Five Weapons, Jimmie Robinson’s recently-concluded comic book series, has an irresistible hook: At a school where children are trained to be assassins, a pacifist vows to make it through the semester without touching a single weapon.
There are several ways a story about 12-year-olds learning to be professional killers could go wrong, even in a world where the most popular young adult franchise in the world is about teens forced to murder each other. But Five Weapons dodges all of them. Though it’s set in a world defined by violence, Five Weapons isn’t lurid or graphic in the least—in fact, it’s an all-ages romp that’s mostly about making friends.
Tyler Shainline is the new kid at the School of Five Weapons, where the children of assassins go to learn their parents’ craft. The school’s name refers to the five clubs that students can join, each focusing on a different instrument: knives, guns, staffs, bows and arrows, and “exotic” (poisons and such). As the son of one of the world’s most revered assassins, Shainline is instantly an object of resentment from his classmates. This only deepens after he refuses to choose a weapon and join a club. Each issue of the comic addresses the same issue: how can Tyler solve a series of impossible challenges without breaking his vow of pacifism?
In this regard, Five Weapons is actually a lot like Encyclopedia Brown. Clues are everywhere, and if readers are as observant as Tyler, they’ll spot something—a loose cable, a weird look, a stray comment—that’ll give Tyler his way out.
Five Weapons isn’t perfect. The stories are formulaic, and the formula works much better in the first volume, Making the Grade, than it does in the second, Tyler’s Revenge. While there’s plenty of action, the plot generally builds to a parlor scene in which Tyler explains how he figured out how to win without fighting—and since Tyler is generally the only person in the story that has to use his wits, he often looks like the only smart person in the entire school. It can make you sympathize with the people who want to beat him up.
The art, which is colored by Paul Little, is interesting in that it only uses horizontal panels. It’s a creative decision that sounds limiting on paper, but actually works given how Robinson tells his stories. Each wide panel allows Robinson to incorporate the clues Tyler will reference at the solution of every challenge while leaving plenty of room for hidden background jokes. As for the art itself, Robinson’s style is friendly and fun, with a diverse cast of characters that look like they’d be at home in a Saturday morning cartoon.
There’s an age-old lesson at the heart of Five Weapons, one you can see from a mile away. It’s about the importance of not resorting to violence to solve problems. To its credit, Five Weapons never comes out and says this until the author’s note at the very end. Still, it bears mentioning: Don’t come here for subtlety. Five Weapons feels like a throwback, and there’s something refreshing about that—the hero is a hero because he strives to do the right thing while sticking to a clear set of values. That, in addition to the book’s kooky setting (assassins are an elite social class with government representation; kids get to fight with throwing knives and staffs and venomous snakes)—makes for a book that’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
At its heart, Five Weapons is just fun comics. Sometimes that’s all it takes.