Thursday, June 21, 2012

Judge Bao & the Jade Phoenix

When I was in my late teens, I became obsessed with a couple of different mystery writers. They all wrote offbeat, macabre, out of print books that wree fun to hunt down and read. One of my favorites was a man named Robert Van Gulik, who, while he was an ambassador in China, discovered and translated an ancient Chinese mystery tale of a judge who solved crimes. Van Gulik went on to write fifteen or so of these novels, all in the style of that original book he translated, all featuring the same detective: Judge Dee and his handful of loyal retinue that helped him solve crimes.

Since then, I've discovered that the Chinese mystery tale has a long history, particularly in drama dating back to the middle ages, and that Judge Dee isn't the only historical detective. In fact, another Judge, Judge Bao, is even more legendary: having taken on corruption, greed, and villainy at the highest levels of government, he achieved a kind of Robin Hood status, and he was immortalized as both a folk hero and central figure in Chinese prose, drama, and opera.

Now Judge Bao has been brought to America through this translation of a French graphic novel which captures all the mystery, intrigue, and flavor of those ancient tales. There's so much texture here, so much life in this wonderful package of a book, I'm excited that Archaia has committed to this otherwise odd choice for a French comics import.

When you pick up this graphic novel, it is half-sized, like many online formats, and I don't know why they've published it this way, but it gives it a fast, fun-to-hold feel. Cartoonist Chongrui Nie brings a strong Chinese tradition to the art-- each panel is heavily worked over in layers of line art on top of  ink-cuts on top of brushwork. I've not seen a lot of Chinese comics, but in the ones I've seen, characters' features are always beautifully rendered, and Nie holds true to that here. It does lead to some stiff layouts, but that actually, for me, contributes to the "Chinese feel" of the comic.

The plot is convoluted, involving seemingly multiple mysteries--a falsely accused young man, a corrupt city government, a murdered handmaiden--which are tied together by the end. I say this not to disparage the work, but instead to suggest it warrants multiple readings. The story involves lots of intrigue and plotting, but it's not just a comic filled with talking heads-- Judge Bao's bodyguard/warrior friend contributes several action scenes. There is a smattering of gratuitous nudity as well, but certainly not on the level of a Vaughn Bode comic or any of the comics you'd find in a random issue of Heavy Metal years ago.

Overall, this is an exciting, handsome first volume for what I hope is a regular addition to both my mystery and graphic novel shelves.

You can check out this first volume in the series at this preview.


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1 comment:

Matthew MacNish said...

I wonder how old the original texts are. In particular, I love Chinese literature from the Three Kingdoms Period.