I remember watching the Afro Samurai anime well over a decade ago on late-night television. The novelty of seeing a Black protagonist in anime aside, the show radiated this cool, sleek style with a fearless confidence that was very easy to get swept up in. It didn’t hold your hand or try to push any big message. It just gave you a premise, handed you some popcorn, and told you to enjoy the ride.
With that frame of reference, it’s clear where much of this manga’s appeal lies. If you are somebody whose experience with this franchise was similar to mine, this book will entertain you enough to warrant being picked off the shelf. For those who haven’t been exposed to this franchise and its legacy, this might be a bit of a harder sell since what you see is pretty much what you get. This volume is the beginning of an incredibly simple narrative structure with our protagonist moving from point A to point B and all the mayhem he comes across. There is undoubtedly a charm to such simplicity, but Afro Samurai in manga form can sometimes come across as too simple.
While there is an overlap in appeal between this and the aforementioned animation, the show at least had the benefits of music and voice acting to punctuate a lot of definitive moments better. All that extra flavor helps things stand out in your mind and build them up more. This manga does have some unique elements that can elicit a similar effect, but it’s not nearly to the same degree, unfortunately.
The manga has a very heavily shaded art style, to the point where everything looks like an array of silhouettes cramped into straightforward landscapes. This helps certain elements stand out, like focusing on a character’s white eyes during moments of intensity and the red-colored blood against the stark monochrome of the rest of the book. There are moments where you can only make out the outline of certain bodies and scenes based on how the blood is spread out, which is the most striking thing about this book. I wish more comics and manga did stuff like this to punctuate certain elements of violence and destruction better.
Our protagonist, Afro, is less of a character and more of a vessel for vengeance. He barely speaks throughout the book, with just one goal focused on his mind. I’m not even sure we’re supposed to cheer for him as much as we are just seeing how he’ll get out of the next dangerous situation that comes his way. Side characters will occasionally receive focus, but they ultimately end up as fodder to be cut through, whether it’s the various assassins that enter the scene or even just random civilians that clearly have their own story going on. Sometimes it feels like characters stumbled into this book by accident and just ended up dying as a result of being left in the wrong place at the wrong time, which can be unintentionally funny, but it also highlights the problem.
There’s not anything to get attached to in this book. Our villains aren’t present in the story long enough to be that memorable, even with little dialogue hinting more meaning behind why they do the things they do. Anytime something remotely resembling a soul enters the page, it’s brutally cut down in the crossfire of the upcoming battle just three pages later. In many ways, it really makes you wonder what the point of all of it is; if the story is going to structure things like this, then why does there even need to be any dialogue at all? This could be all done to show how brutal and harsh this world is, but the book already does a good enough job establishing that within the first five pages, so reinforcing that constantly feels a bit redundant.
None of this is helped by the fact that the book is much less visually interesting outside of the viscerally bloody battles. The heavy silhouette and shaded style stand out when there’s something to contrast against it, like the red blood. But on its own, things look very messy, as if there are a variety of smears on the page. There were even some points where I struggled to parse what I was looking at, as the line between organic and inorganic material just started blending together. It’s a shame because there are moments where the manga can get away with creating these distinctive panels and shots using things like white backgrounds, but these moments are few and far between.
Overall, I find the Afro Samurai manga hard to recommend. While it is visually distinct and easy to pick up, it’s equally easy to put down. There are just as many moments where the book is as cluttered as it is visually remarkable, and the narrative is so barebones that it might as well be a barely animated skeleton. This volume doesn’t conclude the Afro Samurai story, and the final pages hint at more important things to come. Still, I hope the manga eventually decides what direction it wants to lean into because the direct path this book starts on doesn’t feel nearly as exciting or memorable as it wants to be.