By Carl Potts, Denny Oâ€™Neil, Terry Austin, Marie Severin & James R. Novak (Marvel)
During the 1980s Marvel was an unassailable front-runner in the American comicbook business, outselling all its rivals and increasingly making inroads into the licensed properties market that once went to the Whitman/Dell/Gold Key colossus. Much of their own superhero stable might have become cautious and moribund, but the company was expanding into many other arenas.
When the direct sales market began Marvel started its own creator-owned, rights-friendly fantasy periodical in response to the success of Heavy Metal which in turn led to a blossoming of many bold but comparatively low-selling titles in a host of varied genres.
From that ground breaking Epic Illustrated magazine comes this gloriously absorbing East-meets-West period fantasy (beginning with #15, October 1982 through #20 at the end of 1983) by then-newcomer Carl Potts who plotted and pencilled the tale for scripter Denny Oâ€™Neil, inker Terry Austin and colourist Marie Severin to finish and Jim Novak to inscribe.
Collected in 1988 under the Epic Comics imprint and released in the extravagantly expansive European Album format (a square high-gloss page of 285 x 220mm rather than todayâ€™s elongated and parsimonious 258 x 168mm) which delivered so much more bang-per-buck, The Last of the Dragons did its part to popularise the now over-exposed Japanese cultural idiom – but it still reads superbly wellâ€¦
â€˜The Sunderingâ€™ opens in 19th century Japan as aged master swordsman Masanobu meditates in the wilderness until a young warrior disturbs his contemplation by attacking a basking dragon. The magnificent reptiles are gentle, noble creatures but the samurai is hungry for glory and soon wins his bloody trophyâ€¦
After the arrogant victor has left Masonobu meets Ho-Kan, a young priest and caretaker of the Dragons. The youth is filled with horror and misery at the brutal sacrilege, but worse is to come for the tearful cleric. As he returns to the temple he stumbles upon a faction of his brother monks secretly conditioning young forest Wyrms, training them to deny their true natures and kill on commandâ€¦
â€˜The Visionâ€™ finds Ho-Kan returned to the temple too late: the aggressive monk Shonin has returned from a voyage to the outer world and has reached the conclusion that the Dragons must be used to preserve Japan from insidious change threatened by the encroaching white manâ€™s world. In fact he has already been training the beasts.
When the elders object Shoninâ€™s followers massacre the monks and set out for the wilds of America where they will breed and train hordes of killer lizards under the very noses of the enemy. Few escape the slaughter, but Ho-Kan is one and he will stop the madness somehowâ€¦
In a meditative vision he sees Takashi: a half-breed boy whose Christian sailor father abandoned him. The outcast boy was eventually adopted by a ninja clan and became a great fighter. Somehow he holds the key to defeating Shoninâ€¦
In â€˜The Departureâ€™ Ho-Kan hires the ninjas to stop the warmongering monks but, when he also tries to enlist Masanobu, Shoninâ€™s acolytes capture him. Under torture he reveals all and the wicked clerics then trick the sword-master into fighting the ninjas for them. After killing all but Takashi the monks thereafter invite Masanobu to join them on their journey to the West. The elderly swordsman has no idea that the beasts he guards are hopelessly degraded monsters now.
In â€˜The Arrivalâ€™ the monks and their hidden cargo take ship for California, unaware that a half-cast crewman has enlisted on a closely-following ship. Takashi the last ninja is bound in his duty and hungry for vengeance. He will not be deniedâ€¦
When they disembark on a remote bay on the American coast the priestsâ€™ intention of slaughtering the sailors and Masanobu goes awry when one of the baby dragons escapes. In the ensuing melee the aged swordsman realises the true state of play and flees into the forests.
The Native American tribes of the Californian forests are helpless before the martial arts and war-dragons of Shonin in â€˜The Meetingâ€™ until they meet Takashi – hot on the trail. He defeats and then joins with them. As Takashi and the assembled braves stalk the monks they encounter Masanobu who is also determined to end this dishonourable travesty once and for allâ€¦
All of which results in a tumultuous and stirring climax in â€˜The Decisionâ€™ as all the disparate faction meet to forever decide the fate of a nation, the nature of a species and the future of heroesâ€¦
This is a magically compelling tale for fantasy fans and mature readers: an utterly delightful cross-genre romp and one more masterful tale to add to the â€œwhy is this out of print?â€ list.
Â© 1982, 1983, 1988 Carl Potts. All Rights Reserved.