This is quite a week to read Ronin Island #9.
I went into this issue knowing the big twist as there was no particular attempt to keep it a secret, but it still felt absolutely icy. In the past I’ve written about how Ronin Island isn’t quite clear as to what its intended audience is, whether its an all-ages book in lowercase or capital letters, but this week I think we get an answer of sorts: Ronin Island is a book firmly directed, not at a numerical age, but at those growing up faster than they deserve to and those that already have. If there’s a feeling that Ronin Island is accessible to children but always verging on something far more serious, it’s becoming clear that that says less about the intended audience than the characters.
The issue itself is actually a little slow. Another flashback opens the issue with some slightly repetitive foreshadowing and the rest of the issue is quite open about its twin priorities of delivering the critical moment of the story and setting up next month’s showdown. Both are told in slow, creeping fashion and what little else remains of the issue is connective tissue. Therefore what matters is how effective these two points are.
The final seven pages really sell the cornered dog energy that Hana has adopted and are filled with some beautiful artwork, but I must admit that the scene feels empty with its spacious five or so panel pages. The issue might have benefited from another scene that could expand upon what’s happened or deepen our understanding of some point or character that could have paid off down the line instead of the laser focus employed here. The presence of a somewhat unexpected character provides a lot of dramatic potential that many other books wouldn’t have bothered with, but the ending of the issue is a bit too loose and not as clear as I would expect from this team.
Despite this, Greg Pak has clearly hit the mark on the issue’s central stem. There’s more creepy Byōnin stuff, more excellent parallelism between Hana and Kenichi, and that tremendous gut punch that the entire issue orbits around. The emotions are big but respectfully understated. There’s no need for complex trickery when Pak has established the relationships between his characters and their home so completely. There are certainly places where this series has held hands to ensure that readers are keeping up, but the evolution that Hana undergoes here places real trust on the reader and the artist with some powerful results.
As I said, it sadly feels like there may not have been a more appropriate week to release this comic in years. After tipping his hand on what he had been building with the Island a few issues ago, Pak lets this story escalate in stakes and complexity in a big way this month. The results are valuable and striking all on their own, but to read this comic under the shadow of a potential war, amidst reports of Iranian-American citizens being detained for reasons of national security, it provides a certain ominous weight to this story.
This is a very quiet issue in places and I feel as though some of them needed something more, but when Pak really turns his eye on the dialogue it shines, with short, simple statements that communicate the story clearly and carry tremendous force effortlessly.
Giannis Milonogiannis has obviously been getting used to this series and his growth seems apparent. While some abstractions to the form are not exactly to my taste, there’s simultaneously an experimentation and a certainty in the linework and layouts that capture the eye in a way that even recent work didn’t quite manage. The designs, expressions, and body language are just much sharper than previous issues and it just has a tremendous power to it.
As I mentioned, there are some weird experiments going on here. There are some very cartoony moments that sometimes even remind of Stan Sakai’s work that will either be a delightful contrast or an unwelcome deviation. The style that fans of the series have come to expect remains in place, but there are numerous moments where it takes a more angular or more rounded appearance.
Even more striking is Milonogiannis’ collaboration with Irma Kniivila. Kniivila has been an absolute rock on this series, quietly delivering incredible effects for this book. In working with Milonogiannis, Kniivila delivers a powerful texture to this issue. Sometimes this is very obvious, using actual patterns or hatchwork by Milonogiannis to achieve the intended effect, but other times its just the subtle use of hues and lighting effects. There’s actually a lengthy section towards the middle where the very flatness of the colors becomes a potent storytelling effect. It would have been enough for Kniivila and Milonogiannis to just take that idea and turn up the starkness, but instead there are a host of small particles, subtle patterns, and fog effects to keep things lively and at least a little different. As ever, this artistic team is fantastic together and their interplay does incredible things for Ronin Island.
On its own, Ronin Island #9 is largely in line with its predecessors; another competent but slightly slow issue with gorgeous coloring and strong linework, but its impossible to overlook what this issue does in the context of the greater series. There really is something revelational about it. In a beautifully understated way, Pak advances his story while also throwing the entire function and mechanism of that story into clearer focus. At the same time, Milonogiannis levels up, experimenting in several ways while not only keeping the same quality that fans have come to expect but going beyond. Even more striking in light of current events, Ronin Island #9 reveals the importance, the wisdom, and the fiery anger at the heart of this series.