Writer: Neil Davis
Artist/Letterer: Gus Mauk
Colorist: Michael Yakutis
Cover Artists: Gus Mauk (Main), Khoi Pham (Var A), Jean-Pascal Leclerc Kegel (Var B)
Cover Colorist: Ari Lee
Created By: Mike Pesci & Neil Davis
Publisher: Blackbox Comics
Available: January 27 via the Black Box website and ComiXology
Feudal Japan. The nation’s provinces are under the direction and care of local Daimyo—feudal lords—and via these lords, the protection of their samurai: lawful, clan-based warriors of great renown following the Bushido, an honor code reflecting the values of their Daimyo.
The nation at large is in a period of great unrest, and the Kyuuseushi Clan, for 500 years under the direction of a master and their seven exalted samurai, is itself under direct assault. One of his seven samurai murdered and his borders threatened, Master Shoma has summoned Hachiro, a promising trainee caring for his farmstead and younger sister Hinata since the passing of their mother and the death of their father in the series of tests he himself is about to face, to assume the role of the seventh samurai. It has been more than a decade since the last warrior completed their final step and became a samurai, but the time for another is at hand.
For to become a samurai, to engage in the way of the Bushido, one must first past the final test: a gauntlet of trials drawing from myth, from legend, from cultural memory and that of the warrior himself, unique to each warrior and designed to test them in the eight tenets of the Bushido. Hachiro must overcome seemingly overwhelming threats and navigate harrowing choices to survive and earn his mask, his place among the samurai and the respect of his Master, his peers and his sister.
If he fails? Death. And likely not just his own.
And he must pass this test with nothing more than the strength of his steel, the power of his body and the keenness of his mind.
And he must leave his village and his sister alone and unguarded to do it.
Shi no Kage: Shadow of Death is a three-issue mini (which I’m guessing is the first arc of a longer-format series, based on the elements presented in issues one and two) slotted for release this week by Blackbox Comics. Created by Mike Pesci and Neil Davis, the book is written by Davis, drawn and lettered by Gus Mauk and colored by Michael Yakutis.
And for those of you who enjoy a good samurai story or just like exciting combat of the bladed variety, this one’s sure to please. Drawing as much from Japanese myth and legend (issue one features an oni and a huge feline malk/dragon creature, amongst other fun things) as from its history, Shi no Kage: Shadow of Death offers an interesting glimpse into feudal Japan as well as an engaging tale of honor, betrayal and intrigue.
Davis’ story operates (and so far, succeeds) at a variety of levels. First, there is the tale of Hachiro himself. Clearly, he is an honorable young man who shares a tight bond with his younger sister as well as his village. We know his mother perished, but are unsure how, and that his father died during his own trials within the gauntlet. How is Hachiro able to set himself so readily on a path his own parent perished upon, knowing that he leaves no one to protect young Hinata?
Second is the story of Hachiro’s gauntlet. Tailored to him, we begin to see the inner turmoil he faces, the balance of personal want versus duty to family and to clan. The questions he must answer about himself. Oh, and really cool monsters!
Finally, there is the broader story of the world around Hachiro. A samurai—a warrior of nigh-mystical might—has been murdered, and political intrigue abounds. Are the clan’s enemies all from without and entirely known, or are there traitors within?
Like any good storyteller, Davis offers us only glimpses down each of these narrative trails in issue one, as he deftly sets the story’s tone and mythology and engages us with characters we can set ourselves toward cheering on (or against).
Davis is aided more than aptly by the art team of Mauk and Yakutis.
Mauk’s lines are rich and elegant throughout, employing sharp detail to draw attention where it needs to be and shadowed shapes and figures in a murky background to counterweigh it. Much attention is given to Hachiro’s armor and weaponry, to the masks of the other samurai, to the beasts and occasional bits of architecture to locate us in place and time—though interestingly, his characters, especially Hachiro himself, seem a bit westernized in their features—though not distractingly so to me, and I thoroughly enjoy his work throughout. Mauk captures action and emotion with equal facility, and the entire work transitions from relaxed dialogue to intense argument to explosive battle without a hitch, not a line misplaced.
Yakutis’ colors do an excellent job setting tone throughout, though especially as Hachiro embarks on his gauntlet. The deep blues, purples and blacks of the wood that serve as the first challenge’s lair are especially effective, and the entire book flows and engages the eye with a dreamy—and occasionally nightmarish—feel, as though one were drifting into the story itself.
Mauk plays double duty as both artist and letterer in this series, and thus has no one to blame but himself if the talking gets in the way of the action. Thankfully, that is far from an issue here. He has fun throughout, offering varied fonts depending on the speaker or informant, and I particularly enjoy his weathered presentation of the occasional parallel parables as Hachiro navigates the gauntlet.
Shi no Kage: Shadow of Death looks to be the latest among the excellent series offered by Blackbox, at least so far as the first issue (and, truth be told, the second one, too!) would indicate. Great story, beautiful art, interesting, multilayered plot and engaging characters: really not seeing much more to want here, folks.
So get yourselves over to the Blackbox website (here) for physical copies, or to ComiXology or Amazon for digital ones, and get reading kids—this one’s worth the coins!
Oh, and spoiler alert: issue two is just as good as issue one, only BETTER! Look for that one February 17, with the last issue of the arc a month later.
Review by Andy Patch
Ooh! And special sneak preview to issue two, due out February 17…