[24 February 2010]
As Scott McCloud noted in his book Understanding Comics, the majority of any story in a comic book goes unseen. Essentially due to the nature of the medium, a comic strip cannot show every action or movement. Instead the reader must decode and interpret the events implied in the spaces between two panels. Consequently, this has forced artists into some difficult situations when they are trying to convey complex, fast-paced fight sequences. This difficulty is compounded when the fights are not between super-powered beings shooting bolts of energy from their hands and eyes, or hulking behemoths smashing each other with cars; fights involving martial arts or traditional weaponry require skill and precision. Lone Wolf and Cub is one of those comics that relies heavily on the visual sword fighting as an integral part of its narrative and structure, and its artwork is emblematic of the talent necessary to do justice to such a story.
Artist Goseki Kojima integrates three principle devices during fight sequences to create his visual masterpiece. The first of these effects are frames where Ogami is seen slashing at various foes but the nuance of the battle is not explicitly revealed. You simply see him waving his sword and people being wounded and killed all around him. The precise nature of the fight is necessarily obfuscated by demands of the story and length requirements that would be required to illustrate them in their entirety. The speed and precision are implied by the various “slashes” drawn into the single frames and the clean wounds seen in the bodies of the dead and dying. This effect is used most typically when Ogami (the eponymous ‘Lone Wolf’) is fighting multiple enemies at the same time.
This style of artwork is similar to the cinematography of Akira Kurosawa - who Kojima was heavily influenced by. Many of the complex sword fights seen in Kurosawa’s films rely on an implied action as opposed to the audience actually seeing what is taking place. In Seven Samurai, when the ronin Kyuzo, is first introduced having a duel with bamboo sticks, the battle ends in an apparent tie, with both warriors having seemingly hit each other. When Kyuzo claims victory, his opponent is angered and then challenges him to a real duel. Again to two take their places, hold the moment, and then advance. The two pass each other and Kurosawa brilliantly draws out the tension for a few seconds before Kyuzo’s adversary falls to the ground (this effect is one the Kojima uses several times in Lone Wolf). The brilliance of Kurosawa is that the audience does not quite know what happened. When the viewer sees the first fight, it is easy to believe it actually was a tie, like the doomed samurai claims. When the fight is repeated, the viewer is still not quite sure how Kyuzo won, but that only adds to the credibility of his swordsmanship.
This effect, used expertly by both Kurosawa and Kojima, creates a type of suspension of disbelief similar to that of the author function. The typical reader/viewer, who is not a master swords-person, will not know what has happened but will instead defer to the characters in question who, while fictional, are experts. The process is paradoxically subtle and obvious at the same time, but works elegantly. The reader infers the skills necessary for Ogami to successfully dispatch several foes simultaneously without knowing how. They just assume that it is their ignorance of swordplay, as opposed to the character in the story having unrealistic fighting abilities.
Lone Wolf and Cub would not be nearly as effective in its artistic goals if it only relied on this one device however. Instead the story uses a layered approach to the create a fully realized sense of combat. The next layer used by Kojima involves inviting the reader to predict what is going to occur in the fight sequence by relying on visual cues. Ogami and his enemies, the Yagyu Clan, utilize several unique moves that are specific to their respective school of sword fighting. Ogami uses the deceptive water slicing stroke of the suio-ryu school, which uses water or tall grass to obscure the exact location of the sword giving the warrior an advantage over his opponent. The Yagyu, true to their nature as assassins, utilize their feared sword walls. For this technique one warrior allows himself to be stabbed then (while their enemy’s blade is trapped the other assassin) moves in for the kill. Whenever one of these techniques is about to employed, Kojima telegraphs with some sort of visual clue. When Ogami is dropping down into water or grass, the reader knows what is to come. The same is true when two Yagyu assassins stand closely together.
This use of visual cues to bring the reader into the story is very closely paralleled with the choreographed fight sequences of professional wrestling. Professional wrestlers telegraph their finishing moves with various physical gestures, slogans, and other devices, specifically designed to ensure the audience’s complete engagement with the events in the ring. This not only heightens the sense of excitement and drama but it serves to bring the viewer into the world of the expert—because the viewers have properly decoded the tropes and characteristics of the often repetitive fights, it strengthens their sense of involvement and their knowledge of techniques being employed.
This works very effectively with the first device discussed above, because Kojima has the best of both worlds. With the first device, we are left feeling ignorant of the events taking place because we are not privy to the knowledge necessary to follow battle—looking back to Seven Samurai, we are like the pupil watching the duel. Our master sees how the battle will end before it has even begun, but we are in the dark. Kojima then employs the second device and we are now in the role of the master. We properly understand the visual cues and therefore our ability to understand what happened in the fight increases our enjoyment because we now have a sense of accomplishment in knowing what is taking place.
This technique in bringing the reader from ignorance into the world of the expert, works even retroactively. Another of Ogami’s recurring fight strategies is to throw his sword at his enemy. As the story explains, a true samurai would never throw his ‘soul’ at an opponent and therefore Ogami often triumphs in a fight simply by doing something they would never anticipate—he jumps out of the kill zone and throws his sword. The reader, who as the story progresses, becomes fairly well versed in the samurai mythos, is again turned into an expert of samurai combat because we anticipate what Ogami’s foes do not. Moreover, this also effectively reinforces our understanding of the character, because every time Ogami uses deceptive tactics like this, it reinforces his repudiation of the samurai path, which is so integral to the plot.
The final layer in Kojima’s visual storytelling comes in the last books of the series. Now that the reader has been successfully brought in as both layperson and expert, pupil and master, they are ready to experience the true skill possessed by the characters in the story, and of Kojima himself as a narrative artist. In the final volumes of the series a large portion of the story is dedicated to fight sequences between Ogami and his enemy Retsudo. This battle, the culmination of the long journey that the reader has taken with father and son, is rendered in exquisite detail. The complex fights that occur are done in such a fashion that the reader can see all the events; how each warrior grips his sword, the stance they take, where they plant their feet, and the point of impact when, at last, the swords collide. In the first portion of these battles, Ogami and Retsudo even announce the name of their respective techniques before employing them.
Only by traveling through the first two layers of Kojima’s artwork, are we at last equipped with the proper knowledge to appreciate the power of these two warriors. We, like the samurai who witness the final battle, are left in a state of respectful awe at the potency of the two personalities made manifest in their deadly art. The final fight is crucial to the success of the entire story and if it had failed to meet readers expectations the integrity of the entire work may have been compromised. The masterful artwork however, prevented such a fate, and instead Lone Wolf and Cub stands as classic in the medium.
Part of the power of comics is the way it works its magic surreptitiously upon the reader. Will Eisner, Scott McCloud, and countless other scholars of the medium have studied the way our minds can casually and thoughtlessly fill in the crucial spaces that exist between two panels. The art of Lone Wolf and Cub however, gains its narrative power, not by making the illustration just a secondary vehicle to the words, but instead by actively engaging the reader. Kojima’s brilliant layered approach to visual storytelling makes the fight sequences crucial components to the narrative as opposed to a formulaic afterthought. While there are many comics that successfully fuse art and writing into successful triumphs of the medium, there are nonetheless arguably few that can lay claim to Lone Wolf and Cub’s position as a nearly unmatched masterpiece of form and execution.
Shawn O'Rourke is an Adjunct Instructor and Speech and Debate Coach at Orange Coast Community College. He has an MA in History and has presented papers at several academic conferences. He is on Facebook and can by followed on twitter (spo1981). Check out his blogs at www.spo1981.blogspot.com and www.futureofprint.blogspot.com.