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Katana #1 – Review

KATANA #1

By: Ann Nocenti (story), Alex Sanchez (art), Matt Yackey (colors)

The Story: A lady doesn’t need to sharpen her nails if she’s got a sword.

The Review: We all choose to jump aboard a series for various reasons.  Sometimes it’s creator loyalty; you love some writer or artist, so the moment you see their name attached to a project, your money’s already halfway out your pocket/purse.  Sometimes it’s character loyalty; you will buy pretty much anything with Bat, X, or Avengers in the title.  Sometimes it’s concept; the idea of a supervillain playing hero or a superhero in T-shirt and jeans.

And sometimes it’s something else altogether.  For me and Katana, I admit it was mostly a matter of principle.  I like to support female creators and characters and I like to support characters with minority backgrounds.  So having Ann Nocenti writing Katana, a female character who also happens to be Asian, in an ongoing solo sounds like a pretty cool deal.  If nothing else, that just piques my curiosity.

Fortunately, Nocenti displays a great comfort level with the character and tone of this title that she lacks over on Catwoman (or Green Arrow, if I recall correctly).  While her portrayal of Selina Kyle often feels unpredictable and confusing, she shows much greater focus in exploring the mind and life of Tatsu Toro, which is only appropriate for a would-be master swordswoman.  Throughout the issue, Nocent shows a command of Katana’s voice and the direction of the plot that I haven’t seen from her other work.

Though on Birds of Prey Katana seemed quiet and reserved, a pool of calm in the midst of her more energetic teammates, in her own title she reveals there’s a lot more disturbance beneath her surface than anyone realizes.  In the opening pages, she nearly spits out her rejection of her image as a devoted wife, and as the issue proceeds, she reveals more signs of a rebel under that cultured and polite demeanor.  She can be sarcastic, sexual, even petulant—all qualities you’d never have associated with her before—but in a moderate way that doesn’t turn her into a different character entirely.

The most compelling aspect of Tatsu, of course, is her obsession with her dead via her sword.  Although Nocenti makes it very obvious that Tatsu genuinely believes Maseo lives on in the Soultaker, Nocenti smartly leaves a lot of ambiguity around the question of whether Tatsu’s belief has any real support.  Furthermore, while myth and legend will clearly play a large role in this series, you have to decide yourself how much of it has basis in fact.  In the meantime, Tatsu’s love affair with her sword is quite original, and Nocenti manages to balance both the romantic and creepy qualities of that relationship.

The only thing missing is a clear sense of Katana’s mission.  Her arrival in San Francisco’s Japantown has the portent of a vendetta, yet she later states that she needs teaching, that she’s “not ready” yet—ready for what, pray tell?  We can afford to wait for the answer; Nocenti sets up a rather cool little world for Katana to grow and fight in, and the different clans devoted to various weapons opens up the series to some interesting power plays.

Sanchez reminds me a bit of Travel Foreman in his fine lines, especially with such light color treatment from Yackey.  But Sanchez’s work also has a bit of a rough, dirty finish that mars what would otherwise be a fairly dynamic and stylish-looking issue.  His experiments with perspective can occasionally result in an unsettling image, like the opening splash of Katana’s grotesquely enlarged face.  Otherwise, however, Sanchez sells all the great sequences of action in the script, delivering one of DC’s most grounded and realistic offerings yet.

Conclusion: I can’t say it’s an instant hit, but it is definitely Nocenti’s most respectable DC work in the last year and it has a lot of rather unique qualities going for it.

Grade: B

- Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: - It’s not often you learn about a superhero’s “first time” in a comic, but hey—I’ll roll with it.  I’m glad Tatsu had such a nice—if rather uncomfortable sounding—one.

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9 Responses

  1. Not being overly familiar with this character, I’m coming at this book from a slightly different perspective. I think I remember Katana as one of the less interesting members of the Outsiders years ago, but I’ve lost track of her activities and we arrive in San Francisco together as strangers to each other. Speaking of San Francisco, I doubt that anyone will recognize Nocenti/Sanchez’s Japantown as having any resemblance to the real location. I know that Katana’s apartment is supposed to be on a “hidden street” in Japantown but the street must be hidden in a time warp. Even the Gion in modern Kyoto looks less ancient and silly. I know that you have respect for writers that do their homework on Japanese culture and fables (see Lauren Beukes’ work in FAIREST and your review) but Nocenti’s understanding of the Japanese martial tradition seems superficial and contradictory – at least this depiction does. This character and her world, populated as it is by ghosts and souls seems tailor-made for a less expositive and more nuanced storytelling – maybe not as dense and difficult and brilliant as David Mack’s Kabuki, but certainly a “Batwoman” style treatment, heavy on the monsters and mythology but grounded in reality with gorgeous multilayered murals and panels that run into each other; almost dreamlike and terrifying. I hope that Nocenti is up to the task, but somehow I doubt it. This was a second-rate effort at an inaugural book. I don’t have great hopes for this title.

    • That’s a good point about the authenticity of Japantown. It does appear that Nocenti’s trying to have her cake and eat it too by setting the story in ostensibly America, but still try to have that old-timey Japanese culture in there. But I don’t think Nocenti herself would argue she’s going for something “authentic.” I think she wants to grasp at that heightened, almost fairy-tale vision of Japanese culture, much as (as M0rg0th states) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and all its ilk has a heightened, fairy-tale vision of Chinese culture. Admittedly, there’s greater genuineness in those movies because they were made in their country of origin, but I think the falseness you’re describing could be more the fault of the artist than the writer.

  2. Writing these series that put a side-character of other series into the centre of the story is hard. It really takes a lot to justify this transition from gimmicky side-show to interesting lead-character. And writing in the big world of DC-comics means you have to give that new series a distinctive voice. In that regard the first issue was good enough as a start for a new series.

    But aside from that… I think judging by the tone of the issue I like to call this series “Katana: Widow Out For Revenge”. And the notion of Katana being a strong female character is kinda undermined by how often the whole “But shouldn’t you be a weak housewife?”-argument comes up in this first issue. In fact it opens with someone accusing her of being weak because she’s a woman (“Women are weak from centuries of doubt and humiliation.”). At one point when she prepares herself and her deadly weaponry she’s reminded of a cartoon about a housewife using everything in her kitchen to defend herself. And the issue goes on to show Katana as a weak woman depending on her dead husband who she believes is in the sword she has. Katana is painted as a broken and weak character who needs a master to guide her. So in the end I didn’t buy her as a potential hero-character who will save the day but rather a character who’s in need of saving.

    And there’s some genuinely weird writing as well. For example as the issue starts and Coil catches her Katana screams “No! I hate you!” which is a weird reaction to have. And then there’s this strange matter-of-fact overly descriptive tone to the internal monologue during the fighting sequence (“Someone attacks…! My hair-sticks will pierce them! Two down. Eleven to go.”). In that section the art also wasn’t clear enough in supporting this dry rundown of Katana’s cool weaponry which made it even harder to get invested. There’s nothing wrong with having an emotionally subdued character but it shouldn’t get to the level of being emotionless.

    Overall, it wasn’t a very good first issue in my opinion.

    • Well, keep in mind that a woman is writing this dialogue and that Katana rejects the misogynistic views placed on her. And to say that she is “broken and weak” is I think a pretty big overstatement. Yes, she misses her husband deeply and yes, she wants to be taught in a weapon that she’s had to teach herself how to master, but I think those are sensible qualities in a character.

      I personally feel, given what the issue is trying to do, that it was a very respectable first outing–although I do think Nocenti can probably tone down the narration during the action sequences.

      • Hmm, you’re right, the writing does go to some lengths of rejecting the misogynistic views. But if addressing it only amounts to “You’re a weak woman!”-“No, I’m not!” I ask myself why you would wanna include that issue in the first place. For example in the beginning she has this setup with Katana thinking “He chooses the devil’s tongue as his weapon” and then Coil talks shit about woman on the next page. So the writing sets it up as him talking shit. But what you see on the page is Coil dominantly standing over Katana who lays on the ground talking about how weak women are. Sure, in the end she kinda gets her comeuppance but then there’s this line again of Coil saying “Who controls the sword? You or him? Or does the sword control you both?” which again implies of her not standing up for herself but instead just being controlled by the sword. Maybe I’m just overanalyzing this but it just seemed to me like the issue was too much concerned with keeping her down. This issue just had such a mellow dark atmosphere but without any sense of hope or moving forward. Every scene seems to have something added to it that makes it seem mellow. That isn’t to say that this series needs optimism but with all the bad stuff that has been thrown at Katana in this issue I do ask myself what actually keeps her going.

        But as a first issue, I agree, it’s good. It piqued my interest and I will definitely check out the second issue.

        • I think the reason why Nocenti included these rather misogynistic points is cultural. Although Japan has obviously modernized, they still have very strict ideas of the roles of men and women in the home and at work. Tatsu, as a woman who intends to master what appears to be a very powerful sword, is definitely defying cultural conventions simply by the attempt, which is why I think she encounters scorn from others and doubt in herself.

          As for the control of the sword, I think it has more to do with the fact that it is a supernatural weapon with (apparently) a curse laid upon it, one that threw a famous warrior into madness, than it has to do with Katana being weak. That said, if you’re a woman who has to fight mostly male opponents, it makes sense that you’re going to get beaten down by men pretty frequently–the important thing is whether she gets up and beats the other guy down herself in the end.

  3. I have to slightly reword that.

    I thought this was pretty good issue.

    Some of the sequences gave me a CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON* vibe which was a plus for me.

    I’m looking forward to #2.

    *I know Katana is Japanese and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON is a film set in 18th Century China, but some sections still had the feel of the film.

  4. I thought this was pretty good issue.

    Some of the sequences gave me a CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (I know Katana is Japanese and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON is a film set in 18th Century China, but some sections still had the feel of the film) which was a plus for me.

    I’m looking forward to #2.

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