On paper, "47 Ronin" sounds like a dream project; Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson and "Usagi Yojimbo" creator Stan Sakai team up to tell the legend of the 47 Ronin. If that's not enough, how about "Lone Wolf & Cub" co-creator Kazuo Koike as an editorial consultant on the script, and long-time comic veterans Lovern Kindzierski, Tom Orzechowski and Lois Buhalis providing the colors and letters? But with all of that in place, "47 Ronin" starts out a bit slow.
"47 Ronin" introduces us to Lord Asano, a daimyo who was summoned to the Shogun's castle and quickly found himself in over his head when it came to court intrigue and politics. As Asano's honor clashes with the corruption inherent within the system, things quickly go from bad to worse and Asano finds himself in a precarious position. It's a simple enough opening chapter, and at a glance it doesn't sound that bad, but with 26 pages of story and art per issue, it's somewhat remarkable how little actually happens here. Richardson's pacing is a little off; he mentions in a text piece that the book was expanded from four to five issues, and I can't help but think that was a mistake in terms of the writing. This should have some more pep to it so that readers will want to come back.
The other problem with the writing is that the dialogue comes across very stilted. At first I thought Richardson was simply trying to avoid all contractions, but that's actually not the case since some do appear in people's statements from time to time. Instead, there's just a very stiff sentence structure. I understand that these characters are supposed to be nobles, and as such Richardson might be attempting to bring that across in the way they speak. The problem is that it doesn't sound natural to the reader, and "47 Ronin" threatens to throw the reader out of the story before it even gets going. There's a fine line to walk between bringing out a high-born dialect and making the book's characters sound like real people, and right now "47 Ronin" isn't hitting that mark.
Fortunately the big saving grace of "47 Ronin" is Sakai's art. If nothing else, "47 Ronin" #1 should remind readers that while "Usagi Yojimbo" may cast its characters as animals, Sakai's still quite good at drawing a book populated solely by people. Characters have a wide range of faces and body types, and I love how well they move across the page. Even better, 18th century Japan bursts to life on the page here. Everything from temples and graveyards to castles and rivers looks just entrancing thanks to Sakai and Kindzierski. As much as I love Sakai's art in "Usagi Yojimbo," this is probably some of the best looking comic pages I've seen from him in a while. I could stare at the splash page showing the outside of the Shogun's palace for hours, and little moments like Asano walking among the trees with his daughter just sing with tranquility. Great stuff.
I wanted to like "47 Ronin" #1 more than I did, but the writing needs to catch up to the art. It's not bad, but it needs to be a little more engaging to the reader. Right now, it feels like the visuals are doing all the work to bring people back for a second issue. This could be a lot better, and hopefully we'll get that soon.