Review: Grindhouse Kung-Fu In Stokoe’s ‘Orphan And The Five Beasts’ #1

‘Spurred on by her master’s dying words, the adopted warrior ”Orphan Mo” seeks to find and kill five former disciples who now threaten the land with corruption from their demonic powers. Part Five Deadly Venoms and part surreal grindhouse, James Stokoe brings his knack for ultra-detailed fantasy imagery and over-the-top violence to this classic tale of revenge.’

The dying master of a powerful clan dispatches his last remaining pupil on a crucial mission. Concerned that the skills he has taught are being used for evil, he orders the pupil to locate and eliminate the threat from five of his former students, each an expert in their own lethal combat style.

The pupil must discover the whereabouts of these five others and neutralize each. Sound familiar? It should. It’s a cult 1978 kung-fu film called Five Deadly Venoms. It is also, roughly, the plot of Orphan and the Five Beasts.

That’s not a slight, by any means. One of the hallmarks of kung-fu films is nodding at, alluding to, and outright aping the stories that have come before. This is an integral part of the genre, and a part that has carried over into the weird connection between kung-fu films and Spaghetti Westerns. If you think this is coincidence, I assure you James Stokoe knows exactly what he’s doing.

Stokoe does a great job building up the first master battle, between Orphan Mo and ‘Thunder Thighs.’ You’ve seen the Youtube videos of fitness coach and bodybuilder Kortney Olson crushing watermelons with her massive thighs? This dude explodes horses (and humans, probably) in much the same manner. This is a standard hero’s journey and a classic kung-fu epic. All of the notes that belong are there, without a lot of fluff along the way.

On the art side, Orphan and the Five Beasts is in classic Stokoe stylized form. No corner of any panel is wasted. Every shadow is crosshatched by hand, and every mountain in the distance has hundreds of little individual trees with hand-rendered texture. Character designs are full of wonderful little details. Veins popping and drops of sweat and blood, individual hairs flying away, stains and small holes in fabric…

That would all be fine and great on it’s own, even if the characters just stood around, but there’s an intense sense of action that makes the images pop off the page. It’s really gorgeous stuff, and it fits the story and genre brilliantly.

Orphan and the Five Beasts is an easy sell for fans of classic kung-fu movies and for followers of Stokoe’s signature hyper-detailed, ultra-violent visual style. This entire first chapter was almost completely set-up and exposition, but it never dragged or felt forced in any way. Everything is primed to pop off in the next chapter.

Orphan and the Five Beasts #1, Dark Horse Comics, 17 March 2021. Script, art, letters, and cover by James Stokoe.

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