Old school Hong Kong action movies, Brooklyn B-Boys, giant space robots, the power of music, and the importance of friends and family are slammed together in an all-ages remix, Yehudi Mercado’s new stand-alone graphic novel Sci-Fu. It’s a premise that demands examination. Kung fu movies have been occasional fodder for comics, but it’s a difficult genre to emulate in a static format; creating a musical story in a silent medium is similarly challenging. A project with audacious ambitions like these is bound to have some eccentricities, but as is true for all creations worthy of the name, its successes far outshine its shortcomings.
The book’s plot centers on adolescent African-American hip-hop DJ Wax coming of age and dodging bullies in 1980s Brooklyn. Along with wannabe MC Cooky P, Wax dreams of proving himself to his ice cream vending uncle Rashaad and his ruthlessly brainy little sister D. He also wants to attract the attention of a pretty Hispanic girl known as Polly the Pirate, both for her eyepatch and her nautical flair. After he embarrasses himself by penning a cheesy love song to Polly, Wax redeems himself with his sick skills on the wheels of steel, creating a beat so perfect that his whole building is transported into deep space. On Discopia, a planet inhabited and run by robots, Wax takes part in a weaponized rap battle, and begins training in Sci-Fu, a martial art that turns the music of the spheres into skills to pay the bills. However, as he gains power and fame, he begins to alienate his friends and family from Earth in the pursuit of his DJ dreams, making mistakes that might end with Wax accidentally selling out both friends and the whole human race!
With an obvious love for the intersection of hip hop and Hong Kong action movies (Wax faces down robot crew Five Deadly Dangers in a reference to The Five Deadly Venoms, a noted favorite film of the Wu Tang Clan), the story attempts to thread the needle between ‘derivative’ and ‘homage.’ It usually succeeds, though it does run the risk of coming across as ‘Scott Pilgrim, Jr’ at times. The characters and the fast-paced story are largely comprised of tropes familiar to most casual fantasy and sci-fi fans. However, with a cast comprised almost entirely of people of color, this book stands out from others in this genre by placing black and Hispanic characters in main roles. The plot is also not as tightly scripted as might be expected—there’s a character who accidentally comes along for the ride and ends up disappearing into her apartment for the rest of the novel—and some challenging action sequences require more than one reading to follow. However, the storytelling is fast-paced and fun, and the art is vibrant, with a neon graffiti-inspired palate that brings Sci-Fu’s unearthly urban landscapes to life. The book also successfully brings music into its story, with credible rhymes and a visual shorthand that makes it clear who’s singing or rapping throughout. Plus, the uncle faux-swears by screaming out the names of exotic ice cream flavors. What’s not to love?
This is a great book for introducing younger readers to kung fu movies and priming their future selves as readers of books like Ed Piskor’s multi-volume graphic history Hip-Hop Family Tree. There is a lot of sci-fi fisticuffs throughout, but Mercado uses the old Saturday morning cartoon cheat of only “killing” robots, so violence will not be a big concern to most readers or parents. A good buy for librarians looking to add action, color, and fun for the tweens (ages 10-13) who like to peruse the children’s comics section, and especially recommended for urban libraries. Also great for fans of action action-comedy and deft rap lyrics.
by Yehudi Mercado
Oni Press, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Tween
Characters: Black, Latinx
Creator Traits: Mexican American