Orphan and the Five Beasts #1

Writer, Artist, & Letterer: James Stokoe
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics

A scarred bandit, a bandage barely covering the big ol’ veined carbuncles protruding from his head, dashes headfirst through the brush. He makes it as far as the training ground where Mo, a young warrior, trains herself in the ways of spear-fighting. Before he can speak the bandit dies before Mo’s eyes. But he does leave her with a message of sorts: a monstrous face branded into his forehead.

And so begins James Stokoe’s new Dark Horse series, Orphan and the Five Beasts. It’s probably no surprise Mo is the titular orphan, and her ancient master soon tells her about the Five Beasts. As it happens they’re former pupils of his who betrayed their promise to him. Once saviors, they now offer nothing but corruption. And because a hero is not a hero without heroic deeds it falls to Mo to track them down in a dangerous land full of those classic martial arts fantasy elements of betrayal, broken oaths, revenge, and aggressive bandits preying on the weak.

Stokoe’s art is rich in detail but so far our main character is a bit sketchy. Who exactly is Mo? We know she’s a capable fighter and she’s spent her young life learning how to fight. But, like the amorphous shadows standing in for the Beasts in her master’s long tale, in a story sense she’s unformed. Not a lot to say for herself. Well, a character who’s a little unfurling mystery herself can be a positive, and not every hero has to be a garrulous laugh riot.

Which isn’t to say there’s no humor in Orphan and the Five Beasts. After all, the very first beast is a mountain bandit king named Thunderthighs whose muscular legs dwarf those attached to the horse he’s riding. Chekov’s Thighs. If a guy named for his most obvious physical characteristic shows up in one scene you can be sure he’ll use those muscles before the story ends. You just may not be prepared for the gory shower of animal parts when that does happen. It’s bizarre and just the kind of visual kick we need in a book that’s mostly an old guy coughing a lot and spinning the yarn that sends Mo on her way.

Beyond the comically grotesque visuals there’s a lot to admire about Stokoe’s design sense. And he sure doesn’t believe in making things easy on himself. Not only is he handling the writing, the lettering and the coloring, this book looks like it took him forever and a day to draw.

“Rich in detail,” did I write? Mo’s outfit consists of a hooded cloak and then layers of pads and wraps. She carries a spear taller than herself with its head sheathed and bound with string or leather thongs. The home she shares with her master features all kinds of lovingly rendered knickknacks. Once we join Mo on her quest we get to see lightly armored bandits and monks each with a distinct look. And then there’s the aforementioned outlandish anatomical wonder Thunderthighs, who gets an entire full page introduction so we can study him in all his mountainous glory.

There’s a lot of fun stuff going on here and a lot of promise. If Stokoe can deliver on a regular basis, Orphan and the Five Beasts could prove to be, if not a timeless classic of kung fu/martial arts adventuring, then at the very least an adventuresome gross-out treat like a particularly wicked Mortal Kombat fatality. Either way it’s worth a look.