If I had only one sentence with which to review Toshiro, a new original graphic novel from Dark Horse hitting store shelves this Wednesday, it would be this: Buy it the day it drops. If I had another: Wait in line if you must.
This isn’t hyperbole. Toshiro — written by Jai Nitz with art by Janusz Pawlak — is the reason I read comics.
First off, if you must, you can find a way to list the myriad of influences from Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy to the madness inducing Cthulhu creatures from beyond. But the genre mapping does the book a disservice. Just know that you are entering a fully realized world. And this world is as marvelous as it is scary as hell.
Set in a steampunked/tinker’s Victorian world, the eponymous Toshiro (a self-aware clockwork samurai) and Quicksilver Bob (a human who is walking just this side of crazy) combat creatures that create zombies. Yeah, you read that correctly. No viruses, no lab experiments gone awry — but Lovecraftian (without the racism) creatures who make other creatures, thusly forcing our heroes to fight on two fronts. And these aren’t your regular-ass super fast or super-slow zombies. These possess their skills from when they were alive — and they have tactics and cooperate with each other. On a flat page they are frightening. If they ever made this into a film or miniseries — nightmares for everyone.
The way the relationship between Toshiro and Quicksilver Bob is portrayed is exactly what was missing from Fox’s recently cancelled Almost Human. While there is camaraderie, there is also a below-the-surface animosity from both sides. Toshiro sees Quicksilver as dishonorable and opaque with no respect for the (actual) dead. Quicksilver Bob is supremely jealous of his companion’s lack of need to eat, sleep, age, or die. This makes for some highly illuminating and humorous exchanges. Any time you have a mechano-man (or woman) you will engage in some existential exploration. The philosophical moments in this book are not only presented well, they actually move the story forward.
There is a wonderful scene of our heroes trapped in a home, under assault by hordes of the wakened dead. Within the beautiful (and super-gory) fight scenes, we are treated to each character’s outlook on their current battle and on the nature of warfare. I do not want to spoil it for you, but this book hooked me with this sequence.
While I have minimal gripes, I have none when it comes to Janusz Pawlak’s art. Moody, oddly framed panels and inky watercolors make Toshiro absolutely wonderful to look at. Each panel feels as if it has a secret to tell you. There are very few books that I will scan through just for the art — Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee’s The Inhumans is one — but I found myself doing this over and over in Toshiro. Pawlak’s architecture, the details on the uniforms on British soldiers, the everyday clothing of the dwindling regular folk — his style is perfectly matched for this tale.
Jai Nitz is a comic book treasure who is not receiving even a fraction of the credit due to him. Dream Thief? One of my favorite books. The only quibble I have with the writing in Toshiro is that the twist — which I saw coming, but was still happy about — comes at a time when the secondary villain is introduced. We are then treated to a fair amount of exposition about this villain and his disdain for Quicksilver Bob. For me, it would have made for a cleaner third act to read if a few pages separated these events. But this is like saying I wish the ketchup was on the top bun and not the bottom. It doesn’t matter one bit because you’re about to eat a damn fine burger — if you aren’t vegetarian, that is.
I cannot give this book any higher of a recommendation. It has all the things that make modern graphic novel reading so much fun: high stakes, great fights, secrets and mysteries, and poignant ontological commentary on our contemporary times. It gave me the same feeling as Warren Ellis’s Planetary. And those of you who know me know how I feel about Planetary.
[Ed. note: See the gallery below for an exclusive look at some unused cover designs, plus a preview of Pawlak’s art from the first eight pages of the book!]