While there have been plenty of negative trends to emerge in mainstream serial super-comics over the last few years, one of the trends I’ve been quite happy to see the Big Two try out and stick with is weekly (and weekly-ish) comics series. You know, 52, Countdown, Trinity, Wednesday Comics, Amazing Spider-Man, Brightest Day, Justice League: Generation Lost, DC Universe Online Legends and so on.
They haven’t all been great comics, of course, and some of them have been downright lousy, but for someone with an every-Wednesday, weekly comics hobby/habit, there’s something quite refreshing about the dependability and regularity of the schedule—especially given that so many “monthly” comics have become “whenever-the-creators-get-‘em-done-ly.”
Outside of the thrice-monthly turned twice-monthly Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel’s weekly-ish comics have been trying out five-issue miniseries in five-week months, like last year’s weird, confused but still kind of fun Heralds series and, this month, 5 Ronin.
I like weekly-ish comics so much that the schedule was actually what sold me on trying it out this series…well that and the attachment of writer Peter Milligan, whose best comics are great and his worst comics are better than those of most writers.
Perhaps relatively low expectations had something to do with it then, but I was quite surprised by how good it is.
The series was sold as a sort of What If…Wolverine and Other Marvel Characters Were Around In 17th Century Japan? series (albeit with a shorter, punchier title), and some of the covers certainly bear that out, like the John Cassaday one above, in which Wolverine is simply wearing samurai drag instead of one of his spandex suits.
It’s actually quite a bit different.
It’s set in the year of 1600, which the narration repeatedly hammers home is a time of great change in Japan. The ways of feudal Japan are giving way to new social practices, new codes of behavior, new political systems and new technology, and while there’s no bright red line sort of change as, say, the advent of atomic power, Milligan suggests a parallel between that transitional period and that of post-war America, when the “real” Marvels emerged.
The first issue is devoted to Wolverine, and we follow a grizzled ronin with severe sideburns and a keen sense of smell. He’s rumored to be unkillable, suggesting that this Wolverine has the same superpowers as the “real” Wolverine, but about halfway through Milligan provides an alternate, completely real world explanation for why a normal, human samurai might seem unkillable.
Other than the word “wolverine” in the title, the fact that a couple characters use the sorts of claw weapons that inspired Wolverine’s mutant claws and the design of a helmet suggest the goofy hair-hat of Wolvie’s costume, nothing really connects it to the traditional Wolverine (Did 17th Century Japan know of wolverines?)
The second issue features an even more fantastic character, The Hulk, reimagined (deimagined?) into a completely realistic, historical character. Again, this “Hulk” isn’t super-powered in anyway. Instead, there is an exceptionally large retired warrior trying to find peace as a monk, meditating on a mountain. He’s not even called The Hulk.
The warrior is plagued with an uncontrollable rage, and when is eventually drawn away from his lonely existence into battle (One character remarking, “He’s turned into…some kind of monster” when the slays men in a rage). Not a giant, green, muscular monster, just a metaphorical one.
The third in the series is Punisher, and his story is easily transplanted to the new setting—he returns from war, finds his family killed and beings slaying their killers, using a gun on occasion.
In all three, there’s a basket-hat wearing, mysterious stranger that I assume is going to be revealed as the star in the fifth book, subtitled Deadpool. He’s scarred and a “funny” character, but in the wise fool sort of way familiar from samurai movies rather than the wacky, fourth-wall breaking character of other portrayals (In the first two books, he manipulates events slightly to prod the protagonists to action; in the third he makes a tiny but pivotal cameo). He doesn’t tell jokes or anything, but he’s presented as something closer to a funny character than the others.
A different artist draws each of the books. Tomm Coker draws Wolverine, Dalibor Talajic The Hulk, and Laurence Campbell Punisher, and their styles all vary slightly, as do their skills, but the tone and format are similar to the art in each.
The pages are laid out with many horizontal panels on each, the style is realistic bordering on photorealistic (too much so for my liking, in Coker’s Wolverine), and the colors tending toward dark.
It’s basically a pretty straight genre trade, superhero for samurai, but it’s quite effectively done, and it’s great fun to watch Milligan reverse-engineer the super-powered characters into ones that fit perfectly well in that new genre without resorting to anything that breaks the genre’s conventions.
The only downside of these super-short weekly-ish series like 5 Ronin and Heralds before it is that they are over almost as soon as they begin, which make them difficult to recommend after the first issue drops. For example, by time it was clear exactly what Milligan was doing with the series, it was two-fifths over, and by the time I write this and a reader gets to a new Wednesday, the penultimate issue will be shipping, so a trade won’t be too far off.
I imagine the trade will offer most of the pleasures the series does, save for the rare pleasure of reading a chapter a week.