1986 was kind of a big deal for comics. That’s the year Watchmen came out. It’s also the year Maus came out. Oh, and The Dark Night Returns hit shelves as well. In the decades since they’ve all left their prints on culture, the industry, and me, but I wouldn’t get to any of them for another twenty years or so. I didn’t get to any of the comics that came out in 1986 for a while anyway; I was two. But just before my birthday that summer, a Canadian printer started rolling out copies of an independent comic that would eventually reach me and take me places.
Dan Vado and Mark Buck published Samurai Penguin #1 through Vado’s newly launched Slave Labor Graphics, a small publisher which would go on to find great cult success with Milk & Cheese and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. Samurai Penguin was no slouch either, selling roughly 58,000 copies (allegedly), which’d place it in the top 20 these days (All-New X-Men #39 did about the same numbers for the 19th spot this past March).
We found it in a pile of comics at the marvelous used book shop in town, a veritable Flourish and Blotts of Cumberland County, New Jersey. I remember trundling the stash in paper grocery bags back to my grandparents’ lake house, a modest cabin in the woods of Laurel Lake. There those comics remained stacked in a cabinet beneath the television set with random volumes of Cerebus until, when the property eventually succumbed to neglect, they were claimed by water damage and nesting squirrels. For a few formative summers throughout the 1990s however, that odd assortment of comics was my armory against adolescent boredom. Allergic to the cedar-rich waters of the lake, I (slowly) learned to beg off those jaunts to our favored cove in favor of a quiet afternoon with the comics. Carrying them down to the beach and reading them at the ancient picnic table was out of the question. My grandmother had been reading there in the shade of an evergreen one year when a bat fell from its perch and flopped dead on the open pages of an old Redbook.
Looking back, I consider Samurai Penguin #1 a formative reading experience. It’s the one I’d always go back to, the one I’d read cover to cover every weekend spent in that little cabin over several summers. It and those Archie TMNT books, especially the character handbooks filled with profiles and origin stories, were the comics that made me want to comic. Made me want to draw. Had me graduate from rulers to protractors and triangles in order to pencil countless grids in countless sketchbooks. I always gravitated toward animal characters, especially those brandishing katanas and staves. I eventually gave up on my drawing career in high school, but even as I type this, I can pan just to the left and see a stack of Usage Yojimbo collections waiting to be revisited. It’s still there, that fascination. But what about that first taste?
I recently tracked down a copy of Samurai Penguin #1 — it’s not so hard to find — and ordered it from a little shop in Florida. It arrived in bag and board.
Samurai Penguin #1 is precisely what you imagine it to be. Especially if you’re familiar with the comics of the time. Particularly if you’re familiar with the black and white anthropomorphic animal comics of the time. It lacks the poetry of Usagi Yojimbo, but it’s very simple and very pure. It’s stark. Our hero doesn’t speak, something I’d forgotten. He’s a stoic and taciturn warrior surrounded by a Greek chorus of simple-minded penguins waddling at the bottom of a savage food chain. He has a sensei and a corpulent arch foe. He’s — a samurai penguin.
I considered ordering more, to see how our hero overcomes the cliffhanger of a massive enemy shark, but there’s an allure to leaving it at that. There’s an allure to never seeking out those seven remaining issues. I’ve still never seen the final episodes of Lost or any number of shows I once considered favorites.
There’s this image out there, maybe more than one, of a tiny penguin face-to-face with a ferocious leopard seal. The confrontation is frozen in time, and though the outcome is perhaps inevitable, there’s a magic to the not knowing. Permitted a reprieve from resolution — from finality — we are 11 again, and there are any number of permutations. Possibility is hope.
The penguin and predator charge. A pause. The enemy crumples and descends into the depths.
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