The Cruelty Is The Point: Ronin Island #4 Reviewed

by Noah Sharma

At the end of Ronin Island #3 we were introduced to a bombastic new character. Though his shadow had lain over the entirety of the story, this was our first proper introduction to the Shogun. Manic, self-centered, and hungry for pears, this young Shogun immediately made an impression. A thoughtless, superficial leader (if one could call him that) raised on the tales and propaganda of his people eager to play at reviving the old ways of nobility and good breeding, our Shogun quickly conjured up a sadly familiar character. And, unfortunately, this latest issue proves that we hadn’t seen the full picture…

Primary cover by Giannis Milonogiannis and MSASSYK

Ronin Island #4 is far less about chanbara action than its predecessors, focusing instead on moral action. Yes, the pleasantries break down about half-way into the issue leading to some exciting visuals, but this time it’s the action feeding the dialogue rather than the other way around. Each issue of this series has ramped up its scale and pathos and this one is no exception. There are some real heart-tugging moments here. And perhaps what I like best is how Greg Pak hits both the requisite emotional beats and the little, optional ones with equal vigor.

Yes, when characters make life-changing choices it feels suitably seismic and is written in a style to match, but some small, quiet lines pack just as much punch, while other moments that could have been huge, ‘page-turn’ experiences are held back to a relatable keel that leaves room for the reader to find their horror or wonder for themselves. With the story blasting forward and more of the characters’ motivations intersecting and transcending themselves, it’s all the more satisfying to see how Hana and Kenichi grow together, grow apart, jockey for ideological position, and do so without fundamentally changing who they are. Though the characters’ motives and opinion of each other might shift wildly from one page to the next, there’s a core characterization that only becomes more potent as time goes on. Where in earlier issues this might have felt somewhat tiresome, Pak’s grasp on his characters has blossomed with time and the development of the plot.

Admittedly, while the execution is solid, many elements of this story are both familiar and predictable. If you’re not the type that gets completely absorbed into a narrative, you’ll likely see many of the twists coming and that does have a weight on the story. However, I generally don’t care in this instance. Not only is this seemingly an all-ages title, which is at least partially targeted at readers who are less jaded by these tropes, but enough of the action is immediate and meaningful that seeing it coming doesn’t lessen the impact or detract from the ways that the narrative builds on those non-surprises. And while the twists the story takes in this issue are hardly difficult to foresee with a little thought, there are still mysteries, most notably the truth about the Great Wind, which gains another wrinkle with the idea that the mushrooms did not come with the wind, but survived it.

As last month, the nameless Shogun is one of the main attractions. But where he seemed like a dull son of a great house drunk on his own legend in issue #3, a closer audience with this new commander reveals that, if he is a victim of grandeur, he’s an all too willing one. Despite his despicable manner, the Shogun’s energy is infectious and a delight to encounter every time he appears on the page. From the first page we discover one of his few positive traits, that he doesn’t stand on ceremony with those he gifts power (of course, his beliefs about who deserve his favor are very biased). This forceful, informal personality makes his every interaction feel uncertain, chaotic, and he proves a charming villain. There’s even a crucial moment where writing and art come together beautifully and subtly to establish that this Shogun is not fool I took him for. It’s still unclear exactly what part the Shogun will play in the greater story or how much he’s a cause or a symptom, but he remains a delight to read and provides an excellent character for Kenichi and Sato to play off of.

To touch briefly on another character, it’s really fun to see Master Ito back at court. He doesn’t blow you away with any single action, but Pak sells his comfortable expertise in the new setting.

Interior art by Primary cover by Giannis Milonogiannis and Irma Kniivila

Giannis Milonogiannis also has a particularly strong issue. There’s plenty of big expressions and wild Byonin to draw this go around and Milonogiannis’ sense of what the scene needs is as finely tuned as ever. This is a book where you can depend on the art to tell you exactly how a character is feeling and to do so with enough force and clarity that you never risk losing the reader.

When the action is farther away, Milonogiannis pulls back the number of lines and amount of detail. It can be rather amazing just how much of his emotive power remains intact when this happens. However, when too many of these panels stack together or there’s no foreground element present in any of them, there can be a certain feeling of emptiness.

The illusion of motion was a sticking point for me in my review of the first issue of Ronin Island, but I can handily say that that’s not the case here. There is a genre appropriate focus on stillness and motion and the thin line that can separate them and there’s never any doubt as to what’s happening or exactly where or how fast someone is moving.

This is also an issue that really gives colorist Irma Kniivila the chance to show off her talents. The colors all have a wonderful lushness about them that is emphasized through the subtle gradations that Kniivila lays across them. There’s golden armor and fiery curtains surrounding the Shogun while our heroes arrive in cooler tones of soft lavender and seafoam. However, in keeping with the themes of the book, everything moves closer together as the electric green shroud of the byonin descend. over the story and fire lights the night sky. These firelit sections are especially beautiful and Kniivila really knows how to wring the drama out of them.

Interior art by Giannis Milonogiannis and Irma Kniivila

With these last two issues, Ronin Island has really hit its stride. The writing has grown even sharper and the questions it asks of its characters even more fascinating. You could perhaps say that each issue doesn’t feel like an event unto itself or that the story isn’t necessarily doing revolutionary things, but I think this series is a fine example of why those usual measuring sticks are both unrealistic and unhelpful in many cases. The characters feel vivid and their shifting attitudes towards each other and the island make for an entrancing dance that remains both a clever gimmick and a natural part of the storytelling. The art is still of the same high quality as last month and, if I’ve been brief in describing it, trust that this is only because it is so clear and effective in achieving what it sets out to do. Ronin Island #4 is a solidly constructed issue that builds cleverly on what’s come before. If you passed on this series at any point in the past, it might be time to give it a look.

Ronin Island #4 is currently available in comic shops from Boom! Studios.

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