One of the first Hong Kong movies I ever saw was a totally mad production named Savior of the Soul (co-written by none other than HK indie-film maverick Kar-Wai Wong). Any five minutes of that movie have more back-to-back action than most any Western film — at least until Western movies started catching up with productions like Crank and Shoot ‘Em Up. But hey, the HK moviemakers got their firstest with the mostest, and that stuff is still golden even after all these years.
From what I’ve seen of Chinese Hero so far, the HK comics scene has also featured the same kind of incredibly compressed, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink and-the-contents-of-the-fridge-too storytelling. There’s more going on in any one volume of Chinese Hero than there is in any three or four (or five, or ten) volumes of most other comics, and it’s all thrown at you with a gusto that’s irresistible.
As for the plot — well, as I wrote last time, that way lies madness. A coherent synopsis would take me days on end to write … and now that I think about it, the story is really a distant second to the sheer headrush of the storytelling. But here’s the real short version: Hero and his son, Jian, are reunited in the United States (although the father doesn’t recognize the son at first), and a whole new crop of bad guys come oozing, sometimes literally, out of the woodwork. Mayhem ensues.
The series as a whole draws heavily on HK kung-fu / wuxia epics for its storytelling and plot ideas, but as the third volume takes place in the United States, it stirs in a couple of new sources of inspiration, possibly for that reason: Seventies grindhouse action movies, and even supernatural horror. The former shows up in the form of a new gang of adversaries for our hero, Hero (sorry, I still giggle a little whenever I read that). They’re the “Five Guards”, each one with their own particular bad-dude look and set of wild skills, and they give Hero and his friends a serious beat-down. Most memorable is their ringleader, a woman with the looks of a feral Brunhilde whose hobbies include exotic martial arts styles andeating children. Yes.
The supernatural horror part of the story involves one character, “Disease Man,” with the power to command cockroaches — he can round them up into swarms, like locusts, and use them to infect his enemies with “roach bacteria”, at which point they become his willing slaves. (Shades of Dario Argento’s Phenomena, although I couldn’t say which came first.) Because it’s handled in the same cheerfully over-the-top way as everything else in the story, it’s actually not distracting at all. When you have subplots like a teenage girl impersonating a ghost, an American gang of bruisers learning a martial art called the Solar Radiance Stance, and a character named Yin Yang Emissary who looks exactly like Boy George, cockroach armies are actually fairly small potatoes.
Art: Wing Shing Ma’s gorgeous and detailed designs are second to none; this is one of those books where the beautiful, painterly art on the cover is not a bait-and-switch. It’s strongly reminiscent of the kind of work Ryoichi Ikegami did for Crying Freeman — very bold, masculine lines; powerful action poses; and a wonderful command of color and tone. (Ma has in fact referred specifically to Ikegami as an inspiration, and the two of them traded warm praise for each other’s work when they finally did meet.) I’m not sure how much of a change this version is over any previous editions of the comic, but it doesn’t feel like any changes have been made for the worse. Also, the fact that they’re offering this series in a nice, big 8x10 print format is another massive bonus: art this good deserves that kind of presentation.
Translation: For the most part, it’s a fine job. The original Chinese lettering has been digitally removed and replaced with English, although the effects are not always translated (and when they are, they’re left in place and annotated rather than being removed entirely). A little more editorial oversight could have helped, too, but the very few mistakes I spotted were not fatal and mostly in the form of transposed letters or other minor omissions that don’t detract from the whole.
The Bottom Line: The recommendations I made for the previous volumes all apply here. Fans of kung-fu epics and martial-arts brawlers should give this a look — especially since we’ve got at least two more volumes on the way.