Friday, June 20, 2014

Katana's first foray: Batman and the Outsiders #1 (August 1983)

Katana’s first appearance is in the first DC Sampler giveaway comic, but for our purposes and because I no longer have that (I did all those years ago, though!), we’re going to say it was in Batman and the Outsiders #1 (August 1983).

As we've discussed before, I’ve always considered Katana a pretty cool character.  Well, except for her original ketchup and mustard color-schemed costume.  It’s really a shame what happened to her recent solo series.  Out of all the New 52 redesigns, hers is the most visually arresting and appropriate.  But we're old school hereabouts, so we're going to spend some time with the original Katana, from back in the day.  DC and Comixology just released for sale the first two issues of the 1980s Batman and the Outsiders series and, of course, I jumped at the chance to buy them again. 

The plot mechanics show through.  There's trouble brewing in made-up country Markovia, and that's where Bruce Wayne has sent trusted employee Lucius Fox (the guy played by Morgan Freeman in the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy) there.  Rebel troops capture Fox and hold him hostage, but wouldn't you know it, Superman has told the United Nations the Justice League will sit this one out, and if you're a member of that team, his promise is legally binding.  When Batman finds out no one's going to help him rescue Fox, he flips out and quits, thus finding and exploiting the one small loophole in the United Nations charter as it relates to solemn promises made on everyone's behalf by a guy from another planet.  Even with Batman giving everyone yet another snarled recounting of his origin, this is still an all too convenient way to get Batman out of the Justice League and together with the Outsiders-- all of whom just happen to be in Markovia at the same time for their own purposes.

Well, to hell with that.  This was-- and remains-- a cool book.  You really can’t, or shouldn’t, argue with Jim Aparo’s artwork, and writer Mike W. Barr builds a strong team dynamic once he gets past the set-up.  The unique mother-daughter relationship he establishes between stone-cold killer Katana and naïve amnesiac Halo helps set this book apart from its ensemble-cast predecessors Uncanny X-Men and New Teen Titans and keeps Outsiders from becoming too generic—the DC equivalent of The Defenders.  Geo-Force is a real zero, though.  His brown costume is dull, as is his origin.  Fortunately, there’s Black Lightning and super-freak Metamorpho.  Black Lightning gives us someone badass to root for who isn’t a jerk like Batman, and Metamorpho adds visual interest.

What does Katana add besides maternal love?  Why, dead bodies by the truckload!

The all-murder-all-the-time team member element hearkens back to the early days of Uncanny X-Men and the Wolverine character arc, before he became overexposed and watered down by revealing his many origins and future demises.  I can’t get over Batman sort of standing back and letting Katana murder so many people, but it certainly makes her more interesting than blandly heroic dopes like Geo-Force.  She doesn’t have any powers to speak of, although because she’s Asian and in a comic book, she’s adept at all martial arts, and because she’s Japanese, of course she is a samurai.

Script:  Mike W. Barr/Art:  Jim Aparo

See?  The very first thing she does is kill that general, just as a disguised Black Lighting (he's not in the JLA, so he's legally allowed to help Batman all he wants) has successfully tricked him into believing he's Fox's brother and wants to trade lovely gold bars for his lovely fake brother.  Black Lightning's thought balloon and clinched fist both show he knows this ruins Batman's scheme.  He quickly strips off his civilian clothes to reveal his super-costume and starts fighting the enemy troops. 

Okay, let's take a break from all the killing to talk about the very thing from which Katana takes her codename.  What?  You thought Katana was her birth name?  No, her parents named her Tatsu Yamashiro, but only her close friends who know her in her civilian identity call her that.  And even they don't call her that.  They call her Yamashiro-san.  Or Ms. Yamashiro. 

And a katana is a type of samurai sword.  I'm far from an expert, but I do know samurai had more than one kind.  There were longer ones and shorter ones, and they all have names which I don't know.  We say "katana" when we mean the basic samurai sword.  Unless we say "samurai sword" sword instead.  This is Katana's main weapon, her version of Green Lantern's ring, Green Arrow's bow and arrows and Green Keyboard's magic computer.  Anyway, Katana uses a katana.  You know Katana talks to her katana, right?  That’s one of her “things.”

Why would anyone do that when there's a perfectly good Batman standing right there?  I'll tell you.

Like Katana herself, Katana's katana has its own special name:  The Soultaker.  It does that.  It takes souls.  If Katana kills you with it, your soul goes into the sword with all the other souls, but Michael Moorcock doesn’t sue you or anything, so don’t worry about it.  I think a cooler codename than Katana would have been the Japanese phrase for Soultaker, which is something like 魂を取る人, or “Tamashi o toru hito,” or を盗 (“to steal the soul”) according to Google Translate.  Hm.  Maybe not.  Kind of clumsy, huh?  Looks as if Barr and Aparo had a good idea all along and I'm wrong, all right?  I'm Wrong Roy.  Toby!  You are close to death!  Come out here!

So her husband's soul is inside Soultaker.  They talk a lot.  In the new series, she sleeps with the sword as well, which is all kinds of kinky especially when you consider most of her pals don't believe her husband's soul (or anyone's) is inside the sword.  But trust me, in the original series, he's in there and she talks to him and he talks back and gives her advice.

 Anyway, she--

Script:  Mike W. Barr/Art:  Jim Aparo

Oh, look!  Katana's second kill.

She's not really in the first issue of Batman and the Outsiders all that much, but with two kills in two pages, she's made quite an impression.  Batman hogs most of the story space, the same way he hogs the front part of the title, as if this were one of those noisy rock combos the kids like nowadays, where the lead person has their name up front and everyone else is kind of smashed into a collective to the rear.  And then the named artist quits and starts producing music that sounds just like the original group’s, only not as inspired or interesting.  As a result of Batman’s outrageous ego, Katana barely gets into the comic, but she has an impact much greater than you’d expect given the few panels in which she appears.

Another interesting aspect of the character is--

Script:  Mike W. Barr/Art:  Jim Aparo

That's our Katana!

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