Imagine yourself in this nightmare scenario. All your waking hours are spent alone in a padded cell. When you fall asleep, you’re put through the horror of being killed, over and over again, by some of history’s best fighters; from ancient samurai swordsmen to New York street-fighters. You arrived there after failing to protect your girlfriend from being slaughtered by a barely human escaped criminal and see your father taken away by some kind of military organisation. Things are not looking good.
This is the plot behind Matthias Wolf’s debut, which is neatly divided into three sections. There’s a preamble that introduces us to the characters, and this is clearly important as it lines up their past and their motivations. At the back, there’s the pay-off, where everything is explained.
The middle section is where the action occurs, where protagonist Heimen Dale is put through literally hundreds of thousands of fights and deaths. This would be difficult to get across in any medium but it really struggles to work in the 100 or so pages that Wolf has set aside for the book. It might have worked better in a film where extended fight scenes can create their own mini-dramas within the main story, but there just isn’t enough space in this section to get across the sheer scale of Dale’s struggle or the range of great warriors from history that must be involved.
We were also a little flummoxed by the ending, which we won’t reveal here, but which we felt upset the feel of the book. It’s a kind of twist but didn’t appeal to our sense of surprise, actually leaving us feeling that a more down-to-earth explanation of Dale’s extraordinary situation might have somehow made for a stronger finale. However, since reading the book we’ve learned that it’s actually going to be a series, making this volume an introduction in its own right, which makes a lot more sense.
The art looks great but there’s a youthful slant to it – it’s drawn in that Western post-manga style that makes it look like its made up of stills from a sophisticated animated film. Although Gomez has done a beautiful job of rendering this art it doesn’t quite fit the focus of the story, mixing the message about the horror of Dale’s life further: he’s illustrated with a perfect trendy haircut and little has happened to his appearance, even after hundreds of thousands fights and several years in captivity
There’s a lot of promise in the book but it just didn’t hit quite the right note with us. Given the style of the art we’d almost be inclined to recommend it to younger graphic novel fans, except that the violence is quite graphic in places, so readers shouldn’t be that young. But for a sophisticated adult reader the characterisation is interesting but the fighting – the main crux of the plot – isn’t given enough space to make it authentic, and the ending is ultimately unsatisfying, though this could have a lot to do with it only being the first part of a bigger story. An interesting journey and a nice idea that just isn’t quite pulled off, but we reserve full judgment until we’ve seen how the story pans out in the next installment.
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