Written by Patrick Marty
Art by Chongrui Nie
160 pages, black and white
Published by Archaia
While I’d never read any of the historical Judge Bao stories before, while in high school we did read some other retellings of classic Chinese "judge" stories. In most of them, a traveling Judge would enter a town, discover a great wrong, and together with his assistants find the corruption inherent in the town’s government and right all the wrongs. That’s what we have here with Judge Bao & The Jade Phoenix, the first in a series of Judge Bao graphic novels originally published in France that take a classic Chinese character and create graphic novels around him. And all in all, it’s something not quite like anything else in the North American comics market right now.
It’s hard to talk about Judge Bao & The Jade Phoenix without first mentioning the great publication design on display. Published as a small, landscape oriented book, it’s instantly attractive. With a high quality cover, excellent graphical reproduction, and a nice overall look (with the red stripe running around the book depicting characters from the story within), the book practically jumps out at you. It also means high expectations for the reader when they open it up, to see if the insides match the outside.
Chongrui Nie’s art is both the strong and the weak point of Judge Bao & The Jade Phoenix. It’s certainly intriguing at even a small glance; highly detailed and textured character designs, with faces that look almost like they’ve come directly out of photographs. Some panels have beautiful backgrounds, while other ones are curiously blank. Everyone here actually looks like they’re Chinese, too; Nie has done his research, in both physical types as well as period costume. The one problem with the art, though, is that some panels feel unbelievably posed and stiff. I get the impression that Nie might have used models for Judge Bao & The Jade Phoenix, and if so it certainly shows. There are mock expressions of fear and panic that feel like someone crouching in a position and making a face, rather than displaying honest emotion. It’s tough, because some pages look great, other ones show this limitation. I know there are already three more Judge Bao graphic novels in France, so I’m hoping that with time, Nie’s able to stick to his strengths and shed his weaknesses.
Patrick Marty’s script is exactly in line with what I was expecting from the story. I don’t know if these are based off of actual Judge Bao stories or if Marty is merely taking the character and running with him, but while it could quite easily be the latter I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be the former. Judge Bao and his companions are just being introduced to us here, and while they’ve all got light dustings of stereotype, they’re not a bad bunch. I was a little surprised at the utter lack of introduction to the characters or their situations (there’s a prose introduction that explains who Judge Bao was, his role in Chinese society, and who his companions were), but once the book gets rolling Marty gives us enough that we need to keep reading.
Judge Bao & The Jade Phoenix is a quick read, but it’s entertaining. While I found Nie’s art to be variable, I still can’t stop flipping through the book and examining it over and over. This really doesn’t look like anything else on the market right now, and even this particular type of writing—a slow, rhythmic pace that builds piece by piece until Judge Bao can bring an end to the corruption—feels like an outlier. Will I read the promised Judge Bao & The King of Children? Absolutely. The book might not be perfect, but it’s interesting and different enough that I’d like to see more, if only to see what Marty and Nie do in the volumes to come. Judge Bao & The Jade Phoenix is an attractive, interesting book that makes me glad to see publishers and creators taking chances with the comics medium.