A young boy and his father meander down a dirt path, the grating sound of the baby cart’s wheels the only accompaniment. The boy peeks out of the cart in wonder while the father measures the road stoically. Suddenly, violence destroys this pastoral scene; the father unleashes a battle-tested blade and cuts down a host of adversaries. The dust settles, bodies fall, and the cart moves on.
Written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf and Cub emerges as a vital comic-book experience because you’re just as liable to come across a dozen panels that serve only to set mood — black-and-white tone poems — as you are an action sequence that fully realizes the chaos of combat. First published in Japan, Lone Wolf and Cub comes to America thanks to Dark Horse Comics, which collected the more than 7,000 pages in 28 paperback volumes ($9.95 each) and started releasing them monthly in August 2000.
The feudal Japanese story is simplicity itself: Ogami Itto, chief executioner for the shogun, returns home to find his wife murdered and his name dishonored. He takes to the road as a wandering assassin with his infant son by his side, biding his time until he can exact his revenge. (Writer Max Allan Collins pays homage to Lone Wolf and Cub with his DC Comics/ Paradox Press graphic novel Road to Perdition, the movie adaptation of which, starring Tom Hanks, hit screens July 12.)
Japanese readers have always treated their comic books as adult literature, and as such, there’s a maturity to Lone Wolf rarely found in American comics. This is not for children. This is a Kurosawa film with sex, drugs, corruption, wanton acts of violence — and a really cute kid.