Path of the Assassin Vol. 1: Serving in the Dark (Dark Horse)

The legendary creators of Lone Wolf and Cub craft another Japanese historical that doesn't quite measure up to the lofty heights of its predecessor. Dark Horse; 316 pgs B&W; $9.95

(W: Kazuo Koike; A: Goseki Kojima)

Thanks to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, black and white comics were doing massive business in those halcyon days of the mid-1980s. With a comics audience that was now primed for both monochromatic comics and martial arts madness, First Comics decided to try one of the first major launches of a Japanese comic (it was far too early in the game to call them "manga") in the US marketplace with Lone Wolf and Cub. A samurai tale of epic proportions, the 28-volume, 7000+ page chronicle of a ronin samurai and his young son hit stores with gorgeous covers from its biggest proponent: comics superstar Frank Miller, who was riding high off the success of The Dark Knight Returns and whose 1983 series Ronin drew on LW&C for inspiration. The book was initially successful but ran for only 49 issues, barely scratching the surface of Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's grand tale.

The series was gone, but not forgotten. In 2000, Dark Horse licensed LW&C and finally set about completing its English adaptation in a full graphic novel reprint of the entire series, winning several Harvey and Eisner awards in the process.  The success of the venture led to Dark Horse releasing other titles written by Koike, including Lady Snowblood (another martial arts series, featuring art by Kazuo Kamimura), Crying Freeman (a look at the Chinese mafia with art by Ryoichi Ikegami that had previously been released Stateside by Viz Comics in the mid-1990s), and Samurai Executioner (a spin-off of LW&C that was also drawn by Kojima). The latest teaming of Koike and Kojima to reach American shores is Path of the Assassin, a series created during the same time period as LW&C (the 1970s) and sharing similar settings and themes (the honor-bound society of feudal Japan), but a series that ultimately falls short of the legendary status of its predecessor.

PotA tells the story of Hatori Hanzo, a legend of Japanese history. Already a remarkably adept suppa (or ninja) at age 15, Hanzo is given the task to protect Tokugawa Ieyasu, the 16-year-old that will go on to become the first shogun to unite Japan. Hanzo must "serve [his] master in the dark" as an invisible protector of any harm that may befall him, but soon becomes his master's trusted friend and confidant.

Like Koike and Kojima's other collaborations, PotA is a grand tale deeply steeped in Japanese history and tradition. Kojima's art is the very essence of skillful decompression; pages go by with nary a word spoken, yet the mood is so thick you could slice it with a kitana. Koike once again packs this book with richly detailed characters, each with their own uniquely fractured personality. The friendship that develops between Hanzo and Ieyasu is a deep one, Koike exploiting the master-and-servant angle to give the setting an interesting twist. Also, Hanzo's techniques for serving his master "in the dark" are nothing short of astounding, as the young boy uses his ninja techniques to remain virtually invisible to all around him (even the reader) yet keeps control of every facet of his master's surroundings.

The book's first chapter shows young Hanzo's skills as he trains with his father and is given his assignment, while the second introduces the story's two protagonists to each other, setting up the book's premise and preparing the reader for a rip-roarin' adventure. Unfortunately, things go downhill in the book's middle third with a series of downright disturbing scenes that will make many readers uneasy.

The cover prominently features a female character, which might make you think that there is a strong female character in the mix to play against Hanzo. Don't be fooled. There are only two women in this first volume, a rape victim and a concubine, and neither is given any personality or will of her own. They're present merely to titillate, but given the context of their appearances, the submissive nature of their actions (which, it should be noted, is not entirely out of the question given the status of women in Japanese society in the 1500s), and the seemingly unending length of the often disturbing sex scenes make for an uncomfortable read for what makes up far too much of this first volume. The two chapters in question, "Mizuki" and the unfortunately-yet-aptly-titled "Oppressive Night of Ass," drag on for almost 130 pages with little development toward the overall story arc.

Things finally get back on track with the final two chapters, as a villain is introduced in the form of Kite Katō, an unusual suppa who does his dirty work hiding his face behind a crow mask. Katō is another in a long line of similar Koike villains, a seemingly unbeatable man with a tragic yet fatal flaw that the heroes have to find before it's too late. His chapters, both a study of Katō's character and a look at how Hanzo works under pressure, are a concise, contained story arc that show the book may be headed back in the right direction for its second volume.

Also, it should be noted that Path of the Assassin is many things, but "light reading" is not one of them. Japanese cities, provinces, and the names of historical figures are bandied about throughout with little to no explanation. For native Japanese readers, this is likely akin to an American reading fiction set in the American Revolution featuring well known and well documented real people. Dark Horse's adaptation lacks explanation of people and places, which can make some conversations difficult to follow without some prior knowledge of Japan's feudal era. A glossary is included and much appreciated, but a one or two-page summary of the story's setting and a map would go a long way to help readers keep up.

Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima are masters of the manga art form, and they do many, many things right in this first volume of Path of the Assassin, and it is sure to appeal to fans of LW&C and Samurai Executioner eager to see more of the pair in action. On this title, however, the pair is not quite at the top of their game, meaning readers new to Koike and Kojima should check out Lone Wolf and Cub first before giving this able, yet slightly flawed, series a try.

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