By Ant Sang
Capturing martial arts in comic form isn’t easy – kung fu is all about movement and momentum, two things comic books are always going to be lacking.
Some artists – including Frank Quitely and Paul Gulacy - capture the eerie beauty of martial arts through a series of ultra-still images, capturing the crackle the anticipation and the snap of a sudden movement.
Shaolin Burning author Ant Sang has spent much of the past decade in New Zealand animation, producing some fine design work for the successful Brotown cartoon, but he also did a lovely comic called the Dharma Punks as a very earnest young man, and getting almost two hundred pages of comic art from him in one go is a real treat.
Shaolin Burning spins a new tale out of the old story of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple, sometime in the 17th or 18th century. The legend says only five monks manage to survive, but in Sang’s story there is a sixth – Monk Who Doubts.
His bloody trail of vengeance parallels the story of Deadly Plum Blossom, an unwanted child raised by a Shaolin nun, and after many adventures throughout China, the two meet in a cave in a desert and reach an unexpected understanding.
Even though Sang put a lot of work into the storytelling effort – he proved it with charts at a recent writers festival – the story does feel a bit disjointed at first, before reaching that surprisingly elegant end. The odd use of some 20th century slang is also a bit jarring, even if the sentiments remain the same in any language.
So it takes a bit of work to follow the story, but that’s easy enough because Ant Sang draws some fucking brilliant kung fu.
It might be that animation background, or all that doodling he did in the margins of his school books, but Sang captures the moment of violence unleashed perfectly. These aren’t just warriors posing, they’re moving, punching, slashing, stabbing and kicking, always moving forward.
It’s all rendered in thick ink, giving these creations weight. When a small girl unleashes a punch of unbelievable power, it’s all there on the page. Sang’s line is consistent, but can also get wild when the fists and fury start flying. His style is his own, but there is a bit of Paul Pope in there, (which is no small praise, considering Pope is one of the finest action artists in the medium), and like any New Zealand action artist, there is a lot of Martin Emond (most obviously in the graceful three-page direct homage to Emond: ‘The Legend Of Ma Ti Fu Ken’ that Sang sneaks in there).
It’s all about that perfect moment, capturing that bit of beauty in the perfect physical movement. It isn’t easy to capture these moments in comics, but it can be done.