Issue June 9, 2010

Father and son

I recently caught myself making a “Tch!” noise and scrunching my face the same way my dad does when something inconsequential goes wrong. I had just finished reading a section of the first volume of “Lone Wolf and Cub,” and I was trying to toss it over to the table, just out of reach, missed, and watched it fall into a dusty leather bag, where it might get dog-eared. Tch! Indeed. I didn’t store that book in a plastic bag for 10 years only to have it get ruined on the very day I pulled it out to read again.

And then I laughed out loud at myself as I saw myself from outside of myself. Ha ha. Funny little man with silly, trivial concerns.

Oh, but perhaps you aren’t familiar with “Lone Wolf and Cub” (or “Kozure ?kami,” or, literally, “Wolf with Child in Tow”). What a great thing you would be missing. And, of course, you wouldn’t understand the humor of the scene above.

First published in 1970, “Lone Wolf and Cub” is arguably the all-time greatest epic of graphic storytelling. Enormously popular in its native Japan, the original manga (Japanese for “comics”) was made into a series of films, beginning in 1972. Americans were introduced to the story in 1980 when the first two films were edited together into the legendary (but severely truncated) “Shogun Assassin.” The original six films have since been released on VHS and DVD.

In 1987, the comics version finally reached a domestic audience when First Comics mounted a proposed 45-volume series. Unfortunately, the publisher went out of business with barely a third of the story told.

It wasn’t until 2000, when Dark Horse Comics relaunched the series in digest form, that American readers were able to experience the entire epic. The last of 28 volumes was published in 2004.

As a new father in 2000, I was particularly enamored with the storyline: the well-respected royal executioner is framed for treason and goes into exile with his infant son, selling his services as an assassin, while surreptitiously investigating the plot behind his fall from grace. As it begins, Ogami Itt? and his son, Daigor? (riding in a tricked-out, weaponized baby carriage), wander through dozens of episodes, employing an almost supernatural appreciation for strategy and numerous fighting techniques to eliminate their clients’ enemies.

Eventually, the Lone Wolf learns that the man responsible for his downfall is Yagy? Retsud?, the head of the Yagy? clan. Thereafter, he engages “meifumad?” (“the cursed journey of vengeance,” or “The Road to Hell”), tracking down and killing all of the heirs of the Yagy? clan and leading to a final duel with Retsud?, a near wordless, 178-panel sequence, that will make a reader’s pulse race. The conclusion is heartbreaking and perfect in the way it resolves both the personal and political storylines.

As with the endings of films like “The Wild Bunch” or “The Seven Samurai,” the end of “Lone Wolf and Cub” marks an end of its era, of chivalry and honor, called “bushid” in Japanese, or “the Way of the Warrior.” When the story ends, we are left with an aching desire to be better men, because we have seen the passing of such greatness.

During my son’s infancy, I enjoyed identifying with the relationship of this Lone Wolf and his son. I would occasionally take my son to court with me as I made simple appearances for my clients, and I noticed how his presence affected the demeanor of the conference room. My son used to look forward to trips to the Hall of Justice, if only because it meant he might get to ride the escalator up and down.

Now, as I reread the series, it seems almost completely new. I remember some of my initial reactions and some of the individual stories, but I am surprised to discover how much of the actual narrative I don’t remember at all. I guess I’ve been stuffing my head with other experiences and stories over these last 10 years.

How wonderful it is, then, as I revisit this story, which had meant so much to me as the father of an infant son, to see in the experience something of my father creeping into my own behavior and to see how the passing of generations might indicate something persistent, even eternal.

This week’s assignment: Observe Father’s Day in some appropriate way.