But before I start gushing over what's between the covers, I have to issue out a huge warning to anyone who may be interested in these books: handle with care. The production value of these two editions is pretty top notch in every aspect except the binding. The binding began to fall apart the moment I opened the front cover of the first volume, and it was a relentless assault on the glue as I turned each page. This is literally a four-hundred-fifty hit combo on the books binding as each page brings it closer and closer to coming completely undone. It was very disappointing. The second book held together a bit better in the glue-and-pages department, but the cover came away from the rest of the book before I finished it. It really is a damned shame, 'cause these books are really pretty on the outside, but they don't hold up when compared to Street Fighter: Eternal Struggle or SF20: The Art of Street Fighter both are books that Udon published here in the states. It makes me a little sad on the inside.
Moving on, however, we have what's between the covers, and although it's a mixed bag in what it has to offer. On the bad side, we have some very wordy pages that ruin the art that they're covering, and they ruin the martial arts motif that Street Fighter has. I think the Udon team could've benefited themselves by watching more martial arts films than they did (and I think they watched a LOT) during the production of the Street Fighter comics. Sometimes you don't need a whole lot of words to tell a story when you have the expressions to give away the emotional context of the character. The scene that stood out for this was Sagat taking out his frustrations of losing to Ryu and monologuing the entire time. There's a few of those moments as well as some where there's too much talking while fighting. Not as bad as some comics I've read, but it's excessive. The last two complaints I have about the entire series is that the focus isn't centered around all of the characters and some are rendered as background noise only, and it instead centers around the "main" heroes of Ryu, Ken, Chun-Li, Guile and Cammy. It takes away from the draw that a fighting game has in that the only main character is whatever character you choose to pick, and the Street Fighter games covered in this series has a very large cast of characters. The last part is the Street Fighter II tournament itself that takes place in the second volume. It has too much build-up and the actual tournament isn't given a whole lot of time. Most of the fights are ridiculously short -- like Ken vs. Zangief -- and there's not a whole lot of drama to them until the later fights.
Now, for what I like:
The two volumes here are about nine-hundred pages of Street Fighter goodness. Unlike previous Street Fighter comics that have been done in the United States, this one devotes all its time to telling the story that is somewhat detailed in the games, and as close to the actual canon of the series as possible. The names are still changed, which isn't too big of a deal except where Gouki is concerned, but the story, the plot of it, is heavily influenced by the actual Japanese canon. Gouki isn't possessed by a demon, so on and so forth. Some of the American nuances made it into the series, like Dee Jay fighting with Capoeira and Ken and Ryu being Shotokan fighters -- he doesn't, and they're not.
The books cover the game's storyline, pretty closely at that, from the moment Ryu used the Satsui no Hado to defeat Sagat in the finals of the first Street Fighter tournament through the Street Fighter Alpha stories and ends with the Street Fighter II tournament.
We get a few short stories that appeared as back up stories in the original comics that begin to set things up with a wide variety of artists. For instance, the fight between Ryu and Sagat is drawn by Joe Madureira and it goes on from there. The main plot of the first half of the book deals with Ryu and Ken seeking out Gouki for the murder of their master, Gouken, while Chun-Li and Guile try to bring down Shadaloo, the criminal organization run by Bison. The second half deals more with Chun-Li, Guile and Cammy bringing down the rest of Shadaloo after Bison's apparent death, with Ken and Ryu somewhat caught in the middle.
It's pretty good stuff, and Udon's team of artists render the book brilliantly, which compensates on a big scale for the sometimes awkward writing. You can tell when Ken Siu-Chong hits his stride with the writing which is about the start of the second volume. He's not bad at all, but his hiccups are easy to spot. The art is something else, though, especially for the main chunk of stories. When I first started reading the monthly comics, I was a little more than weary about the action and the martial arts scenes. They were too game centric in my opinion, and by that I mean that the characters do a LOT of their moves from the games. But as the series goes on, the pacing of the action sequences puts this at the tip-top of martial arts comics. I don't think anything has been done better that I can remember reading with the exception of two Japanese comics: Lone Wolf and Cub and Hiroaki Samura's Blade of the Immortal. This stuff is really well done. Everything is well paced and plotted, and the way they angled the "camera" for each panel or frame is a delight each and every time. The two fights that really stand out in the first volume is a fight between Ken and Ryu versus Gouki, which they lose miserably, and a pretty awesome Bruce Lee styled fight between Fei Long and Chun-Li versus a whole lot of bad guys. There's also a battle royale worth mentioning at the closing of the book featuring Chun-Li, Guile, Ken, Ryu and Sakura vs. Vega, Balrog and a bunch of Shadaloo leftover cronies.
The second volume really kicks into high gear as we follow Ryu on his quest to become the best martial artist he can to face Gouki, lots of Shadaloo stuff as Vega takes control of the Bison-absent organization; lots of Cammy, Guile and Chun-Li stuff. Cammy's struggling to find herself, Guile's dealing with a failing relationship, and Chun-Li wants to bring Shadaloo down completely. We also get treated to a short but sweet battle between Gen and Gouki that Street Fighter IV has rendered absolutely senseless. Gen is suffering from Lukemia, but feels that way of dying is beneath him. He wants to fight to the death, and Gouki obliges him -- which is what happens in the games (however, Gen is in Street Fighter IV and Super Street Fighter IV, which are separate games with separate plots, and SFIV takes place after the Street Fighter II tournament, and post Gen's death). Then Bison is resurrected. Upon his resurrection we learn the significance of his connection to Cammy (she's a clone of him of which he was intending on downloading his consciousness into if he needed to) and his connection to Rose (his soul resides in her). Ryu continues to struggle with his inner demon. The Satsui no Hado ni Mezameta version of Ryu is a fantastical character that exists only in Ryu's mind, his darkside, if you will. The Satsui no Hado is the true form of the martial art taught to Ken and Ryu by Gouken, although Gouken toned it down considerably and turned it into an art. The art was intended to kill, which is what Gouki uses. In the Street Fighter mythology, it's a special power-like version of the art that only a select few can use, Gouki and Ryu both have the ability to use it -- Gen uses a similar form of Chinese martial art. What this hints to, and seems to almost have always hinted to, is that Ryu is the son of Gouki, but I think Capcom has denied that time and time again. So Ryu gets in these huge fights with his evil, darker version of himself that all take place in his imagination.
Then the tournament invites are sent out. The rest of the second volume is all buildup to the tournament followed by the tournament itself. The buildup includes a series of qualifying matches that are pretty cool. These matches feature some of the characters that appear in the Street Fighter Alpha series like Sodom, Rainbow Mika, Guy and Cody, Dan Hibiki and a whole slew of others. A couple of characters, Hugo and Poison, weren't featured in a Street Fighter game until Street Fighter III, but it was nice seeing them. The Japanese qualifier is hard to follow as it seems to be a battle royale between Zangief, E. Honda, Rainbow and Sodom, but it eventually boils down to Honda and 'Gief being attacked by a bunch of "Geki" ninjas and destroying the lot of them to make it into the tournament. Geki is a character from the first Street Fighter game that has seemingly disappeared. In these two volumes we learn that there's a whole clan and they all look the same and one of them was killed by Gen. Tangent. The Hong Kong qualifier has a pretty funny fight between Dhalsim and Adon where Adon gets schooled without laying a finger on the Yoda-like Dhalsim (Dhalsim is very much written like the Yoda character that appears in Empire Strikes Back, not the prequels, but one that is a lot more curious and not afraid to get into the mix of things). Then there's two fights that happen at the same time with Fei Long and Chun-Li where the both of them have to fight a large group of characters. All of the characters are unfamiliar to me in terms of Street Fighter, but bear resemblances to other fighting game characters. Fei Long dispatches his pretty quickly, Chun-Li gets blinded a la Jean Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport and gets help from Yun and Yang. The USA qualifier is pretty funny. Balrog is in charge of it and he decides to pull a Willy Wonka and place four golden tickets in an abandoned building that's set to explode in a very short time frame. So Guile, ThunderHawk, Ryu, Ken, Rolento, Hugo, Poison, Cody and Birdie all have to scramble to get the tickets. If you've played Street Fighter II at all, you'll know who gets them, if not, I'll spoil it for you: Guile, T.Hawk, Ryu and Ken. The fight between Cody and Ryu is awesome, though. Cody is a lot like Ryu in that the fight is almost everything, except Cody's not looking to better himself. He's just looking for more fights. The tournament itself goes by way too fast with way too many fights being ridiculously short. It ends just as epic as it should have, though. The final fight of the tournament is Ryu and M.Bison, but it never happens. Gouki steps in and with some minor help from several other characters that blow up Bison's Psycho Drive machine, Gouki destroys him with the Shun Goku Satsu. Then it's Ryu versus Gouki, which is an awesome fight to read almost as much as it is to play.
The only drawback is that there's no epilogue that gives any hints to Street Fighter IV's continuation to the series, which I would have liked. A small explanation as to why a lot of characters have been resurrected (Bison, Gouken, Gen, Rose, etc.,etc.) and how Seth took over S.I.N., Shadaloo's science division.
Other than the slight drawbacks of the production quality and some iffy writing early on, these two books come highly recommended from me -- a very long time Street Fighter fan -- to anyone who enjoys the Street Fighter games. The production -- aside from the binding -- is very high-quality, the art is awesome and fits with the Street Fighter vibe of things head to kicking toe. The writing starts slow and iffy, but gets a lot better as the story progresses. There's some really great philosophical moments going on in the books all over the place that are very much a part of the Street Fighter world, martial arts movies everywhere, and from the likes of Bruce Lee, Sun Tzu and many others that have written about the combatitive arts. They're surprisingly good reads and turn out to be a great deal of fun.