It’s time to expand our horizons. If you have ever wondered what “those kids” see in “that manga crap”, or you are a manga fan already, and you haven’t read anything older than Fruits Basket or DragonBall, then you need to put down whatever else you’re reading right now and pick up the first volume of Lone Wolf & Cub, by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. This work is one of the foundation pieces of modern comic art, regardless of nationality, and you are doing yourself a disservice if you won’t even look at it.
I’ll warn you ahead of time; Lone Wolf & Cub is not for the squeamish, nor is it for small children. This is work of heavy tragedy, mature themes in every sense of those words, and enough bloodshed to drown a nation in despair – which is exactly what happens over the course of this epic tale.
But the fact of the matter is that this manga is a masterpiece. The artwork sings with a sense of place, and I have yet to find any other work where the faces have been rendered with so much depth of expression. The storytelling is a seamless merge of word and pictures, enough to make Alan Moore weep with joy and envy. The plot seems simple enough of the surface, but the ramifications run deep, and no punches are ever pulled to spare the reader a difficult moment. EVER.
The concept is that Ogami Itto, the shogun’s executioner, has been framed for treason by a rival clan, the Yagyu. His wife is killed by the Yagyu, but their infant son Daigoro survives the attack. Itto vows vengeance, and he sets out across Japan, pushing his son along in a wooden baby buggy that would become an icon of the series. The father hires himself out as a unmatched killer, slowly accumulating a fortune in gold and leaving rivers of blood in his wake. At the start of his journey Itto renounces virtue and honor, vowing instead to live by “Meifumado”, the Assassin’s Way, all for the sake of revenge against the hated Yagyu who rule Japan from the shadows. But the foundation for all of this is the deep bond between father and son, rarely expressed in mere words, but communicated to the reader in perfect clarity by Kojima’s art.
Everything comes together in this work; the art, the page layout, the pacing, and especially the impossibly difficult task of keeping Itto, a killer that the words “cold blooded” don’t begin to do justice to, consistently sympathetic to the reader. Originally published in 1970, Koike and Kojima have left a huge influence on storytelling in their wake, originating or codifying tropes that have become so prevalent that many don’t think about where the trope came from to begin with. Every single samurai story without exception in the last 30 years gives at least a nod to Ogami Itto. You’ll even see the influence in modern Chinese kung fu epics or American action movies. Works such as Road To Perdition, Samurai Jack, Hero, Usagi Yojimbo, Kill Bill, and far too many others to count have their roots in Lone Wolf & Cub, and your reading experience will be much richer for having read this magnum opus.