Yi Soon Shin: Warrior and Defender
by Onrie Kompan
Art by Giovanni Timpano
I actually picked up this comic at Phoenix Comic Con this year, because I wanted to read something short and was interested in the subject matter. I wasn't planning on buying any comics this year but when the gentleman running the booth told me what it was about well... I figured what's one more comic in the box right? I thought I would break trend and read, then review it within weeks of buying it instead of months.
Onrie Kompan is an American born and raised writer, as far as I can find out this is his first project and he's labored on it for almost 3 years. This includes several trips to Korea to research Admiral Yi. His passion for this work even got Stan Lee involved, who wrote the foreword to the comic. I do want to note that his passion for this is self evident, even just reading the comic I can see this is something that Mr. Kompan worked very hard on and believed in very much. Mr. Timpano is an Italian born artist, who is still very new to comics. That said his art is pretty damn good; I personally like the choice of deep, rich colors for this comic. That said I could do with less use of black and shadows as it makes even scenes that are taking place in broad daylight out on the open sea feel like they're taking place in some twilight forest, though everything is easy to see and tell apart. Which given the equipment of the time is hard to do. I also want to mention I appreciate the care lavished upon the gear and ships in this series. The Turtle ships themselves are incredible! They look menacing and dangerous from the first panel, just like a super weapon ought to!
Let me talk about the real life Admiral Yi, who was ironically an officer of the Korean Army sent to the navy as a punishment. So one of the greatest admirals of all time... had no formal training as a naval officer, he just kinda taught himself. Seriously if you wrote a fictional character who did this, critics like me would eat you alive. He joined the military at a time when the military was looked down upon as a lesser career path. This was a by-product of the Confucian philosophy that had major influence on Korea at the time. I believe the saying that illustrates this is “Good Iron does not make nails and good men do not make soldiers.” That said officers were still considered upper class and had to pass examinations to achieve rank. Yi passed his examinations and served with distinction in the army but had a lot of political enemies who constantly got him demoted. Dumping him in the navy was intended to be a kind of final insult, but ended up in some ways being the salvation of the Korean nation, preserving it from Japanese Conquest for hundreds of years.
The comic begins with the Japanese invasion in full swing (with a quick prelude of Shogun Hideyoshi vowing to conquer the world) and starts us off with the battle of Okpo in 1592. It's the first of several battles shown in the graphic novel and they are well done. Sticking fairly close to the historical record of what actually happened, with a few flourishes here and there to make things a little easier to follow or to make it work better as a story. One example of this is a confrontation between Admiral Yi and ninjas. As far as I can find out, ninjas were never used by the Japanese Army in Korea. On the flip side they could have been and the fight itself is pretty awesome... so I'm willing to forgive it. When it comes to the actual war itself, the graphic novel does a good job. Showing the grim odds against the Koreans that were overcome by a combination of new weapons, Yi's genius and the troops own courage and masterful execution of the Admiral's plan. I enjoyed these parts greatly and like the sheer amount of effort put into it. It's when the graphic novel wanders away from the battlefield that it gets into trouble.
While I enjoyed the graphic novel over all, there are a number of decisions that I have to disagree with, and others that I don't disagree with but I disagree with the implication. There are also some choices I could go both ways on. For example, the Japanese Generals Todo and Michiyuki are revealed to be having a love affair with each other. My problem here is that neither general was gay in the historical record and there is no evidence of such an affair. This might seem like a small thing, but these were real people. In such cases I feel we should try to get as close to the actual person as possible (for example there was a gay President of the United States, he was unmarried and had a male 'friend' in the white house with him. I leave it to the reader to figure out which President that might be. I will just say showing him as let's say in a passionate love affair with a woman would not have my support either). On that vein is the disappearance of Admiral Yi's family in this story! His eldest son and his nephew were present at a number of battles with him. He was a married man (and also had a concubine but given that was the custom of the time, I won't hold that against him). His best friend was the Prime Minister of Korea! Instead the Admiral Yi we're shown in this graphic novel is a grim island unto himself with admirers and supporters but few friends. By choosing this more boring approach, Mr. Kompan has turned his back on a number of story possibilities. In story terms, it seems like he did this to create a semi-romantic relationship with the head nurse Injung, but that doesn't go anywhere so I'm left asking “why?”. Speaking of romance, we also have a young refugee lady named Jin who seems to exist in this story mainly to stir up trouble. I'm holding my opinion on her here because her story arc ends in a cliff hanger of sorts, but like Injung her subplot doesn't seem to go anywhere. Also, her decisions make very little rational sense to me and I have no idea what she is supposed to be doing.
Another issue I have is Baron Seo, a Korean informant to the Japanese, and former slaver who hates Admiral Yi with all his being for some past action. He's supposed to be the main villain but he's just so unnecessary! We don't need a conflict between Seo and Yi because we already have a several conflicts! We have Yi vs the Japanese, as they attempt to destroy his way of life and his very nation. We have Yi vs his fellow admirals and officers as they fight for credit and to steal command from him. We have Yi vs his own damn king who wants to keep Yi under control and worries about a wildly popular and successful military man overthrowing him and taking his throne. Let me throw this in as well; Seo is really one dimensional! He has one character trait which is that he is Evil Mcevil Face! Seriously every time he's the focus of the book he is either doing something worth the death penalty or helping someone else do something worth the death penalty. Frankly he brings the quality of the whole work down, because I'm not invested here, I'm rolling my eyes and asking when I can get back to Yi fighting off a mass invasion with only a small army of devoted men. Which is kind of the story I paid money to see!
While I was entertained and enjoyed a lot of this comic, there are entire characters and sub plots which felt like wasted space. Additionally, changes to made to historical characters didn't really seem to make the story any better. That said this wasn't a bad comic. The battles were awesome, the story easy to follow and the art was good. All of that said Yi Soon Shin: Warrior and Defender by Onrie Kompan is going to clock in at a C+. It's better than average but the fact is that Mr. Kompan added a lot of things that didn't need to be added and took away things that made the story weaker. I'm going to suggest my readers check out the Extra history series on Admiral Yi as well, you can find it here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ieaDfD_h6s)
Next week, we go back to novels. See you then.
Edited by Dr. Ben Allen.