Pang, The Wandering Shaolin Monk Volume 1: Refuge of the Heart

Review by Ed Sizemore

Pang, The Wandering Shaolin Monk Volume 1: Refuge of the Heart is a collection of the ongoing webcomic. The series is set in the year 1675, when China has undergone a dynastic change. The new Qing rulers believe the Shaolin monks are Ming loyalists and order the destruction of all Shaolin temples. Pang is a young monk trying to rendezvous with other Shaolin survivors.

Pang, The Wandering Shaolin Monk cover
Pang, The Wandering Shaolin Monk
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Ben Costa has chosen to craft his tale as historical fiction. As he admits in the afterward, sorting out fact from fantasy is difficult with the Shaolin monks. There are lots of legends but few concrete historical details. There is confusion about the number of Shaolin temples and what year they (it?) were destroyed. Costa chose the historical reconstruction that worked best for a dramatic narrative.

Costa’s commitment to historical realism is a double-edged sword. On the positive side, readers are given a story of Shaolin monks that avoids the excesses seen in so many Hong Kong action films. Pang is a well-trained fighter, but he isn’t invincible. Pang’s retelling of his life at the temple reminds us that Shaolin was a branch of Buddhism and not a martial arts school. The physical training the monks underwent was part of their religious duties and not to make them fearsome warriors.

On the negative side, the first 65 pages of this book are tedious to read. There are lots of talking heads giving us historical and political background. Most of the information isn’t immediately relevant to Pang. The reader is asked to absorb lots of Chinese names and terminology. I found I couldn’t read more than 10 pages at a sitting, and so it took me several days to work through this section of the book.

Once you’ve plowed through all the historical data, you find an engaging story of a young, naive monk left to fend for himself in a country undergoing political unrest. Costa does a great job portraying Pang’s innocence. Too often authors think that a lack of street smarts means utter gullibility and stupidity. Pang has a strong sense of loyalty, duty, and justice. He is rightly confused and scared by his circumstances. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Pang and wish he finds a safe place to resume his life as a monk.

Costa’s art is attractive with thick lines and simple character designs. The book is in full color, and Costa uses a nice selection of palettes to reflect the various environments in which the story takes place. You can feel the serenity of the Shaolin temple and the chaos of city streets during a festival. Costa also does a good job conveying character emotions. Particularly touching is Pang’s awkwardness when he experiences his first stirring of sexual attraction.

However, I’m not a fan of Costa’s page layouts. Some pages feel crowded, and you wish he had used two or three pages instead of cluttering up one page. Occasionally, Costa will create a page with an usual panel order. He does provide arrows to make sure the reader doesn’t get lost, but there appears to be no reason why he chooses to break from the traditional visual flow. Which is a shame because there are several moments when he could use such novel page layouts for great dramatic effect.

For example, there is a scene where Pang is traveling through thick fog over unfamiliar ladders and rope walkways on the mountain where his temple is located. In one page, Costa choices to use an unconventional panel flow, but it’s a missed opportunity. The narrative path seems random. A better page layout would have used panel shapes and panel flow that convey Pang’s sense of uncertainty and mirror the flow of his movement over the mountain.

Pang, the Wandering Shaolin Monk becomes a decent story once you get past the talking heads. The flaws in the book are ones that most young artists make as they are learning their craft. Even acknowledging that, I can’t say there was enough story (apart from the historical details) to make me want to continue the series. Chinese history buffs are most likely going to find this work satisfying. I find stories with this much historical detail are better suited to be told in novel form.

The entire archive of Pang, the Wandering Shaolin Monk is available online at shilongpang.com.

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