Ben Costa's been working on his webcomic, Shì Lóng Pàng, The Wandering Shàolín Monk, for a little while now but he won a Xeric award late last year to get the book into print. He's got it listed in the August issue of Previews for an October release, and was kind enough to send me an advance copy for review.
Now, if you've read my blog for a reasonable length of time, you might know that I'm admittedly biased towards Xeric-winning comics. I haven't read every Xeric winner, but I've had more luck using that as a measure when looking out for new material than just about anything else. What's interesting to me this time, though, is that I had sampled Costa's comic a while back online and decided not to follow it. When I first picked up the printed copy, I couldn't recall the reason why and in fact thought it rather strange since it looked very much like a book I would enjoy.
The story takes place in 17th century China. It centers around a Shàolín monk by the name of Pàng who is in search of his fellow monks after the destruction of their temple at the hands of the Qing dynasty. It is said that Qing feared the Shàolín's power and tried to wipe them out, so now Pàng is left essentially as a refugee in his own land. Coupled with the fact that he's lived a sheltered life as a monk for his 20-ish years, Pàng really does have a difficult road ahead of him.
The destruction of the temple and how Pàng finds himself homeless is mostly told through flashbacks. But despite flipping between time periods regularly, Costa does a good job of telling the reader where they are in the story. He also eschews, from time to time, the conventional Western storytelling technique of reading right to left, and adds directional indicators to guide the reader with how he wants the page to be read. I don't think these are always 100% successful, but they work more often than not and make for some interesting reading arrangements. Serious kudos for taking up some difficult storytelling challenges and making them work.
The book is filled with a great deal of Chinese history and culture. While the characters generally have their dialogue written in contemporary and colloquial English, Costa maintains Chinese names and sayings, and provides footnotes for extended explanations. It turns out, I think, that this is why I opted to discontinue reading it online.
The footnotes are presented like you'd expect footnotes to be presented. A little superscript number after an unusual word or phrase, and an extended explanation at the bottom of the page. Since Costa posts a full page at a time online, this means that a notation cited at the top of the page can't be shown on your computer screen along with the explanation. And for me, who reads all footnotes as they come up within the body of the text, that meant that I'd have to scroll down and back up several times with a page that might have one or two footnotes. With the number of footnotes provided in the first 30-40 pages, that got annoying really quickly.
The printed version solves this entirely by allowing the reader to see an entire page at a glance. Pàng, The Wandering Shàolín Monk in printed form very much seems how Costa intended the book to be read from its inception. Unlike many webcomics that get made into print products, Pàng seems very much more at home in this format. You certainly CAN read the whole thing online for free, but I think you definitely get a greatly improved presentment in printed form.
(It's worth noting, though, that the regularity of footnotes drops off dramatically after those first 30-40 pages. Costa mostly uses them for background since Westerns are, by and large, extremely unfamiliar with Chinese history at all. Of course, if you don't read footnotes in the first place, this is all totally a moot point!)
Now that I've read through the story, it's easy to see why this was a Xeric winner. It's charming and entertaining and educational. It's got a good mix of action, drama (not the same as action!) and some fun light-hearted moments. It's an excellent read, and that it's couched in a significant historical context make it that much more worth your time and money!
You can preorder the book through Diamond Comic Distributors using order code AUG101056 or directly from Costa online for $20. Do the latter before August 16 and Costa will sign and sketch in your copy for free!
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