When Viz announced their VIZBIG line of reprint editions for select titles, I couldn’t help but let my mind go scurrying off in a dozen directions at once. Three volumes in one for the price of two; an 8 ½” × 6” trim size, French flaps, top-notch print quality … the last time I was this jazzed was when I found out the Criterion Collection was preparing to offer its catalog titles in Blu-ray. But if Criterion was offering The Man Who Fell To Earth and The Last Emperor, what did Viz have planned?
As it turns out, they picked one of the best titles they could possibly have elected to offer in the VIZBIG format. I speak of Takehiko Inoue’s Vagabond, which is not only one of the best titles Viz has under its wing right now but probably one of the best manga to see print, period. I try not to hyperbolize, but believe me, this is one of the few times where the comic in question is worth every bit of the fanboy gush. Doubly so in this edition, which not only gives you that much more Musashi for the money but serves it up on a page that’s even bigger and bolder than the original editions did.
An adaptation of Eiji Yoshikawa’s epic novel Musashi, itself a fictionalized account of the life of Japan’s most revered swordsman, it lives up in the same storytelling stratosphere as Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix (another stellar Viz title). I don’t intend to recap the story here in detail; that’s something best left to my colleague Eric Fredericksen and his volume-by-volume overviews of the series proper. But the story itself is too compelling to skip completely in any review.
Long before there is Musashi, there is Takezo, a brutal and willful ex-soldier — uncivilizable in the eyes of his peers, but not in the eyes of the monk Takuan. The first three books cover the initial stages of Takezo’s journey from one life to another, from a near-corpse face-down in the mud of a battlefield to an impetuous hothead challenging a whole dojo full of fencers. None of these episodes lose their tension and momentum when compressed between a single set of covers. If anything the whole only becomes all the more propulsive when swallowed it in that much bigger a dose.
It also becomes that much more quickly apparent how this isn’t merely about how a wild, violent young man named Takezo is reborn as a fanatically focused student of the sword, although that’s what the first three volumes revolve around. It feels as if the whole of Musashi’s world has been pulled through these pages and into our hands, like a wire through a keyhole. Lucky us!
Art: The original single-volume versions showed off Inoue’s art to great effect. The new version is, amazingly, even better thanks to the slightly larger trim size and the incrementally better paper quality. And the art itself — well, if Takehiko Inoue’s magnificent command of line and tone, present on every page, isn’t a selling point by itself, you may be reading the wrong review.
The only thing I dislike about the new format is the typography and design used on the front cover — it’s markedly unlike the classy sumi-e calligraphy text used for the original covers, and looks more like the sort of thing you’d see on a Tokyopop product from several years back.
Translation: Precisely the same as the previous editions, with effects retouched but without distraction. Nothing else has been omitted — in fact, even the original color pages of the individual volumes have been retained. Actually, one thing has gone missing — the original color cover art for each volume, and while they’re missed their absence does not amount to deal-killers.
The Bottom Line: A no-brainer must. Everything that was good about Vagabond’s individual volumes is only magnified and made all the more appealing through these reprints. They’re a great way to get someone hooked on the series as a gift, or a way to upgrade an existing collection.