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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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04/09/2004 Archived Entry: "Graphic novel: No Honor"

No Honor
Publisher: Top Cow

Before I start this review, I have a confession to make: I'm not going to be entering this review unbiased. Of course, any reviewer has their biases because each person their own tastes and preferences, but in the case of "No Honor" I admit I have a bias against Top Cow. As with most people, images of impossibly built, half-naked women and chiseled beefcake are inevitably conjured up when I catch a glimpse of the Top Cow Productions logo. Alongside the T&A-friendly house style, which seems to vary little from book to book, the actual titles have been a mixed bag at best for me. Top Cow books tend to try to mix late-nite TV genres, like cop dramas or crime stories, with genres more rooted in the comic book medium, such as fantasy or sci-fi, which is an interesting approach, but unfortunately annoying cliches from both mediums become part of the package deal. Luckily for me, Fiona Kai Avery's "No Honor" isn't a bad read by any means, even if it did nothing for Top Cow's credit by changing my opinion about the imprint's approaches.

"No Honor" is a new take on that old action-drama sub- genre: the "two partners who must work together but are polar opposites that shouldn't be able to get along" story. Only in this case, the two partners are a modern day professional art thief, Random, and Tannen, the ancient ghost of a samurai who ends up sharing the same body with Random. Leading poor Random by the nose, Tannen urges Random to go to Japan and try to investigate a centuries-old tragedy that has left Tannen's spirit in unrest. In the meantime, Random is pursued by Brit, a thief-turned-cop, Tannen's actions destroy Random's career, and they are contacted by a host of lost spirits only Random/Tannen can see and hear.

The book's theme is built on the fact that Tannen and Random operate under completely different and seemingly contradictory moral codes. Random objects strongly to Tannen's willingness to kill, while Tannen is furious when he finds out the fellow he's possessing owes his living to stealing, even though Random patiently points out that his victims are always wealthy. Like I wrote, it's a solid premise to start with, but it's given almost no room for moral ambiguity. Tannen's actions, no matter how violent, are justified because the plot makes them so. For instance, there is a scene where the spirits of men killed by corrupt cops back in the 1920s ask Tannen to avenge them on some present-day cops. Tannen readily consents to carry out the spirits' request, despite Random's more than understandable objections. Basically Tannen, although he makes some noise about seeing cops act "dishonorably" in the short time he's been possessing Random, agrees to kill a few police officers for a forgotten crime committed by their predecessors decades ago. At the same time, we see the pair of cops Tannen will target brutalize a few innocent teenagers. To be fair, Tannen doesn't get to fulfill his promise to the ghosts, but the whole "hey, Tannen's perfectly happy to go carve up a couple of people for a crime they have no personal responsibility for" is kind of sidestepped.

That aside, the conflict between Random and Tannen does fuel the plot well, even if Random seems to adjust too readily to the fact that Tannen sometimes has complete control of his physical body. Unfortunately, there isn't much ground to cover: Random is literally stuck with Tannen, they contact several ghosts, Random's career falls apart because of Tannen's gung-ho actions (and a close associate of Random's dies in the process), they go to Japan, and meet more ghosts. There is, of course, more to it than that, but the book's plot feels a bit unfocused past its center, Tannen's relationship with his unwanted tenant. The closest thing to an antagonist "No Honor" has is Brit, but, even though her actions end up impacting the plot and she does interact with our protagonists for one scene, her story just feels like a sub-plot only tangently related to what we see happening to Random/Tannen. Of course, this is only Vol. 1 of what I expect will be an ongoing story, but, if Brit is meant to become a permanent antagonist, she probably could have used more breathing space in this early volume. Also so much space is spent on the ghosts Tannen encounters - the grandfather of an abused child, the aforementioned police brutality victims, a Japanese noblewoman killed in the nineteenth century - that the story's climax, where Tannen's past is finally revealed with little build-up and we learn what has kept his spirit wandering, feels terribly rushed.

The dialogue does run somewhat smoothly. Tannen's speech is rendered in archaic, purple prose, but not to the ridiculous levels you'd expect from how some genre stories depict noble warriors from alien societies. Tannen's words do clash with Random's modern dialogue, but not so much that there's too much of a distracting contrast. Unfortunately, there are parts where the dialogue derails, like this ugly visit from the Exposition Fairy:

Brit: "Look, you didn't hire me for my ethics - you put me on the art squad because I know the mindset."

Police Chief: "You are the mindset! Brit, you can't do this anymore! That's why I gave you the option to serve the NYPD instead of going to jail!"

As for Clayton Crain's art, it is in the Top Cow house style - although there weren't as many slices of cheesecake as I thought there would be (although there is one extended scene where Brit works at the police office during hours wearing a tight, belly-revealing t-shirt and hip-hugging pants) and actually more panel space is devoted to beefcake. There's a fair amount of attention given to detail, whether it's a moonlit field in the Japanese countryside or the ubran ally haunted by the embittered ghost of a child abuser. While the main characters are quite distinct and capable of showing their emotions. His action scenes are a bit awkward, but far from incomprehensible.

Now Fiona Kai Avery's script does work quite well. There's an effort to seamlessly mix in elements of drama, action, comedy, fantasy, and even horror here, and for the most part she pulls it off. The tone keeps the right amount of darkness needed for the subject moment, but knows the right moments to lighten up.

It won't be changing my views on Top Cow's output, but it's certainly a solid work with a premise that's worth the interest.

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