by Park Joong-Ki
I have a mild interest in manga. I’ll read it from time and time, and not just “Lone Wolf and Cub” though that’s the only series that I’ve followed extensively. But I’m not devoted to it. I don’t find it to be some panacea for the deficits of North American comics. Sure, there’s a wide range of genres. But that’s true as well of North American comics for those who are willing to look. There’s also a range of quality: there’s good manga and great manga; there’s bad manga and awful manga.
Shaman Warrior doesn’t fit any of those categories. First of all, it’s technically not even manga. Its official term is ‘manwha’ because it comes from Korea instead of Japan (though the difference in sensibilities is about as minimal as the difference between American and Canadian comics). Secondly, it’s neither awful nor great. It’s mediocre. It’s got the potential to be really good. But it doesn’t quite get there.
Honestly, I’d love to have been the editor on this book. I realize that sounds a little egotistical, claiming that I know what’s better for Shaman Warrior than its creator and its original editor. Yet I couldn’t help thinking, “I wish this book had done this differently or this instead; it would have been so much more interesting.”
The first problem is the pace. Shaman Warrior is supposed to be an action book (as if you couldn’t tell by the title) yet it moves at a glacial speed, especially in the action scenes. Comic book fans complained about the decompressed story-telling of U.S. comics but Shaman Warrior puts most of those to shame. It took ten pages just to set up the opening scene: shaman and bodyguard walk into dusty outpost, give money to beggar, sit down in bar, overhear local ruffians picking on somebody weaker than them, verbal confrontation between bodyguard and local ruffian, local ruffian taunts shaman, then bodyguard starts the initial action sequence. That’s right, it took ten pages to set up a bar fight.
Unfortunately, the fight scene itself moves even slower. The whole fight lasts 80 pages. Literally. It doesn’t all take place in the bar. The shaman’s bodyguard beats up the local ruffian. Then they’re ambushed outside by a whole bunch of local ruffians. Then, the leader of the local ruffians jumps in. In a way, it’s more like two fight scenes back to back, one with the gang of ruffians and a second with the leader. Yet it’s still 80 pages from the first punch to the quiet aftermath.
The second problem is that we have no vested interest in the characters who are a part of the fight. Sure, there are great panels of muscles flexing and swords flashing. But why should we care about who wins and who loses when the only thing the hero has done is give a couple of coins to a local beggar and the only thing the villain has done is be aggressively rude to his waiter? There’s a conflict there, but not one to sustain our interest for 80 pages. A fight needs to be about something. That’s why Kazuo Koike and Gojima save their big 100 page fight scenes in Lone Wolf and Cub until we’re 20 volunes in and already emotionally vested in the characters. That’s why Peter Jackson shows the women and children cowering behind the battle lines in The Lord of the Rings and has characters make comments like “I’m fighting for the Shire.” There’s a reason for the character to fight and there’s a reason for us to care who wins.
Park Joong-Ki doesn’t give us a reason to care until after the fight is over. That’s when he gives us a flashback showing us the relationship between the shaman and the warrior. That’s when we see the shaman receive orders from the general. That’s when the shaman makes the bodyguard promise to watch over his child if he should die while on the mission. Unfortunately, Joong-Ki doesn’t give us those character motivations until we’re already over 100 pages into the book.
Shaman Warrior would have been a lot stronger if the fight scenes were shortened (I’d cut them in half, 20 pages for each phase of the fight and 40 pages overall is enough) and if the character motivation scenes were intercut with the fight scenes. Naturally, you don’t want to open with 20 pages of exposition anymore than with 80 pages of a single fight scene. Yet by cutting back and forth between the present-day fight and the earlier character scenes, the author could have given us the action we crave at the same time as he gave us a reason to care. Knowing that the shaman is on a mission for the general would add tension to the fight with the local ruffians: they’re getting in the way of something with military and possibly national significance. That way we would know that the shaman and his bodyguard have to win.
I had another problem with Shaman Warrior though this particular observation may be more about me than it is about the book. It might even have something to do with my own cultural inheritance. A Korean might not have had the same confusion. The issue is that the gender of the shaman isn’t clear at first. The shaman is hooded, shadows cover the face. When the hood is removed, the shaman has long hair and fine features. The main villain- who turns out to be a rival shaman- also has long hair, fine features and large round earrings. As a North American, those characteristics strike me as feminine. I thought the shaman and the rival were both women, though I was never entirely sure.
I actually liked that possibility. I mentally toyed with the idea that this was a world in which only women could have the powers of a shaman- kind of like Red Star where the men are soldiers and the women are sorcerers. It would have been an interesting premise for a sword and sorcery comic. And it would have given an added dimension to the relationship between the shaman and the bodyguard. There could have been an unrequited love simmering beneath a soldier’s devotion.
Unfortunately, Park Joong-Ki didn’t take that path. The scene with the shaman’s child struck me as especially feminine with long hair pulled back into a pony tail and shirt half open. But in the next scene, the rival shaman specifically refers to the hero of the story as “he.” That removed any doubt and confusion, not but my interest. As I mentioned earlier, I couldn’t help but think the story would have been more interesting the other way.
However, the problem is more significant. After being let down in my momentary hope and expectation, I realized that Shaman Warrior doesn’t include any women at all. It’s not just that the shaman and his rival are both men. There are no women. The baby’s mother is never shown or even mentioned. This is kind of odd, considering that the baby is a newborn who doesn’t even have a name yet. The shaman discusses naming the baby and his plans for how to raise the baby, but doesn’t bother to mention why the mother is out of the picture. That kind of information could add to the character’s depth and motivation.
Perhaps I’m not being fair, judging Shaman Warrior based on what it could have been instead of what it was. It’s not a habit I want to encourage. But that’s Shaman Warrior. It scratches the surface of something interesting but is so caught up in 40 page fight scenes (there are more of them later in the book) that it never does anything with them. I haven’t even covered every incident of missed potential. Why does the beggar later try to kill the shaman? Was he some kind of spy? What’s the significance of the shaman having the eyes of a tiger or a wolf? How does that relate to his powers? I started skimming through the fight scenes, wishing for them to be over in the hopes of finding characterization, motivation and answers.
Shaman Warrior isn’t an awful book. It’s beautiful and it has great potential. But it left me wanting more than it delivered, instead of wanting to read the next volume.