If you like Kurosawa’s samurai movies, it’s a very good bet that you’ll like Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s comics – it’s the closest movie/comics match this side of Sin City, which is kind of cheating given Frank Miller’s involvement in the movie too.

Koike is as superb a craftsman as you’ll find writing comics anywhere. You get very substantial characters, thematic content, motif and strong stories. His knowledge of Japan’s history has immense breadth and depth – he gets at the motivations and circumstances of the times with genuine insight, as well as doing his research thoroughly. Best of all, he creates some extraordinary characters, and drives the story from them.

Kojima was a world class comic artist, immensely powerful and exciting – think of the battle climax of Seven Samurai. His work is gritty and flowing, fast and as muscular as it gets, with exceptional control of the very different pacing Japanese comics offer. He also provides great moments – there’s a shot of a pair of eyes in one Lone Wolf & Cub story that I’ll never forget.

Lone Wolf & Cub is their greatest work: around 8,500 pages about the shogun’s executioner. His family is assassinated, missing only his infant son. He places a colourful ball and a sword on the floor, and waits to see which his child approaches. He is going away, on a path of obsessive, long-term revenge, and if his son chooses the plaything, he is not suited to this life, and he will kill him. He chooses the sword, and accompanies his father on the road to hell. There’s a large range of stories, often episodic but looping back to the main point. My favourite focus on the son, who grows into a unique child. In one story where he is separated from his father, after almost being burnt to death he finds himself face to face with a ronin. This small child picks up a stick and readies himself for combat, and the look in his eyes makes the ronin back off. This is one of the greatest comic series I’ve ever read, magnificent on every level.

There are two more translated series. Samurai Executioner features as disciplined a character as in LW&C, the shogun’s sword tester – he tests them by executing criminals. The stories are episodes, but some of them are among the best shorts I’ve ever read, close to perfect. Some notes on one story.

Reaching its final volumes as I write is Path Of The Assassin. This centres on Ieyasu, who became the shogun who created Japan’s longest period of peace after over a century of wars, and his bodyguard, a ninja who grows up with him. It’s a great setup for the political and military manoeuvring into and during the climactic civil wars that united the nation, and for individual ninja action. The relationship between the two central characters and their different worlds is particularly superbly handled, though this may lose something if you have a less deep interest in that period of Japanese history, and Ieyasu’s totally original governmental methods (which this series may not reach) than I do – it’s kind of hard for me to keep track of it all, and I am fairly familiar with the major players, at least.

I also write about these two on my own site, including a page on one very strange LW&C story.

All of the above should be pretty easy to find, in small-format paperback translations from Dark Horse. They’re good value too, something like £7.50 for 300 pages a book. Samurai Executioner is the only one where you can sample a random individual volume with no risk of losing anything by not having read predecessors. If you want to try one, go for #6, as discussed in that linked review.