I first read Lone Wolf & Cub, in bits in pieces, in the mid 90s. Maybe I was too young for it, but it blew my fucking mind. Manga was still only just creeping into our country more and more, but I'd read enough to expect big hair, big eyes, big breasts, and robots -- all the hallmarks -- and as such was blown away by the differently violent, cinematic, amoral, and exceedingly dark world of this series. The old American releases from the late 80s didn't even cover a third of the series, and were all out of order, but they were still amazing.
Then in 2000, someone decided to do the series right. All of it. In order. Finished reading them in '02 or '03, and the entire 28 book set has sat on various shelves of mine for the last near-decade. Finally decided to crack these open and see just how good they are.
Thankfully, I already remembered that the epic series starts a little weaker than it quickly becomes, so I wasn't disappointed by the first book, which is still really, really cool. (The series as a whole merits five stars no problem, but I'm going to try to go volume by volume.)
In this first volume, our "heroes" aren't quite as fleshed out as they will quickly become: the father isn't that far from your average stoic wanderer (albeit much, much darker than normal), and the son is mostly just a cute round head, who watches in awe, sometimes smiling, as his father slaughters people. It won't be until a little later that little Daigoro begins to look slightly more realistic in his cuteness, and begins to have the glazed over eyes of someone who's seen too much death, horrifying in a child so young.
Also, most of the people our hero assassinates in this volume deserve it, so while he's an anti-hero through and through, who we're told
will kill anyone for a price, it seems more like the classic assassin-as-hero story, wherein we only see him ply his trade in situations that won't trouble us too much. If not all the victims are evil, exactly, they're pretty much never sympathetic -- although the book does begin to show the weird ways in which politics and etiquette would force someone to turn to murder, a murder they didn't even want to have committed, for really ridiculous reasons. This will certainly change later on in the series (the supposed Living Buddha whom he kills comes to mind). Although, even with victims who largely "deserve" it, our protagonist is still seen to put his child in terrible danger, to use his child when needed, and to use his child to exploit what little good there is in others, whenever necessary as a means to his end. It's only in the last story of the volume that we begin to see Itto's rationale for doing this for his son, and the pained love that he has for Daigoro, who he knows will have a terrible life.
Still, this first volume is a lot lighter, a lot more actiony and gimmicky and a lot less layered, than what will come later. We see Itto smile, which is strange, and overall it's hard to say how much a first-time reader would see what is to come (if what I think is to come is even there, it has been awhile). This may be why
the first American release didn't do it in order, but I still disagree with that decision. Besides, this is still exciting and disturbing and cute and violent, and the art is still absolutely amazing -- so cinematic that the actual movies that were made of the series really seem like a silly, campy letdown in comparison, because no live action could look as beautifully "real" as the art in the comic. Still, it feels less like they had a plan for what would come, and more like they began with "you know what would be cool?" But then, that thought process was the beginning of a lot of great art.