24 Jan, 2007

Shaman Warrior, Vol. 1

By: Katherine Dacey

By Park Joong-Ki
Dark Horse, 208 pp.
Rating: 16+

Sampling the ICE Kunion, Infinity Studios, CPM, and Net Comics catalogs, one could arrive at the erroneous impression that 97.4% of all manwha documented the romantic tribulations of beautiful, sparkly-eyed girls (or sparkly-eyed tomboys who clean up nicely). Dark Horse has set out to show American audiences that manwha has a manly-man side as well, first with the sharp-looking Banya the Explosive Delivery Man and now with Shaman Warrior. Like Banya, Shaman Warrior serves up generous portions of pow! splat! thmp! and gyaaaa!, but freshens up the formula with political intrigue and a hint of the supernatural.

In the opening pages of volume one, the two principle characters—Yarong, a warrior endowed with wolf-like eyes and superhuman strength, and Batu, his hulking sidekick/bodyguard—walk into an ambush in a remote desert outpost. Lead by Commander Yuda, himself a formidable warrior, a posse of heavily-armed men engages Yarong and Batu in an epic fight complete with swordplay and martial arts moves straight out of the Jet Li playbook. Yarong finds himself on the business end of a poisoned dart, so he dispatches Batu to their village with a special mission: protect Yarong’s infant daughter from the people who ordered the ambush.

One of the pleasures of reading Shaman Warrior is the sheer beauty of the character designs. Artist Park Joong-Ki populates his landscape with an astonishing variety of faces and body-types: old, young, beautiful, grotesque, comical, muscular, lithe. Park fumbles, however, when rendering bodies in motion. Don’t get me wrong—his characters lunge, twist, jump, writhe, and run convincingly. But his action sequences are frequently hard to follow. During the initial ambush, for example, I thought Commander Yuda had beheaded the titular character. Imagine my surprise when I turned the page to see Yarong toss his opponent over the side of a bridge. The source of my confusion: speed line abuse. Park employs them in almost every panel of chapters one, two, and three (or so it seems), obscuring the characters’ movements and body parts with visual clutter.

Another drawback to Shaman Warrior is the stock dialogue. During the early fight scenes, Commander Yuda’s henchmen function as a low-rent Greek chorus, commenting on how baaaaaaaad Yarong and Batu are in combat. (Sample: “What the hell is this? They didn’t say anything about any monsters. I heard we just had to kill two warriors from the mainland!” “Get a hold of yourselves! He’s just one guy!”) The later chapters—in which we learn about Yarong’s past—have the slightly stilted quality of a period picture, with characters making flowery statements about the beauty of combat, the power of names, and the fragility of existence.

That said, Shaman Warrior still ranks among the best-looking and most entertaining titles in Dark Horse’s catalog. Like Banya, Shaman Warrior boasts a gorgeous cover design and several full-color pages, as well as other hallmarks of a quality production: superior paper stock, meticulous editing, idiomatic translation. Sound effect purists will be pleased to see that the editor preserved the original Korean text—accompanied by unobtrusive English translations—wherever feasible, substituting the English-language equivalent only in busy panels. Fans hungry for extras may be disappointed by the slim pickings: a doodle by the artist, a brief (and uninformative) preview of volume two, and several character sketches. But who needs extras when the overall product looks sharp, reads quickly, and promises future volumes filled with political intrigue, supernatural thrills, tender paternal moments, and good old-fashioned throw downs?

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