Grifter / Shi
(1996 - two issues, Image Comics)
Written by Brandon Choi, Peter Gutierrez. Pencils by Jim Lee, Travis Charest, Ryan Benjamin, Billy Tucci. Inks by Richard Bennett, Troy Hubbs, John Nyberg.
A company crossover between two mid-'90s properties, Wildstorm's masked mercenary, Grifter (created by Brandon Choi and Jim Lee), and Image Comics blade-wheeling Samurai babe, Shi (created by Peter Gutierrez and Billy Tucci). The story has Grifter coming to Japan, at the behest of a secret inner circle of the Japanese government, to help investigate terrorists who may've aquired an atomic bomb. Meanwhile, Shi becomes embroiled in an attempt to steal a ceremonial picture, the possessor of which, tradition dictates, gets to demand a favour from the Emperor. Needless to say, the two matters are intertwined.
Going into this, I knew nothing about either character (curiously, I can't even remember how or why I picked it up!) and though, after reading it, I can't say I'm off scouring back issue bins for further adventures, this nonetheless was a moderately enjoyable read. Less super hero than Tom Clancy/Ian Fleming-style kill or be killed espionage, the first issue is particularly convoluted and talky, with equal parts plot and character. The first page is entirely text, just trying to give you the background for the story, and even subsequently it's a little hard to keep track of who's who, and the various double crosses. The second half is more straightforward and action oriented...which means it loses some of the sophistication of the first part (and becomes more sci-fi/super hero, with cloned villains and the like) and also seems a bit sloppier, both in plot (one moment we're told traditionalist, sword-wielding bad guys are unfamiliar with modern arms, then Shi defeats one by claiming he's unfamiliar with traditional sword fighting techniques!) and technically (typos and the like).
Still, as the equivalent of a Hollywood action thriller, it's briskly paced and interesting enough.
The comic was by a series of creators, with no less than four artists handling the pencils, though they're all of sufficiently similar styles that the transitions are smooth and not distracting. Jim Lee is probably the biggest name here, though I think my favourite was Travis Charest (though their styles are so similar it's almost hard to distinguish) -- and Travis actually handles the largest page count. The overall style boasts strikingly detailed backgrounds, and generally realist figures -- no double-jointed contortions -- but with a bit of a manga influence (Shi is one-half legs!) and where there's a certain uniformity to faces and expressions. This can cause confusion when the story itself is convoluted, and it's hard to keep track of who's who when the characters aren't always sharply differentiated -- and the artists keep changing anyway. And some of the Japanese characters are supposed to be W.W. II veterans, but only look middle aged! The violence is also a bit extreme in spots, with lots of flashing samurai swords and automatic weapons fire.
When a story is set in a foreign land, there's always a certain iffyness to the proceedings. On one hand, you do want it to seem strange and exotic (else why set it in a foreign land?) but on the other hand you don't want it to seem racist. One suspects that most of what the creators know about Japan they gleaned from, well, other comics written by creators who, themselves, only knew Japan from reading comics.
At one point, Grifter observes a Japanese crowd protesting American troops in Japan and remarks "Did somebody forget who won the war? And who's been protecting their butts from the Russians and the Chinese these past forty years." Maybe this is just meant to reflect the character's views, not the creators', but it's a distressingly imperialistic comment (Japanese objections to American troops is often feulled by things like American G.I.s who commit rapes and murders and then, instead of being tried before a Japanese court, are simply shipped home to get, so some feel, slapped on the wrist by U.S. military courts). Later in the story, Grifter crashes a Japanese government meeting...with a bunch of rifle-waving U.S. soldiers at his back! The fact that the creators don't seem to see how diplomatically injudicious, how offensive, that would be is precisely why some Japanese resent American troops!
Politics aside, Grifter/Shi isn't muscling it's way to the top of any "must read" list, but as an espionage thriller, it's an agreeable time killer.