Saturday, March 12, 2011

Chronic Review: 5 Ronin # 1 & # 2!

Five Ronin # 1:  Wolverine
Marvel Comics
Script:     Peter Milligan
Pencils:   Tomm Coker
22 pages for $2.99

I was cautiously optimistic about the hook for this series - Marvel hero concepts injected into 17th century Japan.  This isn't a time travel story, mind you.  If you're expecting to find the 616 Logan dropped into a period piece, you guessed wrong.  This is the story of an unnamed ronin that has nothing whatever to do with what Jason Aaron is doing right now.  Kind of like every other Wolverine story Marvel is currently doing.  But I digress.

It's actually hard to talk about the story without spoiling it entirely, since it's purely plot based.  And it's a little weak.  I didn't even understand what had actually transpired the first time I read it.  On the second pass, I get it.  But it's a little weak. It's weak because I believe the story was built backwards.

I think I can best explain with an adorable train wreck known as M. Night Shyamalan.  Now, Shyamalan is a talented bastard, and that's just a scientific fact.  He is of course best known for Sixth Sense and the unbelievable "O Henry" style button-hook he planted on everybody.  If you say you knew what was coming at the end of Sixth Sense, you are a liar.  You are a liar, and I'm done talking to you.  But I digress.

The point is that Sixth Sense's stunningly successful twist ultimately doomed him, because he kept trying to repeat it.  And when you start writing stories backwards from a twist instead of forward from real characters with compelling motivations than your story (usually) becomes an unsatisfying trick.

Friends don't let friends write The Village
Shyamalan broke type for his best (in my opinion) film, Signs.  Signs was not about a trick ending, and it surely was not about "little green men".  I often hear detractors spout some nonsense about how they couldn't tolerate Signs because of the ridiculous alien elements.  Watch the movie again with your brain in and your eyes on.

Signs is not about little green men from outer space.  Signs is chiefly about the validity of faith in an age of postmodernism.  The results are subjective on that, of course, but I think it fails there.  It's also about how we gain strength from accepting the weaknesses in ourselves and others, and on that count I think Signs succeeds wildly. That family is one step ahead of things because they accept the dorky conclusions of Morgan, whose bum lungs save him from the poison gas as well.  The day is saved when Merill's overkill swing that cost him his baseball career knocks water onto the alien.  Water that is only available because they allow Bo to leave 13 full drinking glasses around the house instead of making her use one at a time like a sane human.  It's genius, frankly.  And the story works because it's built on themes and characters.

Then you watch The Village and you realize that you just flushed 90 minutes of your life on a story that makes absolutely no goddamn sense on any planet.  The whole thing is an exercise in trickery, designed solely with the intent to deceive the audience into false conclusions.  "Ha ha, you didn't see that one coming, did you?"  No sir, I did not, because in retrospect, none of what you've shown has any connection to logic at all.  That doesn't make you a good writer, that makes you an asshole.  That's what happens when you work backwards from a gimmick.

This has all been a very long-winded way of saying that Milligan has a bit of a pickle when writing these stories.  The conceit is that he has to find a way to suggest the super attributes of these Marvel characters while attempting to steadfastly stick with the realities of 17 century Japan, where there are no mutants or Weapon X programs.

 The result in Five Ronin # 1 is that instead of writing a story about themes and characters, Milligan provides us with a "plausible" explanation for Wolverine's regenerative capabilities.  Because it's built backwards from that conceit instead of forward from characters and situations that Milligan might actually care about, the whole thing feels flat and convoluted.

Oh, we get our explanation, eventually.  And after reading it twice, I guess it technically makes sense.  But there's no real reason to care about any of it, the motivations are weak, and nobody says or does anything particularly interesting along the way. 

There's a drunkard force-fed into the mix as well, I believe it's going to be 5 Ronin's Deadpool, and I believe that this character also appears as the "cowardly ronin" in the second issue of the series.  I'm guessing this is an attempt by Milligan to thread these stories together and eventually dovetail them a la Guy Ritchie - but again, now we're talking parlor tricks again, and not pure storytelling.  Speaking of issue # 2...

Five Ronin # 2:  Hulk
Marvel Comics
Script:     Peter Milligan
Pencils:   Dalibor Talajic
22 pages for $2.99

The Hulk Ronin story is a much more straightforward retelling of High Plains Drifter.  In this case Hulk plays the role of Clint Eastwood, and instead of saving the townsfolk from the nasty bandits by painting the town red, he has them dig a couple of fire pits.

There's nothing wrong with that, I guess, and in point of fact I enjoyed this issue far more than the preceding Wolverine effort.  High Plains Drifter is just a variation of the Shane legend, where a highly skilled gunfighter suffers a personal tragedy and lays down his guns, picking them up again in defense of lesser folks in need.  The villagers originally try to hire the character I believe will be revealed as Deadpool, but he refuses to fight when he sees the numbers stacked against him.  So "Plan B" is to send him up the mountain to find Hulk.  The cowardly Ronin gets his attention by slamming an arrow off his skull.  That sounds like Wade, doesn't it?

There's a little more characterization in this second issue, for the bit players and the monk who would be Hulk.  There's also a whole lot less confusion, and the pacing feels much brisker.  I think it makes more sense than the first issue, thematically and in structure.  But it surely didn't wow me in any way.

Five Ronin does not constitute bad comics.  I thought the art was very nice in both books, and there is some payoff with the premise.  If you're interested in seeing some Marvel archetypes interact with old samurai culture, I can see a person getting a kick out of that.  Attention has been paid to the historical setting, which is fun, and the parallels between these Japanese characters and their modern counterparts are clear but subtle.  Neither of these stories really pop in and of themselves, though.

Of course the problem in making predictions on the rest of the series is that these are basically stand alone stories, and the successes and failures of the first two issues won't necessarily translate to the others.  For all I know, the next three could all be Eisner nominated productions.  My guess is that they won't be.

I think Five Ronin represents a solid hook executed in an acceptably professional but imminently forgettable way.  I think if you're really interested in seeing Marvel characters in an anachronistic setting, you should run not walk to your LCS and find a copy of Neil Gaiman's 1602.  And if you want to see Peter Milligan flex his best writing muscles, go find his Shade, The Changing Man trades at the same comic shop.  Those are delicious!

- Ryan

No comments: