James Stokoe’s Ancient Chinese Epic “Orphan and the Five Beasts,” is a beautiful testament to pacing, sequencing and detail.
There’s a right way to do comics, and in Dark Horse’s new groundbreaking epic Orphan and the Five Beasts #1, James Stokoe demonstrates why he may be the greatest purist of the medium working today. An action-packed thriller of a piece, Orphan and the Five Beasts immediately sets off right out the gate to wow readers while providing a masterclass in action sequencing, not failing on either point thanks to the workmanlike discipline of Stokoe who takes the role of both artist and writer. The result is nothing less than a brilliant reimagining of an ancient Chinese demon-slayer on a quest to free the land from corruption told in the tradition of old Eastern fables spliced lovingly with the Kung Fu action movies which inspired the action.
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Orphan and the Five Beasts stars a young apprentice named Mo, whose master, an ancient yet powerful shaman, sets her off on a quest to kill the five beasts – demon-infused humans who once learned the shaman’s powers to defeat a wolf-demon, or Yaoguai, that had been ravaging the land. While the five warriors, referred to after the five virtues which they supposedly embodied in their younger days (specifically iron will, compassion, inquisitiveness, ardency, and indefatigableness), had seemed to emerge victorious over the wolf-demon, in the years since, they have apparently fallen under his sway, leading to a new era of corruption and darkness that only Mo has the skills to overcome. Following her ailing master’s direction, she begins her journey across the land to defeat each beast one by one in battle, her first such battle against a tireless bandit warlord in a ransacked Buddhist temple bringing the first issue to a close.
Known for his amazingly detailed work in the pages of books like Godzilla: The Half-Century War, Stokoe once again shows how breathtaking his compositions can be when he’s left to his own devices. Taking hints from older Heavy Metal-era psychedelic pioneers such as Moebius and Phillipe Caza while retaining a certain fundamental wonder to his style that recalls classic children’s book artists like Bill Peet, the overall ambiance Stokoe manages to deliver in the midst of this fantastic story is as absorbing and enrapturing as any work across the breadth of the medium, made even more enthralling by his deft action scenes which recall the best Kung Fu classics in spine-tingling detail.
The story is brought to life quite powerfully by Stokoe’s masterful grasp of the cinematic potential of the comics medium. Wonderfully framed and storyboarded as fine as any animated sequence, Stokoe treads a surprisingly holistic path when it comes to the completeness and seamlessness of his story, and the effort shows in the payoff down to the barest minutia. Being a tale of antiquity, the veins of nature and auras of magic float amidst the carnage of bandits and battle-like smoke rings. The monstrous beasts who appear are often grotesque and threatening without ostentatious overkill, as their very associative symbols enough to herald their corruptive danger when branded onto the foreheads of their henchmen or burned into the landscape. Detailed, yet simple, each expression of his characters’ faces, be it fury, panic or determination, endows these figures with a relatability that only heightens the stakes when the action erupts. The result is a rare example of a fully-realized world, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
When writing about a comic that possesses this level of clear dedication and vision, description quickly becomes a litany of superlatives. The first sign of Stokoe’s true prodigious skill the reader might notice is his sense of realism when it comes to building a lived-in, breathing world from the echoes of the distant past and it only gets better from there. The stoic Mo’s exhaustive training amidst the forest hills of some unnamed province is depicted in arduous glory that feels weighty and grounded. The wolf-demon rides across the page, a massive, awe-inspiring presence that brings with him a terrifying, unearthly glee hell-bent on sowing destruction and chaos. The first battle scenes feel kinetic, intricately detailed yet perfectly conducive to igniting the reader’s own sense of imagination when visualizing the complex motions within the heat of combat.
So, to simply say this is a remarkable book in terms of its unique art style and peerless action-sequencing does not quite do justice to the ethos Stokoe is trying to portray. Indeed, Orphan and the Five Beasts is one of those comics that comes around only every so often where the passion simply jumps off the page. There’s a certain all-encompassing quality to Stokoe’s meticulous yet wonderfully fluid style which is seldom seen in any book on the market, and here, in Mo’s journey to battle the forces of demonic contamination which threaten the very soul of the land, Stokoe invites the viewer to feel her struggle through the rich tapestry of his line-work. Every panel of this precarious, demon-strewn world feels like something akin to a portal to another world, a world on the edge of total destruction.
What sets this apart from the usual virtuoso artist fare is the unique synthesis of storytelling and visual flair which meld together in the kind of perfect fusion that showcases the unique strengths of the comic-strip medium itself. While the traditional folktale of the wandering demon-slayer is a story that dates back to before recorded history, rarely has this story of perilous adventure been relayed with the kind of visceral, brutal yet undeniably stylish kind of artistic flair Stokoe brings to the table here.
Orphan and the Five Beasts #1 (of 4) is the first in a multi-miniseries running saga of magic, mayhem and utter brutality, punctuated quite poignantly with the pulsating power of Stokoe’s auteur vision, a power which runs unabated throughout the chronicle and appears to still be ramping up. Given the quality of this first installment, hopefully, this will be just the first of many adventures to come for Mo, the orphan who must hunt each of the five beasts.
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