Once a month, Nick Hanover educates himself on manga by going on Adventures in the Floating World, learning about series he has missed out on over the years. This month he tackles the legendary Lone Wolf and Cub, an epic series that was originally published in North America by First Comics in 1987 and has more recently been found in gorgeous reprints from Dark Horse.
Title: Lone Wolf and Cub (Primarily the first omnibus)
Artist: Goseki Kojima
Writer: Kazuo Koike
Publisher: Dark Horse
Purchased at: Powell’s
Even if, like me, you’re generally unfamiliar with manga, Lone Wolf and Cub is a series that’s hard to escape. Thanks to the huge influence Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s historical epic had on Frank Miller, and by turn the influence Miller has had on the Western comics world, Lone Wolf and Cub stands out as a series that’s a necessary read for any comic fan, regardless of familiarity. But it wasn’t until recently that I actually got around to reading Lone Wolf and Cub, despite it being on my radar since I first read Frank Miller’s Ronin, an overt homage to the legendary manga.
Unlike some works that unfortunately don’t live up to the immense expectations a heavy cultural influence has created, Lone Wolf and Cub is a classic that still holds up, thanks in large part to Kojima’s art, which remains starkly timeless even after more than four decades. Reading Lone Wolf and Cub as a lifelong comic fan, it’s easy to pick out the elements of Kojima’s style that have been pillaged not just by Miller but his contemporaries Matt Wagner and Bill Sienkiewicz (all of whom notably did covers for the original North American release of the series in the late ’80s), but also by newer artists like Paul Pope, Kagan McLeod and Kaare Andrews who seem to have grown up on a diet of Kojima’s abstract minimalism and the samurai films that either inspired or were inspired by the manga. Koike’s story is of course a beautifully constructed historical tragedy filled with a deep understanding of the Tokugawa era in Japan, but Kojima is the reason the story continues to influence and impact new generations, lifting what could have been an overly dry, nearly academic narrative up to the level of a profound emotional experience.
Utilizing its titular Lone Wolf and Cub (Ogami Ittō and his son Daigorō) as guides through the dangerous world of the Tokugawa era, the series’ derives its emotional stakes from the consequences of the Wolf traveling down a philosophical road to hell with his Cub in tow. The series notably begins with the duo already well down that road, thrusting the reader into the action without too much explanation. Opening on the middle of an assassination job that first appears to have gone wrong, the Lone Wolf’s cleverness as well as his willingness to put his Cub in danger in order to complete a mission is immediately apparent. This first mission has the Wolf not only using his child as a distraction, it also features him sending out a bounty for himself in order to be captured by a lord he hopes to kill; keep in mind this is from a story written nearly fifty years ago, long before movies made it standard practice to have their heroes and/or villains purposely captured so they could wreak havoc from inside.
Koike makes it abundantly clear that the Lone Wolf is not a redeemable character, he’s a man who makes terrible decisions in order to succeed at his work and follow through on the quest he has set out for himself, but for all his stoicism he’s conflicted over what he does. That conflict establishes the true stakes of the series and for its entire run, Lone Wolf and Cub is devoted to questioning not whether this warrior is noble but whether he had the right to damn his Cub’s soul. One of the series’ most memorable scenes revolves around the Wolf literally confronting this dilemma by giving his son a choice between living the assassin’s life or joining his mother in the afterlife. Though it really isn’t much of a choice and it hinges on fate through the form of a spinning top, it nonetheless shows that Lone Wolf and Cub anchors its narrative stakes with emotional complexity, shining a light on how far the Wolf feels he has fallen– this is a character who genuinely believes the only way to truly save his son would be to take his life.
It’s not all stark moralizing, though; Lone Wolf and Cub has some of the greatest action sequences in all of comics, from intense battles where the duo are perpetually overcoming incredible odds to the legendary 178 page duel between the Wolf and his ultimate prey. The visceral action of Lone Wolf and Cub has arguably been its biggest influence on contemporary comics, particularly the highly expressive linework and the adventurous but clear depiction of motion in panels, but Kojima and Koike are masterful storytellers, able to craft an immensely detailed narrative that hops around time and location but remains easily readable. Each chapter of Lone Wolf and Cub is basically devoted to an individual mission, which allows each installment series to function perfectly well on its own while still adding to the overall narrative. That’s a lesson that contemporary comic creators would be wise to learn, and Kojima’s economical visual storytelling is likewise something new comics could use more of.
Contemporary mainstream comics are often bogged down by the heaviness of their morality, which is usually expressed through stories that move at a glacial pace and feature superheroes constantly arguing with each other with clunky dialogue and even clunkier metaphors. But Lone Wolf and Cub effectively gets its point across with all the fat trimmed and all the morality expressed organically– the anti-hero who is constantly questioning whether his cause is truly just, the articulation that vengeance is a self-defeating concept, the unflinching portrayal of the real human cost of fighting for supposed righteousness, these are all “modern” mainstream comic themes are rarely if ever communicated as beautifully and efficiently as they are in this nearly half century old story.
Up next: Gatz
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with Dylan Garsee on twitter: @Nick_Hanover