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Storytelling Engines: Shi
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Billy Tucci’s ‘Shi’ comes out of a very different era in comics than most of the ones I’ve discussed in this column before; the 1990s really saw the dawning of an era where comics were selling more to adults than kids, particularly independent comics. And one of the chief appeals to these adults buying comics was that they could get plenty of sex and violence in their stories; the “bad girl comic”, traditionally featuring a scantily-clad butt-kicking female lead character, became a staple of 90s comics. Which isn’t to say that ‘Shi’ is an attempt to exploit those trends, but it is worth remembering them (along with the obsession with Japanese martial arts that reached its heights in the late 80s, but that retained plenty of devotees years later. ‘Shi’ is as much a part of the “ninja craze” as Elektra, Ronin, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.)
Shi also follows a much grander and more ancient storytelling tradition, that of the “revenge story”. Everyone from Shakespeare to Shane Black has tried their hand at telling the story of a person who’s lost everything they have due to the actions of another–everything, that is, except their life and their desire to avenge their loss. This is part of why ‘Shi’ feels so cinematic; the modern action movie uses the revenge plot with an almost-obsessive frequency, and so ‘Shi’ feels like it could sit right next to ‘Desperado’ or ‘Hard To Kill’ on the video-store shelves.
Which is a problem, because while revenge stories frequently make good stories (witness ‘Hamlet’), but they almost always make lousy storytelling engines. (Yes, I hadn’t forgotten the subject of the column. I was getting to it.) The hero of a revenge story is always single-mindedly devoted to the elimination of the architect(s) of their tragedy. Once that architect is destroyed, they have nothing left to fight for. Sometimes, they’re able to then go back and rebuild their lives (as in ‘Desperado’), sometimes their need for revenge consumes them (as in ‘Moby Dick’…or ‘The Crow’.) But if you want a sequel, a “what comes next” after the event they’ve been devoted to their entire life happens…well, that gets tricky.
Sometimes, writers just pull out a “man behind the curtain.” We’ve all seen this one. “Oh, the guy who killed your Uncle Ben was really working for the Kingpin, he’s responsible for all the crime in the city.” (That’s the Ultimate Spider-Man version.) Sometimes, they pull a “bait and switch.” “Oh, the guy you thought killed your Uncle Ben wasn’t really the guy who did it, he was just the accomplice. The real killer is this guy!” (That’s the movie version.) And sometimes, they just decide to portray the hero as learning that there’s more than just revenge to fight for. “Because with great power must come…great responsibility.” (That’s the other, much better movie version. Yes, I went there.)
At first, ‘Shi’ looks like it’s going to have a lot of trouble transforming itself from a story to a storytelling engine. The title character doesn’t just have trouble figuring out what she’s going to do after she kills Arashi, the murderer of her father and brother, she has trouble figuring out if she’s going to be able to go through with it at all–she’s a devout Christian as well as a sohei warrior-monk, and she feels kind of guilty about carving a bloody path through New York City’s criminal underworld. (Wow, a hero who feels guilty about killing. If you ever wanted to know what set ‘Shi’ apart from other 90s comics, there it is.) If she can’t be motivated to take down Arashi, how can she ever wind up sustaining a series?
Ultimately, it’s at the end of the first volume of ‘The Definitive Shi’ that you start to get the answers. Not the end of the story; while I won’t spoil things for anyone who decides to read it, I will say that it’s hard to find a truly novel twist on the revenge story after all these years. (Well-executed, but not novel.) No, it’s the text pieces that follow the story that give you a hint of how you can turn a revenge story into an open-ended storytelling engine.
Each text piece is a short vignette from Shi’s teenage years, when she was training with her sohei grandfather, learning from her missionary mother, and generally growing up. They show a glimpse of a character who’s not consumed by revenge, one who studies art and has crushes and gets into snowball fights. The Shi of ‘Senryaku’ (the comic that collected these text pieces) is shaped by tragedy, but not defined by it. She’s someone you could picture doing other things besides getting revenge, and that’s the key element you need to have before you can turn a single story into an open-ended series.
Unfortunately, there has been no second volume of ‘The Definitive Shi’, possibly due to poor reception of the black-and-white translation of its color art. (It does wind up looking more than a little murky in black and white.) That’s a real shame, because it’s not until the very end of the first book that the potential of the character really begins to open up.
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