Pang: the Wandering Shaolin Monk v.1: Refuge of the Heart
Written & Illustrated by Ben Costa
Published by Iron Crotch University Press
The long-running webcomic now comes to print thanks to the generosity of Peter Laird and the Xeric Grant (which provides self-publishing grants to independent comic book creators). Pang: the Wandering Shaolin Monk tells of Pang, the titular monk, a survivor of a conflict during political upheaval in China during the latter part of the 17th century on a quest to find his lost brethren.
Heavily researched footnotes provide readers with copious background, details and cultural references, giving Pang‘s readers a window into societal history not deeply studied or understood in (most) Western culture. Amid the historical deluge, Pang travels to a small town where readers experience a traditional festival, political corruption and plenty of kung-fu style action.
Beyond its plot, historical details and subtle humor, a large part of the pleasure of reading Pang: the Wandering Shaolin Monk comes from watching creator Ben Costa grow. Although the book itself can be read in a few hours, the story was born on the web and serialized over four years – as a result, readers can easily see Costa’s growth as a scripter and artist during the course of Pang’s 188 pages. The characters’ voices, initially insecure and hesitant, grow stronger and surer, becoming more believable and realized protagonists. And the mysterious forces circling Pang transform from nebulous shapes to intriguing dangers.
Despite some early missteps in establishing the direction and tone, Costa settles into a compelling, enjoyably upbeat and humorous mystery-drama about halfway through the book. As this book is labeled vol. 1, subsequent installments promise the delivery of considerably good comics.
Costa finds his voice right around the time Pang meets the lovely Yang Yang, niece of an innkeeper in a city Pang ventures into. The paring of Pang and Yang Yang creates an emotional core to the story. Costa also finds his mark in terms of pacing the narrative, leisurely unfolding flashbacks (via Pang’s tale to Yang Yang) that catch readers up with the plight of the Shaolin while digging into the current political landscape of the town and how it affects both Pang and his rhyming-named potential love-interest.
Similar to the scripting, the art grows stronger as the pages progress. More attention to character designs would still help the series, as several background and supporting characters remain difficult to distinguish. Layouts, particularly later in the book, work very well, and action sequences soon outgrow their early confusion to become dynamic and exciting.
It’s not a perfect book, but it is a promising one. Pang: the Wandering Shaolin Monk finds its creator learning the ropes of comic book storytelling, but the payoff of those lessons is apparent. Historically rich, Pang combines an action-intense personal quest with a philosophical drama to create a different and engaging comic. And readers can catch up with it at the link above.