By Ben Costa
192 pages, color
Published by Iron Crotch University Press
I like when surprises appear in my mailbox, and Pang: The Wandering Shaolin Monk Vol. 1: Refuge of the Heart certainly applies to that category. A collection of Ben Costa’s webcomic, Pang is something I’d never heard of before, but the cover reminded me of artists like Darwyn Cooke and Bruce Timm and coupled with Shaolin monks? Well, add in that this is a beautiful, slick hardcover and I was pushing it towards the top of the to-be-read pile.
The story itself is fairly straight-forward; Shi Long Pang is a Shaolin monk whose temple has been destroyed by the ruling Qing dynasty, and Pang is attempting to find his missing monks. It’s a mixture of romance, kung fu, adventure, and even a touch of history. Ben Costa is definitely looking to add in a little something for everyone in the overall plot. The contents of this first volume of Pang were created over the course of several years, and while I hate to say it, you can definitely tell that as you read it. Costa is a comic creator who over time grows into his role and grows more accomplished as a writer. Early pages are crammed full of dialogue, narration, and footnotes, so much that it’s swimming in words and the art starts to recede into the distance. I felt in places like I was having facts and exposition thrown at me in abandon, a never-ending supply of information that became harder to focus on and care about.
Fortunately, by the halfway point Costa has pulled back, perhaps with more confidence that he can tell the story he wants without barraging his reader. It’s at that point that Pang grows much more interesting, perhaps because there are less distractions to draw you away from the main action. Pang himself is a likable if slightly sheltered character; there are times when it’s hard to keep from wanting to shake him a bit and ask him to get his courage together, but ultimately Pang comes through when it counts and over time I grew to care about him and his quest, as hapless as he might be.
The big attraction in Pang, though, is Costa’s art. It’s beautiful, with a style that brings to mind animation. His characters move smoothly across the page, and don’t mistake Costa’s stripped down style as being simple. It’s anything but that, an immense amount of detail packed onto every page. Costa pays careful attention to just about every single aspect of his art, even down to using slightly darker colors in the evening hours of the story. Costa also fits a surprisingly high number of panels on each page; seeing ten panels is a natural occurrence here, but at no dime does Pang feel cramped or overly full. Considering that the trim size of the book is slightly smaller than an average comic, it’s that much more impressive that Costa is able to get everything feeling full and open.
Pang Vol. 1 is a beautiful book, and once Costa gets past his early stumbling blocks the writing begins to catch up with the art. A lot of care went into Pang; even the cover and binding is beautiful here, forming an attractive book that people will want to keep on their shelves rather than just solely read online. You can sample the book for yourself at Costa’s website, but don’t be afraid to jump ahead a bit so that you can see where Costa has gotten over time. I’ll definitely read more Pang.