Pullbox Reviews: Honor and Curse #1- Had me at “Ninja”

Orphaned as a young boy, Genshi Sakagura was adopted by the Iga clan after witnessing the murder of his parents. Now, Genshi is a promising young shinobi with dreams of marrying Lord Haruki’s beautiful daughter, Akemi, and leading the Iga clan warriors into battle. Genshi’s future was promising, until his past came back to torment him in the form of an evil mountain spirit known as a Tengu. This demon relentlessly haunts Genshi’s dreams and bends reality around him, but nothing compares to when the Tengu consumes him; Genshi transforms into an unstoppable force of nature incapable of remorse!

Having followed Mad Cave Studios very nearly from the beginning, it’s been interesting seeing how the relatively small team has grown into an independent publishing steam engine. Having overcome one of the biggest hurdles for indie comics, the “Cave Dwellers” have been able to expand their distribution through coverage in Previews World. Since then, they’ve learned a few things, and took the big step of tweaking and re-launching a few of their titles from the beginning.

One of those titles, Honor and Curse, is one that I’ve been looking forward to for a very long time. Set in 14th century Japan, it follows shinobi in training Genshi Sakagura. Orphaned as a boy when his family was set upon by bandits, Genshi was taken in by the Iga Clan and began his training to serve as a ninja. As he approaches his final test, his dreams have become dark and more vivid, to the point that he’s having difficulty separating them from reality. There’s a darkness in Genshi, and as he struggles to control it, it’s pushing to get out.

Mad Cave’s lead writer- actually, he might be their only writer- Mark London has been digging deep to improve his craft. His stories run far and wide, from fantasy action (Battlecats), to cyberpunk (Midnight Task Force), to a literal epic of Biblical proportions (Knights of the Golden Sun). Through it all, London has been visibly improving his craft as he’s continued to pump out title after title- seriously, I have no idea when the guy sleeps. Now with the release of Honor and Curse, I think he’s putting out his best work to date with the dark fantasy story about a young ninja coming to grips with his inner demon.

I’m not being metaphorical… the poor bastard’s possessed by a friggin demon!

As is to be expected when concocting a tale set in feudal Japan, with all of its intrigues and power struggles, there’s a fair amount of ground work to be done before getting to business. London spends much of this opening issue establishing his characters, identifying the main players and setting up his antagonists (of which there seems to be more than a few). By the end of the issue, readers should have a handle on the various pitfalls Genshi will have to navigate as he approaches his elevation to the ranks of Iga Clan shinobi. More impressive, it looks like London has taken the time and effort to make his story as authentic as possible, paying respects to culture and setting without making readers feel like they’re sitting through a history lesson.

This being a Mad Cave Studios title, it shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone paying attention when I say that the artwork is outstanding. From day one, their visual style has been eye-catching and distinct and the work laid out by the team of Nicolas Salamanca, Tekino, & Miguel Angel Zapata is no exception. Salamanca has a great artistic style, perfectly suited for Honor and Curse in that he pulls many of his design elements from manga. Not to an extreme degree, but enough that any fans of the style can settle in and feel right at home. Of course, this being a story featuring ninja (as every good story should, even if we don’t see them), Salamanca can bring the action and doesn’t miss an opportunity to let the shuriken fly. The artwork is buoyed up by colors from Tekino, who manages to reinforce the overall somber tone of the story, with only a scene or two given a brighter scheme. Miguel Angel Zapata rounds out the visuals on Honor and Curse with some creative lettering, particularly in sound effects that are worked into the motion of the action rather than just splashed onto the page.

Full disclosure, I’ve been fascinated by all things ninja since the first time I saw Sho Kosugi slipping across the movie screen like a shadow of death. I’ve read books (check out some of the pre-Bourne work of Eric Van Lustbader), and even watched The Master inexplicably & regrettably starring Lee van Cleefe (I have regrets). Honor and Curse was a pretty easy sell.

It’s been great watching the Mad Cave creative team learning and growing into their own very cool thing. If you haven’t checked out any of the titles coming from these independent lovers of all things comic, give this one a shot.

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