Comic Review: “Death Kanji” by Jordan Patrick Finn and Greg Woronchak

Many storytellers have claimed H.P. Lovecraft as an inspiration, but writer Jordan Patrick Finn and illustrator Greg Woronchak have put together a unique take on Lovecraftian themes in their graphic novel, Death Kanji.*

Crowdfunded on Kickstarter earlier this year, Death Kanji is an 80-page book described by Finn as a samurai horror graphic novel. Taking inspiration not just from Lovecraft but also the films of Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai), Death Kanji follows a nameless samurai warrior who is tasked by his daimyo (the Japanese equivalent of a feudal lord) to discover the secret of his master’s lineage.

The story begins with the air of a fairy tale, and but eventually spirals into a supernatural horror complete with the Lovecraftian themes of insanity and futility, and playing with the danger of “the space between spaces.” There is a persistent theme of dualities and half-measures throughout Death Kanji, many of which lead to impending doom, because of course it does! These include a job half-done, a love half realized, a half-trained apprentice, cutting beasts in half, twins, and two colored eyes. There’s also purposeful detachment from the protagonist, as the reader is never told his name. He’s only ever referred to as “my friend,” “my love” and “samurai.”

There is no doubt that the book is intended for adult readers. While there isn’t any full nudity, there’s plenty of blade-borne death, all punctuated with a blood red death kanji image (“Death” written in Japanese text) hovering over the kill.

Despite being 80 pages long, Death Kanji is a quick but satisfying read. The plot moves along at a very brisk pace, and the action is typically not burdened with a great deal of text. You’ll have to either re-read some sections or consciously slow yourself down to appreciate the artwork at times, which you absolutely should do. Woronchak deftly mimics the classic Japanese ukiyo-e art style while adjusting it for sequential storytelling. Both the line art and colors evokes the dreamlike sensibility consistent with ukiyo-e (Japanese wood print style), and there are also several moments that make good use of vertical space, though I would have liked to see more of it.

On the negative side, there were a few sequences that seemed arbitrary, particularly the flashback scenes. Maybe they were just an excuse to throw up more DEATH KANJI images? Fair enough. Also, for those unfamiliar with feudal Japanese culture and governance, requires a bit of background knowledge to fully understand the gravity of the story. There’s also a bizarre sense of time, with young characters becoming full grown over what is seemingly a matter weeks. No worries, it’s a fairy tale, right. Magic? Sure, magic.

Overall, Death Kanji is a well-realized and unique take on classic Lovecraftian themes. Some may be diasappointed that an 80-page book can be read so quickly, but there is rich enough context that I found it to be well worth multiple reads. Despite its fairy tale tone, Death Kanji does not have a “happily ever after” waiting for the characters, at the end, but I will happily read it again.

*Disclosure: A digital version of Death Kanji was provided to The Splintering for the purpose of this review.

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