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Sword Master #1 review: a brilliant marriage of adaptation and innovation

Sword Master begins his journey (with a little help from his friends)!

After making his U.S. debut during War of the Realms, here is the secret origin of Lin Lie, Sword Master! This first issue presents Greg Pak’s adaptation of Shuizhu and Gunji’s original Sword Master debut story, as well as a back-up story featuring Lin Lie and Shang-Chi from Pak and artist Ario Anindito.

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That preamble is very important, and it’s one reason that this series may have its work cut out for it when it comes to grabbing audiences. This is a very strong first issue, don’t get me wrong, but it is an interesting situation when the stateside debut of a character came before the majority of the U.S. may have gotten a chance to read his origin story. The result is a really fun origin story and a backup story that may baffle some readers unfamiliar with the character and series’ background.

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With that out of the way, let’s talk about the book itself. Sword Master takes just about every trope you can think of from classic Chinese adventure manhua and twists them together into something new and fun. The artwork from Gunji in the main story is fantastic, with extremely expressive faces and some genuinely funny moments of mild slapstick. The sense of motion lends the book a constant sense of urgency. Even in the scenes with a group of men sitting around a table, the presence of speed lines or dramatic lighting makes this conversation much more impactful than it could have been.

Beyond that, there’s an impressive amount of information we get about the characters from just their body language. Take the scene where Lie is asking the grave robbers what happened to his father as an example. Though they’ve established themselves as a bunch of tough guys, they can clearly be seen shaking when they begin to recount their story. Not only that, but none of them will look Lie in the eye, as though they’re ashamed of how frightened they really are. Even if we hadn’t been shown the nightmarish photo of a red smog with a dragon’s face, these shifty characters’ reactions would be enough to sell the horror of their experience.

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On the writing side of things, Pak’s adaptation goes a long way toward selling these tense moments. His knack for dialogue really shines, with the translation managing to sound conversational and not stilted in the way that some adaptations tend to. While the story elements seem familiar, they’re not delivered in a way that winks at the audience. This is Lie’s hero’s journey and the book does not sell him short. He’s shown to be immediately more capable than your average “chosen one” protagonist. He’s got a hilarious bit of a mean streak to him, as well.

The second story is interesting, too. It mainly seems to be there to give us some more of our lead character’s bonafides, as we listen to him bragging about his War of the Realms escapades. The training sequence is beautifully written and the illustrations from Andito and colors by Rachelle Rosenberg do an admirable job of looking distinct from the first half of the issue, while still feeling like a piece of the original story. It’s an impressive feat. The only problem here is that it may be a little difficult to follow for someone coming in fresh.

All in all, this is a really fun first issue that manages to fill in some of the gaps from Lie’s War of the Realms debut and moves the story forward. Also, what part of “It has Shang-Chi in it” did you not understand?

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Sword Master #1
Is it good?
Sword Master #1 is a hyperkinetic thrill that will appeal to fans of sword and sorcery and good old fashioned adventure.
The artwork in both stories is gorgeous and they match up well, rather than feeling completely separate
Pak's adaptation is succinct, but fun, while his backup story forwards Lie's story in interesting ways
Takes classic story elements and melds them together in cool ways
More Shang-Chi is always a good thing!
For a first issue, it still may be slightly difficult for newcomers to pick up

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