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ORPHAN BLADE Review: A Grand Adventure

As video games, manga and anime have ingrained themselves into American culture, we’re starting to see that affect comics now with creators weaned on all three entering the industry. If it wasn’t for that melting pot, we wouldn’t have things like Scott Pilgrim.

Oni Press, the publisher of that iconic series, has kept bringing similar work to light and it’s terrific. Orphan Blade, an original graphic novel by the late writer Nick Almand and the awesomely prolific artist Jake Myler, continues this tradition with a fun, exciting story with killer art, even if the plot gets a little muddled at times.

The Plot

In the 15th century, a group of various holy men used radical technology to try and look upon the face of God. Instead, they accidentally opened a portal to a world full of kaiju that devastated the world until one Dr. Africa, an assistant of one of the holy men, figured out that the bones of one kaiju destroyed at great effort could be used to make weapons and armor to effectively fight and kill the creatures.

With the creation of what came to be known as Artifacts, the kaiju were all killed. However, two problems quickly arose: 1. The dead corpses of the monsters poisoned and corrupted the land, resulting in huge spreads of deformed area known as the Blight and 2. Countries still in possession of the Artifacts using them to wage war on each other.

In the present day of this book, 14 year-old Hadashi and his two friends, while buying sake for their drunkard master, wind up on the run from the police. An accidental run-in with a small kaiju leads to Hadashi losing the index, middle and ring fingers of his left hand and, although he recovers, he’s kicked out of his dojo.

Hooking back up with an older girl named Soyako who he had previously met, Hadashi becomes a thief until he is introduced to Dr. Africa, who recruits the two, along with his assistant Katze–who Hadashi had met earlier when he was homeless–to help him out with his research by taking wildlife from the nearby Blight and bringing it back for the Doctor.

While doing so, Hadashi comes across the masked gang known as the Five Fingers of Death who have an Artifact in their possession, the titular Orphan Blade. Said blade, while looking like an ordinary bokken (practice sword) takes over the wielder’s arm when danger strikes and allows them to brutally destroy the enemy, Mortal Kombat-style.

Hadashi takes the Blade but it draws the attention of the Five Fingers of Death, forcing him, Katze and Soyako to go on the run in an attempt to find Dr. Africa and save themselves from certain death by journeying through the Blight.

The Story

If all that plot info didn’t clue you in, Orphan Blade is basically a mashup of video games, action anime and Pacific Rim. To give the late Almand–he died of cancer in 2013–credit, he blends all these influences into a nice, original setting with tons of potential. The world-building is done quite nicely and efficiently.

Almand has also created an interesting cast of characters, although some get more short shrift than others. Even when reading the book in one sitting, you can be hard pressed to recall who is who after a while. The reason for this comes from all the action: the fight scenes are so epic and demanding that you tend to forget who’s in them. Additionally, the plot structure of progression + fight + progression + fight gets pretty repetitive by the end.

What’s surprising here is the amount of wordless montages present. Almand is trusting in the art to tell the story. That’s not something you get a lot of in comics where it’s not one creator doing everything. It’s a noble thing to do and I applaud him for it.

Something heavily brought up in promotional interviews with Myler is that Hadashi is gay. And the fact that the hero of our story is gay, in addition to something being done by Almand, himself a gay man, who wanted to put in all the gay heroes he didn’t see in the stories he loved growing up, is also yet another step forward in what I’m calling the post-Korrasami media landscape. Hadashi’s sexuality, while immediately apparent, is just part of the story and is interpolated like any other romance in any other adventure story. It’s pretty awesome.

The Art

Jake Myler, currently known for a Fraggle Rock miniseries he’s doing with Kate Leth for Boom!, is an artistic wunderkind and he proves it here. The artwork is damn gorgeous and stylized like manga without being deriviative of any particular style. One of the standouts for me here is the gorgeous coloring, also done by Myler, which really makes the monsters and characters stand out.

The other are the really brutal action sequences, which form the “Boss Fights” in this book. The way the fight scenes, which all end with a stylized “Deathblow,” are obvious, intentional homages to fighting games (a postscript in the back of the book mentions that Almand’s earliest writing inspiration was Mortal Kombat II), and it’s some truly brutal stuff.

Myler really digs in with these scenes–gory attacks and inked blood splatters abound–and really makes you feel the weight of them. At the same time, it’s not like he’s relishing all the bloodshed, or that the action isn’t intricately composed and delivered. Every fight feels grounded in the context of the story.

Final Thoughts

This is an exciting, thrilling book full of some memorable characters and great action. If a bit over familiar to genre fans, it’s still innovative by virtue of Myler’s exemplary artwork and Almand’s good character work and subversion of romantic status quo. It’s very much worth your time.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Orphan Blade is available as an original graphic novel in print from your local comic shop as well as in serialized format on Comixology.

Cover image via

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Categories: Comic Reviews

Author:Tom Speelman

A lifetime of reading comics and watching television has left Tom with an inexhaustible supply of pop culture knowledge from the obvious to the obscure. Rather than keep it all in his brain for use at parties, Tom turned to writing a few years ago to help him share that knowledge with as many people as are remotely interested. Tom writes for several websites including The Mary Sue, Strange Horizons, Loser City and others. For even further rambling, follow him on Twitter @tomtificate.

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