Shi Long Pang is set during a time of turmoil. The Ming Dynasty which had ruled China for 300 years has been overthrown by the Manchus from the north. The Manchus have established a new dynasty, but their influence has not yet spread to all of China. Generals of the old regime have established themselves as warlords, while brigands roam the countryside. It is in these uncertain times that Shi Long Pang is cast out alone into the world. With the monastery where he grew up destroyed, and agents of the Manchu government pursuing him, he presses on in hopes of finding fellow survivors. And there's the matter of the book he keeps hidden in his robes . . .
The comic is probably at its best in its depiction of the title character Pang himself. Pang is a rolly-polly ingenue who struggles to follow the precepts of his faith after being cast out into the world. In addition to the struggle against "unchastity", he has to deal with deep theological issues such as whether it is better to fight to protect oneself against a hungry tiger, or should one lie down and allow oneself to be devoured? (It might sound silly, but if you were raised believing stories like this are literally true, wouldn't you feel a bit conflicted?) On top of all this, Pang has a healthy amount of PTSD and survivor's guilt to overcome.
As the author himself admits, Shi Long Pang is not entirely 'historically accurate'. But it is informed by real Chinese history and culture. You can see from the numerous footnotes that Costa has done a heck of a lot of research. In the beginning this research threatens to overwhelm the story, and a number of early pages of this comic almost feature more text than pictures. However, after this bumpy start the comic does a better job of keeping exposition rooted in the characters' immediate circumstances. It can still be quite wordy at times, but the comic does a good job of using the world building to develop the characters and the story, rather than distract from them.
And this story, it's smart. For the most part, Costa refuses to depict moral issues as black-and-white affairs, instead delicately depicting them in shades of grey. Sometimes he gives us a truly despicable jerk to root against, but this is the exception. War is portrayed an ambiguous, confusing affair, and it is by no means clear the decision of the Shaolin monks to resist the Manchus by force of arms was the correct one. Conflicting accounts of major events circulate, and learning the truth may be impossible. Even the matter of a tavern worker taking money from the owner has two sides.
And keep an eye out for insights into how people lived in the past, like the reactions to this early form of audio visual entertainment.
I'm probably conveying the impression that Shi Long Pang is all serious business, but that's not the case at all. It's not afraid to get dramatic, but the drama is leavened with comedy, running a gamut from slapstick physical humor right out of the goofiest Jackie Chan movie to internet-age silliness. What's best is that most of these jokes are not jokes for their own sake, but highlight Pang's struggles to deal with the world and his own conscience.
And then there's stuff like this:
So there you go: Shi Long Pang is a smart comic about people in another time trying to get by, told with a lot of heart and humor. If you like good stories and don't mind learning something while you're being entertained, you should enjoy it.
Shoot, it feels like I'm forgetting something.
Argh, it was right on the tip of my tongue! What could it have been?
Eh, must not have been important.
Oh yeah! This comic also has really awesome action. Costa's research is again apparent in the way he depicts martial arts, somehow capturing in static pictures the flamboyance of Chinese martial arts that makes kung-fu movies so much fun to watch. Even more remarkable is how he is able to make the fights very visually busy, but also easy to follow.
Just in case everything I've written wasn't enough to convince you, Shi Long Pang was also deemed worthy of a Xeric grant, and the Webcomic Overlook gives it five out of five stars. So check it out already.
Also, make sure you check out the bonus comics in the archive.