Let me preface this by saying that I know nothing about kung fu (though I have four weekends of training under my belt at the local park). I know nothing about ancient China. I know nothing about anything in this book.
I love this book.
The story so far: Without butchering all the lovely details creator Ben Costa sought to put in, Pang: The Wandering Shaolin Monk (Vol. 1: “Refuge of the Heart”) is the story of a short, pudgy reject of a shaolin monk who looks like Charlie Brown. He also happens to be the last surviving member of his temple (which was destroyed by the new Emperor’s army). Pang has two goals: to safeguard the single precious book he managed to save from his temple’s library and to find the other surviving monks he believes are out there, somewhere.
Now, the on-the-lam noble hero and the beautiful inn keeper’s daughter (played here by the feisty Yang Yang) is not a new story, but Costa’s simple art and attention to detail breathes fresh life into it. Characters speak in modern English equivalents to their ancient stations; yokels speak like yokels without extraneous thou’s or thee’s to make them sound old-timey. On the other hand, characters frequently use actual Chinese phrases and reference “current events” which are translated and explained in foot notes. This level of detail fills out the otherwise simple story and gives the world of Pang a depth not normally seen. The same strategy was used in the non-graphic novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to similar effect.
I won’t lie; the book is dense. It took me several tries to get all the way through it. The page layout can also be a bit confusing. It’s a traditional left-to-right, up-to-down read, but look for tiny arrows in panels that change course. On the bright side, the spare art and sheer fun of the wiggling panels are a nice counter-balance to the more expository bits.
And, honestly, the main character’s lovable goodwill captured me. In a genre of tough guys, Pang is truly the sweet-hearted monk you hope he is and once the books finally grounds you in the world the pace picks up considerable.
For those of you who are unsure about the story or feel intimidated by so much exposition, I adored the prequel Eight Herbs Mtn.: The Rice Paddy Kid as well. It’s a much more lightweight story about young Pang training (at least, trying to train) for a local martial arts competition. Funny and touching, it’s also a good place to get acquainted with many characters that appear in Pang.
Still, I can’t recommend the primary book highly enough. This is a great and rare gem for the history buffs, kung fu students and hopeless romantics in your life.
Pang can be purchased through Costa’s website: www.shilongpang.com where you can also view it in web comic form. But the hardcover is so reasonably priced ($20 for 188 pages), I suggest you support Mr. Costa by buying the book. You can also get it from your comic book store. Tell your retailer its Diamond order number is: JUL111134 F
*Originally posted on http://www.wrongsidecomics.com/ on 1-5-2012*