Friday, February 13, 2015

REVIEW: White Crane - The Legacy of Fang Chi, vol. 1

Written by Zanna Vaughan-Davies
Art by Santiago Espina
Review by Will Dubbeld

I think my love for martial arts stemmed from ads in old 1970s Marvel comics espousing the merits of Count Dante and his Black Dragon Fighting Society.
“Learn the 50 Dragon stances!”
“Unlock the secrets of the Deadly Venom Strike!”
“Kill a man with your Tiger Claw Death Touch!”
. . . or whatever the claims were.

According to vintage comic ads, if I’d ordered Count Dante’s lessons and followed Charles Atlas’ Dynamic Tension Muscle Building Program I would be the baddest motherfucker at the comic-con.
Unfortunately, I’m a pretty lackadaisical nerd and aside from a few brief lessons in karate and Jeet Kune Do, I haven’t the discipline to pursue a school of martial arts.
But Hong Kong action theater and back issues of Deadly Hands of Kung Fu are my jam.
I’ll go to bat any day of the week to defend the fact that Shang-Chi could kick Richard Dragon’s ass.

I’d contacted Zanna Vaughan-Davies about a preview copy of White Crane completely blind to the fact it was a martial arts book. An indy publisher asked for takers on review copies of the book, and the Hammond Comics Blog was like, “Yo!”
I visited the White Crane website after the fact and discovered it was about Chinese history, mythology, and martial arts and promptly put a check mark in the win column.

White Crane gives us a fictionalized account of Fang Chi, the woman who founded White Crane Kung Fu (or more appropriately White Crane Shaolin Boxing if memory serves). If you’re looking for a history lesson via graphic sequential storytelling, however, turn away now. White Crane is a no-holds-barred fantasy adventure story, peppered with elements from Chinese mythology and the martial arts genre.
Actually, peppered is too pedestrian a descriptor. White Crane is spiced with those elements.

This book is spicy.

The Legacy of Fang Chi opens with a monastic temple of Chang San Feng under attack from the villainous Serpent Cult, a tried and true genre move. I was already in love with this book and it was only page 6. Sprinkled throughout the first chapter are flashbacks involving Fang Chi, her father, her nanny, and novice monks, setting the scene for the fall of Chang San Feng and the death of Fang’s father. True to form, Fang Chi vows revenge and sets off to seek justice.

This book reads like watching a Shaw Brothers movie, and I mean that as one of the highest compliments I can pay.

During the course of her journey Fang is visited by a white crane and follows the bird, imploring it to teach her. The white crane leads her to Pan the Mad Man, a fellow martial artist, and a ‘Taoist immortal’ named Sun Xin Wu who acts as our wise, slightly off-kilter teacher in the story. The ‘Test Your Might’ scene with Pan and the mountaintop training with Sun Xin Wu give us a few more familiar feelings, but I’m making a conscious effort to refrain from rattling off the tropes form martial arts films, books, and mythos.
Somewhere between the Wuxia training sequence and the corrupt Imperial magistrate I decided this was one of my favorite comic books. I’m all too familiar with the sometimes linear storytelling found in within the martial arts genre, but it is so rare to find a martial arts comic book that the tropes are a wonderful breath of fresh air. Things that would almost be considered cliché to some audiences are instead brilliant homage. We’re only a eunuch sorcerer and some hopping vampires away from collecting the full set…

The book doesn’t just tread familiar ground, however. The central antagonists, the Serpent Cult, perform a ceremony to contact their demonic Cthonian hellmasters (as cults do) and the way it was set up was a game changer. I’ll omit the details to avoid spoilers, but I was amazed by how this sequence played out. It went to show that although Zanna was writing fairly true to genre form, he isn’t afraid to throw a curve ball in there.
Also, we get a dragon by the end of the book, so my opinion is pretty well cemented.

It is noteworthy to say that White Crane is not an all ages comic. The book is full of adult language, a bit of (tasteful) nudity, and a fair amount of violence and gore. Kiddies need not apply.
Unless your parents are cool with that.
Mine were. They let me watch Conan the Barbarian when I was, like, 8 years old.
Parents, be the cool parents. Let the kids watch Conan and read White Crane . . .

Santiago Espina’s art is great. Brightly colored and crisply inked without much muddying. His art is reminiscent of older independent companies from the 1980s, like you would’ve found in Eclipse books or maybe Innovation or Continuity. It’s concise with well laid out paneling, not every square millimeter crammed with hyper-realistic detail or crosshatching.
It looks like a damn comic book. Although a bit rough in spots, the art was refreshing. It goes back to the well, back to the more simplistic roots of the medium.
Because Yes, Virginia, you can overdraw a comic book.

I’m sure many readers aren’t used to a book of this nature, as the market is inundated with superhero books, mediocre horror comics, and indy books masquerading as oblique social commentary. Many of you will find White Crane to be a breath of fresh air in a sometimes stagnant business. Do yourself a favor and seek out this book, I’m sure you’ll find it to be worth your time and money.
eagerly awaiting volume 2 . . .

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