son of shaolin
SON OF SHAOLIN pays its respect to martial arts with its brilliant story and beautiful realistic art. While minor characters don't see their proper time on the page, this story is a must read!
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Comic book action poses a number of problems for writers. While many wish to choreograph lengthy battles, they run the risk of dragging the plot through the mud. One needs only to look to older series like DRAGONBALL Z, where fights last several episodes, to see how fine a line these writers must walk. On the other end of the spectrum, writers can easily shy away from these sequences. We don’t see Superman or Iron Man’s catalog of martial arts skills because they’re too busy smacking people through walls with a single punch. In essence, writers need to balance intrigue and realism. Luckily, in Image Comics’ SON OF SHAOLIN from Jay Longino and Canaan White, we find a new, modern example of the possibilities of the martial arts superhero.

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The Rise of the Tiger

Son of Shaolin
Courtesy of Image Comics

Delivery boy and graffiti artist Kyrie lives a simple life. However, as he takes the subway home to Harlem, a mysterious old man strikes up a conversation. This man introduces himself as Master Fong, and he apparently knows a lot about Kyrie, a fact that scares the young man. At the end of their encounter, however, Kyrie’s right palm begins to glow with a blue, tiger shaped sigil. Fong explains that Kyrie has a great destiny ahead of him, but Kyrie refuses to listen. Kyrie sprints from the train without looking back.

The next day, Fong accosts Kyrie again, this time in the home of Kyrie’s long-missing father. Fong explains that Kyrie’s father didn’t abandon him or his family. In reality, he descended from a clan of Five Elders of Shaolin, each with great power. Kyrie’s father left to protect his newborn child as he turned to a life of superhero-ing as the Harlem Tiger. Now, Kyrie’s father is dead, killed by another descendant of the Five Elders called the Red Fist. Kyrie has inherited his father’s powers, and the Red Fist will not stop until he has killed Kyrie and stolen those powers for himself. Fong takes Kyrie out of New York City and begins the boy’s training. As the shadows creep closer and Red Fist continues his search, Kyrie can only dream of winning his life back.

The Fallen Snake

Son of Shaolin
Courtesy of Image Comics

SON OF SHAOLIN might just be the greatest martial arts comic books that I have ever read. The plot, while at times brilliantly ludicrous, is fast-paced and highly intriguing. At the center of this story’s many successes is the visual narrative backing it up. Canaan White approaches this story with such deep realism. White’s pencils and inks are intense and heavy, a stark contrast to Diego Rodriguez’s bright color palette. While these details may seem too drastically different to work, they actually remind me of Bruce Lee’s yellow jumpsuit. The colors are an attractive coating for a serious and respectful story.

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What truly sets SON OF SHAOLIN apart from other martial arts stories is the sheer focus on the combat. Art and storytelling come together throughout this piece to give several two-page spreads featuring lengthy kung fu set pieces. The first comes from Red Fist’s battle with Kyrie’s father. Each move stems from real aspects of the tiger, snake, and crane styles of Shaolin Kung Fu. White and Longino manage to find a balance with the action sequences, giving them their due while keeping the plot moving forward. By illustrating these fighting and training scenes, Longino and White show a deep respect for this physical form of art. They show a depth of research or prior knowledge that helps anchor this story. By limiting lengthy battles to these spreads, they give themselves room to explore the intricacies of this brilliant story.

The New Elders

Son of Shaolin
Courtesy of Image Comics

Most importantly, Kyrie’s story is relatable. While the “uncertain hero” has become a major cliche, Longino manages to set Kyrie’s own doubts apart from other stories. Fong’s approach of Kyrie is sudden, brazen, and disconcerting. He essentially stalks the boy, telling him over and over again about his great destiny. This would normally feel like a lazy moment if the character just gave in. Kyrie, though, faces the situation with doubt over and over again. The first time he uses his Tiger powers, he runs from Fong without looking back. This happens two more times before Kyrie, beaten bloody by a local gangster, agrees to follow Fong’s training.

While the characterization feels lacking in Kyrie’s two friends, the other three characters (Fong, Red Fist, and Kyrie) all vie for the spotlight. They are wonderfully characterized, given personalities with depth and complexity. Fong’s motivations especially drive this story along, deviating his character from the Mr. Miyagi mentor cliches. More than that, everything is based in this glow of realism. Kyrie isn’t waxing cars or chopping down trees. He is actively pushing his body to extremes in ways that mirror real-life training methods for students of the martial arts.

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The absolute lack of black superheroes is distressing, to say the least. Comedian Aisha Tyler provides the forward for this graphic novel and goes into detail about her love of superheroes being somewhat diffused by comics’ lack of diversity. For Tyler and myself, Kyrie was the perfect character for the role. While he doesn’t fix problems of representation in comics, Kyrie’s character is a brilliant step forward. Kyrie’s role shows that any person can be a superhero with enough drive and personal strength. Most importantly, through all of this trial and tribulation, he never loses track of himself, and that is a superhero worth admiring.

Final Thoughts: SON OF SHAOLIN

SON OF SHAOLIN is a brilliantly fun graphic novel that feels realistic and respectful of the subject matter. The art and narrative intertwine perfectly, giving the reader a fast-paced and believable martial arts experience. The cast has personality, playing into the tropes of the genre without falling into cliches. While characterization may have faltered at times for the lesser cast members, any fans of action movies need to read SON OF SHAOLIN. Kyrie’s story gives readers and aspiring writers an example of what is possible in martial arts based stories.

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