Okko the Cycle of Water
Okko is a French graphic novel written and illustrated by Humbert Chabuel. Mr. Chabuel was born in Annecy in 1969 and educated in Lyons. Upon finishing his education he set forth for Paris to try his luck. Once there he worked on a number of projects, the most well known being a little science fiction film called Fifth Element (fun movie! Had the best guns!). He later decided to try his hand with comic books and would work on marketing and art for video games, comics and television shows. I haven't been able to find much about his comic work because I don't speak French. If there are any French speakers among my readers please feel free to add to my knowledge. Okko was published in France around 2007, the English translation was brought over by Archaia Entertainment owned by Mark Smylie (which some of you may remember as the writer of the Artesia series, review of series III coming soon!). Now that I covered all the dry logistical details that took way too damn long to look up let me get to the comic itself.
Okko is named after the leader of a group of Ronin Demon Hunters. The Empire of Pajan, which is a fantasy Not!Japan, has fallen apart into a set of violently feuding factions along clan lines using a new technology of Combat Bunraku, sets of large powerful armors controlled from within by puppeteers to battle each other. With the powers that be busy murdering each other by the wagon load, there's no one keeping the various demons, ghosts and monsters of this mythical land from running riot. Which means Okko is gonna clean up, both by getting rid of the various nasty denizens of the night and by getting paid to do it. Of course, a man has to have a crew to travel in safety and make sure he has all his bases covered. In Okko's case he has the giant masked Nubaro and Noshin the saki monk. Nubaro (who I suspect isn't entirely human) is always masked and seems to have more powerful senses. His main job is to provide combat power. Noshin plays go between for the group and the various kami that inhabit Pajan. By making sacrifices and cutting deals, he is able to convince the kami to provide favors and services that prove to be invaluable in their line of work. Everything from glowing homing fish to earthquakes is in Noshin's bag of tricks.
That said despite being the literal headliner Okko is not the main character of this story. No that honor goes to Tikku, the last son of a poor fishing family and narrator of the story. When a plague killed their parents, Tikku's sister sold herself to a Geisha house while Tikku vowed to find a way to defend his sister. Unfortunately for him, the world doesn't wait for you to be ready when you make promises like that. In this case a shipload of pirates shows up and kidnaps every girl in the Geisha house after a rip-roaring battle with Nubaro (who we can now confirm sleeps in his damn mask!). Tikku is forced to watch this happen helplessness to stop the one person he loves being taken away from him... again. This honestly speaks to how much Pajan society has simply fallen apart. I mean okay orphans selling themselves into slavery is a bad thing that goes without saying; sadly it’s something that happened in a lot of ancient societies. On the flip side, a pirate ship just showed up and kidnapped a bunch of people, murdered others, and burned the place down! When the reaction of the characters is to simply shrug instead of informing the authorities I'm left with the distinct impression that the authorities aren't really doing their jobs. Even during the worse parts of the Viking Age some local lord or knight would have at least come by! Mr. Chabuel never directly states that things are breaking down mind you, but leaves a number of hints such as this to paint a picture of a society whose leaders are so wrapped up in fighting each other for power that they're destroying the very thing they're fighting over. I’m actually liking the subtlety here. Anyway, back to the story. When Okko shows up in the morning more than a little put out that his buddies can't do something as simple as wait for him at a Geisha house for a couple days without ending up mixed up in something weird, Tikku is driven by desperation to make a deal with the demon hunter. If Okko will help him find and save his sister (or failing that avenge her death), Tikku will spend the rest of his life in service to him. Okko, who like any small business owner is always on the lookout for good cheap labor, accepts and thus begins the hunt.
The hunt will take them across the sea to one of the wickedest cities in the empire and beyond to half forgotten wilds. During this hunt, they will deal with men, monsters, and spirits; and Tikku will find himself progressing from a poor son of a fisherman to an appreciable monster hunter. Ready to learn how to scour the enemies of humanity from the earth. The Cycle of Water thus becomes a combination of origin story for Tikku, a Japanese style ghost story, and a good tale that takes you through the low urban and wild wastes of a civilization determined it seems to beat itself into a new dark age. The art is well done in a style different from most Anglo or Japanese comics but still nice to look at. The story is well done and dark in tone without dragging itself down into angst or being overwrought in horror. Instead Mr. Chabuel seems more than willing to let the events in the story speak for themselves without trying to force a response from the reader--which I appreciated.
That said the characterization of a number of characters is fairly weak. We don't get a lot from Okko, despite the series being named after him. Nor do we learn about Nubaro or Noshin beyond getting a view of what some of their talents and capabilities are. We learn a couple things about how Okko and Noshin view honor and their jobs but the story is honestly lean on looking at anyone but Tikku. I also have to give fair warning, this is an adult comic so there's blood, guts and smut all over the place. I definitely must recommend this be kept for the over 13 crowd at the very least. Still if you like ghost stories and enjoy a Japanese theme to your entertainment this is a pretty good book. As for my complaints on characterization, well there are more cycles to go so I'm willing to give Okko more time to see where it goes. Okko Cycle of Water by Hub gets a B and hope for the future.
Next week, we go pulp. With Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl.
This Review Edited by Dr. Ben Allen.