Every once in a while, I will discover a comic book that will completely amaze me with how wonderful it turned out to be. This may be in part because of low expectations or scepticism, but whatever the reason, I love the feeling of pleasure and excitement that stems from delightful gems such as the one that I’m about to share with you guys today.
5 Ronin is written by Peter Milligan and illustrated by five accompanying artists (Tom Coker, Dalibor Talajić, Laurence Campbell, Goran Parlov, and Leandro Fernàndez). It is a story about five Marvel heroes, five master-less samurai (ronin), who reside in feudal Japan with a common enemy with whom they seek vengeance, and what’s left in the wake of a vengeance unfulfilled.
My very first piece of scepticism came from the fact that five white superheroes—Wolverine, The Hulk, Psylocke, The Punisher, and Deadpool—were being placed in Japan during an era that was filled with political upheaval. Another “white-saviour” story, or the inherent white-washing of a period in Japanese history and Japanese culture, was my biggest concern. I’ve read many other superhero comics that have been guilty of this and it is a supreme pet-peeve of mine. I could ramble on and on about why and how it’s problematic, but I won’t do that here. Instead, I’m just going to confess that my fears were allayed as that wasn’t the case with this particular story.
All of the characters had been re-created as Japanese individuals, which is wonderfully apparent by their physical appearances and careful attention to detail in the way that they interact with others, their behaviours and mannerisms, etc. One of the characters in the book is a biracial person who is half-Japanese and half-European. Even with this instance, this person is still very much portrayed as a Japanese individual. This elated me beyond measure for multiple reasons.
The first is authenticity. White samurai, even ronin, in feudal era Japan is not authentic and this inauthenticity would be further exasperated by a plot that consists of people who are hell-bent on having their revenge with a daimyō for events that occurred at the Battle of Sekigahara, where there were no Western forces present. Reading about Wolverine and Deadpool as Japanese individuals really helped to completely envelop me within the setting of feudal era Japan, and thus made their plight feel more real and more genuine. I could empathise with them because it didn’t feel misplaced, forced, unnatural, or appropriated. While many folks may not think it is an important aspect (maybe most are indifferent), I find this to be a core quality of the entire story being told.
The second reason I was so excited was because I always ponder what it would be like to take characters like Deadpool, or The Punisher, and give them a completely fresh and diverse origin story; to build them up with similar motives given a completely different evolution of their past. Fantasy is a wonderful thing that way, especially where imagination is concerned. Milligan and gang do an absolutely beautiful job of creating origin stories that, while being intrinsically different, still renders the same ideals and motives that drove our heroes into becoming the people that we’re familiar with today.
Thirdly, and lastly, as to why I loved the Japanese characterisation of these superheroes is because samurai are really fucking cool and badass. Granted samurai in the entertainment mediums are vastly different than how they were in reality, it was still extremely badass nonetheless. With the way that everything came together at the end, the entire comic felt like a spectacular homage to classic Japanese samurai films, such as Seven Samurai and Yōjimbo, by the brilliant Akira Kurosawa. It made me feel absolutely nostalgic for those films and also provided me with a similar feeling of surreal appreciation for such marvellous feats of imagination.
Regardless of these elements, the comic isn’t perfection incarnate. For anyone who’s closely familiar with classic Japanese samurai stories, the comic may come off a bit clichéd and tropey and overall unimaginative. The storytelling itself is also quite vague in nature as the superheroes aren’t named in traditional fashion. No one shouts out, or identifies, these people as Wolverine, or The Hulk, or Psylocke. It’s more implied through what they’ve undergone and the motives that they have for what they’re seeking. The inspiration pulls from the actual Marvel comics already published that establish the beginnings, and on a certain level it’s expected for the audience to already know these backgrounds going into 5 Ronin, otherwise you may be plagued with a bit of confusion.
Finally, the illustrations were what sealed my approval in completely. Each story has its own colour palette and theme that builds up a wonderful environment that is unique to the hero being explored. Wolverine has more darker greys, blues, and reds. The Hulk is a mixture of vibrant oranges and yellows, and etc. etc. Coupled with different illustrators, this brought a lot of dimension to a seemingly simple storyline. Not to mention that it further encapsulates that classic Samurai motif it’s got going on.
Overall, I highly recommend this to fans of Marvel comics and fans of classical samurai stories. It was lovely in writing, composition, and illustration.
4.75 sunsets outta 5!