Issue(s): Shadowmasters #1, Shadowmasters #2, Shadowmasters #3, Shadowmasters #4
So, the Shadowmasters. Sure, you've heard of them. They appeared in a few issues of Punisher. In fact, it says so on the covers: "The origin of characters you've seen in Punisher". If that's not a compelling selling point, i don't know what is. In actuality, by the time this series was being published, we had barely seen the characters in Punisher (War Journal, specifically), and when we have seen them, they haven't done much of interest. And it seems like both their guest appearances and this mini were duds, since we stop seeing them altogether after this series and a few more concurrent Punisher appearances.
This prestige format mini-series, at $3.95 per 44 page issue, is indeed an origin story, going all the way back to 1946, soon after World War II in Japan. It's unfortunately a dull, lifeless affair. The nice art that you see on the cover that i linked to is nothing like the interior art, which is by Dan Lawlis, who had previously worked on a few issues of Cloak & Dagger under Carl Pott's editorialship. The art is just kind of stiff and basic.
Not only is the art not like the covers (the one i linked to is by James Sherman, the others are by Jim Lee, Mark Texeira, and Carl Potts), but the scenes depicted on the covers are much more action oriented and exciting than anything going on in the story.
The story in the first book has a US soldier, James Richards, overseeing part of the post-war occupation of Japan, befriending the mayor of a Japanese town. The mayor, Shigeru Ezaki, spends his nights dressed as a Tengu of legend, defending his town from bandits and the like.
James and Shigeru go up against a group of renegade Japanese soldiers that refused to surrender, led by Kantaro Umezu.
Shigeru wipes out most of the soldiers...
...and Kantaro decides to give up his direct resistance and instead infiltrate Japanese society for an eventual takeover.
The second book begins in 1962. James Richards has decided that he likes Japan so much that he's taken his wife there to raise his son, Philip. Philip becomes friends with Shigeru Ezaki's children Sojin and Yuriko. Three pages later, we jump to 1972. All three children are being trained by Shigeru in the ways of the ninja.
Yuriko is the rambunctious one.
Shingeru tells his students that there are nine levels of the Ninpo skills that he is teaching and he himself never learned beyond level six.
In between training scenes, we cutaway a few times to Kantaro Umezu, who is indeed rising up in the ranks of Japanese society but never without losing the desire for revenge against the mysterious Tengu that defeated him back in 1946. One day, a photo of Shigeru makes the local newspaper. Kantaro had once seen his face but didn't know his name. Now he can hunt him down.
Shingeru comes home one night to find James Richards dead, with a note that all the wives and children are being held until Shingeru shows himself. Shingeru tries to use his ninja skills to sneak into the house, but Kantaro's organization has embraced modern technology. They are particularly proud of their infrared technology.
Shingeru still manages to get the drop on Kantaro's goons...
...but the wives and children are being held on a dead man's switch that will trigger when they are removed. Shingeru weighs down the switch with Kantaro's goons, but it's not enough and he's forced to stand on the switch until everyone else flees.
He's seemingly killed in the explosion.
Issue #3 continues in 1972 and begins with Philip's mom deciding that she's going to take him back to America now that her husband is dead. Two weeks later, Yuriko dodges a clumsy assassination attempt.
Kantaro Umezu takes that as a sign to give up on his revenge now that he's taken care of Shingeru, and focus on his plans of conquest.
"Years pass" and Yuriko's older brother Sojin has two children of his own. Sojin switches from his ninja training to the more peaceful martial art of aikido.
Kantaro's organization, the Sunrise Society, further develop their infrared technology and other weapons.
They're also getting into cloning.
One day Philip Richards returns to Japan, and that happens to be the same day that Yuriko gives Sojin a gift of an infrared device, which are now available on mass market. Sojin recognizes the device as similar to one that was found in the remnants of the explosion that killed their father.
So this puts the three former children on a course towards revenge. Yuriko gets a job in the company that sells the infrared devices. While she's working there, she falls in love with a guy that turns out to be the son of one of Kantaro Umezu's lieutenants.
That puts the damper on Philip's interest in Yuriko.
Yuriko eventually marries the guy.
Eventually we hit 1983, and Yuriko has a vision of her father, except aged as if he would look if he were still alive.
I keep mentioning the cover i linked to. Here is the extent of the action during Yuriko's actual infiltration mission of the Sunrise Society in the interior of issue #3.
Thrilling! But that bug she planted does get information on the Society's plans.
The remainder of the issue is spent debating their plans. Sojin wants to stop the Sunrise Society without resorting to lethal methods. Philip kind of goes along with that. Yuriko thinks they are crazy. They all agree that going to the authorities is pointless due to the degree that the Society has infiltrated Japan, but they hope their attack will expose the Society enough that uncorrupted authorities will have to respond.
At least for the final issue there's some action. Not really ninja action the way one normally thinks of it. But we at least see that Yuriko has the upper body strength to toss a pair of large dogs through the air.
Not very ninja at all.
Caltrops, i guess that's ninja.
But no one really flipping out and killing people.
Yuriko eventually gets the drop on Kantaro Umezu and her father-in-law.
They reveal that her father has been alive all along.
In the final showdown, Kantaro fatally wounds Shigeru.
But Shigeru kills Kantaro before he dies. Sojin is also killed in the battle.
Sojin's death makes Philip give up on his nonlethal ideas. Yuriko didn't need convincing.
Yuriko is able to take out the remaining Sunrise Society soldiers thanks to a killswitch that Kantaro had implanted in them.
When it's all over, the authorities do investigate the Sunrise Society, but Yuriko and Philip are told that they will have to leave the country or be prosecuted for their own crimes. So they go to America.
I wanted to like this. I like ninjas! And Carl Potts' writing is generally decent. But this is a bore. The origin could have been dealt with in a couple of panels and then we could have gotten into an actual adventure or something interesting. Or alternatively, if this much space was going to be devoted to all the intervening years, it might have been nice to see some real character work, really developing the friendship between a US soldier and a Japanese mayor in the immediate aftermath of World War II, showing the white American boy Philip struggling to grow up in Japanese society, stuff like that. But the story has neither action nor drama. It really is just a dry summary of the origins of the characters currently appearing in Punisher. And not even all of them; the most interesting of the Shadowmaster characters appearing in Punisher is the old guy, Rikichi, and he's not in this series at all.
Quality Rating: D
Chronological Placement Considerations: Book one takes place entirely in 1946. Book two spans 1962-1972. Book three spans 1973-1983. Book four takes place entirely in 1983. I could split this up and place book one at the end of the Golden Age era and the rest later (the others don't neatly split up), but no one wants to read about Shadowmaster characters that don't appear until 1988 in the Golden Age. So i'm treating that issue as a flashback. Even by doing that, i'm still stuck placing this book a ways away from the characters' eventual appearance in 1988's Punisher War Journal #1. By the time the Punisher stumbles upon these characters they've got a whole new set up and have met Rikichi, so it makes sense for time to pass. Marvel's sliding timescale potentially adds another wrinkle, but i'm ignoring that and placing this in the 1983 category.
Marvel Comics Presents #160-163 has a story featuring a character called Mace which takes place during Shadowmasters #4
Continuity Insert? Y
My Reprint: N/A
One possible reason for the characters failure to generate interest is that by 1990, ninjas weren't so hot anymore. Pop culture was moving elsewhere. I had never read these issues, but what little I knew seemed to make it derivative of the ninja clan Larry Hama developed for Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow in GI Joe.
Characters need to be very distinctive and appealing if they are to succeed. These seem fairly generic and boring especially for characters in the Marvel Universe. One only needs to compare this to Master of Kung Fu to see the difference. The main character, supporting cast, and major villains were all much more interesting.
These kind of origin stories are best told as flashbacks embedded in an ongoing series whose main plots are engaging enough to get people to buy the series.
Posted by: Chris | September 28, 2015 10:13 PM
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