World Comic Book Review

12th April 2024

White Savior #1 (review)

Writers: Eric Nyugen and Scott Burman

Art: Eric Nguyen

Dark Horse Comics, January 2023

An ancient prophecy foretold of an outsider that would save the peaceful village of Inoki from an unstoppable army–a man who would confuse the people at first with his unconventional ways, but lead them to the light. Nathan Garin, Captain in the United States Army, known for his viciousness in battle on the American frontier, could be that man . . . if he weren’t such an awful, drunken idiot. Now it’s up to Japanese-American teacher Todd Parker to warn the good people of Inoki of Garin’s true nature before he causes the very death and destruction they are counting on him to avert!

In this new title, White Saviour, created by Eric Nyugen and Scott Burman and published by Dark Horse Comics, we see buried within frothy and entertaining comedy a subject which is very, very topical. As at this week, the annual Golden Globes awards occurred in California. The event was threatened with boycott by some high-profile actors as a consequence of revelations that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association -those people who award actors Golden Globes for their screen performances – was overwhelmingly white. There was an apparent correlation between the ethnicity of the HFPA to the ethnicities of actors who had in recent years been awarded Golden Globes for acting performances. This year, there was an inevitable turn towards people of colour. The presenters were almost all not white, and some of the major awards were granted to people who are not white. Comedian host Jerrod Carmichael wryly noted, “I was like whoa, one minute you’re making mint tea at home, the next you’re invited to be the Black face of an embattled white organization.”

When the motion picture 47 Ronin was released in 2013, there were inevitable, critical responses that Keanu Reeves, and American actor of mixed raced descent, was cast as the lead character, surrounded by the cream of Japanese acting talent. As Katey Rich of Vanity Fair noted, there should have been “maybe a nagging sense that it’s not a great idea to again cast a white guy as the star of a movie about Japanese warriors.”. Tom Cruise’s leading role in The Last Samurai (2003) was even more stark in its premise of a white American man bringing change, peace and modernisation to Meiji Japan. (The problem is hardly limited to American motion pictures set in Japan.  For decades, American comic books have had mostly white lead characters. There are few examples of sustained series which feature a non-white character has the lead, save for Image Comics’ Spawn. Other American comics which have non-white characters as title characters tend to come and go. The late Dwayne McDuffie, a black comic book writer, noted that when he was scripting Justice League of America for DC Comics and had a superhero line-up that was composed of a minority of well-established black characters – Vixen, Green Lantern, Firestorm and Black Lightning – he endured criticism that the title was ‘a black book’.)

This title, then, is a satirical reminder of the ongoing problem of the great white hope in popular culture. The protagonist, Todd Parker, visits his grandfather in an aged care facility. Todd is yet again regaled with the story of Nathan Garin, a prophesised white saviour in medieval Japan who ended up quickly getting shot in the head with an arrow leading the villagers of Inoki to their deaths. In an internal narrative, Todd notes, “Yes I’m Asian. No, I don’t know karate, I can’t magically heal you with my hands, and I suck at math. Get over it.” He is quite a likable if extremely goofy guy. Todd’s grandfather is much more traditionalist, with a long white braid and a penchant for oral traditions (and Oreos). There’s a lot of very funny irreverence against the action comics tradition: speaking of his parents, Todd says, “And maybe they were right. Doesn’t matter much. They’re gone now.” But in the next panel: “Hold on. They’re not dead. They’re just on vacation in Branson, Missouri.” Later, wrapping up the internal monologue: “Alright, enough exposition.” And then much later, in a scene featuring more exposition – a roll call of some fierce samurai warriors in battle, their skills and their victories: “Honomi Takei. Technically, this is the only page he appears on. But he is a distant relative of George Takei”. It goes on like that. The entire comic is laden with genuinely funny one-liners. Messrs Nyugen and Burman have some refined comedic timing, and do not take themselves nor their work too seriously.

Mr Nguyen is handy with a pencil, too (he is an experienced artist, having worked on titles for American publisher Marvel Comics). Mr Nyugen manages to shift the reader from urban America, with its buildings, cars and fastfood joints, to medieval Japan, with its temples, carts of straw, and samurai melees, all without missing a beat. The action sequences are dynamic and busy without being cluttered. The art is very, and appropriately, reminiscent of samurai epic Lone Wolf and Cub (Futabasha / First Comics / Dark Horse Comics, 1970-1976).

Todd, chasing a waitress who has earlier that day picked his pocket, finds himself somehow projected back into Inoki village in the 1700s, where he meets the white savior spoken of by his grandfather. It very quickly evolves that Nathan Garin is a crass and racist idiot, also apparently from the 21st century, and is using the prophesy of his arrival and victory as a meal ticket. Again, hidden under the bubbly humour, there is an intriguing message about white privilege.

The comedy however is evident from the cover page: it is hard to be a saviour with an arrow through the skull. We thoroughly enjoyed this first issue of the four-issue series, and we were delighted to receive news that what started as an independently published title (Bedlam Comics) was picked up by Dark Horse late last year.