Westerns are cool. Good guys in white, bad guys in black, gun slinging and bar brawls. It doesn't get much better than that. It might if you add in a train robbery. Those are always fun, too.
Zombies are cool. Shuffling undead humans moaning for brains as hapless live people run around screaming and never seem to get away. Zombies are everywhere these days, too, not just in horror movies and video games. A lot of fantasy games feature the undead in various roles as well. Why? Because zombies are cool.
So what would happen if you put a western and some zombies in a blender and hit puree? You get Min-Woo Hyung's Priest.
A Korean manwa (as opposed to the Japanesemanga), Priest is the story of Father Ivan Isaacs and his quest for revenge. The first issue shows us Ivan in action, fighting a hoard of zombies on a train as a hapless gang of outlaws attempt to rescue their condemned leader, Lizzie. It's not a pretty scene. The zombies kill Lizzie's men, and Lizzie wants some revenge, and answers, of her own. It doesn't help Ivan at all that Lizzie is a dead ringer for his adopted sister, Gena, whose death he's looking to avenge.
Several issues deal with back-story. We learn how Ivan fell in love with Gena and then turned to the priesthood. We learn how Ivan's scholarly pursuits led him to hanging out with the wrong crowd, a twisted cardinal whose goal was to open a mystical stone in which the fallen angel Temozarela was sealed. We also learn Temozarela's history and that of the devil that keeps the fallen angel's power in check. Of course, at the end of all that, Ivan is tricked into releasing Temozarela. Bad news for the cardinal. Temozarela isn't in to handing out rewards. He's got his own plans. With the help of the devil Belial, Ivan gains the power necessary to stop Temozarela's evil plans and avenge Gena.
Currently, fifteen issues are available from Tokyopop, one of the leading manga distributors in the United States. I've only read nine of them, but that's not going to stop me from gushing about this series and attempting to get everyone else hooked on it as well.
Hyung's art is stark and angular and fits the atmosphere of the story to a T. He uses shadows and negative space to very nice effect. Sometimes, I'll find myself just studying the lines of the characters' faces and bodies and forgetting to read any text that might be on the page. Be warned, though. This is not the style typical of manga art. No big eyes or small mouths here. But it's not quite realistic either. For me, given the subject matter, that makes the artwork even better. Of course, it's entirely possible to get lost in Raymond Swanland's gorgeous cover art (issue eight is a particular favorite of mine) and never make it inside the book. Hey, stop gawking. There's a story in there.
And it's a good story, too. Like I said, westerns and zombies are cool. Combining them is even cooler. Throw in some insane celestial beings on top of that, and you've got a story that's engaging on several levels. After the back-story, it's not hard to sympathize with Ivan and to cheer him on as he embarks on this difficult journey. However, you might be surprised to find yourself sympathizing with Belial, too. Temozarela did a very not nice thing to Belial, and you can hardly blame Belial for his subsequent actions. In fact, it's hard to think of Belial as a devil in terms of a devil being evil. I think he's only called a devil to place him in opposition to Temozarela, who is, though fallen, still an angel. While there are still clear lines as to who's the good guy and who's the bad guy, the roles are inverted.
Good art and good story telling make Hyung's Priest a winner in my book, and I'll be following this one right up to the end, whenever that may be. There may never be an anime based on this one, but there is an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, for those not in the know) based on the books. Ivan isn't a playable character, from what I've read, so I don't really see the point. But Old West style zombie butt kicking goodness is always a good thing.