(+++WARNING: This review contains spoilers for Fire Power Volume One: Prelude +++)
Last week, ahead of Free Comic Book Day, was supposed to be when Robert Kirkman’s new Kung-fu series Fire Power was to drop with a prequel graphic novel and then the first issue going out for free. But, we know how that went. Re-scheduled to now come out on August 5th, Fire Power Volume One: Prelude the graphic novel, with art from co-creator Chris Samnee, is big on page count but a surprisingly quick read nonetheless. But then, as comics should be, the art is often the star in another overly-familiar and well-trodden narrative may will be all too familiar with when reading this book. Although, as is Kirkman trademark when he takes such familiar stories he tries to play with genre-expectations and adds the odd twist or two. He did it with parallel universes Tories when he worked at Marvel, he id it with zombies, and he most recently did it with espionage thriller with Die! Die! Die!. So, why not the genre of martial arts, right? But, on this occasion, Tarantino got there first, and that’s one hard act to follow if you’re trying to do anything new with this kind of story.
Fire Power Volume One: Prelude on the surface seems to be a cross between the classic Kung Fu TV show of the late 70s and early 80s as well as a little bit of Kill Bill too, but with the kind of super powers you’d expect the likes of Marvel’s Iron Fist to wield. Although, it’s the journey to obtaining this power that we witness in this graphic novel, as orphan Owen Johnson treks through the Himalayas in search of enlightenment, training by a grand master of martial arts, and something more supernatural too. Enter one Master Lun, who has lived a contemplative life, but not that solitary that he hasn’t developed a taste for the more exotic, shall we say. Not many Grand Masters love their Air Jordans and other Western trappings as much as Lun. But, I suppose, it’s one of the little characteristics Kirkman includes in Lun’s DNA that attempts to make him something different to the many Grand Masters that have come before him. Although, to be blunt, giving him a taste for sneakers – and specifically Air Jordans – does not a rounded character make. Unfortunately, while the story is entertaining enough (I read it all in one sitting), with several moments of humour, the majority of characters don’t really rise too much above the stock archetypes you find in such fair.
Owen is given a mysterious past – the reason he comes here to this hidden monastic martial arts academy in the mountains – and has far more training than Lun expected. He’s a quick learner, to say the least, and that is a surprise given how many such characters, like David Carradine’s culturally inappropriate Kwai Chang Caine, often start off at the point of being a complete novice. But, then we are offered the usual story of boy-in-training making mistakes, meeting his nemesis and finding a love interest before the hideaway is attacked by Chen Zul and his army of ninja assassins. See what I mean? Throwing in the American trappings of a basket ball court on which we get an energetic game as played by gravity-defying Shaolin-like ass-kickers is all well nd good, but sones’t really distract from this being a rather by-the-numbers narrative.
What saves this book, and probably what will get readers to pick up subsequent issues of this pedestrian series will be Samnee’s art. Kirkman, I must admit, has a very keen eye for the right artist for the right book, and Samnee’s economy of line and mastery of shadow and light, along with Matt Wilson’s rich colors, really sells this book. Whether he is depicting the snowy mountainous region through which Owen trudges at the start of the book, or developing the look of the hidden paradise-cum-training camp Owen spends the majority of this book inhabiting, Samnee draws the reader in. His fight scenes are kinetic, his characters emotive and thanks to Wilson’s use of flatter colors than many comic books sport, never drowned out either. There’s your Ying and Yang right there, if we’re to bring this back to the pseudo-martial arts premise this series is built upon.
If you are planning on picking up the series, you do not necessarily need to read this, I don’t think. Yes, it gives us a backstory to Owen achieving the power that the comic’s title infers to, and introduces the Big Bad that will no doubt haunt Owen in the ongoing series – y’know, like the Hand on Daredevil – but moving the action away from this over-familiar, and over-used story of martial arts master and apprentice which we’ve seen so often in films such as Karate Kid promises a very different reading experience to what occurs in here. Moving back to a more contemporary suburban setting, as shown in this graphic novel’s epilogue, and 15 years later from the events that have just unfolded means that Fire Power #1 will be easily accessible to all. And, as a Free Comic Book Day offering, I imagine a lot of new readers will do exactly that. So, I’ll reserve my final judgment for the news series and give it a second chance. But, for now, Fire Power Volume One: Prelude doesn’t feels like anything new or that special. Iron Fist-lite at best at this point, I’m sorry to report.
You can catch a preview of Fire Power Volume One: Prelude here. Out August 5th from Image Comics/Skybound.