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Thursday, September 23, 2021

FIST OF THE NORTH STAR Volume 2 (2021)

                                         Shin of the Nanto Seiken style: a tragic prick of a villain.

NOTE: The text that follows was originally written nine years ago, though I have updated and expanded some of it to reflect the current edition. Also, the interior art seen here is from earlier editions — basically what I could cull from online — so the dialogue is not that of the current translation.

 Picking up from where the previous book left off, Kenshiro's journey continues, as our hero battles the highly skilled soldiers of GOLAN (short for "God's Land"), a group of intense and murderous military elite who seek to establish themselves as the salvation of post-nuke humanity and come to Ken's attention when they kidnap random females from a village for use as unwilling breeding stock.

A GOLAN soldier murders a little girl's father right in front of her. That kind of shit basically ensures a visit from Kenshiro...

Among the hapless females is Rn, a girl of perhaps ten or eleven years old, who has been one of Ken's annoying juvenile sidekicks since the series' first installment (along with young teen thief Bat, both of whom are the only constant fixtures in the series other than the hero), so Kenshiro goes to the GOLAN stronghold to retrieve Rin and kick the motherfucking shit out of the fascist survivalists, but not before rendering scores GOLAN members bereft of life on the wasteland floor.

One of the rare instances of Ken utilizing weapons. This was early in his career so he had not yet attained the "god of combat" level of badassery that would come after a couple more story arcs, so I'll let it slide.

But while Ken is ready to single-handedly take on the hordes of skilled and vicious commandos, what Ken doesn't expect is their sadistic one-eyed leader, the Colonel, whose finely-honed martial prowess is paired with impressive psychic abilities.

Kenshiro meets the Colonel, an early foe worthy of his martial talents.

And up to this point we knew nothing of exactly how the world met its nuclear-assaulted fate, but that piece of info is kindly provided to Kenshiro (and us) when the Colonel relates how the drunken tycoons, military officials and heads of state set off WWIII as what amounts to a display of macho dick-waving.

The Colonel schools Ken (and us) on some history.


When he and his elite Red Beret soldiers survived the holocaust thanks to their training, the Colonel is convinced their survival was ordained by God, and so GOLAN was born. When the bombs fell, mankind was so fucked-up that even accurate accountings of the date were lost, so all that's known is that the earth was devastated in the year "199X" (the series started in 1983, so the '90's were still a ways off) and it was up to GOLAN to take the reins of humanity (at least in the Colonel's opinion). That's all well and good but the concrete reasons for the pushing of "The Button" are afforded surprisingly short shrift, giving us the Colonel's possibly warped point of view on the events leading up to the rain of warheads. Whatever the case, if memory of the entire series, even the untranslated parts, serves me, I don't think the subject is ever broached again. Oh, well. Explaining WWIII's merely a minor plot detail that would only get in the way of the opera of manly histrionics and kung fu action, so why bother with it?

The GOLAN arc is easily my favorite of the early period FIST OF THE NORTH STAR — meaning the stuff before the introduction of Nanto Seiken anti-hero Rei and Ken's older brothers — and is in every way a perfect and exciting "lad's" comic. Filled with fast-paced, ultra-violent martial arts action from start to finish, the gauntlet of badasses Kenshiro has to face is in my opinion far more frightening than the over-the-top and ludicrous forces in Shin's army. GOLAN's military angle roots them more firmly in reality than just about any other villains in the entire series, even with the Colonel's genuine superpowers taken into account, and Ken's battles with the GOLAN forces are truly spectacular. Besides, who wouldn't want to kick the living shit out of a pack of fascistic rapists who are even okay with violating children?

                                                      Ken trash-talks the legion of GOLAN...


...assumes the position...

...and brings the muthafuckin' pain!!!


Remember the sequence in ENTER THE DRAGON where Bruce Lee battles his way through Han's underground catacombs, taking on a legion of opponents with his limbs and assorted weapons that happened to be lying around? The GOLAN arc is FIST OF THE NORTH STAR's nod to that sequence and it impresses thanks to Ken really getting to flex his early-era skills in a torrent of blistering melee combat against seasoned professionals, rather than a pack of what appear to be feather boa-wearing Christopher Street drag queens on steroids. Plus, this sequence shows artist Tetsuo Hara beginning to hit his stride as an illustrator of creative mayhem, a talent that would grow exponentially with each arc. His work even impresses when there's no fighting going on, allowing each of the story's locations to fairly drip with atmosphere that places the reader firmly within Kenshiro's violent world.

Kenshiro stalks the Colonel through the halls of the GOLAN citadel: an early and impressive example of artist Tetsuo Hara's flowering cartooning skills. I would love to own the original artwork for this...

Following the total destruction of GOLAN, the next arc kicks off with the obnoxious villain Jackal, an uninspired baddie who quickly wears out his welcome and wastes narrative time, as his is nothing more than a rote wasteland scoundrel. 

                                                           The low-grade villainy of Jackal.

Basically, after pissing off Ken one time too many, Jackal pulls out his last resort: the long-imprisoned "Devil Reborn," a psychotic literal giant who is the last master of Rakan Nioken, the fist of the Arhat Deva kings, a 5,000-year-old Indian assassination art banned by the emperor for its vicious savagery.

The Devil Reborn (as seen in the colorized Gutsoon edition).

Devil Reborn is a straight-up giant monster and an undeniably impressive adversary, but he's too extreme for Kenshiro to be facing this early on in the proceedings. After this fight (and victory), the major opponents that Ken faces can at first come off as punt by way of comparison. That said, it's a mercifully short arc.

But this volume close with the start of the arc that cements the group of core protagonists by introducing two major plarers: Mamiya, the series' sole female warrior who fights alongside Kenshiro, and who bears a startling resemblance to Ken's lost love, Yuria...

And Rei, a bishonen ("beautiful male") master of Nanto Suichoken, the elegant "swan style" of Nanto Seiken, the yang to Hokuto Shinken's yin.

Rei: a drifter of unforeseen significance.

Mamiya is the protector of a small village (apparently the one that Ken wandered into in the first chapter, as the local holy man appears to be the same guy), and she enlists Ken as more muscle, not knowing that he's pretty much a demi-god of martial arts. When Rei arrives out of the wastes, he too is conscripted as protection against the roving gangs of marauders who would prey upon the weak. However, Lin and Bat instantly distrust the stranger, because his "are not the eyes of one who would help others." She is not wrong, as Rei has been single-mindedly killing his way across the barren landscape while searching for "the man with seven scars" with murder on his mind. When he and Ken meet, Ken's scars are covered by his sirt and leathers, and once Rei's obsession with finding his scarred target is made known, Ken, Lin, and Bat keep quiet on the subject. By why is Rei hunting the man with seven scars? That is a question that must remain unanswered until the next volume...

Had the conclusion of the Shin storyline and the beginning of the Jackal arc been excised, the GOLAN arc would have made for a great stand alone adventure, and if it would work great if packaged as a stand-alone volume. As previously noted, the introduction of Rei signals the beginning of the series' classic era, but even so, it still takes a little longer for the fuse to truly ignite. At this point the creative team was still hashing out the elements, and they are only now beginning to coalesce. Rei's introductory story serves to demonstrate the differences between the Hokuto and Nanto styles, which we begin to see in the next book.

STAY TUNED...

FIST OF THE NORTH STAR Volume 1 (2021)

 

Eleven years back, I wrote several blog entries on Gutsoon Entertainment's large, color Master Editions of FIST OF THE NORTH STAR, the ultra-violent martial arts/superhero manga classic, objectively critiquing both the manga itself and the then-current English translation and its presentation. Gutsoon managed to publish nine volumes of the series before the company went out of business, which was frustrating to FOTNS fans because Gutsoon's attempt was the second time an English translation failed to go the manga's full distance, though I have to note that Gutsoon's editions at least made it further along that the previous rights-holders did during the late 1980's.

But that was then and this is now, and the original English language rights-holders, Viz Media, have reclaimed the rights and are issuing beautiful hardcover editions that maintain the manga's black and white art (with occasional color effects that first appeared in the weekly Shonen Jump chapters). I'm hoping that this time the reprinting of this epic series makes it all the way to the end, and won't crap out a third of the way through, just as things kick into high gear...

Anyway, on to an introduction to the series for newcomers, and a look at what you get in Volume 1. NOTE: The text that follows was originally written nine years ago, though I have updated some of it to reflect the current edition. Also, the art seen here is from earlier editions — basically what I could cull from online — so the dialogue is not that of the current translation.

In the year 199X, World War III breaks out and after the nuclear holocaust's smoke and fire clears (to say nothing of the attendant fallout), the earth has been rendered a scorched and barren wasteland where lawlessness and savagery rule and the weak are the pathetic prey of the strong and cartoonishly sadistic. Out of the blistering, Sergio Leone-esque wastes strides Kenshiro, a tall, stoic and impossibly-muscled warrior who is a completely flagrant fusion of the ENTER THE DRAGON-era Bruce Lee's martial prowess (taken of course to an insane next level) and Mel Gibson as Mad Max, for both the Aussie hero's post-apocalyptic setting and basic visual.
Kenshiro: a shameless gene-splicing (read "ripoff/mashup") of Mad Max and Bruce Lee. (cover art from the original Japanese tankoban edition of the first volume) 

NOTE: Kenshiro can't be considered a total visual ripoff of Mad Max because Ken's leather jacket does not have any trace of sleeves! So, there!

Mel "Sugartits" Gibson: the sartorial template for Kenshiro.

This initial collection of what was originally a twenty-seven volume Japanese series introduces readers to Kenshiro, the 64th successor to the super-human martial art of Hokuto Shinken, and the savage post-apocalyptic dystopia in which he exists. The narrative kicks off with Ken's emergence from the barren wasteland after being on the receiving end of one of the most personally humiliating ass-kickings in recorded history — a beatdown made all the worse by it having been handed out by a guy who looks not unlike one of the Nelson brothers in a Sgt. Pepper's outfit —

Kenshiro receives the beatdown of twelve lifetimes...


...and is given the chest scars that will serve as his equivalent to Superman's "S."

— and his quest to rescue his fiancee, Yuria.

Yuria: unwitting catalyst for an odyssey of violence.

who has been kidnapped by his former friend, Shin — the aforementioned Nelson lookalike — aka "King" (like in a deck of cards).
It's good to be the King: Shin enjoys the spoils of conquest. (Note: he has a Johnson, but you couldn't flat-out depict one in the Japanese comics of the time, not even in the ones that were straight-up porn. No Willies, but endless amounts of graphic violence? That's okay. Go figure...)

Shin is one of the top students of the Nanto Seiken style of martial arts, a form that grants the practitioner the ability to slice through virtually anything with their bare hands (stone included), and that discipline is the polar opposite of Hokuto Shinken's internally-based assassination techniques that cause an opponents body to literally explode.

Shin breaks it down for the readers.


Due to some obscure bit of reasoning, it has been decreed by the elders of both styles that Hokuto Shinken and Nanto Seiken must never fight due to the nature of their interdependent duality, and that if they do fight it would cause a cosmic imbalance of devastating magnitude (or some such quasi-mystical shit). So, needless to say, once the nuclear holocaust effectively re-wrote the rules of basic human existence, so too were the two-thousand year old laws governing the secret martial world cast aside, thus setting Kenshiro in motion as both a rescuer and an engine of righteous vengeance on the side of good, while Shin proves to be a vicious and power-hungry asshole of a conqueror. In the end only one man can be left standing, but what shall be the ultimate fate of Yuria?

Kenshiro versus Shin: only one can survive. And since this series went on for twenty-six volumes past this one in Japan, guess who eventually wins?   

The first arc concludes here, and immediately swings into the first three chapters of Ken's adventures, this time pitting him against an army of highly-skilled para-military bastards who savagely abuse the general public and kidnap all available females for unwilling breeding stock. Even little girls, one of whom happens be a child who befriended Ken...

 FIST OF THE NORTH STAR is in no way a work of "deep" meaning or even of great intelligence, but it is a warrior's saga that's technically science-fiction thanks to its post-apocalyptic future setting, but the virtually medieval level of society and technology, along with frequent forays into Asian concepts of mythology and the like, keep the tale firmly within the bounds of a Conan-style story in which the barbarian hero also happened to be a martial artist with superhuman skills and powers.
Why it sucks to be one of the downtrodden in the post-apocalyptic landscape of FIST OF THE NORTH STAR.

It's a crazy mashup of genres and is fun for its once-shocking amounts of over-the-top gore and violence, but once you get past that element, what remains is a "manly" soap opera of nearly non-stop kung fu. The manga recently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary and though now considered a classic, the tropes that it invented have been eclipsed many times over since its debut. For those of us who were there for this (and its TV adaptation) when it happened, FIST OF THE NORTH STAR was exhilarating stuff, but even then it was plain to see that the protagonist was a pretty much one note superhero whose chief fascinating aspect was his sheer badassery and the fact that his martial art allowed him to pick up the skills and techniques of even his most super-powered opponents, provided he survived that initial encounter. The emotional histrionics are geared to an audience that is on the verge of discovering girls, and once Yuria is out of the picture (believe me, that isn't a spoiler) its very few remaining female characters offer little or nothing to the overall narrative. (Though there is Rin, a little girl orphan who follows Ken on his journeys, initially for protection, but eventually out a what becomes a case of chosen family, along with Bat, another orphan who previously survived by scrounging and thievery.)

Unfortunately, one of the series' biggest flaws is that it just isn't all that compelling until the introduction of Rei, a noble though conflicted Nanto Seiken master who becomes Kenshiro's closest and most respected friend, and the moment when Ken's presumed-dead brothers take center stage and launch the intra-familial power struggle that provides the series with its true core and point (a point that is eventually resolved, yet the series continued aimlessly for another twelve collected volumes after that decisive conclusion in Japan, due to the series still being wildly popular and incredibly lucrative). When Rei and Ken's brothers show up, FIST OF THE NORTH STAR comes to spectacular and memorable life and it is for that period that the series is justly remembered and revered. That said, it's a bit of a wait until it all comes together, with everything preceding the good stuff serving only to reiterate Ken's badassery and keep readers hooked solely by the Neal Adams-influenced artwork and the curiosity to find out in which outrageous way Ken will defeat his many, many adversaries.

Kenshiro makes with the Bruce Lee thing.


FIST OF THE NORTH STAR is definitely worth a look for those interested in seeing another culture's take on the superhero, but don't expect real greatness from it until a couple of volumes down the line.
Stay tuned for Volume Two and our hero testing his considerable skills the paramilitary forces of "GOLAN."

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

ANOTHER POPEYE'S INCIDENT

 

The entrance to the Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn's Park Slope.

While I was about to enter the Flatbush Avenue Popeye's to snag a hard-earned lunch — I had suffered with the usual post-dialysis nausea/puking last night and was unable to really eat anything until a minor bite near midnight,  plus I skipped today's breakfast, so I was famished — I saw a 20-something black couple approaching. I noted the girl's outstanding black thigh boots and politely said to her "I like your boots!" at which she smiled and said "Thank you!"

Those of you who know me in the world outside of this blog know how I behave with women, specifically that I am always polite and gentlemanly. (Unless it's with my close female friends, who can be a raunchy lot, so then all bets are off.) That is how I comported myself with the aforementioned young lady, and she was cool with it. Her boyfriend, however, took umbrage at me having the temerity to address his girlfriend. Decked-out a Jim Lee X-Men shirt and a backwards Mets hat, he stopped, puffed himself up in a (failed) attempt at intimidation, and put on his most (sad) attempt at a threatening tone as he said "That's MY girl, bro."

If such a response had been warranted, I would have let it go, but instead I channeled all of my zen calm and serene aura and let his attempted intimidation roll off of me like water from a swan. I was decked out in black from head to toe, sporting a huge Shaw Brothers emblem surmounted with a black gi, and equipped with a collapsible hiking pole that serves as my urban equivalent to a staff. The guy, upon stopping to really look at the man he had just tried to put the frighteners into, noted my gi, but I'm pretty sure he was too young or too culturally uninformed to get the significance of the Shaw Brothers crest. (When it comes to the Shaw Brothers, you love it, live it or both. You do not represent in those colors unless you feel it.)
 
Yer Bunche, on the loose on the streets of Park Slope.

 With a Yoda-like sweetness-but-firmness, I responded to him with "I was not hitting on her. I was stating that I like her boots. I meant no offense. I'm old enough to be her dad. And are you really threatened by someone complimenting her fashion sense?" I awaited his response, but all that came was a look of surprise and confusion. At that, he turned and resumed walking away, but his girlfriend got the last word. She scowled at him and said "Why you gotta be such a hostile asshole? To which I asked myself internally, to her, "Why YOU gotta be with such a hostile asshole?"

Following that exchange I simply enjoyed my lunch. :)

Monday, September 20, 2021

AN UNEXPECTED TREAT/HONOR

 An unexpected treat:

When I got home from dialysis, I found a mysterious package at my door. Upon opening it I found this coffee table book that collects every issue of COMIC BOOK ARTIST BULLPEN and includes an all-star tribute to the late, great Jack Abel (whom I worked with at Marvel and whom I watched die on the Bullpen's floor). Among those tributes is a page drawn by yours truly (with a rather unsteady brush pen), and I was unexpectedly honored by it being placed opposite a page drawn by MAD legend Sergio Aragones. 

 

My drunken art next to a piece by one of the all-time masters. Never in a million years would I have imagined such a happenstance. I am delighted, and I consider this a highlight of my life and career.

SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF TEN RINGS (2021)

Ah, the joys of public transit.

Born from Marvel Comics' merry willingness to attempt glomming onto whatever trend is currently popular (no matter how ill-advised (witness US-1), Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu was the imprint's answer to the martial arts movie boom of the mid-1970's. 

 

The inauspicious first appearance of Shang-Chi. (art by Jim Starlin, who was also busy creating Thanos right around that time)

Taking many cues from ENTER THE DRAGON (1978), artist Paul Gulacy - not the first artist on the series, but absolutely the who visually defined it and far and away the most beloved and well-remembered - SHANG CHI: MASTER OF KUNG-FU gave us "Bruce Lee as James Bond," which was quite a departure from Marvel fare at the time (though it did take place within the Marvel Universe). Shang-Chi, raised from birth to be a living weapon for his father, pulp era mastermind super-criminal Fu Manchu (for whom Marvel had obtained the rights for use), was at first a wanderer but was swiftly conscripted by MI6 as an agent. Shang-Chi. along with an assortment of secret agent supporting characters, traveled the world on an odyssey of world-class ass-kicking directed against Fu Manchu. 

Classic-era Shang-Chi. (art by Paul Gulacy)

Shang-Chi as a character was intriguing because he was a mortal with martial arts skills of such a high caliber, he could go up against fighters whose abilities bordered on and often straight-up crossed into superhuman territory and beat the living shit out of them six ways to Sunday. The bottom line was simple: Do NOT fuck with Shang-Chi, no matter how quiet, serene, and philosophical he was when not handing someone their ass.

This was the kind of stuff that you just did not get anywhere else in Marvel Comics of the 1970's. (art by Paul Gulacy)

Though mildly popular as a cult series SHANG-CHI: MASTER OF KUNG-FU ended in the early 1980's, as the chopsocky boom faded from the zeitgeist somewhere around 1978, but Shang-Chi still occasionally popped in guest spots in titles across the Marvel Universe. Which brings us to the present.

Now that the heavy hitters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first three phases have mostly moved on, the studio now hopes to successfully mine Marvel's vast IP for other characters to make movies with, and Shang-Chi is the first of that roster to get a shot.

What's important to know here is that if you are going to this film with knowledge and love of the Shang-Chi of the classic '70's comics, you will likely hate this film, as it has pretty much nothing to do with the version of the comics. Shang-Chi, even in his heyday, was a rather problematic character and series, replete as it was with damned near every Asian stereotype you can name, including the presence of Fu Manchu himself in full-on "yellow peril" mode, plus to say nothing of the fact that all of the series' Asian characters' skin tones were colored varying shades of yellow or orange. Much like the classic Iron Man villain the Mandarin, adjustments and reimaginings had to be made in order fo Shang-Chi to fly in the 2000's.

In short, forget everything you know about the original Shang-Chi and just strap yourself in a total reboot.

Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is a parking valet at a hotel, and he spends most of his time having fun with his platonic best friend and co-worker, Katy  (Awkwafina). 

Katy (Awkwafina) and Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), enjoying some fun before their lives are forever changed.

That is until his past catches up with him in the form of a group of skilled thugs, sent by his father, who want a pendant that he possesses. They approach him on a bus and attack with lethal ferocity, but this is when Shang-Chi let's his nice guy persona slip as he reveals himself to be possessed of shocking hand-to-hand combat skills. Despite Shang-Chi putting up one hell of a fight — seriously, it's spectacular, especially for an American-made film of this nature — the baddies manage to snatch the pendant, so from there Shang-Chi, with Katy along for the ride, journeys to find out why the pendant is so important. Along the way we meet Shang-chi's estranged sister, and we also meet their father, Wenwu (Tony Leung), an apparently immortal master of a criminal empire who seeks to free his once thought to be dead wife from an extra-dimensional barrier by using the Ten Rings, weapons of great power. But in doing so, Wenwu could release a threat that could spell doom for all involved and beyond...

Shang-Chi in superhero mode.

I had fun with the film, but I did feel it was a a tad overlong for the story it chose to tell, and it did not dazzle me the way it did most westerners who have seen it. I have been enjoying this sort of material for the past four decades, so I've seen many, many movies of this ilk, featuring all of the same elements and story beats, including the story's fantasy aspects, so to me it was a very light Marvel-branded confection. A true popcorn flick.

The film is structured in two halves, the first being set in San Francisco and introducing our hero and his sidekick, and the second set in an other-dimensional fantasy world straight out of your garden variety wuxia movie. For example, Tsui Hark's 1983 GREEN SNAKE. The abrupt tonal shift between the two settings is jarring, and in my opinion things slow down considerably once in the realm of fantasy. In fact, it got so slow and dreamlike, I fought not to doze off, but I eventually succumbed to a slumber that lasted less than a minute. (I was awakened by my own snoring.)

Pluses in this film include the always-welcome presence of my girl Michelle Yeoh (who kicks tons of ass, as per usual), Tong Leung's Wenwu, one of the MCU's best villains, and the sorcerer Wong (Benedict Wong) from DOCTOR STRANGE, which at first seems like a weird inclusion, but him being there does figure into the overall shebang, and a truckload of well-choreographed martial arts ass-whuppin'. I could have done without the magical creatures, most of which appear to have been included solely in hope that they will work as marketable merchandise. I'm also not a fan of introducing superpowers and magic/mysticism into the Shang-Chi mix, but this film was made for the Joe Sixpacks and not this aging comics fan.

It's a serviceable movie and it's good to see a lot of Asian faces in a Marvel film — or even in any major Hollywood film, for that matter — but be advised that the individual viewer's mileage may vary. Oh, and as always with Marvel films, stay all the way through to the end of the credits. We get two intriguing stingers... 


 

Poster for the theatrical release.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

MORE MEDICAL FUN...

Another day off from dialysis spent in the medical maze.

This morning I got up early and hauled my ass up to Mount Sinai for a 10:30 podiatry appointment.

A while back I broke a leaded pint glass here in my apartment, and though I thought I had thoroughly cleaned up all of the shards, one eluded me, and I did not notice that I had stepped on it until I saw thick trails of blood on my floor. I had stepped on it with the thickly-callused portion of my left big toe — due to having feet as flat as a paddle, I put a lot of my body weight on my big toes, hence their perpetually armored state — so I di not feel the damage being done, but once aware of it I addressed the wound with proper cleaning and filed dressing. (When you have as many medical issues as I do, your bathroom becomes a ready-to-rock triage supply area.)

Once admitted to see the podiatrist, a Dr. Blustein, she examined the toe and immediately began debriding the callus and extraneous dead flesh with a deft hand. Once the debriding was completed, she applied a purple substance to the area that will aid in drying it out. 

She then applied an antibiotic ointment and wrapped the toe with paper tape, noting that I was to wrap it only in paper pate, as elastic bandages do not allow the area in question to wick out moisture. I was also given a padded surgical shoe that I am to wear while the healing takes place, and I am to return in a month so Dr. Blustein can assess my healing's progress.

 

I am not digging the shoe, as it fits poorly and could really use a heel strap to keep the rear secure and avoid the patient's heel from popping out, but I have no choice in the matter and therefore just have to butch up and deal with it.