Lone Wolf and Cub is probably the first Japanese manga I read. While it was originally published from 1970-76 in Japan, it arrived in the US in 1987, right when I was starting to get into collecting comics. This was a fascinating time in the comic medium, with works like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen shaking up the American comic establishment from within, while the new Japanese style represented a strange, vitalizing foriegn influence. It was an exciting, dynamic time in comic history.
I didn’t know any of that at the time. I was 13 years old and discovering comics. I could see the differences between old and new, the strange mishmash of styles some were favoring, but I didn’t have the historical context yet. None of us did, really, since we didn’t know what these new, dark, gritty, realistic comics were harbingers of.
Consider Eastman & Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a brand which many know about through the PG-rated TV series and movies, a sanitized version of a gritty black-and-white comic that had more in common with Cerebus than Muppet Babies or Transformers. It started off life as a gritty, urban-apocalyptic tale of 4 turtles making their way in a strange world, and ended up with catchphrases and pizza.
Lone Wolf and Cub came onto the scene in a way that my adolescent mind wasn’t ready for – a story of Edo-era Japan, historically faithful but amazingly violent, artistic yet gritty, beautiful yet containing all the horrors of human existence. I found it a compelling, hard read at that age. I’m positive I didn’t understand even half of it; but I tried to get it, even as the shiny full-color Marvel and DC books beckoned. It’s the story of Ogami Ittō, a disgraced samurai and former executioner of the Shogun, and his son, Daigorō, as they seek revenge on the Yagyū clan.
The entire set is available to read online, which is a great way to get a sense of the story – but the entire tale is over 8700 pages long. Find the books, it’s a worthwhile read.
When I say that the Tokugawa-era world of Lone Wolf and Cub is both artistic yet hyperviolent, consider the formative events of the story. Ogami’s wife and household are slain by the Yagyū clan, leaving only his 1-year old son alive. He presents a ball and sword to the child and waits to see which the boy chooses.
Should the child choose the ball, he will kill him. Should he choose the sword, the boy will join his father as a rōnin.
Daigorō chooses the sword, and together they wander the countryside, an assassin with a sign for hire pushing a baby cart. It’s an iconic image, one that is used in the television and film adaptations of the manga. Baby carriages have been used within violent scenes before – consider Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin‘s famous massacre scene on the Odessa Stairs, (a masscare which did not happen, at least not in that fashion) and the baby carriage rolling down the among the fleeing and dying crowds represents innocence amidst violence.
While there is innocence in the cub of Lone Wolf and Cub, he is raised in an environment of unrelenting violence and austerity, of revenge, and strict codes of honor. I love scenes like the one above for the juxtiposition of childlike joy on one face, and the joy of battle on the other.
Yet, the context of that panel is that Ogami just killed a man with a spear in front of his son. His son is happy because he’s peed, so he feels okay. A slaughter is about to take place; there is joy, and hatred, and fear, and a wild acceptance of fate and death.
This is a complex scene. It’s not about the glory of violence, though that is present throughout – the fierce honor imparted by bushido is not a simple one – but the contrasts that that violence brings about, how a cycle of bloodshed can consume families, how it leads people to depraved acts, and how – in the end – the son avenges his father’s death, though he is linked in ways to the Yagyū clan which he cannot comprehend.
Samwise Didier is 3 years older than I am. He was 15 or 16 when Lone Wolf and Cub appeared in American comic stores.
He is also the art director of Blizzard Entertainment, and he created the Pandaren.
The first thing I thought when looking at the Pandaren images in Samwise’s gallery is the influence of Lone Wolf and Cub, both in theme and in style. There are even a few pieces featuring “Lone Panda and Cub,” which is drawn in a style so the cub looks cute, and the father could be interpreted as being happy – yet the cultural interpretation must be one of violence, of revenge, of regret, of discipline, of honor.
There are references throughout his gallery to old-school samurai movies, like the Zatoichi series (which he likes because they’re short). Other pictures resemble poses from Kurosawa films; this is an artist who has enjoyed many years of oriental tales, and it shows in his artwork. The Pandaren in there are not cute, except for the cubs – some poses evoke Conan on his throne, others are out of a Frank Miller fight scene - and that they are treated with gravity and seriousness by the artist. Even pieces which seem whimsical at first glance have depth within their tranquility – I like how the adult Pandaren serenely regards the dragonfly on his nose, while his cub tries to play with another dragonfly while balancing on his parent’s broad back.
There is a depth and history within Samwise’s artwork which suggests that this is not some passing Kung-Fu Panda-inspired direction. Lone Wolf and Cub appears to have resonated with Samwise at an important point in his life, and left its mark on his artwork.
More than anything else, the pictures above reassure me that the Pandaren will not be a joke race within the World of Warcraft. The stories which originated them are too deep, too dark, too steeped in human tragedy, to allow them to become a mere punchline for an expansion. Will there be humor? No doubt. We’ll see Jackie Chan’s influence in Pandaria, and thank goodness, because I love Jackie Chan movies.
The Pandaren vision originated back in those samurai classics which I grew up with. It takes one of the national symbols of China and transforms it into a creature that can be used to represent oriental culture in a fantasy world, without caricature or implications of cultural superiority. Remember the Neimoidians of the Trade Federation, introduced in Star Wars Episode I? Hackneyed villians with a caracitured oriental accent that left you wondering how George Lucas thought this wasn’t going to offend someone? That’s the wrong way to associate your fantasy race with a culture. Don’t pick the negative stereotype and use that as the only reference back to the original group – that’s offensive. Pick the positive elements and adapt them to the fantasy world you’ve created, instead.
I wonder about the limits of CGI art, sometimes. I wonder if the associations people are making with Kung-Fu Panda is due to the resemblance between two different computer-generated CGI pandapeople more than anything else. Yes, they look somewhat alike. But will they act alike? I don’t think so, at least not universally.
Looking at Samwise’s art, and remembering the depth of Lone Wolf and Cub, I see a lot of potential in the Pandaren expansion.
Blizzard just has to execute on that potential.
Oriental Adventures was one of the first sourcebooks released for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (back in 1985, do you notice a trend here?) that changed the cultural setting of the game. It was one of the first sourcebooks, period, but it was especially groundbreaking in that it presented a way to play AD&D outside of the Western European feudal-inspired fantasy setting that was core to the game’s early development. You could take the same rules that let you play a Paladin or a Magic User, and use them to play a Ninja, Kensai, or Wu-Jen.
This was actually pretty big for the time. RPGs had already started exploring plenty of genres outside of traditional fantasy (Gamma World, Boot Hill, Twilight 2000), but always in the context of a different game, not the same game in a different setting. Oriental Adventures plucked us out of our traditional western setting and dropped us in the orient, creating a new game with the rules we were used to. We could mash them up, or play them separately, but the exotic people, races, and lands of Oriental Adventures had magic all their own.
Twenty-six years later, it seems kind of silly to talk about the impact taking an occidental fantasy game and porting it over to an oriental fantasy setting. We think about games differently now, thanks to GURPS and FUDGE and the D20 system. Rules are portable, settings vary. Rules should be able to handle any world.
But at the time, man, it was big.
Another thing to consider is that China was still very much a big unknown to Americans in the mid ’80s – a sleeping giant who had turned almost totally inwards. Our cultural focus was upon the Russians and their influence on the Chinese, not China – not yet. We didn’t see them as a serious source of competition yet.
Many things have changed in the intervening quarter century. China underwent an accelerated industrial revolution and is an economic force to be reckoned with. They’re a dominant player on the world stage, having embraced limited, controlled types of capitalism, yet with the Communist party still firmly in control. Sino-American relations are complex, and far beyond the scope of a video game to cover.
Mists of Pandaria is WoW’s Oriental Adventures.
It’s a little bit different, to be sure – there’s an optional element to AD&D that is always lacking in WoW. You can’t look over the sourcebook and say, hey, this isn’t for me, let’s go back to our medieval campaign in Warcraft. If you want to play WoW during MoP, you’re going to have to play WoW: Oriental Adventures.
(You, of course, have the option of sitting out this round. But there are pressures to keep playing.)
The Pandaren and Monks are the gateways into this new world, which I find exciting. I find it exciting because I’m not expecting Kung-Fu Panda, but rather Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero, even The Replacement Killers.
Picking one aspect of a culture, especially a negative aspect, and assigning it to the entire culture, is counterproductive. It casts cultures in a overly-simplified light that makes it easy to accept or condemn them based on one thing.
I see a lot of depth behind the Pandaren concept. I see an artist who created them out of respect for the artistic works he enjoyed growing up, and the works he continues to enjoy.
Will there be silliness? Yes, absolutely.
But will there be darkness, and violence, and warmth, and passion, and betrayal, and revenge?
We will be given a ball and a sword, and the choice will be ours to make.