Without a doubt, one of the most notorious names at DC right now is Ann Nocenti. Absolutely reviled for her work on Green Arrow and Catwoman, she has angered fans of these beloved characters. Criticisms of Nocenti’s work vary in just what the core problem is, but having read a few issues of her Catwoman run, I found that the biggest crime is that the stories she wrote were boring. I mean, they were bad, but more unforgivable, they were uninteresting. I tried really hard to bring myself to care, but couldn’t.
When DC announced that Katana was getting her own book, I was excited. Like the Phantom Stranger, Katana is a character I was only previously familiar with thanks to her appearances on Batman: The Brave and the Bold. I read the first volume of the New 52 Birds of Prey series, and while I didn’t much care for the series as a whole, I really liked Katana. So when I found out that her chance to shine would be under the vision of Ann Nocenti, I was less than ecstatic. How did Nocenti do? Well…
Katana is the story of Tatsu Toro, a young Japanese samurai who travels the world with her haunted sword, the Soultaker. An incredibly powerful, dangerous magical weapon, the Soultaker, as its name implies, absorbs the soul of whoever it cuts down, including Tatsu’s dead husband Maseo. Armed with the blade that cut down her beloved, Tatsu’s mission is to avenge Maseo by hunting down his killers, the outsiders of the Sword Clan of Japan, assuming they don’t get to her first.
It’s a really good setup. A good, old-fashioned revenge tale with Japanese themes and a supernatural twist, taking place in the DC Universe. In the last couple of issues, the Soultaker was destroyed by the Batman villain Killer Croc, who was trying to free the spirit of a dragon trapped within, unintentionally freeing the Creeper at the same time. This issue has Katana come to Japan to try and find a blacksmith capable of fixing the sword, but the Creeper, not wanting to be imprisoned in the sword again, tries to stop her.
One of the nice things about this book is that, except for Killer Croc’s involvement, everything is explained. Katana is a rare example of a series where you can jump on and start reading with any given issue, and have everything you need explained to you. It is an incredibly friendly book for new readers, and in a time when storylines can last for a year, if not longer (I’m looking at you, Wonder Woman), it’s nice to just be able to pick up an issue of a book you’re curious about and go along with it.
One of the strongest features in the book is Katana’s narration. Katana says a lot more in her head than she does out loud, and while this kind of thing can be annoying if it’s just describing the character’s actions, it’s fascinating when done well. Katana thinks out everything she does. There’s a lot of subterfuge involved. She sets up a scene, and then we follow her actions based on her descriptions, and it plays out really well. The whole book basically reads like a combination of a spy film and a martial arts film, and it works. Also, Katana has some great trash talk in combat.
And that’s the thing. Katana herself is a great character. The events of the book are important, but the real story is about Tatsu’s personal growth, both as a warrior and as a person. She’s not the greatest fighter in the world. She barely manages to get by a lot of the time, and is constantly learning new things and improving her skills. All the while, she’s trying to deal with her husband’s death, and her revenge odyssey may not wind up being the bloodbath she initially intended. It is a fascinating story about a woman trying to bring order back into her world after she loses everything, and between a fascinating character and great action, it’s a good read.
Moving to the visual side, I adore the art of this book. Head artist Alex Sanchez has this really distinct art style, where he adds a bunch of extra, unnecessary lines to give the artwork a really rough feel. Usually, I hate stuff like that, preferring smoother, glossier art, but in the case of Katana, it really works. I’m not sure if it’s a stylistic choice or just how he draws everything, but it really adds a ton of depth to the book, and at its best, his art combined with the story to create an amazing experience.
Jack Ryder’s coat isn’t filthy, it just looks that way. And surprisingly, I don’t mind.
Surprisingly, I don’t have much to say about Nocenti’s story that’s bad except that the book has too many plot threads. If you’re a newcomer, this won’t bother you, but if you’ve been reading the series issue to issue, there are a lot of dangling plot threads that aren’t touched on right now. Here, we’re dealing with the Sword Clan, the broken Soultaker, and the Creeper, but plot points such as Killer Croc’s dragon and the tattooed girl aren’t even brought up. And honestly, I’m kind of glad, because it prevents the book from being too cluttered.
My actual complaint with this specific issue is that the art is inferior to how it has been in previous issues. Part of this is because the last five pages are penciled by Cliff Richards, who does draw things in the glossier manner I usually prefer my comics in. It’s not bad, but the difference is jarring. Here’s how Katana looks when Sanchez draws her:
And here’s how she looks when Richards draws her:
The thing is, even Sanchez’s pages pale in comparison to the first two issues of the series, and I think it’s because of the inker. The penciler and colorist are the same, but Sanchez inked his own drawings in the first issue, followed by the equally-talented Claude St. Aubin in the second. Take a look at this panel from issue #1.
Aesthetically, it reminds me of an actual Japanese painting. The way the figures all just pop out so vibrantly, along with the slightly muted colors is a thing of beauty. But now, the creative team is trying to make Katana look more like other comic books do, and I really wish they would stop. Katana had an incredible visual style in the first two issues that really sold the book. Now, the art’s still good, but it’s not anything special.
Katana is not one of the best books on the market, but it’s worthwhile all the same. It offers a good story, good artwork, and is just something different from all the regular superhero fare DC puts out there. Katana may be on a superhero team, but she is not a superhero herself, and the book makes that very clear. Whether you think it’s good or bad, you won’t find another read like Katana at DC right now. Amidst all the fallout from Catwoman and Green Arrow, this book shows just why Ann Nocenti is an industry professional. It’s not a great book, but it’s not bad either. It is a good, solid book, and I look forward to reading more.
This isn’t actually Coil on the cover. It’s a character named Sickle. Oops!
Katana #5 is available on store shelves or digitally now, for $2.99 USD.