Friday, August 13, 2010
I have even more respect for people who so thoroughly internalize their research that they're able to make their books funny. And let's face it, a history lesson goes down better with a scoop of honeyed humor.
Shi Long Pang, The Wandering Shaolin Monk (shortened in print form to Pang, The Wandering Shaolin Monk) is set in 1675 China, a time when the newly established Qing Dynasty was battling revolts in its provinces and the famed Shaolin Monastery may have been destroyed. It's an era of political and social upheaval, one that Western audiences aren't intimately familiar with, and yet Ben Costa manages to make his book fun.
Shi Long Pang is, as the title says, a Shaolin monk who has escaped the violent destruction of his temple. He has wandered into a walled city -- with little understanding of current events -- in hopes of finding his fellow Shaolin brothers. After being taken in by a kindly innkeeper, Pang befriends the man's lovely daughter and, like Aeneas in Carthage, relates the tragedy that brought him to this point.
I've always heard that Shi Long Pang was supposed to be a great comic, but the handful of times I've attempted to read it online, I've never gotten very far. Reading the print volume, I finally understood why. The first 50 pages are dense, packed with information on the Three Feudatories War and Wu Sangui, the former Qing general who will later try to crown himself emperor of China. It certainly reads well on the page, but it just isn't suited to my often ADD webcomic reading.
But it's that attention to historical detail that makes Pang such a rich read. The early infodump is a bit overwhelming, but it's clear those bits of historical knowledge will be important down the line. And Pang, who's spent his life cloistered in the monastery, needs to understand the war that's going on just as he needs to feel that first stirring in his loins at the sight of the innkeeper's niece. And once we've gotten a handle on the larger political situation in China, Costa settles into a much more balanced blend of the historical and the fictional, tempered by his witty use of comic captions and some bona fide jokes, which manage to be funny even when they require footnotes.
Of course, if it's action you're after, Pang has that payoff in spades:
Costa has just printed the first volume of Pang with the aid of a Xeric Grant, and it's a wonderfully complete opening volume. In addition to the historical state of the union and Pang's backstory, our hero manages to have a complete story of his own in what is clearly just the beginning of a larger epic.
[Shi Long Pang]
Order Pang, The Wandering Shaolin Monk, Volume 1
Disclosure: I've asked Ben Costa if he would contribute to a project I'm working on, and he has agreed to consider it. I have tried not to allow that to influence my review.