The Samurai Effect

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When you meet the Buddha, slice him in half like a melon?

By Ky-Phong Tran

Great theater requires spectacle. An image so original and true it creates disbelief and forces the viewer to question reality. To ask themselves, “Is this really happening?”

It’s now 2013. I’m holding an old comic book, an important book, pages slightly yellowed and corners a bit worn. Considering the darn rag is over two decades old, it’s holding up surprisingly well. (Mylar bags and white acid-free backboards have helped, of course).  

Holding this comic teleports me on a journey through time and space. Today, I am thirty-seven years old--a husband and father, a teacher and writer--and I have to deal with adult things like bills and deadlines. But when I hold this book, I am a boy again.

Flash back to 1987. My comic book spectacle begins when I am twelve-years old and live on the rough-and-tumble northside of Long Beach, California. Twelve years earlier, my family had fled Vietnam as war refugees and we were in a constant struggle to survive, resettle, and find peace. My father, a former teacher and paratrooper, now sells furniture. My mom works as an administrative assistant.  We grow up with needs met but wants sorely unsatisfied. New clothes, toys, and travel are a luxury. But my older brother works and brings home comic books and that’s how I first get my ears wet around comics. 

Asking my parents for comic books might as well have been been asking for an ass-whooping (uh, no thanks), so I have a few hustles of my own to buy them: 

A) Saving lunch money. (Old School Classic) 

B) Washing two neighborhood dogs a week for $8 total. (Immigrant Special) 

C) Selling my GI Joes and Transformers, by then considered for “kids,” and then using the money for comics which were a “more serious” and “adult” concern. (Fanboy Crossroads)

D) I even convince the local comic book store owner to hire me as a 7th grader! Though when my mom finds out I am getting paid in store credit, which I then use to buy more comics, she is aghast. (Fanboy Wet Dream vs. Tiger Mom)

My brother is five years older, already into headier and artier comics, and like all little brothers, I follow in his wake.  That year, a new comic book series arrives from Japan. It is about feudal lords and samurais. There are no superpowers and tights but plenty of sex and violence. It’s also drawn in black-and-white cinematic art with spare, poetic text. 

Enter Lone Wolf and Cub, an epic series masterfully written and drawn by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, respectively.  The already legendary series was translated and reprinted by First Publishing in a traditional American sized format and (torturously) featured only one individual story per book. (The original manga came in the smaller, hand-sized editions and included five to six stories per book).  

Lone Wolf and Cub #1 and #2 set the table for the series: Samurai Itto Ogami, one of the finest if not the best swordsman in all of Japan, serves as the Shogun’s official executioner. He is framed by a rival clan, of ninjas no less, who want to usurp his position. After his wife is murdered and his family name ruined, Ogami vows revenge on the Yagyu Clan and its patriarch, Retsudo Yagyu.  However, Ogami’s toddler son, Daigoro, survives the attack. Ogami relents to fate and brings him along on the Assassin’s Road, where he kills for money and stalks his enemies, and the two infamously become known as Lone Wolf and Cub. 

But it’s Lone Wolf and Cub #3, specifically the cover art, that peels my scalp back and gives me a comic book lobotomy on what is possible through the pairing of image and text. 

Ogami has leapt into the air and on his descent his sword (named Dotanuki or “cuts through torsos”) slices into a Buddhist monk. In the background, peasants cower, mouths agape, in front of a castle tower. The pastel blues and gray work against their natural, peaceful tones and instead add even more dread to the scene.  To add to its power, the cover is drawn by Frank Miller who I worshipped at the time because of his work on The Dark Knight Returns, Wolverine, and Elektra. 

It may be the single greatest cover in comic book history. 

Inside, I read about meifumado, the road to hell, and Mu, the state of not being.  I also come across this mysterious line, which vastly confused me then and continues to haunt me now:  “(When you) Meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.”

Remember, I am all of twelve years old, barely pubescent, flunking three classes, and just trying to not embarrass myself in junior high school on a daily basis. Though I cannot fully understand the religious and philosophical themes, the seeds of wonder of what story and literature and art can be are planted securely within me. (They will later bloom to create a voracious reader and hope-filled writer). 

Plus, I don’t need to “get” all the themes to appreciate the story because when Ogami flies across a stunning two-page spread, swings his blade, and literally splits the Buddha in half like a melon—it’s straight-up badassness in full mother-effing effect.

It is spectacle and one that only could have been accomplished in the comic book medium. 

After two dozen issues, the series is unfortunately discontinued due to poor sales. But like any respectable gateway drug, Lone Wolf leads me to experiment and my taste in comic books soon turns feral. Unlike the musical clicks of the day, I now appreciate the free-for-all openness of the comic book world back then. I read mainstream books and underground ones. Would follow titles and then switch and attach myself to a certain writer or penciller. 

I love the fine detail of Art Adams and the stylings of Rick Leonardi. Barry Windsor-Smith’s Machine Man mini-series is a dream I never want to wake from, as is Adam’s Longshot mini-series.  Bill Sienkiewicz (who illustrated the second dozen covers of Lone Wolf) and his multimedia art are still ahead of its time. I also read fun space operas like Dynamo Joe (space cats, robots, and aliens, oh my!) and the darker stuff like Strikeforce Morituri (suicide soldiers). 

Of course, like any devout fanboy I read and re-read the holy trinity of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and The Dark Knight Returns (which was required in my freshman Comp courses, and made me think that college and my TA were just so cool!). 

But like most boys at the time, my heart was marked with an ‘X’ and I fell deeply in love with the muties. Looking back, I believe I learned about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X first through their comic book counterparts, Professor Xavier and Magneto, respectively. Their fight for justice and liberation must have deeply resonated within me because later on in my adult life I would go on to work professionally in race relations and racial justice for some time.

(Just in case you’re wondering, in the Xavier vs. Magneto debate, I side with Magneto. He understands that if you want to make an omelet, sometimes you gotta break some skulls. Plus, he knows the real and vicious and cruel nature of intolerance and hate firsthand. In fact, in a strange melding of fact and fiction, when I interned at the Museum of Tolerance, a Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles with a full-sized replica of the Gates of Auschwitz, I would remember the scene where a young Erik Lehnsherr was separated from his mother and I felt a sincere concern for this very real, fictional person). 

Now flash forward to 2000. I am twenty-five years old and have moved to Oakland, California, for a job in politics and a chance to spread my wings.  I had stopped reading comics by then, angry over the whole Exploitation Era (short issues, multiple covers and excessive tie-ins, skyrocketing prices, and worst of all, lame stories).  But I am redeemed: Over the next three years, Dark Horse Comics releases the entire Lone Wolf saga in its entirety.

I collect and read the entire twenty-eight volume, hundred-plus stories, and almost 9000 pages. The series concludes with a new villain introduced into the Ogami-Yagyu feud. His name is Abeno Kaii and he is called the “Shogun’s Mouth” because he is a master of poison and his clan tastes all of the Shogun’s meals. Kaii is the most vile and evil literary character I have ever encountered, his cruelty and revulsion unmatched in any book, television show, or film since. 

In the last few pages, when Ogami’s son, Daigoro, runs full-bore into the arms of Retsudo--the Yagyu clan’s grandfatherly but vicious leader--I relent to the emotions.

I cry. 

For the genius of the story arc. For the tenderness of the violence. For Retsudo’s embrace of Daigoro and then when he calls him “ my grandson.” 

For the sixteen years it took me to finish the series. For beginning as a child and concluding as a young man. 

Crying at the conclusion of a book: It had never happened before and it has never happened since.  

The lasting effect of this comic book love affair is a profoundly personal one and requires a little more biography. As refugees, my family faced the archetype challenges all immigrants face: cultural, social, and financial.

But now that I can look back as an adult and with both my parents recently deceased, I see that the biggest effect of their trauma was silence.

The silence of language and the silence of stories.

Because of my parents’ limited English and busy work schedule, I ended up learning English through peers and television. Because of that delay I could not read until the second grade and have always felt estranged between worlds and languages. 

But the bigger void was the lack of communal narrative and family memory in my life. Understandably, my parents never talked about Vietnam, their life there, my grandparents, the war, the fleeing, the sadness, the pain. 

And so I grew up a late-reading, story-less kid who was bussed to the richer, whiter elementary school across town. 

Unfortunately, my childhood was not story-less and I had to deal with growing up in a post-Vietnam War era that featured movies like Rambo: First Blood Part II, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, and Platoon and the ignorant kids who watched them as edict. 

They were armed by Hollywood and I was an amnesiac. Imagine the playground ridicule, the careless comments by peers and teachers, the frustration at the inability to defend yourself or your family. 

Imagine the shame. 

It is in this context that I came to world of comic books. 

In this world, outcasts are accepted, even celebrated. In this place, every “BAMF” and “SNIKT” is a siren song for the nerd who walks the schoolyard alone. Every gamma ray and cosmic ray a beacon in the sky for the geek who’s never been kissed. Every vengeful samurai assassin a refuge for the refugee from the wrong side of town. 

Ultimately, Lone Wolf and Cub was my Ellis Island, welcoming me slowly, warmly into the English language. And The Uncanny X-Men became my surrogate family, their adventures filling my story-less childhood.  When Magneto declares Asteroid M a “sovereign nation” for mutants, my refugee heart was instantly ready to declare its citizenship. 

Most importantly comic books did the magical: They took a lonely refugee boy and made him feel less so. And that is surely the greatest spectacle of them all.

 

 

Ky-Phong Tran and his family fled to the United States at the end of the Vietnam War--his mother six months pregnant with him at the time. He was raised on the north side of Long Beach, California and educated in public school. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly, Hyphen Magazine, and the anthology Dismantle. He teaches English and Creative Writing in South Central Los Angeles. For more info, visit frequentwind.com.