The second installment of this discussion group at Cleveland Public Library, hosted by Valentino Zullo on March 19, focused on the DC Comics trade paperback Katana: Soultaker, a 10-issue series written by Ann Nocenti.
Although there were less people who showed up for the group discussion, they were all faces familiar from the first meeting and our talk focused more on the book itself. At the meeting focused on Ms. Marvel, the conversation often strayed away from the book and although some worthwhile topics came up, they were broader ideas that didn’t cleave to the reason for the meeting. Valentino did a fine job of circling back to Ms. Marvel, but we wound up talking a lot about just comics in general.
When it came to Katana: Soultaker, the general consensus was that overall no one really enjoyed the book all that much. That itself was a poignant thing though, as Valentino mentioned that while he didn’t enjoy the story a whole lot himself, it was one of the few examples he could find of a female superhero who also fit the mold of intersecting qualities – in this case gender and race.
Katana: Soultaker follows what the group agreed was a disjointedly told journey of the titular hero through a revenge story. This narrative structure was itself one of the drawbacks to the book, which offered an example of a common trap for female heroines in that it makes the character a passive participant in their own story. In Katana’s case, she is motivated only by revenge for the murder of her husband, and in these sorts of stories, the revenge seeker has no real inherent drive of their own – their actions are spurred on only by the quest for revenge itself. This became particularly problematic for this story, too, after a major plot point is revealed towards the end of the series.
Following a similar path through the book is the supporting character Shun, who is first presented as an intriguing character with an important role in Katana’s journey. But as the story progresses, she too falls into a revenge cycle that by the end of the book finds her essentially just a bland, cliche-spouting engine of violence. However, because of the aforementioned plot point, and the actions she takes as well as those perpetrated upon her, she ultimately becomes more interesting than the main character.
Much of the book’s flaw stem from the storytelling, which was just straight-up messy. Scenes break at awkward times consistently throughout, and one of the group’s participants succinctly described the story’s execution by likening it to “that feeling you get when you waited until the night before your homework is due, and you just rush through it.”
The other big flaw in the book is that, while the core of the story is really not that bad, Katana’s character becomes irrelevant. In fact, her “real” identity and name were something the group had to refer back to the book just to remember. In contrast, the Ms. Marvel book’s Kamala Khan is vital to the story, her non-superhero identity a critical factor to understanding and appreciating her journey.
Overall, the book was just plain disappointing in many ways. As a tale of a Japanese warrior woman, it was riddled with just about every cultural cliche and stereotype that comes to mind. Packed with Yakuza, samurai, ancient clans, drunken masters, ninja stars, and all the accompanying cheesy dialogue you might find in a dubbed kung-fu flick. Mind you, i love those old kung-fu movies, but i can’t imagine that was the vibe they were going for in this book.
Katana’s actions and reactions to things were very often nonsensical, with her switching allegiances and allies several times, and even her goals were bewildering. At the book’s start, she’s trying to, i think, put an end to this large underworld syndicate. But also get revenge for her husband’s murder. And take over the syndicate. And stop some prophecy. And end some ghost’s curse. And stop The Creeper, who for some reason is nothing like The Creeper and instead is like an Oni spirit…?
In the course of her quest, she returns to the same places over and over, getting in lots of fights where she barely escapes, then collapses from injuries or exhaustion, and then wakes up safely somewhere else. At the climax of the book, it’s not even her actions that bring triumph and a conclusion to her quest, but the spirit of her dead husband. This occurs so quickly and in so few panels that, as a group, we all had to refer to the book just to piece together what happened.
And then there’s a single splash page to wrap it up, conclude the story AND the series as a whole.
Despite all the bad things about this book, the group discussion was terrific. Although we ran out of time, we thought it might be interesting after the discussion series is over to talk about what we learned about what makes a great female hero and perhaps even try to come up with our own character, based in Cleveland, who possesses intersecting traits. i hope we stick with this proposal, which sounds like a lot of fun.
Coming up this Thursday, April 2 is the next discussion group, and i’m really looking forward to this one because the topic is Batwoman: Hydrology. Batwoman is a fantastic character, and i’m hoping for a lively conversation. Not only is she a relatively new character with staying power, her comic has been one of the most enjoyable ones i’ve read in the last few years due in no small part to the stunning artwork.
It’s also worth noting that Cleveland Public Library makes a great effort to have plenty of copies of the books discussed in this group for readers to check out. The graphic novel, comics and trade paperback section of the library is frankly enormous. Because of the Ohio Center for the Book, which has been around since 2003 thanks to an initiative by the Library of Congress to promote literacy, they are able to offer these sorts of programs and books in the community. Initially, there was only the National Center for the Book, but it was expanded to a state level where they can highlight each state’s authors and writers.
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