There are some comics whose first volumes read like first issues. This is in the sense that they take a whole volume to do what a proper first issue should do: Explain the setup, introduce the core cast, and then show the audience where the story is really headed. “Reaver” is the example of this trend that springs most readily to my mind, and now you can add Robert Kirkman and Chris Samnee’s “Fire Power” to that list as well. The main difference is that, in Kirkman’s latest comics industry power flex, the first volume of this series is its first issue.
That’s right. “Fire Power’s” first volume is an original graphic novel that aims to introduce us to a driven young martial artist named Owen Johnson. He’s learned all he can in the world below, so he has set off to find the secret Shaolin temple of Master Wei Lun. Master Lun taught all of the masters who taught Owen, and now the student has come to learn from the master of masters.
Despite having one of the most whitebread names possible, Owen is actually Asian-American. So anyone worried about “Fire Power” coming off like an off-brand “Iron Fist” can rest easy. That isn’t to say that this series doesn’t traffic in other tropes: The isolated city of martial artists, the orphaned protagonist, the mentor who is equal parts sage and smartass, the rival, the love interest, the rival clan -- there all here. Everything you’d expect to find in a standard martial arts fantasy story is in this volume.
Being made up entirely of such familiar elements isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is, however, this first volume’s greatest weakness. I spent a good portion of my first time reading through vol. 1 waiting for Kirkman to spring some twist, ANY twist, to help it become more than the sum of its parts. He eventually does, but not until the very end. Until that point, “Prelude” plays out exactly as you’d expect it to.
The thing is, and this was the real surprise for me on my first time through, is that the familiarity of the story being told here bred comfort instead of contempt. Even if Kirkman is content to follow the established arc of this kind of story, he at least puts in the work to make its curve appealing. Starting with his protagonist, Owen, who is introduced to us as having enough determination to walk to the edge of the world in search of knowledge, and then be able to fight for it when he arrives. He’s as inquisitive as a point-of-view character should be, but it feels natural in his situation and we eventually find out that he has a sense of humor and selflessness that’s equally endearing as well.
Kirkman also does a good job of making Owen’s mentor and his rival interesting as well. Master Lun has all of the skill you’d expect of such a character, as well as a smartass streak a mile wide. Whether he’s expressing his irritation at Owen for assuming that he doesn’t know what an iPod is, having his new student use his powers to charge his phone, or interjecting at critical times about how physical relations are “Forbidden,” this side of the Master is much more endearing than irritating. This is balanced by the many hints we get that Master Lun is hiding a lot from Owen, and maybe his own students, about their rivals, the Scorched Earth Clan, and the nature of the prisoner that they’re guarding.
As for Ma Guang, Owen’s rival, he starts off as arrogant and unlikeable as you’d expect such a character to be. Resentful of our protagonist for striding into the temple like he owns the place, Guang spends most of this volume trying to prove that Owen isn’t worthy. However, rather than get away with his condescending actions, Guang winds up suffering for them at every turn. His is actually the most interesting arc in the first volume as he eventually comes around on Owen’s presence in a way that feels quite natural. It’s a lot more than what the main female character, Ling Zan, gets in this volume. She’s fine in the role of the token love interest, but that’s about it.
Another reason the familiar elements of this story work is that they all look really good. “Fire Power” is Samnee’s first creator-owned title after years of producing quality work (most of it with Mark Waid) over at Marvel. While he does a good job of making this remote Shaolin temple look like the martial arts training ground you’d expect it to, his real talent lies in how effortlessly his storytelling flows.
I don’t just mean his layouts, although seeing how he choreographs a basketball game infused with martial arts is pretty slick. Samnee is just really good at getting you to feel what his characters are going through at any given moment. There’s a sequence early on where Owen is given some dry rice and water to eat and you can tell that he’s stumped as to why he’s been given that while everyone else has cooked rice. But he eats it anyway and his awkwardness about this is palpable, as is the shunning he gets while he’s doing it. Nearly every sequence has this kind of emotional weight to it and the artist is able to communicate it effortlessly each time.
Even if “Fire Power” hits all the tropes you’d expect from this kind of story over the course of its first volume, it’s generally a good example of showing why they worked well enough to become tropes in the first place. The work Kirkman and Samne invest in the story is enough to get you to the end of “Prelude” where they show their hand regarding the story that they’re actually going to be telling you. Without giving too much away, it evokes the same sense of domesticity that marked the early issues of “Invincible.” You know, back when we all thought it was just going to be a fun little series about a family of superheroes.
Well, we all know how that series turned out. I can’t say that this first volume of “Fire Power” gives me the sense that it’ll hit the great heights of that series just yet. What I can say is that between Kirkman’s post-”Invincible”/”The Walking Dead” series -- “Outcast,” “Oblivion Song,” “DIE!DIE!DIE!” -- this is the strongest first volume I’ve read of that bunch. Will vol. 2 read as well after being serialized in single issue form and then collected into a paperback? I would like to think so and I look forward to finding out.