Sometimes the universe lines up in just the right configuration to drop a little bit of luck in your lap. That's my explanation as for how I managed to stumble across this particular (and not invaluable) volume at my local Half Price Books, tucked away amongst the American comics just in time to close out Old-School Month.
FIST OF THE NORTH STAR (Hokuto no Ken), written by Buronson & art by Hara Tetsuo. First published in 1983 and first published in North America in 1989.
In a world ravaged by nuclear disaster, there is a hero named Kenshiro who wanders the wasteland. Trained in the mystic art of Hokuto Shinken, he can take down any opponent with nothing but a few well-placed blows. What he seeks isn't violence or dominance, though. What Kenshiro wants is revenge against the warlord who took his fiancé from him and lords over the land with an iron fist.
Reviewing a work like Fist of the North Star is kind of intimidating. It's not just that it's got a violent reputation, one boosted by innumerable clips from the show and movie. What's also intimidating is how much its still-dedicated fanbase has hyped it as one of the masterworks of the 1980s. Now that I've finally had the chance to check it out for myself, I can see where that fanbase is coming from. Fist of the North Star truly is more than just exploding baddies and "You're already dead."
That's not to say that it isn't violent! Believe me, there's plenty of violence in the first half, and it tends to play out more or less in the same manner. Some enormous, hulking marauder threatens others, Ken happens to come along, fights said marauder until he explodes, only to move on. These instances are brief, but fairly graphic for its time. It's little wonder that if these moments are your only knowledge of Fist of the North Star, you would presume it's just the story of Kenshiro acting as a wandering badass. That's selling this series short, though. There is in fact a lot more story going on here.
Halfway through, we meet Shin, the local warlord. In fairly quick order, we learn that he has a history with Ken along with possession of Ken's beloved Yuria. While we've seen moments of understanding, even tenderness out of Ken before this point, it's only in this second half that Ken is shown to be truly human. He's not just some grim asskicker - he's also capable of love and regret, even in the face of a manipulative bastard like Shin. There was a reason to care for Kenshiro beyond his great power, and at this point I was compelled. I wanted to see what happened next, even if the answer to that was him fighting yet another hulking goon and finding a new way to turn him into bloody jelly. In that sense, Fist of the North Star is a narrative success. It just takes some time to get there.
It's a little tricky to talk about the art as well because the version I read has been altered from its original state. In what I can only presume was a move to appeal to American comic readers, this version was fully colorized. In all fairness, this was done with the full permission and supervision of the original artist, so this isn't a repeat of what happened with Marvel's edition of Akira. It's also unflipped and printed in a large, almost coffee-table sized format, unlike the previous version released here. Still, in doing so some of the appeal of Testuo's rich inking and hatching has been lost. At least the colors are rich, if rather muted in hue as befitting a dark and dismal post-apocalyptic world.
Hara's character designs are both iconic and totally ridiculous. Kenshiro, Shin, and the various thugs literally tower over everyone else. Still, there's a fair bit of variety, even if some of the thugs are pretty much just copies of characters from the Mad Max movies. Still, Kenshiro is distinguished by his relative litheness, an artifact of the influence of Bruce Lee on the character. He still towers over the comparatively bland normal folk, but he's nowhere near as ridiculous looking as the monstrous, virtually cartoonish thugs he fits. Hara's also has a brilliant eye for composition. Every fight and dramatic moment is perfectly framed. It's not just that every punch, kick and explosion is clear and easy to follow, it's that every panel conveys the awesome, supernatural power they wield through well-chosen poses and angles. The composition of every page and panel perfectly fits the mood of the scene. For me, that's what truly takes the artwork over the edge into brilliance.
Fist of the North Star earns its masterpiece status not through its plentiful and memorable gore, but through the heroic heart beating just underneath and the beautifully crafted artwork. That makes all the greater shame that this series has never been - and likely never will - be completed in English.
This series was published by Raijin Comics, and previously by Viz. The series is complete in Japan with 27 volumes available. 4 volumes were published by Viz and 9 volumes by Raijin, and all are currently out of print.