Lone Wolf and Cub is a well known Japanese manga or graphic novel series, written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by Goseki Kojima (1928-2000). Originally published in the 1970s, this long-running series is considered one of the greatest stories ever told in the graphic novel medium.
Lone Wolf and Cub takes place in 17th Century Japan, in the early part of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The main character is Itto Ogami (a play on the Japanese word okami, meaning 'wolf') a samurai who had been appointed the shogunate's chief executioner. A consummate swordsman and master of the shio-ryu (horse-cutting) technique, Ogami's appointment displeased Retsudo Yagyu, the elderly yet vigorous head of the powerful Ura-Yagyu clan1. Retsudo had Ogami framed for treason against the shogun and arranged for his family to be assassinated; the sole survivor of this attack was Ogami's infant son, Daigoro (the Cub of the title).
The series follows Itto and Daigoro as they wander the length and breadth of Japan for several years as assassins, living the path called meifumado (literally, 'the road to perdition'). They are specially equipped with a baby cart whose handles and frame hide battle spears and whose bottom is made of solid iron and for a brief period, the cart also houses an early form of a machine gun. Over the course of the story, Itto succeeds in destroying Retsudo's network of spies and assassins, as well as all the members of his immediate family and some of the shogun's specialised troops. In the final issue, Itto is mortally wounded while destroying the remnants of Retsudo's spies and dies after a long, drawn-out fight with Retsudo himself, who is fatally wounded afterwards by the now four-year-old Daigoro.
Taken as a whole, Lone Wolf and Cub is a perfect example of the Japanese style of storytelling, which is less linear than the style Westerners are used to. Many of the stories in the series are side quests, in which Itto and/or Daigoro are only peripherally involved but feature merchants, labourers, other samurai and women, all confronting questions of honour, survival, corruption and the like. Throughout the series, Koike's writing constantly questions and interprets the meaning of the warrior philosophy bushido and its application by Itto, Daigoro, Retsudo, and several of their adversaries. The illustrations are quite realistic and show great effort in layout design and photographic research, albeit for dramatic purposes rather than historical accuracy.
The saga was dramatised in Japan as a series of six films and a TV series in the late 1970s. In the West, selections from the series were published in English in a 45-issue run by First Comics, featuring cover art by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. The complete run was published by Dark Horse Comics in a 28-issue compact volume series from August 2000 to December 2002.
Notes of interest: author Max Allan Collins borrowed heavily from Lone Wolf and Cub for his graphic novel, The Road to Perdition, which later became a feature film starring Tom Hanks. The series also spawned a sequel of sorts, called Lone Wolf 2100, also published by Dark Horse.