With the comics industry slowly returning from the pandemic, Brendan Allen and I are taking the opportunity to introduce each other to comics that the other might not have read. I’m more of a capes, laser guns and swords guy, while Brendan loves dark magic, criminals and things that go bump in the night. This week we look at the adventures of a future ninja warrior in the Valiant Universe!
Rai burst on the scene in Valiant’s first run, however, the concept sat on the bench on the publisher’s relaunch until 2014. The character’s return was one of Valiant’s most popular launches, leading to the character’s continuing popularity today. This first volume chronicles Rai’s discovery that his life, and mission, all may be a lie, all created by Matt Kindt, Clayton Crain and Dave Lanphear.
It’s the year 4001 AD and Japan is basically all the remains of old Earth. Sitting high above the clouds, the omnipotent AI Father protects the massive city alongside Rai, a cybernetic warrior devoted to New Japan. However, when the city is rocked by its first murder in 1,000 years, Rai learns everything he thought knew is a lie…
Tony Thornley: So this is a bit of a change of pace from other Valiant books we’ve looked at. Those have been sort of twists on superhero stories with some other adventure story influences like Indiana Jones and Star Wars. This is dystopian sci fi thriller, mixed with a little noir and a lot of ronin/ninja warrior stories.
Brendan Allen: Is The Matrix not a superhero story? Because I was picking up a lot of the same themes here. Mashed up with some Dredd and Captain America. With ninjas.
TT: Yeah, it definitely has some Matrix in it. Especially the whole “shiny future utopia” being revealed as a grimy dystopia. Kindt does some great world building in this volume. You want to spend time in New Japan, but you definitely don’t want to live there. And the reveal at the end of the volume of what Father actually was, and what the surface of Earth was really like…
BA: The ‘exhaust dump’ that takes place about halfway in is a great analogy. The folks in New Japan celebrate the successful purge, while literally shitting on the folks who are unfortunate enough to be living on the surface below them.
TT: For sure. I also like that the character of Rai actually grows from being a mindless drone to his own character across the volume. Going back to your Matrix analogy, it’s Agent Smith growing into Neo across four issues. He actually really isn’t sympathetic at all at first, but the more he learns about New Japan, Father, the murder victim… He becomes this heroic figure right up to the final moment of the story.
BA: Right. And there’s a big reveal in there that draws an even closer comparison to Neo. That one scene, in fact, is almost shot for shot.
TT: But to your earlier point, it’s not just The Matrix it homages. You see a lot of dystopian fiction here, which I think Kindt uses as an entry point, then gradually evolves the story into what he was going for. Father isn’t this benevolent figure governing New Japan. It’s a malicious evil that only cares about New Japan. The why of that isn’t explored here, but it’s a great springboard to the future of the title.
BA: This is definitely one of those titles where I want to see the next volume. This is a really great kick off. The world seems familiar enough by the end of this first arc that I’m invested, and really want to see what happens next. The confrontation between Rai and Father really leaves a lot of options open.
TT: Yeah, and we’re definitely going to cover more of Kindt’s Valiant work in the near future.
Crain is probably the first all digital painter we’ve covered in this column. Before he did this book he was best known for doing Venom and Carnage related stories at Marvel, which should tell you a lot about his work here. He has this very fluid style, that’s very cool and very dynamic. It almost looks animated. It’s very good, not perfect, but good.
BA: I did have a couple small issues with the art. There are several places where characters radically change appearance from frame to frame. In one instance, Rai is in the foreground, looking all jacked, and then in the next shot, he’s in the background, looking elongated and lean. It was a little weird, but not really enough to take me completely out of the story.
TT: Yeah, and sometimes background figures look blurred in an unfinished way, not an unfocused way like I think Crain was going for.
However, in the action scenes? I think he does some KILLER stuff. He makes Rai move very naturally, and the way he lays out panels and action gives this incredible sense of speed and motion. It’s like… it gives you the feeling that in an actual movie featuring Rai, they’d have all the other characters moving in slow motion while Rai himself is at normal speed, you know what I mean?
BA: The fights are fun to watch. You probably know by now, I’m a huge fan of Spaghetti Westerns and Samurai Films, and the action sequences really call back to those genres.
I don’t know what the effect is called, but I love those scenes in film where a character or object gets sliced in half, but it happens so quickly and cleanly that the effect isn’t fully realized until a frame or two later when the halves fall apart. There’s one spot where Rai cuts clean through a pistol and the hand holding it, and then the pieces kind of slide apart. Fingers and barrel and bullets, sliced clean through. It’s beautiful.
TT: Oh definitely! He does that a few times throughout this arc and it doesn’t get old. And Crain’s color palette throughout is just great. It feels a little Blade Runner, a little Matrix, and a lot of various pop culture depictions of Japan. In every scene the tech all feels new and shiny, and that’s all thanks to how he renders the color with his digital paintbrush.
BA: I love so much that they went with Japan as the physical and cultural setting. This would have been a completely different story if it were set in the dystopian US we see in so many other stories like this.
TT: Definitely. And I like that both Kindt and Crain are very careful not to create a cliched or racist caricature of Japan through the story. For example, Lula, Rai’s companion, could have been a manic pixie anime girl, but outside of the color of her clothes, they both avoid that and make her something much more than she initially appears. Or they could have made Father show up as a cliched Asian mystic in physical form, but no, it’s a cold unfeeling AI through the entire story.
So I can tell you liked this one. Overall, what did you think?
BA: I really liked it. It’s not without flaws, but I think the couple small things I’d gig it on are more personal preferences than anything else. I’d buy this book.
TT: Yeah, I think it’s one of Valiant Entertainment’s strongest offerings. Kindt in general did a lot of really great work in the Valiant Universe, which I know we’re going to be looking at in the near future in the column.
So what’s up next week?!
BA: We’re going to take on one of my personal all-time favorites, BOOM! Studios’ Bone Parish, by Cullen Bunn, Jonas Scharf, and Alex Guimaraes. Set in The Big Easy, it’s all about family, loyalty, and personal loss. Also, haunted drugs.
Rai Volume 1: Welcome to New Japan is available now in single issues and collected editions from Valiant Entertainment, both in print and digital editions.
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