So my local funnybook store (Hello, Nostalgia Newsstand!) recently let me borrow a preview copy of an upcoming book to review, and though I was on Blog Vacation at the time, I decided I couldn’t turn them down. Especially not when I realized it was filled with beautiful Chris Samnee artwork. It’s also written by Robert Kirkman, of course, but with him I’m a lot more hit and miss. I’m the one guy who didn’t like The Walking Dead, for instance, but I do dig Outcast. But, hey. I once read a Mark Waid comic for Samnee art, and I hardly EVER like Waid. So with Kirkman writing this thing, I was definitely willing to give it a look.
Which brings us, at last, to…
Fire Power, Volume One: Prelude
by Robert Kirkman and Chris Samnee
There’s really nothing new in this book.
It reads like an updated version of Iron Fist, for one thing: Orphaned white boy finds hidden mystical enclave of Chinese kung fu masters, and becomes their greatest champion. There’s even a dragon that’s the secret source of the magical fu power he learns to master.
But it’s not just Iron Fist. It’s every kung fu story about a young fighter seeking advanced training with a special group of mystical monks. There’s the Smart-Ass Old Master who teaches him, the Dedicated Second-in-Command, the Rival Student who hates Our Hero for no good reason, and the Implacable Enemy Clan with its own Evil Kung Fu Master that Our Hero will eventually have to face.
Hell, even Kirkman’s “twist” of giving the good guy Old Master a taste for Western consumer goods…
…is something we’ve seen before. And that’s not the only “surprise” that’s not actually very surprising. There are only a handful of different ways the plot tends to go in stories like these, and reading this one is mostly a matter of seeing which familiar story element Kirkman picks. At no point does he really choose to diverge from the paths we know.
But that doesn’t mean Fire Power isn’t worth reading.
Because even though nothing in this book surprised me in the least, I was still entertained by the journey. Yes, the Old Master is of the “surprisingly modern in taste and speech” school. But Kirkman writes that archetype well, so that he also feels like a real person instead of a collection of personality quirks. Likewise, the Rival Student is a real asshole, but not a two-dimensional jealous villain. The secret power of the Temple of the Flaming Fist is kept elusive and mysterious enough that it feels satisfyingly mythic. And on and on.
So even though this is very much a story we’ve seen before, it’s that story told very well. It wasn’t surprising, but it was fun to read. And ultimately, I suppose that’s more important.
Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that the whole thing is blessed with the artwork of Chris Samnee. As I said above, he was the real selling point for me on this book, and he didn’t disappoint. His work here goes from gorgeous vistas…
…to well-choreographed fight scenes…
…and everything in-between. It’s easy to read and a pleasure to look at, rock-solid old school funnybook art of a type we don’t see often enough. Marvelous.
There’s also a weird thing I only noticed after I finished the book, and was looking at it sitting on the table: the pages are sharply divided between white and black panel borders.
That seemed odd and kind of random to me at first, but then I dug back in and figured out what was going on. The black-bordered pages don’t start until Owen (Our Hero) is officially initiated into the Temple of the Flaming Fist, and continue on as long as he’s following the Temple’s teachings. But the white borders come back whenever he goes off the Flaming Fist path, like in a later white-bordered sequence in which he’s making out with fellow student and love interest Ling Zan (sex being strictly forbidden for the monks). There’s another time they come back, but discussing that would be a massive SPOILER, and I’m not going to do that with a book that hasn’t even come out yet.
Anyway. If we follow the traditional Western meanings of things colored white and black, this may be an indication that not everything is as it seems with the Temple of the Flaming Fist. And that would be a welcome wrinkle in a story that’s largely so predictable.
Of course… In the East, White represents death and Black represents prosperity. I’m not sure what that would mean for the story here, but I suspect that Kirkman and Samnee are working in the Western tradition, anyway. If the panel borders have any significance at all. But I greatly suspect they do. Even if it’s only that the white borders feel more open and free, while the black create a sense of claustrophobia. It’s something interesting to chew on, anyway, while we wait for the regular series to begin. Speaking of which…
You might notice that Fire Power: Prelude is a graphic novel. But Fire Power is planned as a monthly comic. That’s an unusual way to launch a new series, but Kirkman explains in an essay that there’s a reason for it. The series proper actually starts years after the events of Prelude. But as he was developing the backstory, he and Samnee decided there was too much good stuff to relegate solely to flashbacks. So instead, they decided to flesh out the backstory and launch the series as a full-length OGN. It’s out in late April, at a cost of ten bucks, and the monthly series launches three days later, FOR FREE, with a Free Comic Book Day special.
Which is audacious, and a bit of a risk. But, hey. Kirkman’s got all that Walking Dead money, right? This is the kind of risk he can probably afford to take. Plus, you know… It’s not like “martial arts action” is a hard genre to sell to funnybook fans. I would think they’d do pretty well with it.
I wish it well, anyway. This was a fun read. Far from perfect, and a bit paint-by-numbers for my taste, but well-done nonetheless. I’ll be giving the regular series a try in the Spring. And hopefully, if you’re on the fence about it, this has helped up make up your mind…