Master Lui the Tiger calls himself "#1 in Kung Fu," and works hard to maintain that reputation. He has a wicked three-sectional staff technique: the middle section of his staff can split in two to form two nunchaku. We learn that his henchmen have robbed a convoy of a large shipment of silver, and have framed Chan Lam (a wandering hero nicknamed "The Invincible Broadswords") for the crime.

The traders in charge of the convoy confront Chan Lam, who denies the crime and fights off the traders' men. At that moment, Lui the Tiger steps in to see that justice is done (Lui's men have staged all of this so that Lui can kill Chan and eliminate a kung fu rival while still appearing righteous). Lui battles Chan, and the two seem evenly matched until Chan pins one section of Lui's three sectional staff to the ground with his foot.

Lui splits the middle section of his staff and pops out a hidden blade, with which he cuts off Chan's right arm. Chan flees and barely escapes with his life.

Years later, Chan is working as a simple laborer in a restaurant. He has learned to perform all his tasks with only one arm, which has developed outstanding strength and speed. When love interest Mei Ling is nearly raped by some local bandits, Chan tries to stop them, but refuses to fight, still shamed by his defeat of years past. That's when Wan Wei, "The Super Broadswords," arrives in town and saves the girl. He cuts off the bandits' ears and they flee.

Wan Wei is an old friend of Chan Lam and tries to convince him to take up kung fu again, and Mei Ling gives Chan Lam her father's sword so that he can protect himself. Meanwhile, the earless bandits report to their master (none other than Lui the Tiger) that Wan Wei is in town. Lui decides to frame Wan Wei so that he can kill him.

Chan Lam tries to warn Wan Wei that it is a trap, but his poor word choices don't get the message across.

Yes, his techniques are very mischievous, if by "mischievous," you mean he's going to cut your fucking arms off.

So Wan Wei confronts Lui the Tiger, and once again, after a frame-up and a well-matched duel, Lui splits his staff and stabs Wan Wei, proclaiming, "There is no need to consider whether the technique used is upright or not when dealing with an evil man."

When Chan Lam learns that Wan Wei has been killed by Lui, he decides enough is enough. Taking up the broadsword he received from Mei Ling, he goes batshit and kills everyone in Lui's household before confronting the old man himself. Lui's techniques are as devious and tricky as before, but he does not count on the incredible speed which Chan Lam has developed in his single remaining arm and so is defeated, which results in a spectacular death tantrum.

Once Lui is dead, Chan Lam can go back to a happy life with Mei Ling. But we are warned that trouble awaits in issue two. Unfortunately for Victory Comics, there was no issue two.

And it's fairly easy to see why. The story has the feel of a mid-70's Shaw Brothers film, but comics in 1987 had moved far beyond that level of storytelling. Both Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns had debuted the previous year, and their influence had hit the U.S. comics marketplace like a bomb. It's not surprising that a stiffly drawn, poorly-translated comic with skimpy color would not perform well.

Which is too bad, actually, because The One-Arm Swordsman is not horrible. The artwork is stiff and not as polished as the Jademan studio's offerings, but the action sequences play out almost like diagrams in a kung fu manual. The action is clear and believable. And the storyline is mostly simple and direct without the xenophobia or convoluted soap operatics of The Blood Sword or Oriental Heroes.

But yes, the translations are laughably awful. That's part of their charm, though. Only a man with a heart of stone can remain unmoved when Wan Wei, facing Lui's false accusations, responds with:

No, I wouldn't have bought any more issues had they printed them. But I actually enjoyed rereading this one more than I expected to.

1 comment:

Joe Chiappetta said...

I really liked the One-Arm Swordsman. I had them years ago and remember enjoying the fresh feel of oriental comics, compared to American comics.