Ruler of the Land vols. 1-2
Jason Carter rates it:
Author/Artist: Jeon Keuk-Jin / Yang Jae-Hyun
People of a certain age will probably recall seeing a wide assortment of absolutely dreadful martial arts films on TV when they were younger. There were certain stock elements that each of these movies could be counted on to contain: a series of villains with asinine names; racial hatred for the Manchu dynasty; secret martial arts techniques that enable their wielders to defy the laws of physics; one or more corrupt local magistrates, perhaps threatening the womanly virtue of some impossibly pure girl; vaguely defined mystical weapons which nearly everyone is seeking after; gangs with colorful names, who seemingly operate in public, unchallenged by the law; plenty of aerobatic combat; and so forth. As time went on, production values for this sort of fare have increased notably– no one with sense would compare The Five Deadly Venoms with Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Still, the materials seem to remain the same, even if they can and sometimes are mixed and remixed in other media, rather like the sort of family resemblances one sees between the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the dreadful Dungeons and Dragons movie. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that Ruler of the Land takes the trouble to be more another bit of genre-bound hackwork. Many of the old, well worn favorite cliches are to be found here, but they don’t seem as dry as they otherwise might, largely on account of the delightful comedy provided by the interaction of the books’ main characters.
Ruler of the Land revolves around a guy named Bi-Kwan Han. Bi-Kwan’s primary interest in life is womanizing. It’s not the only remarkable thing about him; in fact, the first scene of the comic has him rejecting an offer to train as someone’s martial arts disciple that had been communicated to him by a troupe of vaguely intimidating devotees. But it’s really chasing girls that owns his heart, which makes him more than a little jealous when he wanders across a gaggle of lovely young things gawking at a pretty boy who’s sipping wine in a restaurant. This sort of thing is really intolerable; not only is this guy an insult to manhood with his fine clothes and pretty hair, he is plainly getting more action without even trying than Bi-Kwan can with his best efforts (which closely resemble street molestation). To make matters worse, the little nancy boy ignores the women who come on to him and even tells one, who is plainly a prostitute, that he’d like to be left alone. Since he’s a monumental jackass who can’t keep his mouth shut, Bi-Kwang intervenes, gropes the whore, and delivers a staggering tirade that summarizes his outlook on life (“…the most important thing is hookin’ up with ladies!”).
While everyone gawks, Bi-Kwang is interrupted by the arrival of a band of toughs, complete with one super-size thug, who get in the pretty boy’s face and demand the return of “the Sword of the Flowers”, which the pretty boy, Hwa-Rin Dahm, seems to have a hold of. Things work out much as you’d expect, but Bi-Kwang recognizes the sword technique Hwa-Rin uses to kill his enemy; in fact, he knows it by name. Hwa-Rin reacts strongly to this, and demands to know where and from whom he gained this information, but Bi-Kwang isn’t willing to talk for nothing: he wants his new pal to set him up with some women first. From there, things begin to snowball fast. Hwa-Rin isn’t who he seems, a variety of other people are after the Sword of the Flowers, and both the main characters seem to have hidden pasts that intertwine in a potentially tragic way.
The real strength of these books is found in Bi-Kwang himself. Frankly, he’s the funniest male lead I can remember seeing in any medium in a long time. Much of his value as a character, and all of his humor, are based on his being a lecherous moron, and the author and artist really make this aspect of him come alive. He reminds me a great deal of what Kintaro from Golden Boy might have been like if he’d lived in some Chinese fantasy novel. He’s possessed by his desire to seduce women, and he’s completely inept at carrying this out. In fact, he’s actually made nervous by them (which goes a long way to explaining both his outlandish behavior) despite the fact that he looks reasonably handsome and is actually a person of strong character when his groin isn’t inflamed. Hwa-Rin, for his part, is intense, almost bitter, and plainly torn between being impressed with Bi-Kwang’s unusual knowledge and skills and disgusted by his hormone-soaked foolishness.
The art in Ruler of the Land really isn’t anything spectacular. The action sequences occasionally seem hard to follow, and on some pages things aren’t just oddly drawn, the panels themselves are laid out in a way that is obviously confusing. The illustrations are at their best when they focus on the characters, especially Hwa-Rin (for reasons you should have guessed by now), but things never really stray out of the middle of the road here. There are also some inconsistencies about Hwa-Rin’s height, but none of this really detracts from the story’s fun. I should note for parents that there is some cheesecake here and there; the 13+ rating on the book’s cover is warranted.
The Ruler of the Land isn’t going to be the Fist of the North Star for the coming generation. It’s probably not going to be Azumanga Daioh either. But it actually made me laugh, at some points quite a bit, and its funny parts hold up well after a second reading. It’s an entertaining way to pass some time, provided you don’t expect more from it than it promises.
Added: Monday, April 18, 2005
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