Martial artist detectives in ancient China use their fists and wits to get to the bottom of a surprisingly intriguing mystery.
Writer/Artist: Andy Seto and Tony Wong
Translation: Yun Zhao
Adaptation: Gayle Tan
What They Say
Ancient China's four great detectives are back in action, hot on the trail of new villains! Emotionless is saved from the brink of death by the master of West Town, Yuan-Shan Lan. In return Yuan-Shan Lan wants Emotionless to murder him! At the same time, Iron Hands and Cold Blooded are on a dangerous mission to find the criminals wreaking havoc on local towns, when they accidentally pull in two bodies from a river.. Find out the mysterious secret of the Delirium Dagger as the plot unravels in the second series of The Four Constables!
The covers go with a somber look well-suited to the content. Dark colours deck the front image, the only bright spots being the glint of the setting sun on the well-knit Samsons standing back-to-back. It's a moody and beautifully composed image that does a great job of making you want to open the book and see what's inside. What is, in fact, immediately inside, is a page of profiles for the title characters, which is a very useful thing for reviewers and other silly people who are going to read this series without having read the previous one. The large size of the book works very well in showing off the excellent artwork, and the printing is just about perfect. (If you get in really close you can see that some of the finest lines are just a tiny bit jagged - but why would you do that?)
The art is uneven but occasionally great in a masculine, brooding, style that looks more painted than drawn. It gives the sense that a burst of action could happen at any moment; and when it does, the visuals don't disappoint. Fight scenes pull out all the stops to spectacular effect, with many full-page illustrations good enough to be mistaken for posters. Then a chibi-style comedy illustration pops up, all the funnier for being unexpected. At times the draftsmanship is crude, and proportions aren't always exact - some characters have biceps as big as their heads - but the exceptional use of colour, splashy large panels, and the undeniable energy of the battles more than outweigh these minor flaws.
This is the only area where the presentation isn't quite up to speed, and that's a real shame. The text itself looks well enough. Translated sound effects play a large role during the action scenes and the fonts used get the point across without being too obtrusive. The text fills up the boxes and dialogue ballons without looking rushed. But a recurring problem is the punctuation. The only mid-sentence punctuation mark employed is the comma, and much of the time a dash, colon or semicolon is sorely needed. The translation is pretty straightforward and fine for this kind of material; but there are some rough passages with repeated words or clumsy phrasing that could do with some editorial smoothing. Occasionally both of these problems collide and create a terribly awkward sentence like "Our Master has really gone too far now, nothing can save him now!"
Ancient China is a common setting for adventure stories, and rightly so. An almost endless land full of danger, mystery, and exoticism is a location that can enhance many kinds of stories. The story in question is one with several different elements. It contains aspects of mystery, adventure, fantasy and fighting comics. Fighting is of course the big draw; but it's far from being the only one.
The Four Constables makes its first move early, and it's an unexpected one. The story begins with the constables separated and one presumed dead. He isn't dead of course. Otherwise it would be The Three Constables. That's not what's unexpected. What's unexpected is that he's actually living the high life in the palace of a rich noble. And what's even more unexpected is the task the noble wants him to perform in exchange for saving his life.
Meanwhile the other constables face their own problems. Cold Blooded pursues a group of bandits and, after meeting up with Iron Hands, comes across two unconscious bodies floating in a river. These two separate threads start to be woven together as the story progresses - and make no mistake, there really is a story here. This isn't the kind of martial arts comic where the plot exists entirely to string together fight scenes. The plot here manages to generate a good amount of interest on its own. A real sense of mystery surrounds the investigation. We also get the feeling that a really good villain is being set up in the enigmatic Steward of Nine Lives.
And of course we get battles - fast, pulse-pounding, supercharged, plentiful battles. The constables powers include but go far beyond normal martial arts skills: this is some of the best "martial artists as superheroes" material I've seen. The constables' powers alone make for an impressive arsenal of attacks. Combine that with their opponents' weapons and abilities, and you have a rich and diverse vein of possibilities to mine. And The Four Constables mines it well. Hostile encounters are a whirl of wheeling blades, pounding staves, steel-shattering fists and sudden chi blasts that gladden the heart and lift the spirit. All the moreso because any actual bloodletting is pretty rare.
The Four Constables leaves the gate at a terriffic pace and never lets up. Its action scenes are as good as they promise to be, but what keeps the tension high is a suprisingly strong plot. The story seems to know where it's going and makes enough turns that we don't. There are also plenty of unaswered questions looming in the background to keep pulling the reader along. Those who buy The Four Constables will likely buy it for the action. But they'll keep reading it to find out where the story goes next.