If you read my review a few years back of Yi Soon Shin: Warrior and Defender, volume 1 of the Yi Soon Shin series, then you might remember I hailed it as a masterpiece of historical graphic fiction, an achievement made all the more impressive due to the fact that it is a 100% fully independent, self-published work. Yi Soon Shin: Fallen Avenger is the second volume of a planned trilogy based on the real life military exploits of the book’s titular war hero Admiral Yi Soon Shin, one of Korea’s most cherished historical figures. This review is for the hardcover compilation which collects issues #1 to #4.
This second volume picks up where Warrior and Defender ended, with the stunning triumph of Admiral Yi and the Korean navy at a battle known as the Battle of Hansan Island. The first volume was essentially an underdog story of an inexperienced military leader who miraculously rises through the ranks though sheer intelligence, charisma, and force of will and then defeats the Japanese in battle despite being outnumbered and having less firepower. If we were to compare the arc of this Yi Soon Shin trilogy so far to a very different franchise, you could almost say that volume 1, Warrior and Defender, was like Star Wars: A New Hope in that a feisty rebel underdog manages to bring an empire to its knees, if only temporarily.
Fallen Avenger is, in this comparison, the Empire Strikes Back of the series, meaning that it takes on a noticeably darker and grimmer tone than Warrior and Defender and is even more violent. For at least the first half of the entire book, we see the once proud and mighty Admiral Yi captured, imprisoned, tortured, and stripped of his well-deserved military rank. Whether out of a desire for vengeance, jealousy, or envy, just about everyone both “friend” and foe seem to be against him here, including many of the characters (some of them based on real historical figures) who appeared in the first volume: arch-nemesis Baron Seo, Emperor Toyotomi Hideyoshi, various Japanese generals, and even the king of Korea himself. The one exception are his most loyal soldiers who worship and revere him (deservingly).
Writer and series creator Onrie Kompan and co-writer David Anthony Kraft have done a fine job of creating a near-impossible situation for the titular hero, bringing him down from the high of his previous victory into the very bowels of hell. As best as I can tell with my limited historical knowledge, they seem to take a fair degree of creative liberty, but that is after all what makes this historical fiction and not a comic biography. It is designed to entertain and intrigue, and if it makes readers interested to go out and read more about a country they don’t know much about, then so much the better.
Artistic duties in Fallen Avenger are split between Giovanni Timpano, who did the art for volume 1, and El Arnakleus, who does the majority of the work here in this second volume. Just as with Warrior and Defender, the art is incredible, not just by indie standards but by any standard. Credit must go to colorist Adriana De Los Santos whose work gives Arnakleus’s art a photorealistic sheen and a palpable aura of historicity that I’m not really sure how to explain. And once again, just as in the previous volume, there are some truly spectacular “money shots” that are not so much comic book panels as they are paintings that could be hung on walls. While some readers accustomed to reading titles from big publishers might be reluctant to spend money on indie comics, the Yi Soon Shin series completely defies any expectations that independent comics must be of sub-par quality. This series is proof that so long as all the right elements are in place even the most independent of works can match the artistic and literary quality of the big publishers. Sometimes they can even be superior in certain ways.
As full of praise as this review is, to be fair it does need to come with a warning to parents: there is a lot of gore and nudity here. It’s like a comic book version of Game of Thrones that takes places in Korea, but injected with even more testosterone (if that’s possible). As such, I can’t really recommend it as an appropriate book for young kids, but it is most definitely a treat for adult readers who are fans of military history, East Asian history, and/or historical fiction.
There’s one last note I’d like to make about this hardcover compilation.
As with volume 1, volume 2 paints a portrait of a man with indomitable will. Even while trapped in hell, Yi refuses to give up and fights back with every last ounce of his strength. It makes for a compelling story in and of itself, but it becomes a metaphor of sorts for its creator’s own real-life story once you get to the bonus material in the back. It is this bonus material that not only makes the hardcover worth getting even if you already have all four individual issues, but it also makes this fictionalized account of Admiral Yi become a fascinating and inspirational parallel for creator Onrie Kompan‘s journey in making this dream project of his a reality. Kompan’s creative diary/essay “Fallen Avenger, Rising Producer: The Diary of Admiral Onrie” should be required reading for all aspiring indie comic creators (or any kind of independent creator, really). The story he tells of breaking down in front of his wife and pronouncing the Yi Soon Shin project a failure will be painfully relatable for anyone who’s ever had a personal project fail for any reason. It reminded me of a story Spike Lee used to tell of his early days as filmmaker when, after the failure of his first film, he sat crying in a waterless bathtub, ready to quit. But he told himself, just one more film. Make one more film, and then quit.
It’s hard to fully appreciate the magnitude of struggle that many creators have to go through to bring their visions to life, especially when a beautiful and well-crafted final product is sitting in front of you. With every mistake or miscalculation he relates, Kompan’s diary makes you wince with shared frustration and pain. But in the end, as with Fallen Avenger itself, Kompan’s real-life story as an underdog creator who defies the odds and conquers his obstacles, both internal and external, is a truly inspiring one and is just as highly recommended as the fictitious story that it comes with as bonus material. Fortunately, this hardcover volume gives you both. Onward to victory!