War is a vicious struggle … one in which none win.
Writer: Nick Bermel
Artwork: Daniel Mainé
Colors: Grostieta & Maxflan Araujo
Letters: Carlos M. Mangual
What They Say:
Before Shang was the mentor to the Guardian of the Nexus, bear witness as his past is finally revealed! The war for the Imperial throne is coming to an end. Shang, the last of his dynasty, seemed nearly invincible until a new general was chosen to lead the Imperial army. As these two strong forces race towards an inevitable clash, sinister forces plot to defeat them both.
Content (please note that portions of review may contain spoilers):
With tension of the upcoming battle now looming over an ever modest Shang’s head, the alluring Daji tries to console her partner’s frayed nerves, attempting to boost confidence by stating his ancestors will finally be avenged. However he must once again remind her this fight is not for his own personal glory but for the people, however the obstinate woman will not be swayed in her thinking, answering with a soothing yet noncommittal response. But as this weary leader attempts to turn the conversation from its balking impasse by adjourning to a basic meal and discussion concerning the new Imperial General Hua Hao, they are interrupted by guards who report said army is on the move, thus allowing them to turn their attention to reports of enemy movements as relayed by his enchanting assemblage of courtesan spies. And yet as one side concerns itself with news of present developments, not all is as nonchalant among the opposing force, with the new commander and his royal confidant far more concerned as to the turn of recent events.
Earlier in the week General Hua Hao and adviser Princess Xianning have retreated to his tent to consult as to recent defeats at the hands of rebel forces, and yet the regal heir cannot but tease her close friend as to his strictness for following royal protocol, even when they are alone. But as the joking is put aside, the valiant leader cannot but bring the discussion back to the topic at hand – the ruthlessness of Shang and all of the suffering he has caused the people. However as the commander berates how others before him have failed to quell this uprising, with their ambitions to please the throne clouding their judgment and thus leading to numerous pitiful defeats, Hua Hao pledges he will not be conquered so easily. It only then does the princess compliment her companion as to his overwhelming confidence being the true reason why his men so willingly follow their leader into battle, with her friend dismissing this puerile conclusion as another jest made on his behalf. However as this lighthearted revelry is quickly dismissed, Xianning asks if the General has reconsidered her plan of infiltrating the enemy camp and assassinating Shang, to which he reminds her even if she may succeed the option is suicidal and not worth the fleeting risk.
After hearing there would a series dedicated to the past of our favorite teacher Shang, I was sincerely looking forward to reading this title, and yet as writer Nick Bermel attempts to base the story upon Chinese legends and mythology, he also takes many poetic liberties with the narrative to craft it into a story which casts our hero and events in a more favorable light. First and foremost, we have Shang being portrayed as the last in his namesake lineage, and yet while this is the beginning of the story, readers must keep in mind this period history was over a thousand years ago, with no plausible explanation being given how he has lived for so long, even though their are others in the Zenescope Universe who have survived for millennium; while we are hoping the secret to his longevity is elaborated before the end of the series, with only two issues left, this likelihood does not seem as plausible in exchange for a fulfilling tale. However as the title is centered around our protagonist, it is his consort Daji who also draws concern as to her depiction within the title, with an introduction from the short from Grimm Universe Presents 2020 being the basis for the discrepancy – this alluring woman being characterized as a Japanese oni or ogress instead of the named malevolent fox spirit from Chinese mythology. This shape shifting figure was the favorite consort to the last emperor of the Shang dynasty, and yet nowhere in legend does she possesses any measurable magic aside from being able to change form and her sadistic need to cause harm to humanity. Secondarily, we have to wonder how she is now portrayed with an elaborate set of horns like Japanese demons, but at the same time this may be a fengguan seen at a strange angle, or the traditional headdress for noble women, and yet this was only warn during special ceremonies and not for everyday use. But as we ponder these problems, it is the antagonist Hua Hao or Hua Mulan who also has noticeable changes within her background as described from the Ballad of Mulan and the Romance of Sui and Tang, specifically concerning her friendship with Princess Xianniang. Within both sources her relationship with the royal is portrayed as being as laotong, or a bond between two girls where they take an oath to being kinswomen or sworn sisters to help each deal with any problem either may face during trying times. However, within this telling Bermel has distorted this cultural and honorable relationship by implying they may have romantic feelings toward each other; even if it may be passed off as a joke, in the original prose the princess was promised to General Luo Cheng and our heroine commits suicide rather than face a dishonorable fate. While this change may be acceptable within modern norms, this perversion of a cornerstone from Chinese legends may be found insulting to those who are knowledgeable by how well ingrained she is to that land’s culture, as she is considered one of their most cherished fictional heroes. Perhaps these misunderstandings will be cleared up within future issues, but for now the narrative has a slow and measured pacing as we adjust to the plodding telling of a historically driven story. However with the background now out of the way and our two protagonists now able to face a common foe, hopefully the next issue will erupt with the excitement we are expecting from a promising tale concerning our beloved mentor.
And yet it is the melodramatic nature of the story which allows the illustrative talents of Daniel Mainé to be so fiercely pronounced upon the page, every panel shining forth with splendid details and striking emotional gravitas upon each actor’s faces, all as we tentatively linger upon images within this foreign world of mysteries. However even as the heaviness of the situation takes precedence upon the portrayal of these figures, it is also the somberness of Grostieta and Maxflan Araujo’s morose palette that creates the a foreboding setting from the very start, allowing shadows and darker tones to play a key role in forcing readers to accept the growing tension of an upcoming war. To see Shang overlook Yin with such a somber countenance is sobering, with Mainé able to marvelously capture the uneasiness of a ruler who does not know if he will survive another day. However all of that stress seems to disappear once Daji enters the room: the sleekness of her silk robe draped over every seductive curve, exposure of peach colored skin in the most opportune of places and her creepy nail guards which almost signal trouble is coming, all to produce a woman who is not afraid to show off her allure if it means she can control the room. Even with all of these amazing nuances such as the draping of fabric, intricate armor textures and delicate cloth designs, there are rare times when the panel is so small or complicated that you care barely make out any features and they almost appear to be crude dolls posing as stand ins. But worst of all is due to the lack of viable lighting to illuminate most of the scenes, with simple candles being the only source of light, we are bombarded with too many pages which are cast in shadow. Skin tones appear sickly and menacing, the aforementioned facial features are swallowed up within forced darkness and worst of all – armies who are supposed to be threatening with singular forces in definition are now projected as blobs of blackness with pink dots on top, losing any fineness in their portrayals. While this forced veil does help to cast a suffocating presence upon fortunate moments such as prominent close ups or when Daji displays the prisoner via a ghastly red orb of magic, those same shadows work against the images when we see the same woman and Shang appear to have half of their faces swallowed up, leaving them unrecognizable if not for their signature clothes. While I can admire having to produce gripping artistry within such difficult settings lacking definitive and bright lights, there are times when the colors are a bit heavy handed, thus smothering the illustrations and producing an opening issue which seems lost until we reach the final pages, allowing us to see what could have been if only we had modern lighting to offset the lack of technology … or at the very least a little sunlight.
Shang combines the growing desire of knowing who is the man behind the name with the presence of an important legendary literary character, allowing readers to wait in anticipation as we watch this complicated premier unfold. Although unfamiliar names and mystical mythologies serve to complicate matters plus artwork which at times appears stunning and others unsure of how to clarify the images they are trying to conjure, the ominous foundations which have been set serve as a secure scaffolding as a promising story unfolds with a new alliance and improbable foes. The future appears glowing but with only two issues remaining, hopefully this series will develop fully before we are forced to bid our heroes goodbye to an uncertain future.
Rating: T (Teen)
Released By: Zenescope
Release Date: March 25, 2020