Lone Wolf and Cub (Kozure Okami) is a very well-known manga (Japanese graphic novel) series which debuted in 1970 and spanned 114 chapters in 14 volumes. In addition to the manga, the story has seen numerous television and film translations, several of them of the highest quality. Due to the high level of quality of the manga, Lone Wolf and Cub was the first major manga to be translated and distributed in the United States, starting in 1987. The distribution rights belonged to First Publishing, a company with poor business practices that eventually folded. When First Publishing folded, the story was cut short, stopping at issue 45 (which reaches chapter 48 in the original manga). Thankfully, Dark Horse Comics managed to purchase the American rights to Lone Wolf and Cub and are releasing it in a series of 28 volumes at 296 pages apiece (yes, the story is almost 8,000 pages long). Lone Wolf and Cub is simply the finest manga series I've had the pleasure of experiencing; in fact, I would go so far as to call it one of the best works of literature I've ever enjoyed.
The story is a samurai epic, with plenty of hack-and-slash action, but several things set this apart from the usual samurai epic and make it something truly exceptional. It is these elements that make the Lone Wolf and Cub manga one of the first things that I recommend to others who are looking for something new and interesting to read.
The first element is the plot itself. Written by Kazuo Koike, the plot is somewhat reminiscent of the classic "Dollars" trilogy by Clint Eastwood (A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), in that the story revolves around a seemingly invincible individual traveling from town to town, bringing justice where money can be made. In fact, I often wonder if the inspiration for the films originated here. The main character in question here, Itto Ogami is a paradox, neither good nor evil. He is both an amoral assassin and the epitome of bushido (the honorable way of the warrior), like Eastwood in those movies. This behavior is a product of the brutal and confusing times that were feudal Japan, much like the Old West that Eastwood was a part of in the trilogy of films. Eastwood's "Man with No Name," however, seems not to have a driving purpose other than to dispense justice and violence. Itto, on the other hand, is driven by a greater purpose. That purpose is revenge, on those who have reduced him to being a simple traveling ronin and forced him to be a father alone with his son.
Itto is, of course, the figurative "Lone Wolf," but what of the "Cub"? Itto's son, Daigoro, is the figurative yin to his father's yang. Despite being born as the son of a ronin and forced into a life of violence, Daigoro is remarkably gentle. Over time, the father and son grow closer, becoming united in the quest, but utilizing different perspectives on the situations at hand. We watch Dengoku grow up in this life, trying to resolve the issues within while remaining unbreakably loyal to his father.
The plot excels because of the amazingly good writing that builds it. Once you've read a few hundred pages of the manga, Itto and Daigoro become very real, perhaps more so than any other literary characters I've ever read about. They are different, but yet the same; both following different paths yet staying loyal to one another. They both try to stay on an honorable path in these times of chaos, but as the world is filled with madness around them, it is often not easy.
The artwork is superb as well, somehow bringing visions of the classic Akira Kurosawa film The Seven Samurai to mind. The artwork is done by Goseki Kojima and is done in black and white, but somehow reminiscent of watercolor paintings. The characters somehow appear sharp and fluid at the same time, creating a breathtaking realism on the printed page that sticks into your mind. Soon, you are able to easily visualize these characters as though they were alive, an experience that I have rarely had with a graphic novel.
The setting itself is also alive and vibrant. It is set in the dark days of feudal Japan, where chaos runs rampant and shoguns are making mad grabs for power. The analogy with the American "wild west" is entirely appropriate; a similar feel of anarchy and lawlessness runs through the setting. To me, that makes for a wildly fluid and wildly exciting literary setting, one that Goseki Kojima and Kazuo Koike really bring to life here.
It is the complete package of writing and art that makes Lone Wolf and Cub great. The two elements together have perhaps never been as solid as they are here, creating a truly sublime experience. Pick up the first volume of the Dark Horse Lone Wolf and Cub reprints, available at better hobby shops (as well as at amazon.com); it is well worth reading, particularly if you have never been exposed to the unique style that is manga.