I am currently reading through Vagabond, and I know it is a special series. I am not sure when it hit me, but by the time I put down the first Vizbig (three volume collections of the manga), I knew I had to order the second and the third. The book grabs you. Vagabond’s beautiful and detailed art invites you to linger on every panel, yet its fantastic story demands you continue. Vagabond is a masterpiece. You should read it. The end.
Oh, you’re still here? Not convinced? Well, I guess I have more to say about Vagabond.
First some background. I am an avid comics reader. However, I have only read a few manga. I’ve read Berserk, Food Wars, and One Piece. While I am not entirely foreign to the medium, please forgive me if I make any mistakes. I am a rookie.
Takehiko Inoue wrote Vagabond following his uber-popular manga (at least according to the back cover) Slam Dunk. He is also writing Real, a manga about wheelchair basketball. Inoue’s thing seems to be basketball, so writing about Sengoku era samurai may seem out of his wheelhouse.
Vagabond, as I hinted, is set during the Sengoku or Warring States period, about 1470-1600, in Japan. This period was a time of decentralized authority in Japan. The emperor ruled as a mere figurehead and the Shogun, who typically held most the political and military power, failed to win the loyalty of the local daimyo or lords. These daimyos went to war with each other consequently leading to many opportunities for young warriors to battle. Our story follows one of those young fighters who seek to become invincible.
Vagabond is based on real events, but it admittedly plays fast and loose with historical accuracy. The manga gives a great taste for the struggles and upheavals of the Sengoku era, without being a straight up history book or biography.
Inoue’s art is exceptional in Vagabond. He draws with a level of clarity and detail I have not seen in the other manga’s I have read. Like Berserk, Vagabond’s panels are dark and detailed. There isn’t any wasted space and almost any one of them could be a work of art all its own. However, unlike Berserk, Vagabond isn’t overstuffed. The detail is subtle, and you never have to linger and dwell on a panel to understand what’s going on. Inoue can communicate so much in each panel.
Vagabond’s action scenes are beautiful. In many comics and manga, movement and speed are expressed through blurs or by exaggerating body parts. In Vagabond the pace of combat is communicated without stretching or deforming the characters’ body parts. That clarity of art is never lost even during the most intense action scene. That works well for this series: the battles depicted in this book are duels between confident samurai not inexperienced mobs of foot soldiers clashing in the mud. Moreover, Inoue has mastered the human form. His characters all look real no matter their body type. Hair looks marvelous as well. Inoue’s characters look different than many manga because of the detail and accuracy he draws them with. Realism for realism’s sake is dumb, but in Vagabond it serves to draw you into the hero’s travels through Japan.
At the beginning of each volume, there are roughly 4-6 pages of watercolor drawings. These are some of the most amazing comic book art I have ever seen. The clarity and mastery of the human figure are not lost when Inoue paints. It is always a treat to start a new volume and appreciate the beautiful paintings.
Vagabond is a story about characters. There isn’t an impending cataclysm the characters must stop. Instead, it is the character’s internal motivations and emotions that drive the story. The characters struggle with relatable feelings such as loneliness, weakness, or a desire to be independent. Thus, even though the characters are traveling all around Japan, the story doesn’t really get bigger than them. They are not trying to save the world or become royalty; they are trying to be whole, whatever that means to them. Vagabond is a focused tale, at least as far as I have read.
I do not want to spoil anything for this first review. The story is great. I will give a few details so that you can figure out if you want to give the book a shot. First, volumes 1 and 2 serve as a prequel for the rest of the series. Second, the story focuses on young men primarily. Three, the story does expect some knowledge of Japanese history. I recommend looking up a name or term if you do not recognize it. The Vizbig version of the book has a useful appendix at the back. Check it out. Fourth, this book is incredibly violent and deals with sex. If you want a lighthearted book, look elsewhere. Fifth, there is no supernatural or fantasy elements to this book; it is historical fiction. Last, there is no anime, so if you want to experience this story, reading it is the only way.
I highly recommend Vagabond.