Hiroaki Samura

Pretty Deadly is a supernatural western comic by Emma Rios, Kelly Sue Deconnick, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles.  Two issues have been released so far by Image Comics.

Blade of the Immortal is a samurai comic by Hiroaki Samura.  It is published by Dark Horse.

The above two pages are from a sequence within Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal involving his peerless swordswoman Makie.  Make is an untouchable force of war within Blade of the Immortal.  So much so that most of the marks that come to be on her body, end up there because of her own self-destructive impulses, not as a result of the way she fights, or as a need to achieve tactical space.  Whatever space she needs in a fight, she uses her speed and agility to get there before her opponent.  Unlike someone like Manji, who usually has to go through his opponent to get to that space.  What is more, Makie’s fights, because of their weight on movement, and grace–they become dances–they become performative in nature.  And what’s more because of this, they take on a sexualized gaze as there is almost always an exterior male eye on the fight, orgasming as she “dances for them”.  And as you see below this way of depicting women fighting is not solely the domain of Makie–below is Hyukarin dispatching a guy who has just tortured and raped her for a few days.  Her rape and torture wasn’t some tactical thing where she allowed herself to be brutalized for some kind of strategic gain.  She was raped and tortured ostensibly because her style of fighting was SO distanced and performative that she was ineffective at finishing off her enemies.  Even here in her revenge it is being viewed by the fatherly view of Giichi, who has titled the fight in her advantage by cutting off that guy’s arm.

This is not an atypical depiction when it comes to highly capable female warriors within adventure comics.  But this is the extreme logical endpoint of the untouchable female warrior archetype within adventure comics.  Female warriors in comics who are depicted as fast, shifty, untouchable are inherently at a deficit in their depiction to analogous male characters–because they create two spaces within their existence: one is the space that, if only they could be caught, then they could be conquered sexually(as in the case of Hyukarin–Samura is overt in this way, because almost all of his fights have a section where one fighter tries to mount the other fighter), and the other is that their movement itself is meant to create the image of the beautiful untouchable woman on a pedestal that is the problematic way some men are taught to view women outside of these action packed scenarios.

It is because of these problems that when a fight comes along, particularly in western comics, like the fight in Pretty Deadly by Ginny Deathface and Big Alice–you tend to sit up and take notice.

The fight starts with Big Alice using Ginny’s sword to carve up her own face.  She says to Ginny “you think this is the first time I’ve been on the wrong end of a sword, little girl?”  Big Alice is a warrior.  She has dealt paint, she has felt pain.  What’s more pain is not a fear of hers.  Her vanity is not based in her face, which she disregards.  Her self-worth comes from the pain she can endure and the pain she can inflict upon others.  This is juxtoposed against Makie’s self-harm in Blade of the Immortal, which is driven by her desolation at being the untouchable death doll.  Her self-harm comes from the depression of the role she serves both for the reader, and the male viewers within the comic.

What is interesting in Pretty Deadly is that Ginny is positioned in a similar role as Makie.  She is set up in the first issue as this untouchable spirit of death.  She is Queen Badass.  But the Porcelain doll of death archetype is immedietely subverted in her very first fight in the second issue.  She is most certainly Queen Badass–but she is not untouchable.  She gets cut by Big Alice in the very first attacking exchange between the two.  But she takes it and just keeps coming.  Ginny continually sacrifices flesh and blood for tactical ground.  And what’s more the perspective of the fight, and the character design employed for both characters doesn’t allow for any sexualization of this pain.  This fight is never anything about two warriors brutally going at each other, doing whatever it takes to land the killing blow.  There’s no perspectives, or contortions causing the characters to vogue for the camera.  No orgasmic facial contortions.  These are two animals at their most basest expression.

It is analogous to a fight in Blade of the Immortal–but not one that involves any women.

This fight is from an exchange between Shira and Manji in the Blizzard chapter of Blade of the Immortal.  As Magatsu explains, “this is so brutal  […] you can’t even call it fighting.  It’s just an endless war of attrition.”  This is flesh as weapon, blood as strategy.  It is brutal to read, and that brutality gives this comic an extra weight.  If your comic is about people trying to kill one another–and you want to come hard with it–this is how it’s done.  And the sad thing is that this is a brutality that is often by design denied women in adventure comics.  But it is incredibly effective when actually used.  Thinking of that fight where Wonder Woman gouges her own eyes out so she can fight Medusa.  Heroism gains its weight in these kind of mutaliations.  The hero in giving up their flesh, allows for stakes to be built in the readers mind.  So often the tension with female warriors isn’t the stakes of win vs. loss, it’s will their beauty be damaged, will their perfection as a potential mate be lessened by this fight.  That’s why Big Alice opening the fight in PR by cutting up her own face is so freaking cool(critical term).  You want to know why so many female characters are supporting characters at best in adventure comics–it’s because of this notion of the primacy of their beauty over the brutality of the fight.  It is the built in vanity of these characters as viewed objects rather than brutal fleshed out fighters who fully accept the stakes of their choices.

On the final page of Elektra Lives Again, Matt Murdock’s face is a beaten chunk of meat.  Elektra still looks perfect.  And SHE’S the one who dies.

But here’s the thing.  Flesh is flesh.  Blood is blood.  Whether it comes out of a woman or a man, it is still blood.  Pain is equal, fighting for your life is an animalistic experience that is not in any way tied to gender.

The notion being that sacrifice of blood for a final victory would be the domain solely of men is atrocious.

In the end of this fight Manji has his plan that he took all of this horrific abuse to carry out.  He is drenched in blood, missing parts of limbs, partially frozen–but it was all part of a plan to get Shira to move into the space he wanted him to so he could deliver this winning blow(sans legs, missing an arm, frozen, bleeding).

This is the blood and guts of making a fight have weight in comics.  It is a narrative thing, but it is also a visual thing.  You create the space to draw these brutal images, and you get that gut punch.  To deny this from a comic simply because the protagonist of the comic is female is weak, and misses a trick.  Show me your cuts and bruises, dammit.

And that’s what makes Pretty Deadly cool.  Part of it.  That it is willing to scrap and claw for this kind of real estate in a comic of this stature is important, and more than anything–cool as hell.  Ginny, blood spurting off her, Big Alice the lower half of her face covered in blood–all to fight for an inch there or an inch there which decides the battle.  And there’s not an inch of this that is anything but fight.  Even though Ginny straddles Big Alice, the perspective chosen presents that strategically not sexually.  In this whole fight there is not a single panel designed for anything but presenting a brutal fight–and it really makes things like this look silly(and depressing).

You drawing a fight, or giving the reader a blowjob?


Hiroaki Samura’s epic(in the sense of it was coming out when I was in high school) Blade of the Immortal series came to an end this year.  And while in summation you’d have to judge it overly long, unfocused, and in some parts almost mindrendingly wasteful of it’s time on the page–you’d also say it did all of this with a style and grace that few if any other books matched.  Samura made long and unfocused look better than it had any right to.  And you stuck through the parts you hated because you knew when Samura wanted to give it to you, he could damn well give it to you unlike any other spot in comics.  He could do things on the page with composition, movement, rhythm, and figure that are simply without comparison.

One of the things that most fascinates me with Blade of the Immortal is his character’s movement.  Particularly the character of Makie whenever she has a duel.  Makie is the real star of the Blade of the Immortal series.  Her story and attitude is the most fascinating and interesting in the entire series–and her duels are drawn with the most creativity and expression of any of the fights in the series–which is saying a lot.  Samura imbues her movements with a genuine genius–it is enough that he tells us in the story that she is this otherworldy demon of the sword–but he actually shows it.

Makie’s fights are music.  They are a dance.  She comes at you in angles.  She comes at you in a rush.  A rush which is also a stillness.  A loudness which is also a softness.

To try and capture some of this rhythm I’ve color coded one of Makie’s fights.  The yellow panels are the soft panels.  These are the drops in the action where when pulled off right, create a sensation of floating for the reader.  The blue panels are the loud panels.  And then the red panels are the emcee panels–which are basically like on a mixtape when the DJ cuts in to tell you how: 1. the thing you just heard is impossible in it’s dopeness and 2. Like seriously did you hear that shit?

The emcee panel is a common trope in most manga adventure fights.  It is how they really ramp up the drama of the fight, and how they give the fight a narrative perspective within the fight.  It allows the reader to know that what they’ve just seen is oh so dope, and completely impossible–so impossible that even the way you actually saw it, you couldn’t see the true essence of it’s core dopeness.  It’s basically comics fight crack, and it is amazing it has never really caught on super well in superhero comics, which have a history of dialog during fights–but not much in the way of anything as keen as what you would see in even the most basic of boys adventure manga.  Anyways.

So those are the colors.

Yellow: Quiet
Blue: Loud
Red: Emcee

Oh yeah.  I also put in some circles so you could track the combination movements stitching together the beats.  

Check on that page how he speeds up the page with the first panel, just to drop it on the last two panels as he brings in the actual threat.  He stores up so much momentum with that top panel and it’s all there behind Makie’s back.  She’s got a whole page’s worth of weight behind her back.  Also Makie’s “these boring pitiable fools, who dare try to take up the mic against me” look.  That should have been a red emcee panel–but I think the angle of her head plays into the motion in the panel right after it–so I think it’s more of a pair with that panel and is the sinew which bolts the top panel to the last one.

The great thing here is that our expectations because of the previous page was Makie unleashing holy hell on this guy–but Samura delays it for a page–and transfers that motion into Makie’s leap.  He’s not giving us what we expected there.  There’s a cognizance there.

The pose in the top panel is almost a Makie signature pose.  Also sexual imagery like whoa.  And he didn’t even have to go T/A broke back to do it.  There is no tangible difference between fight scenes and sex scenes in comics.

Check the windup on that knee to the guy’s face.  That’s coming off her planted leg, which you can see she’s building momentum into with the swivel of that lead leg.  And then even as the blood is still flowing up out of the guy’s face as he pulls back, Makie is already ramming her blades into the sides of his head.  And again with that face.

And there’s your payoff.  But then Samura pulls us back from the fight, and lenses it through Anotsu’s perspective.  We go from really being right in the middle of the fight, to being far enough away from it to see it as the miraculous thing it is.

I love the juxtaposition there of Anotsu saying that Makie is dancing for him, but then other dude is the guy we see watching–and we see the horror on his face.  It gives what Makie is doing more of an edge, more of a horror, than if we had gone back to Anotsu or Rin there.

We then see the same butchering that Makie is doing almost incomprehensibly close–and obscured by more chunky blacks.

We come back out to Anotsu and:

Look at how much softer this page is compared to the one where the other dude is watching Makie.  The style of Samura’s drawing has changed to reflect a momentary narrative shift and moment.  And THAT, is your climax.

And then there’s shit like this…which…I don’t even want to talk about:

That’s some “I might as well just go back to making talking head comics” shit.

Anyways.  Dark Horse puts these books out stateside, and do a great job at it.  Probably skip the volume that has 90 percent of the Demon’s Lair arc(except for the end fight)–but otherwise…the covers are worth owning too.  Samura has an insane palette of oranges, blues, and purples.  Yeah go get those.  If this were a longer thing about Samura I’d talk about how he changed up his style midway through this book.  But who gives a crap really.

Hiroaki Samura does my favorite action in comics.  Usually one of the keys to a dynamic fight in comics is the sort of awkward balance issues in a fight—the best fights look almost clumsy—this clumsiness creates this slow/slow/fast;soft/soft/loud rhythm when you are reading—so it allows for the sort of exclamation mark moments to really sing.

Samura’s characters aren’t clumsy though.  They are dancers.  Particularly Makie, whose fights are I think the best in Blade of Immortal.  The way Samura draws the human body—is so lithe and beautiful.  His characters are all sort of light and fast—and the soft pencils that sometimes just barely hatch outside of the lines—the effect is mesmirizing.  I mean it’s something a lot of manga do in action—but I really think Samura has a great sense of timing in terms of when to zoom in on a hand or a foot, and when to pull back into a wide shot.  Something you’ll see him do a lot—and you see him do it in these pages—is he uses the smaller panels for more intimate rhythmic details—these speed up the sense of speed in a fight—because as a reader you are sort of seeing all of these subtle movements one after another, bip, bip, bip, bip—and then suddenly he pulls out and it’s this still from this crazy ballet video.

The top page in terms of it’s composition is fucking beautiful.  Mackie’s foot jumps up to the left of the page, Manji looks back in that direction—but his head is drawn in a diagonal down from the foot, and then the third panel is his head but it’s directionally down—so the first two panels create this pause in the eye in how you read it—and then that third panel drops you into the bottom page which moves with that drop.  The head drop in the third panel mimics mackie’s movement and position in the fourth panel, as well as correlates directionally with all of the speed lines.  Which brings you to the bottom corner of the page, like dropping off a cliff.  And then you’re quickly to the next page.

I dunno.  He’s a master of balance, movement, and rhythm.  Also he draws great hands and feet—which I think is almost a foundational element of how his comics work.  Take away his ability to draw fingers holding things, or the way the foot twists in a sandal—and you lose like 90 percent of it.