3 out of 5
I absolutely adore James Stokoe, and you should absolutely read Orphan and the Five Beasts, regardless of the criticisms I’m about to offer, as they’ll likely be wiped partially away by some future state where we have Orphan and the Five Beasts part two. For now, for the un-Stokoe-initiated, what’s apparently a part one should provide all that makes the artist great, from his insane, comical setups – which he then treats with sincerity, so characters have depth and settings stakes (while not forgetting some great-timed slapstick!) – to the first thing you’ll notice: that intensely detailed but always clear anime-inspired art; if you’re down with the brazen, amazing covers, you’ll likely dig the contents. And for returning fans, while I feel Orphan’s story is fractured, this is still one of James’ most exciting creations yet, and pushes his art not only to insane levels of always-epic scope and fractalizing detail, but also into wild-ass grindhouse gore, which looks awesome in Stokoe’s style and punchy colors.
So: read it, yeah?
Orphan and the Five Beasts sets up Mo, the titular orphan who was raised and martial-arts trained in an isolated village, with defeating five big bosses who threaten her home’s – the world’s? – sanctity. She’s been tasked to this by her master, who explains how he trained these bosses – the beasts – each specializing in a certain physical discipline, to battle another evil, and their defeat of that has led to their corruption.
Perfect: an easy setup for issue-by-issue fights. …Which James doesn’t really use.
One of Orphan’s positives is the way it weaves through tropes, though: Mo is your typical stoic, badass protag, but she talks – she has personality – and James keeps pushing off the fights for atmosphere, using world-building so the foes feel legit, and the fights appropriately awesome, instead of exhausting.
Only, his setup is more wordy than smooth: the double-hop to Mo’s enemies is actually a lot to swallow up front, and ends up feeling overly complex in its telling for no real reason. It’s bottom-up storytelling, and a knock that will remain – that Five Beasts feels like it could’ve been tighter if sequenced, plot-wise, differently, though I can suppose that maybe this was a decision based on not knowing how many issues would be published.
Speaking of which: spoiler, but this is not a complete story. This is, as mentioned above, possibly a part one, but it’s not written like that. Mo only fights two beasts, and issue four does not end with any conclusion, or mention of the story continuing later, or etc, it’s just: fight over; back cover. Is it an amazing fight? Heck yes. But also a wtf when you’re not sure if they left out pages at the end or what.
So that’s a knock that can be fixed by a part two, published altogether in trade and abolishing any gap, but as it stands now, it really makes the story and pacing feel unfinished and weird.
But many words later, I’d still maintain: read it. There is, er, despite me providing some… no reason not to, as even in this state, Stokoe’s work stands out, and heads above most of its peers on the stands.