I’ve never liked Katana. I’m good with sword-slinging barbarians, but superheroes? Not so much – good guys shouldn’t kill, and if you’re only slapping someone with the flat of your sword, what’s the point of carrying a deadly weapon?
Katana did seem popular with readers of Batman and the Outsiders in the early Eighties, with a popular lettercol gag being that if you upset her she’d have you carrying your lungs in a bucket.
So I’m amazed that with The Other History of the DC Universe #3 writer John Ridley has me on side with Katana long before the book is over.
As with previous issues, we follow a non-white, non-Establishment character from the time they debuted in-publication, over several years, against a background of real-world events. So we hear how Katana’s life as a wife and mother in Japan fell apart when her lustful gangster brother-in-law murdered her husband and children. She snapped, grabbed his weapon, and slashed him to ribbons.
Tatsu Yamashiro lost her sense of self that night, became a drifter, fell in with a bad man, did some very bad things – but didn’t feel enough to care.
She killed and she killed and she killed, always with that blade, the katana whose name was given to her as she became a legend in the global Underworld.
‘…in life, fear is sometimes a potent weapon’. And one day, in the European kingdom of Markovia, Tatsu met a man who understood that better than anyone.
And so began Tatsu’s transition to ‘…perhaps not a hero, but someone who was capable of heroic actions’.
John Ridley gives us a person who lost herself, became something terrible, and eventually comes to terms with what she’s become, embraces the chance to change. Through Katana’s eyes, we get a different view on why Batman formed the Outsiders, on why he encouraged her to room with lost girl Gabrielle Doe, the heroine known as Halo. We hear of another lost girl, Terra, whose troubled soul was trampled on by Deathstroke – and when she died, she was ‘victim-blamed’, as Tatsu had been after her family was ripped from her. We hear of the super-villains whose accidental deaths she didn’t for one second mourn, after they failed against the Outsiders.
‘Outsider’ is the word when it comes to the DC characters starring in this series, from Black Lightning to Mal Duncan to Katana to, next issue, Renee Montoya. Their being from minority backgrounds means their fights aren’t simply with colourful villains, they’re with the greater society, the expectations and burdens placed upon them. Here we see Katana confront the appalling way the United States treated Japanese-Americans in the Second World War, and how matters never got much better for Asian-Americans – US citizens, but often second-class ones. Ridley tells the real-life stories of Vincent Chin, Eddie Lee and African-American Latasha Harlins, relating their tragic deaths to the struggles of Katana without lessening their tales.
As with previous issues of this ambitious mini-series, Ridley stays very close to the original comic stories. Here, his only big change regards Katana’s connection to her sword, as laid out in the silhouette panel above. A mystic blade that sucks up the souls of those Katana kills, while whispering to her? Just a story she lets people believe.
Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t – this is a series about stories and that could be simply what Tatsu is telling herself today. Or maybe in this version of her tale, that’s how it is. It doesn’t matter, DC Black Label books aren’t necessarily canon, and if this is the new truth, the next writer to use Katana can change things back. For now, I love the idea that Tatsu muttered at her sword as a way to cope with the things she couldn’t face.
There’s one thing in Ridley’s script I can’t imagine a reason for – Katana never uses Gabby’s hero name, Halo. Some trademark issue involving the video game?
Given Katana’s excoriating opinion of some of the people she’s met, I was hugely looking forward to her take on the deeply problematic Outsider known as Looker. Sadly, she barely gets a namecheck. Heck, in one sequence – check out the penultimate paragraph – Katana seems to be refusing to acknowledge her.
I realise it’s a creative miscommunication, but it’s also a missed opportunity. What does a reserved, super-serious person make of a woman who rebuilt herself according to the demands of the male gaze?
The earlier issues of this series saw Black Lightning and Mal Duncan’s wife, Bumblebee, give their opinions on Supergirl. The Maid of Steel isn’t referenced this time, but Superman is a presence, and it’s fascinating to hear Katana’s opinion of him.
The first we see of the hero is in a panel homaging Adventures of Superman #498, and it’s a faithful recreation from layout artist Giuseppe Camuncoli, finisher Andrea Cucchi and colourist José Villarrubia. The comic is full of recognisable shots, often from covers, but there are plenty of fully original visuals too, with favourites including the final image, as we see Tatsu has faced her demons and found peace, and the striking opening page.
Other outstanding pieces include a spread outlining the Terra/Deathstroke mess, with Tara Markov’s pain brutally on show, and a delightful moment of downtime for Tatsu and Gabby.
Steve Wands deserves credit not just for a commendable lack of typos – there are a lot of words here – but for laying out the text so attractively, always complementing the artwork. Adding extra bits of graphic goodness around the story is DC publication designer Kenny Lopez, while Amadeo Turturro edits the book.
Camuncoli teams with Marco Mastrazzo for the cover, a moody piece similar to the others in the series, but showing less of the star’s face – she is Katana, she is her sword
By the end of The Other History of the DC Universe #3, I find myself a lot more interested in Katana, invested in her story. I’ve been with her since Day One, but rarely found her engaging. John Ridley, though, gives her a voice, a real personality, makes her someone I’d happily follow to her next adventure – a real achievement.