By Cameron Hatheway
When a story combines the likes of Kaiju, samurai, ancient weaponry and deadly assassins, surely a good time is inevitable. However, even with the best of intentions, such a combination can have the opposite effect on the reader. The graphic novel Orphan Blade (Oni Press) by M. Nicholas Almand and Jake Myler is the result of a comic with big, grand ideas, only unsure of how to make all the elements flow together smoothly. It suffers from an identity crisis of sorts, trying to please a myriad of different demographics while simultaneously breaking apart piece by piece throughout the novel.
In the prologue we learn that at the dawn of the 17th century a band of alchemists, priests, and sorcerers gathered to open the heavens and look upon the face of God. What they opened instead was a portal to another world, releasing monstrous Kaiju to Earth. For years the Kaiju destroyed towns, cities, and countries, reigning supreme and undefeated until a coordinated attack finally killed one. With the Kaiju’s bones, weapons called Artifacts were created, and soon after the Kaiju were hunted to extinction from the result of more weapons being made from their bones. While the Kaiju were defeated, the lands where their carcasses once lay became infected with a Blight that left the lands deserted and forced its inhabitants to relocate and fight for resources. The weapons that were once used to kill Kaiju were then used to battle rival groups, and a new sort of chaos spread.
Enter Hadashi, a 14-year-old troublemaker and apprentice to Sensei Mifune Seiji. Hahashi is supposed to be the likeable protagonist, but instead comes off as an annoying jerk. When he loses three fingers to a blighted toad, I felt no sympathy but rather joy that he finally got what was coming to him. Because of his injury he’s no longer able to properly hold a sword, causing him to get kicked out of the dojo and beg on the streets. After being recruited by a local teen named Soyako, Hadashi is put to work running various errands for Soyako and her boss Dr. Africa—the same guy who created the first Artifact weapon.
Hadashi stumbles upon a group of assassins known as the Five Fingers of Death during one errand, and steals an Artifact called the Orphan Blade which gives the bearer great powers and protects them by killing any perceived threat. Nothing but pandemonium follows Hadashi and his friends as they try to get the Orphan Blade back to Dr. Africa’s castle, while fleeing the Five Fingers of Death and other blighted creatures along the way.
The art in Orphan Blade left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, some of the action sequences were enjoyable, with amazing backgrounds and creatures throughout. And then there’s the style of the characters: it strongly reminded me of the Avatar: The Last Airbender series with its American Anime-influenced look and feel. The comic isn’t a manga, but does mix styles of Western comics and Asian manga, making it sometimes confusing to keep track. While Myler is no doubt a talented artist, it looks as if he had a hard time bringing a solid, consistent feel to the comic.
Orphan Blade first felt like it could be aimed at the Young Adult market, but the graphic violence definitely keeps it from being so. There are several scenes of disembodiment and beheadings, Kill Bill-esque blood gushings, and gruesome deaths that would come across as too extreme to younger readers. Even the time period feels off, with the mixture of medieval style castles with Feudal Japan housing. While I can understand that the introduction of Kaiju to our world would change some cultures a bit, it feels like the creators are trying to continue on with the main culture being primarily Japanese influenced. There are ideas that are introduced throughout the comic which remain unresolved, and what maybe started as cliffhangers for a possible second volume ended up feeling like rushed conclusions by the last page. Hadashi is still unlikable, and possibly gay? Bottom-line it’s a very confusing final page.
Almand unfortunately passed away from cancer back in October of 2013, but his Orphan Blade will live forever in libraries and bookshelves worldwide. It shows that he was a man full of brilliant ideas, and a passionate world builder in the medium of comics. While Orphan Blade isn’t the perfect comic book, it’s perfect at capturing the type of writer and person Almand was.