The 1980s is considered by many to be a renaissance for movies featuring martial arts. Sure, there were heroes with bulging biceps, quotable one-liners, and very large guns, but there were also action stars who needed no real acting experience, just a black belt in a given martial art. Those movies might not have aged well, and some may even laugh at the unintentional comedy of martial artist/movie starts like Steven Seagal or Jean Claude Van Damme these days, but Eight Limbs, written by Stephanie Phillips and illustrated by Giulia Lalli, might owe some of its narrative DNA to the martial arts movie formula. Rather than being a throwback, however, Phillips’ story updates the martial arts story for this century.
Joanna Carr was a Muay Thai champion until she lost her title in a brutal fight. She went into retirement to raise a family and open her own gym. Joanna seems content to raise her family to train other fighters until a longtime friend asks Joanna to take in troubled foster teen Mari. Joanna soon begins mentoring the girl, training her how to fight. When a misunderstanding drives Mari away, she soon gets involved with a dangerous underground fighting ring. Now, Joanna must step into the ring and fight to rescue her protégé.
Fans of martial arts movies might find the plot rather familiar: a fighter gives up on fighting only to be forced to step back into the ring when everything is on the line. Phillips, however, completely excludes the toxic masculinity and avoids the cliche of a climactic martial arts battle that leaves one or both combatants near death. The crux of this story is the steadily growing bond between Mari and Joanna and how that bond is tested. The martial art of Muay Thai is more a way to give Mari and Joanna the focus and discipline needed to overcome the problems they both face, rather than just another way to pummel a human body into hamburger.
Muay Thai is also known as the art of eight limbs, hence the book’s title. The Muay Thai fighter uses two fists and two feet like other martial arts, but the fighter can use brutal knee strikes and punishing elbow strikes on their opponents, and this fighting style is beautifully depicted by Lalli, showing everything from the fighter’s stance to a freeze frame of a kick connecting. The artwork isn’t quite the hyperkinetic action one would find in an anime, but its grounded depiction of one-on-one combat grounds the overall story.
This book is made for those with a martial arts mindset, but it’s less about Mortal Kombat-style fatalities and more about the spiritual side of martial arts, how martial arts help people discover who they are, what they’re capable of, and especially what is important in life. Joanna might not be doing feats that made Seagal and Van Damme famous, but one could argue that she is a more evolved form of martial artist for this more emotionally and socially aware time.
By Stephanie Phillips
Art by Giulia Lalli
Humanoids Life Drawn, 2023
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)