Set in 184 A.D., “a period of decadence and moral laxity” in China, Yunosuke Yoshinaga’s Rampage (CMX) is a violent “mature”-rated manga fantasy taken from a classic tale from Chinese literature, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. As a work of historical fiction, Kingdoms has apparently fueled a variety of manga and manhua adaptations over the years, though as your typically culturally blinkered Westerner, I’m forced to primarily take the story at face value. As a result, I initially found some of the background machinations a trifle confusing where I suspect those who know the original legends won’t. (So the founder of the Way of Peace sect incites an army that’s responsible for the rape and pillage of the country’s villages? The Way of Peace is strange, indeed.) But as long as the manga kept its focus on its disreputable young hero, Zhang Fei, I was able to stick with it.
First volume in the series opens on a stakes establishing sequence as the young wanderer Zhang enters a village that’s been decimated by the Yellow Turban Army, the group of rebels doing more harm than good in its battle against the corrupt Han Dynasty. Starving young Zhang digs through the rubble, looking for some sustenance when he’s captured by Guan Ya, a giant of a man who is second in command in a volunteer army protecting the people from the Yellow Turbans. Zhang (who at times reminds me of Matthew Broderick’s character in Ladyhawk) wheedles his way into the army, though he’s far from the ideal soldier. It’s only after he attempts to protect a little girl from a group of thuggish Turbans that his no-account ways are changed for good. Shot with an arrow to this throat, he falls before the entrance to a cave inhabited by a group of sorcerers.
They revive our hero, providing him with a snake spear, which transforms him into a mighty warrior — but at what cost? Each time he uses it, the spear takes over his mind, turning him into a killing machine with scant regard for which side he’s supposed to be defending. “If the spear continues to take over your mind,” Lie Bei, leader of the volunteer arms tells him late in the first volume, “you’ll soon lose your five senses and memory permanently.”
But Liu Bei, we quickly learn, has a secret, too. A young girl who our hero first spots bathing her shapely self under a mountain waterfall, she’s doing the male drag thing as head of the volunteer army. Guan Yu is in on the deception, but when our hero reveals that he knows what’s up, he’s tossed into a dungeon and threatened with execution. Fortunately, Liu Bei also has a connection to the Xian wizards who gave Zhang the sinister snake spear, so she ultimately relents. “I strongly suggest you live your remaining years as peacefully as possible,” she advises the young man, but we know already from the book’s cover — a blood-sprayed Zhang leaping into an unseen fray — that this is pretty darn unlikely.
Yoshinaga’s art is especially strong during the bloody battle scenes. If some of his characters look a mite too fresh-faced to be ancient Chinese battle vets, the clean line work at least makes Liu Bei’s deception believable. The moment that inappropriately lingers in my mind, though, is a panel following a brief confrontation between Zhang and Liu where the latter uses a crimson pearl given to her by the wizards to temporarily drive the spear’s avatar from Zhang’s body. Our boy passes out face down on Liu’s lap, as she sits there peacefully with her robe half open and revealing her cleavage. I’m guessing that this moment wasn’t dramatized quite like this in the original work…