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Blade of the Immortal

Can quirky humor and unwanted limb removal be two parts of the same comic and still manage to make it work? Yes it can.

Horror and humor have often blurred their respective boundaries and run into each other: watching the Nightmare On Elm Street series in its entirety over the last two weeks, I've become painfully aware of just how funny blood spray and site gags can be in conjunction.

But does it work in comics? I sat down to type this and tried to remember the last time I read a comic that balanced out horror with hilarity, and nothing came readily to mind. Richard Moore's Boneyard (probably the best comic out there that no one is reading) from NBM Publishing uses the horror elements of vampires and werewolves to tell charmingly funny stories, but never uses actual gore to any measurable degree.

Which inevitably leads me to my topic of review, Hiroaki Samura's Blade Of The Immortal series, published in the U.S. by Dark Horse.

Manji is a ronin in feudal Japan, disenfranchised with the way of the samurai. He sees the ancient system of warrior nobility as a crock and rejects the world it encompasses by becoming a hired killer. On his path, he came across an old woman who gave him the kessen-chu, "the holy blood worms" that never allow a man to die, but still to feel the pain of his injuries.

After a personal tragedy, and suffering the pain of countless "deaths," Manji has chosen to give up. He wants to die and makes a deal with the old woman who gave him the damnable kessen-chu in the first place: kill one thousand evil men and Manji will finally be able to die. And from there, the story of Manji's bloody journey begins.

The opening sequence of the first collection, Blood of a Thousand, is a damn good one and rivals the openings of some extremely great action films. There's just something about a man getting shot in the head through a confessional that clicks with me visually. Samura is very good at setting scenes and displaying the action of the characters, though at times he can get somewhat muddled, favoring the illusion of speed on the page, rather than exact placement of where a sword would poke out of a ribcage.

Samura also has done some very interesting things with his artwork that I've rarely seen in manga: he switches styles between panels. At times, the work is penciled and inked with crisp attention to detail, and other times is just penciled pictorials, almost like sketches but of higher detail. This is an effect that he uses often for scenes where martial arts speed is depicted, but he also uses the sketchy style in some of the quieter scenes, using it to creepifying effect in one scene where a young girl watches her father be butchered. I honestly didn't know manga artists did this and I'm glad to see the style-switch technique that has worked for countless American artists (Sam Kieth's Zero Girl springs to mind) being applied so deftly by Samura.

More surprising than the quality artwork is the story that Samura puts together. Manji is an unapologetic killer that the reader can honestly believe is tired of life, without becoming too much of a pity party character that mopes and seeks penance for the countless deaths he's caused. While the story surrounding him isn't as thick or in-depth as one might hope in a first volume, I can see where Samura has left plot holes that can be filled by later volumes, and I felt assured that more of the character's back-story will be revealed.

But the most surprising thing was the level of comedy mixed in with the rampant killings and frightening visuals. Samura made the decision to, while setting the story in feudal Japan, to keep a more modern vernacular for the characters to speak with. Manji and others swear and speak plainly. This creates an easier atmosphere to insert sight gags and quips into, and Samura does. The fight scene where Manji and the girl he is protecting (in order to kill several evil people), is a blood-soaked gore-fest of laughter for the whole family. When Manji is asked by one of the many attackers if he thinks he can kill all of them with just "one lousy sword," blades numbering in the double digits fall out of his kimono.

"Not with one." I laughed for days.

You wouldn't think that arms and heads and even some unidentifiable beefy chunks flying around the page would be funny, but with Samura placing sarcastic comments and comedic dialogue over the scenes, he manages to make the gruesome just a touch more mad-cap. Getting stabbed in the spine? Funny every time.

Blade of the Immortal is sort of the anti-period piece, very different from its distant cousin of samurai manga, Lone Wolf & Cub. Not as serious as Koike's uber-series, it's still a great example of good manga in the way it balances humor and horror so very well. It doesn't lack for action. It has interesting characters that, with a little bit more characterization, could be great characters.

There are some problems with the way the artwork from Japan was transferred to American tastes (panels are flipped the wrong way sometimes, showing facial scars on the wrong sides of faces, swords in the wrong hands), but they're not distracting to the story. It's well worth a pick-up at $14.95, so go out and mix your funny with your fundamentally frightening tastes and enjoy.

Robert Sparling

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