Forging Community In The Face Of Crisis: Talking Ronin Island With Greg Pak & Giannis Milonogiannis

by Hannah Means Shannon

Ronin Island is a new series from Boom! Studios that you’re bound to keep hearing about. Its premise alone renders it unique–taking characters from multiple Asian background and placing them in alternate history setting where a large-scale cataclysm has thrown them together in the creation of a new society. One that hopes to fend off further threats from…well, you’ll hear more about that threat below.
Written by Greg Pak (Firefly, Star Wars, Mech Cadet Yu) and illustrated by Giannis Milonogiannis (Old City Blues), with colors by Irma Kniivilla, and letters by Simon Bowland, Ronin Island has unique potential as a series that can and will draw on historical elements, but also has a blank slate for including more fantasy-driven fare. In its first issue, released this week, we begin to understand the dynamic of second generation inhabitants of this new social structure on Ronin Island, and in issue #2, coming up in April, we’ll learn more about just why internal unity, despite cultural divides, is just so important.
We have Greg Pak and Giannis Milonogiannis with us today in an extensive interview about what we can expect coming up from Ronin Island and what went into creating this unique series.

Hannah Means-Shannon: How appealing was it to bring together cultural groups who during this period might otherwise have been enemies? (Japan, China, Korea) What does that add to the story from a creative perspective?
Greg Pak: This was always one of the key hooks for me. I was hugely excited about the prospect of telling a samurai story in and of itself — I just love the genre. But when I knuckled down and thought about what I could personally bring to this kind of story as a writer, I found myself thinking about the Asian diaspora, the way folks with family origins in so many different countries come together — or don’t come together — in America and elsewhere. And I thought about the possibility of exploring that kind of thing in a period samurai story, and I got very excited. I’m always excited about stories that dig into diversity within diversity, the very specific ways in which folks within a community grapple with both their similarities and differences. So this idea of telling a samurai/ronin story with Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Thai characters was hugely exciting.
Giannis Milonogiannis: Visually speaking, it’s exciting and refreshing to get to research clothing, weapons, vehicles and so on from a such a wide variety of cultures. Combined with the fantasy elements of the various creatures, the world Greg has given us to design is a joy to work with and a really fresh setting.
HMS: Thinking about the idea of building a new society on a hidden island, I’m reminded of theories of Utopias and the pros and cons of trying to start a new society from scratch. What are the good things and the difficult things about this enterprise for our characters?
GP: I’m intrigued by the way a massive crisis can bind people of different backgrounds together. And concurrently, how certain divisions can endure even when everything else seems to have changed. So in RONIN ISLAND, we have an ostensibly egalitarian community in which people from China, Japan, and Korea have come together in order to survive. At its founding, the community relied on everyone in the face of crisis — democracy and equality of opportunity was the only way forward. But a generation down the line, certain class and racial divisions remain. Everyone’s ostensibly got equal opportunities, but in practice, some folks have inherited much more. So there’s meaty stuff to explore there about the way an idealistic community struggles to live up to its own ideals.
HMS: Solicit info for issue #1 hints that a new power structure comes into play and tries to assert authority over our island. Is this a realistic note about the impossibility of total independence on the world stage? Is there always a bigger fish in the sea?
GP: I’m not setting this story up as a specific allegory for any specific historical or present day situation. But in life in general and throughout human history, it’s pretty hard to hide away and never be bothered. Within this specific story, there’s an ongoing question of to whom the principles of the Island should apply — just to the citizens of the Island, or to anyone who needs help?

HMS: We’ve also heard hints that a new, bigger enemy is on the way, a “mutated horde” of the world’s survivors from the attack that killed so many. Are there any possible defenses against a threat so massive?
GP: We’ll find out in issue #2! I don’t want to spoil too much, so I’ll keep my mouth shut. But I will say that these aren’t your everyday zombies. There’s a specific mystery to their origin that we’ll reveal bit by bit as the series continues, and it’s different from anything I’ve seen elsewhere so far, so I’m hoping folks will be chilled and intrigued. Keep on reading, friends!
GM: I don’t want to spoil anything either, but I’ll just say there are action scenes coming up that I had a blast trying to set up, with the added dynamic of our main heroes being young and inexperienced.
HMS: Can you tell us a little bit about the different battle styles and armor we’ll encounter in the book? Presumably there are quite different traditions coming into play due to our cultural mix.
GP: Yep! Many of the characters carry Japanese weapons and and armor, since the story’s set in Japan and probably half of the characters or more are Japanese. But it’s a world with folks from multiple cultures, so Elder Jin, who’s Chinese, carries a Chinese oxtail sword. And in issue #3, we’ll meet some Thai characters, some of whom wear traditional Thai armor.
GM: Like I said earlier, it’s been great fun to work off the references in the scripts by Greg, and use those as a starting point for designing the different elements of the book. It’s also an interesting challenge to bring all these cultural elements together in a visually cohesive way, and to make everything look lived-in and part of a post-apocalyptic world.
HMS: When you’re dealing with historical genre fiction, how much do you feel you have to include of authentic historical elements to paint a solid enough picture for readers? How do you determine how much radically weird stuff you can introduce without upsetting the balance of a historical approach?
GP: The hook for me is usually to try to create a realistic world with one twist. That one twist affects everything in both overt and subtle ways. But ideally, it’s just one weird thing. I think that kind of focus helps the world make sense and feel real, and allows you to hone in on your themes much more clearly. It also allows you to go completely over the top when the time is right — but it’s all earned and set up because it’s all tied into that one twist.

HMS: What elements do you think pop up from history and culture in RONIN ISLAND that readers may not be familiar with yet?
GP: I’m honestly not really sure — I can’t always predict ahead of time what readers will find surprising about the stories I write. And while the story is set during a specific historical period, it’s also an alternate history, so we’re not tying directly in to real historical events at the time. But I suppose the notion that people from different countries throughout Asia interacted during this time period might be surprising to some folks. I’m always interested in those kind of stories in actual history, so it’s fun to explore that here.
HMS: Does it feel rare to be able to create an all Asian character book with an Asian setting from an American publisher? What are your feelings on being able to pursue both in RONIN ISLAND?
GP: I was very excited about this. As an Asian American writer, I’ve written many, many stories with Asian American characters. But I realized I haven’t written that many stories with Asian characters set in Asia. I think, in part, I almost subconsciously avoided writing these kinds of stories over the years because when I was growing up, many of the racist taunts I’d encounter in real life and in American media were based on stereotypes from Asian pop culture — like martial arts. But I’ve loved samurai stories my whole life. So telling this kind of story felt like a kind of reclamation to me — and a challenge to celebrate the genre without exoticizing the characters. It’s been a thrill doing this with BOOM — our editors Cameron Chittock, Amanda LaFranco, and Eric Harburn have been fantastic and the art team of Giannis Milonogiannis, Irma Kniivila, and Simon Bowland have done their research and are bringing all their experience and sensitivity to making these pages sing.

HMS: How would you describe the aesthetic flavor of the comic in terms of art style? Were there any particular goals of placing the story within comic or manga traditions?
GP: When we were thinking about possible artists, Cameron and Amanda sent over some of Giannis’s gorgeous work, and it was immediately clear that he loved the same kind of movies and comics I grew up loving and absolutely had the sensibility and experience to build this world and make the characters live and breathe. I don’t think we ever explicitly talked about manga versus American comics. We just looked for an artist who seemed like the right fit, and that was Giannis. One very important thing with a book like this is finding an artist who loves world-building and has the imagination and sensitivity to creating a whole world through everything from environment and architecture to clothing and food.
And then Irma has come through with absolutely stunning colors that bring so much atmosphere and depth to the world. And Simon, with whom I’ve worked with on dozens of books, is doing subtle things differently with his letters to match the art in beautiful ways. I’m thrilled with the look and feel of the book. It’s distinctive — doesn’t quite look like anything else on the shelves. And all of the choices Giannis, Irma, and Simon are making are working together to give depth and reality to this whole new world and make its characters incredibly relatable — and make the threats they face incredibly exciting.
GM: For me, the main concern was to treat the characters and world with respect and with as much studying of the historical references as time allows. For the look of the book, I’m happy to get to create a new series from scratch along with Greg, Irma and Simon. Everyone is working their absolute hardest, and I hope readers will enjoy the way the book reads and looks!

Big thanks to Greg Pak and Giannis Milonogiannis for this extensive look into the world-building for Ronin Island!
Issue #1 landed in shops on March 13th and issue #2 will arrive April 10th. It is currently available for pre-order.

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