The Webcomic Overlook #110: Shi Long Pang
I once got into a talk with a guy at work about some items that I’d seen at a museum. I mentioned how derelict a lot of the Roman and Greek exhibits look. “You got it to hand it to the Koreans,” I said to my friend (a Korean), “they know how to preserve historical artifacts. I saw a 5,000 year old pottery that looked like it was made yesterday.”
“5,000 years isn’t really that long,” he said. I don’t think he was showing any false modesty or pulling my leg, because he added, “China’s history is longer.”
And he’s right. China’s got a fantastically long history that most Westerners aren’t familiar with. And that includes me. I’m not going to pretend that I know my Qin Dynasty from my Xin Dynasty from my Qing Dynasty. The small taste of Chinese culture from the Summer Olympics two years ago thrilled — and sometimes frightened — the entire world with China’s grandeur and historical scope. With such a rich history, then, it’s a shame that few Westerners use China as a setting.
One of the few is Ben Costa, creator of the Xeric Award winning Shi Long Pang, the Wandering Shaolin Monk. The story takes place at the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, which was “one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history” by the University of Calgary but which we remember mainly for the nice vases. And when the most stable government in the world falls, you probably don’t want to be around to witness the aftershocks.
Ben Costa is a guy who clearly loves his history, and he’s especially enamored by the history behind the Shaolin. The burning of the Shaolin temple serves as the comic’s backdrop, a pivotal moment in Shaolin history. The circumstances behind the destruction are up for debate. There are conflicting accounts on the right year, the location, and the motive behind the temple’s destruction. Whatever the case, Wikipedia credits these attacks to spreading the Shaolin-style of martial arts throughout China.
However, Shi Long Pang should not be taken as strictly historical. Costa posts the following in his “About” page:
It’s historical in that it takes place during a real period in history, and I attempt to represent the visuals with at least an air of accuracy (also, crammed in at the bottom of many pages you’ll find researched footnotes, which you read at your discretion).
It’s fiction because Pang and his temple and his plight are imagined; and while the main plot points are based on some kind of legend, it’s by no means historical fact. The only historical fact here is lurking in throw-away lines and sitting comfortably in the backdrop, just like in real Shaolin history!
We begin Shi Long Pang with our titular monk entering the walled town of Yunnan. All of China is on edge. The Ming Dynasty has fallen, and the Qing Dynasty is consolidating its newfound power. Rumors persist of a resistance movement. Guards patrol the streets looking for a fight, but will turn a blind eye on crimes perpetrated by those associated with power. The local magistrate is hurting the commoners with high taxes, and his collectors are getting fat off the late fees. To the everyday people suffering through the oppression, the Shaolin represent outlaw heroes, one of the few that can fight back against the injustice.
Shi Long Pang, the only man in China without a nose, is himself in dire straits. He’s been separated from his fellow monks, and he’s looking for any sign that someone has seen them. He is however, very cagey, and he takes care not to reveal too much about himself. Eventually, Pang meets a kindly wall of exposition … I mean, an inn-keeper, who lays down a poo-pile of historical background on the reader.
I should tell you right off that Shi Long Pang can be a very wordy comic. Especially at the beginning, long word balloons crowd out the art with walls of text about historical events. And when it won’t fit in the balloons, there’s the footnotes. I wasn’t too bothered by the long streams of text: they do their job in establishing the setting and in developing the personalities of the characters (like the anti-Ming sentiments of the innkeeper, example). At the same time, it also tends to stop the momentum cold. Fortunately, when the action breaks out, Costa lets the art speak for itself.
The inn-keeper thinks that Pang is a good fellow, so he decides to give him some room and board. Later at night, Yang Yang, the inn-keeper’s niece, enters Pang’s room and sees his head, previously covered by a hat, is naked. There are dots on Pang’s head. He frantically tries to cover up since these innocent-looking dots mark him as a monk of the Shaolin order. As The RZA will tell you, Shaolin style can be dangerous.
Pang tells his life story, partly to lessen his pain and partly to get closer with the lovely Yang Yang. (Vows of celibacy among the Shaolin aren’t too different from their Western counterparts, by the way, so Pang is faced with yet another level of discomfort and confusion.) He tells Yang Yang of his life story. He he grew up in the Shaolin monastery since he was eight years old, and the life of a Shaolin monk is all he has known. Frankly, it’s not all that bad. No ladies? No problem. Not when you can get all 36 Chambers of Death up in this piece.
The Shaolin monks have been implicated in a plot to overthrow the Qiren. There’s some question over whether these allegations are true, but one thing’s for certain: the Qiren believe ‘em, and they’re sending troop over to destroy the Shaolin. Pang, who earlier had been spotted sneaking around the temple, is given a highly important mission by the Shaolin abbot: he must protect the temple’s texts. Several monks question the wisdom of protecting books when their lives are in danger, but Pang, finally given a purpose in life, wholeheartedly commits himself to his mission.
The Temple comes under attack in an epic battle with arrows, horses, swords, shields, and cannons. The temple guards and the monks put up an honorable defense. In the end, though, they cannot prevent the inevitable. Pang can only watch as the temple burns to the ground. In the ensuing chaos, Pang gets separated from his fellow monks and loses many of the temple’s books.
Back in the present, Pang tries to remain incognito, knowing that enemies lurk in the streets. Ah, but if you think he manages to stay under cover for long, then you haven’t watched many kung-fu movies. Yang Yang takes Pang on a tour of Yunnan, a city filled with wonders for a man who’s lived a sheltered, ascetic life. Such cities, though, are filled with danger around every corner. It’s not long before a small argument turns heated, and poor Yang Yang gets badly beaned by a rock hurled at her head.
And, oh snap, it’s on, son.
When cornered and when faced with no alternative for a peaceful resolution, bald, pudgy Pang transforms into a blinding hurricane of Shaolin fury. The fight sequences that dot Shi Long Pang are long, yet they’re fast paced.
When you take in several pages at a time, you can sense the blows, the speed, the rage, and the fear. It gets the adrenaline running. Overall, these fight scenes left me breathless. Half of you wants Pang to beat the everliving crap out of his attackers; yet half of you also senses his fear that his anger may be transforming him from your friendly neighborhood monk into a frightening, unhinged killer.
Costa is very experimental when it comes to panel layouts. Dialogue boxes, for example, have needless yet fun little arrows pointing the reader to the action. Thin, narrow dialogue boxes wedged between the panels frame short statements. They strongly contrast against the crowded word balloons to provide a bold aside to the narrative.
Yet, not all of the creative flourishes are successful. There’s an overreliance on arrows that direct viewers from one panel to the next. In one instance, the reader’s eyes wander a very twisted path that leads to an ending panel at the upper right corner of the page. In another, the panel sequence goes in the opposite direction of the left-to-right order. I wondered whether there was any meaning behind the unconventional panel layouts. Is it a reference to the Chinese way of reading? Does he mean to suggest movement, or to slow down the reader’s thought process? Whatever the case, I’m not sure it totally works since I felt more confused and disoriented than anything.
Finally, there’s the art style. I think that not all readers are going to like the simplistic look with the heavy brush strokes. File it under “Take it or leave it.” Personally, I liked it. It’s simple, yet delicate. The assault on the Temple is bathed in a preternatural white glow, and it serves as a reminder that while there’s death and suffering, it’s only but a single, small event when compared to the vastness of the rest of the world and the inexorable march of history. The landscapes, especially, are highly reminiscent of Chinese artwork, especially that of Wang Hui.
So despite some pacing issues and a rather slow start, I do highly recommend Shi Long Pang. When the comic gets rolling, it becomes very difficult to stop yourself from clicking through to see what happens next. By the time I reached the last page, I got pretty impatient. “Wait, what happens next?” I asked huffily to no one after clicking the forward arrow only linked me back to the exact same page. I always, always take this as a sign that the writer is onto something good.
And who knows? You might learn a thing or two about Chinese history.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Posted on February 26, 2010, in 5 Stars, action webcomic, adventure webcomic, historical webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Shi Long Pang. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.