Are you reading Katana? Why are you not reading Katana? What's this whole "not reading Katana" thing about that the kids are doing nowadays? Is it a craze? A fad? The new twist? Disco updated for the 21st century?
It's not that Katana is the greatest comic ever made. It's not. But in its first issue (February 2013) wrITER Ann Nocenti and artist Alex Sanchez quickly establish the book as the compelling story of a dour young woman who talks to her sword because she thinks her dead husband's soul is trapped inside it. In the old days, we knew Katana's Soul Taker sword definitely had souls and spirits and demons or whatever inside it and when she talked to it, she was as rational as you and I. Nowadays, the sword apparently doesn't talk back (at least not so we can share in its dialogue via word balloons), so it's anybody's guess as to Katana's mental health. And my guess is she's shaky at best but not just because of the sword.
Katana doesn't feel much like a "New 52" DC book. Granted, I've only read a few of those-- the first couple of Birds of Prey with Katana in the cast, something with Superman, a few odd Batgirls and some of the newer Batman titles-- but despite Katana's presence in other books, this one seems to have largely cut her off from the overall narrative. This means a more self-contained world allowed to breathe on its own and grow. Actually, the whole enterprise reminds me of that classic Chris Claremont-Frank Miller Wolverine mini-series. You know, lone hero who explains herself through first-person narrative captions, swords, blood, enough ninja to choke a Sonny Chiba film. Writer Ann Nocenti pours on the local flavor by having Katana fill readers in on the WWII relocation camps and artist Alex Sanchez gives us some of the most intense reader-engaging gazes ever captured on the comic book page.
But some of the cultural elements bite this book on the ass, unfortunately. One of the first people Katana meets when she lands in Japantown, San Francisco, is a homeless candy-tosser named Junko, a dude. As far as I know, Junko is exclusively a female name. I broached this point with my wife a few weeks ago and she thought it was absurd.
"Is Junko ever a guy's name? Is it unisex?" I asked her, because I had my doubts. I've never met a male Junko, although I've known several women and girls by that name (in real life, plus a supporting character in Ai Yazawa's classic manga Nana).
"No," she told me, flatly. "Never."
Then we discussed the unisex nature of the name Hiromi for way longer than either of us really meant to because we both know tons of Hiromis. But I suppose it's possible for some guy to have Junko as his name, and it's not enough to toss me out of the story by wrecking my suspension of disbelief. It's the kind of teensy little detail I get caught up in occasionally because of my OCD and the fact I live in Japan.
The villain, named Coil-- he's the head of a sword clan, or perhaps THE Sword Clan, and he and Katana have a nasty history-- also mocks Katana for having been a dutiful Japanese housewife, invoking a stereotype of abject submissiveness I think is a bit outdated. On the other hand, Coil probably knows this and is just trying to piss off Katana, as when he evokes the specific imagery of pre-heroic Katana standing outside her burning house wearing fuzzy slippers. That I believe.
But both Nocenti's writing and Sanchez's art both have a delicate melancholy. Nocenti gives Katana a dry sense of humor and a loneliness, a need of someone other than a sword for companionship. There's a moment that deliberately drifts into eroticism when she awakes from a sexual dream and, out of guilt, literally takes the sword to bed, then appears nude in her bathroom before strapping on that sleek black armor and its deadly jewelry (a very cool touch). Shades of Kazuo Koike's Lady Snowblood. Whether her husband actually is in that sword or not, these are the acts of a disturbed person.
Sanchez's Katana has wide, staring eyes, but he takes pains to avoid the kind of supermodel appearance favored by other artists dealing with the female form. His Katana is all about the business at hand. He's helped by Katana's redesign, the absolute best in this whole "New 52" fiasco. The old Katana flitted about in bright red and yellow, a color scheme a friend of mine used to call "ketchup and mustard." The new one is all black with white makeup with a red rising sun symbol on her half-mask. Very cool.
The book's soft color palette invokes a kind of contrast with Katana's sleek armor and weapon of choice, kind of like a splash of blood on cherry blossoms.
It's enough of a start I've bought the next three issues and I hope to discuss them a bit more here sometime soon whenever I get a chance to sit down and read them. I've only been able to page through them a little and my initial impression is the art has moved towards something more traditionally feathered and hard-edged and Junko has hidden depths that are only slowly being revealed. The main thing is Katana herself. Are you interested in what she does, what swords she sleeps with and why? If you are, you really need to pick up this book. It's off the familiar paths of all those other DC books and really deserves a wider readership and some greater appreciation.