Ronin Island #1 Lays Out The Island Way
by Noah Sharma
Ronin Island #1 is a book that’s at once familiar and yet different from most other titles on the shelves. Set in an initially unclear alternate history of East Asia, Ronin Island follows the community of a small island of refugees from Japan, China, and Korea as they strive to build a new culture following a mysterious and disastrous battle. Steeped in the tropes of honor and political identity, Ronin Island nevertheless seems to tell a new story of unification and coming of age even after the establishment of the island way.
Perhaps the most interesting element of Ronin Island is the degree to which its culture is a composite. Pan-Asian identities are not really a thing outside of the west’s colonial imagination. In Asia, the concept has primarily occurred only as a response to colonial aggression, with the history of East Asia, in particular, absolutely shaped by the perception of its nations that they are wholly separate and distinct entities (where modern concepts of countries are even useful, that is). This reality is really very basic, some would say obvious, however its rarely acknowledged in American media and that gives Ronin Island some immediate intrigue as the islands’ culture both melds and preserves the original identities of its inhabitants. The island clearly has its own growing pains and inequalities, with nobles and farmers thrown together haphazardly, but the influence of nationality is a stern, quiet presence behind the scenes, perhaps even unacknowledged by the characters.
Despite this, writer Greg Pak doesn’t seem overeager to get into the specifics of the island’s identity politics. Whether this reflects his own caution or an editor’s reluctance to dive too deep into the history of East Asian identity and nationalism, I can’t say that I fault the decision, however, even putting aside my interest in this element, it can leave things feeling a little generic.
Points of difference in Ronin Island are generally downplayed into archetypally resonant forms that don’t alienate readers but also don’t say much new. It’s possible that this is actually a diegetic concern, as Elder Jin’s sage musings on the utopian nature of the island are repeatedly undercut by the vicious rivalry between our leads, Kenichi and Hana.
But while I wish we could have seen more specificity in the differences between characters, Pak presents a fantastically balanced view of each character. It would be very easy to paint Hana and Kenichi into a simple underdog vs. privilege dichotomy, but Pak goes out of his way to push Hana’s charms beyond their breaking point and force readers to identify with both characters at different moments until they’re both protagonists. Likewise, we see set ups for rhetorical spikes throughout the book, but, even though characters follow through on them, they never succeed in cutting down our esteem of another player, only building up the first. It works, both as a shift away from a hierarchical zero-sum paradigm and as an in-story refusal by proud characters to yield to the barbs of their opponents. Everyone’s experience is different but the story doesn’t value one over the other and, if one is more true, we’ll have to wait and find out.
Effective as it is, Ronin Island’s writing feels very conscious of such concerns. Released as part of the main Boom! Studios imprint, it’s not necessarily clear what the intended age of Ronin Island’s readership is. It’s certainly got enough for adults to chew on, but I think there’s something very YA about this first issue, and that comes with the good and the bad. On the con side, you can feel the hand of the author establishing that equity of ideas a little more than I think serves the story, but you have to weigh that against emotional honesty and exciting plotting that Ronin Island has in spades. That said, even if it is very important to Kenichi’s character, I can’t help but feel like his mother is setting him up for failure by dressing him in full armor for a footrace… It’s little things like this that reveal the attention to what the story is telling you rather than what’s happening.
The issue cleaves cleanly into two parts, with the first immediately accessible, and the second tense and well established. General Sato is a character that we don’t have a full view of yet as the first issue ends, but he possesses a wonderful authority, and one that is interestingly split between his own presence and that of the Shogun he represents.
But even that isn’t the last surprise the the book has in store. Though mentions of a “Great Wind” immediately summon up thoughts of the famous Kamikaze, General Sato flies the Tokugawa mon, not the Kamakura, placing this firmly into alternate history. Before long it becomes quite clear why that’s necessary to tell this story and, though I won’t spoil it all, I will say that it pulls me in two directions. On one hand, it’s hinting at a fairly tired twist but there’s also an undeniable cool factor and the few hints as to the specifics of the situation imply that the story might have a different take on the familiar trope.
The series is given a wholly accurate look by Giannis Milonogiannis, whose simple lines and manga-inspired sharpness capture the tone of the series immediately. There’s a lot of joy in Milonogiannis’ work, incorporating the dual excitement of the protagonists and the creative team telling this story. The energy is palpable and that holds true even when the story switches gears and the mood becomes tense and powerful.
There’s a jovial simplicity and a fierce motion most in Milonogiannis’ images that works well, but there’s a tighter, more polished look reserved for moments of particular import that casts a long shadow over the rest of the art. The artwork is not necessarily consistent, there are a cornucopia of different styles and strategies within the overarching look of the issue and no one of them is decisively better than the others, but Milonogiannis has a way of letting you know when he’s switched into high gear. Sometimes that means the art grows clearer and more structured, while other times it leans into cartooning a bit more, but whatever the case you can feel the shift.
Unfortunately, despite the overall charm of the book, one flaw stands out to me and that’s clarity of action. You’d think this would be a strength of the book, given how adeptly motion and stillness are both represented, but in a couple of places, including one key moment, these strong panels don’t link together cleanly and the spatial relations of the page become hard to follow. There’s a stunning splash page near the issue’s end, but thanks to some odd blocking choices, stiffer than normal storytelling, and a scenario that depends on distance vision and incomplete information, it can be hard to feel certain of what exactly is happening and what Sato’s role in it is. Some of Milonogiannis’ motions are also too ‘quick’ to read clearly, the movement so effectively rendered that you can be left unsure what happened.
Ronin Island #1 is an interesting start to the miniseries, bringing a great setting, sharp art, and a notable confidence in introducing you to a cast of wonderful characters to bear. The issue depends a lot on its two big climaxes, so it’s too soon to say exactly what it will be, but what we have is intriguing. Pak, Milonogiannis, and co. present a timeless story in a very particular time and place, one that’s not often seen in American comics, and quickly set up an odd kind of anti-Rashomon, where the events are not really in question but there are many stories that are actually all true in their ways. At times it feels like it pulls some punches narratively, holding back the complexities of racial or historical reality for the sake of mass consumption, while it swings a little too wildly artistically, but it has both heart and style and that goes a long way.
Ronin Island #1 is currently available in comic shops from Boom! Studios.