By ImperiousRix 3 Comments
As one who actually relishes continuity in comics, it takes a lot for me to buy into the "What If?" story. I usually find myself wondering (likely ignorantly) whether it's worth investing in characters and universes that I'll likely never see again. Don't get me wrong, I love me some Superman: Red Son, but at the end of the day, I do walk away from that story a little disconnected knowing that it's an isolated corner of the DC Universe that, should it ever arise again, won't do so in a capacity that I'd find satisfactory.
So it was with that kind of prejudice that I jumped into Marvel's 5 Ronin mini-series. I've always been fascinated by tales of feudal Japan and the samurai and daimyo that formed its backbone, and throwing in characters modeled after some of Marvel's most popular heroes turns that fascination into genuine intrigue.
After walking the path of the 5 Ronin, what are my thoughts on the series as a whole? Well, let's take a look at the big picture and see if we can judge these 5 issues together, linking the common themes as well as distinguishing the strengths and weaknesses of each installment.
As one might expect, 5 Ronin takes place in feudal Japan at the coming of the modernization. Gunpowder and corrupt daimyo have transformed the once "simple" samurai culture and lifestyle into something far less romantic. In this new age, 5 unfortunate souls find themselves without purpose. Among them, a "samurai who cannot die", a ronin turned monk with a monster inside, a man with nothing to lose who becomes death incarnate, a geisha with a mysterious past, and a drunkard who does not even remember who he is. They all share one thing in common, however, as each can trace their misfortune to the corruption of their daimyo, and each sets out on a journey to kill him.
What is perhaps the thing that surprised me most about 5 Ronin as a whole is just how much it plays itself as a straight samurai fantasy. Hell, without the name of each character the ronin are based off of adorning the front covers and some aesthetic similarities, these could be wholly distinct characters (and they pretty much are anyway). Peter Milligan pens the tales, which each can be considered somewhat self-contained. The way Milligan does this is extremely clever, as he weaves each character's history throughout the tale as it happens in real-time. This helps to drive each issue forward. Coupled with Milligan's dialog, which comes off as authentic without seeming stereotypical for a Japanese period peace, it's just really cool to see the individual myths unfold.
There is also a central narrative going on (as should be expected with a mini-series), and the themes that permeate it are actually really intriguing. It basically deals with individuals seeking the same ends independently from one another, and enabled by a single force. The comic often deals with the idea of the "old ways" being lost in favor of a the "modern", but often leaves it ambiguous as to which is the better path. This ambiguity is also central to a few of the ronin's quests.
Speaking of which, out of the 5 tales, the Wolverine and Punisher-inspired are the strongest. While the others have their strengths, both these tales really capture the ruthless and extremely ceremonial culture of the samurai best. They also feature some of the best art of the series (Laurence Campbell and Tomm Coker, respectively), showing a dark and gritty style almost reminiscent of film noir. As I'd consider the samurai genre and noir being strangely similar, the look just works. The covers by David Aja and others are also fairly amazing.
With 5 distinct ronin in 5 distinct issues, the cannot all be winners. The tale that sticks out like a sore thumb to me is the Hulk story. I was pretty excited to see how Milligan would interpret the character in a samurai drama, as he's pretty far from fitting into the genre, but unfortunately I'm not sure his story works. It's a situation of not getting enough time for the character to be fleshed out, and his particular tale and his motivations for also wishing the daimyo dead seems a tad weak. This is also the case with Psylocke and Deadpool, but unlike those characters where the reasoning is either purposely ambiguous or inconsequential, I feel like the Hulk story had untapped potential that wasn't reached.
In fact, that's probably a good analogy for the entirety of the series. For better or worse, this was a 5 issue mini-series that used each issue to introduce and flesh out a single character. Some characters appeared in multiple stories, and one even catalyzed the story, but in the end, it felt like this was a great introduction to a memorable tale that frankly never happens. The ending is bound to be a tad disappointing to most people. I feel like this was intentionally done by Milligan to perpetuate the feeling of pessimism present throughout most of the stories, but the lack of a big pay-off is sure to piss some people off.
Wolverine: 5 stars. A great stand alone tale that plays off the character's inspiration well. Sets up the basic idea of the story, but is extremely satisfying by itself. Fantastic artwork.
Hulk: 3 stars. Decent concept, but not fleshed out enough for it to work. The character comes off as the weakest in the series. Artwork is good.
Punisher: 5 stars. Perhaps the best of the stand-alone stories. Classic tale of vengeance with decent twists on the formula. Favorite artwork of the series.
Psylocke: 4 stars. Great characterization, but a tad lacking. Interactions with the Wolverine character both adds to and subtracts from the character's tale. Artwork is passable.
Deadpool: 2 stars. Ends the series on a bit of a low note. The character himself is interesting, but lacks depth (like his inspiration). Artwork is good.
5 Ronin seems like a great introduction to and foundation for an interesting series. The problem is, there's no sign that anything will be built off of it, and sadly the series we're left with doesn't really add up to the whole of its parts. The tales, especially Wolverine and Punisher, stand on their own and are fantastic samurai dramas that should be enjoyed by just about anyone. The others can certainly be enjoyed, and the series as a whole is not bad in any sense of the word. It is, however, extremely flawed, and the fact that the narrative doesn't so much lead up to a climax as it simply ends is the most disappointing part.
Despite this, I give 5 Ronin gets 3.5 stars out of 5. There are parts of this series that deserve to be read and enjoyed, but only the devoted need follow the entire narrative thread.