Sunday, January 25, 2015

Down in the Bardo, Part II: Champion of the Dead

Fresh off of the unexpected delight of a trip to the Bardo in Marvel’s Iron Fist: The Living Weapon, I decided to try Steve Perry’s take on the Buddhist Hell.  Some days Steve Perry is one of my favorite authors, but his writing is hit or miss for me.  He’s a best selling author for his time writing under some of Tom Clancy’s house brands, and I’m guessing he makes most of this money these days writing military sci-fi novels like the Cutter series.  And while these stories are okay, where Perry really excels is when he writes about martial arts and eastern mysticism.

Champion of the Dead has a modern setting, following the life of dmag-lag-rtsal practitioner Sam Kane.  Dmag-lag-rtsal is an obscure (but apparently real) Tibetan martial art that also happens to prepare you to enter the Bardo, a Buddhist version of Hell, and help guide souls to their next incarnation on the Great Wheel.  The novel opens with Kane taking on an assignment from a mysterious billionaire to help his daughter pass peacefully to her next life.  From there conspiracies and combat touching both the living and the dead ensue.

Perry is a long time martial artist, which shows in his writing- the action is detailed and brilliant.  Like all good martial arts tales there is also a crotchety martial arts master, or in this case a pair of them, helping Kane along the way between wisecracks.  I don’t know if Perry did this intentionally, but I could feel the influence of Remo and Chuin from the Destroyer series in some of the dialogs. 
The concepts artists for Mortal Kombat are reading the same manual on designing Hell.

This makes for a complicated Saturday night
As much of the novel takes place in the Bardo as it does in our world, and Perry’s depictions of Hell are intense.  The steaming piles of excrement that meat eaters are forced to climb will surely help keep me on the vegetarian track; well, at least close to it.  The Bardo is an insane place, which oddly resembled the Netherrealm and Outworld backgrounds in Mortal Kombat that I also happen to be playing lately.  A lot of Champion of the Dead feels like a novelization of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, so you wonder in the Mortal Kombat artists read from the same manual.  There are also gods both Hindu and Buddhist wandering about, leading to discussions such as “…consider the logistics of a god who has eight arms and three penises coupling with a goddess who has four arms and nine vaginas.”

Kane’s fights with demons are as much a matter of will as of skill.  “Kane stood ready, his sword forged of love, hope and prayer, in hand,” may be one of my all time favorite lines from an adventure story, which is probably influenced by my time in yoga.  Speaking of which…

Kane has several dmag-lag-rtsal students, and he hopes to find one to pass along his skills to and who can take his place in the future.  They all bring different backgrounds in mind-body techniques or combat, each adapting in different ways.  While the student with an aikido background looks promising, the one with a yoga background is less so.  She moves as well as, if not better than, the other students, but her background in yoga provides her with challenges.  Her yoga training “had taken her down a different path.  She was reluctant to hit people, even when she could.  This was not necessarily a bad thing in a warrior, to know when to hit and when to wait, but it could be a problem, taken too far.”  In time Kane and his student agree that the two paths are, ultimately, the same.  Both yoga and dmag mean “union”, but the time where the inherent violence of dmag-lag-rtsal and the pacifism of yoga reveal the same unity may be decades of practice away.

There’s not a lot of action/adventure novels out there with authors who understand yoga or concepts like ahimsa or pranayama, and most of them have Steve Perry’s name on the cover (Matt Stover, Steve Barnes, and at least one of the house authors of the Destroyer series round out the mix that I’ve seen so far).  Champion of the Dead is a great story if you are looking to merge your inner peace with some smack-fu.

(And a special thanks to Steve Perry for introducing me to Kurukulla, the Tibetan goddess of passion, with her bow made of flowers and bees, stark naked and trampling the ego.  That is perfection.)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Down in the Bardo, Part I: Iron Fist #8, Buddhist Dante's Inferno

For nearly 20 years I bought $10 to $15 of comic books every week. Once that got me a fistful of comics, but no matter how well off I am I can't rationalize that the same amount of money now gets me perhaps two or three 22-page comics. Still I stop by a comics shop every few weeks and pick up something off of the new rack. This week it was Iron Fist: The Living Weapon #8, which turned out to be a Buddhist version of Dante's Inferno. Some of the smartest, most intellectually curious, and well read people I've ever met work in comics. Glad to see that trend continues, even if the business model is a wreck.