They don’t teach this in the history books.
Ronin Island is a comic that blends a historical Asian setting with larger-than-life fantasy. The Avatar: the Last Airbender comparisons are pretty much inevitable at that point. There’s plenty of promise in this unusual take on a Feudal Japanese setting, but also some early bumps in the road. This first issue doesn’t do quite enough to establish the characters before turning to the big hook.
Ronin Island takes place in an alternate historical setting where much of mainland Japan, China and Korea have been devastated in a mysterious disaster. The titular island is a place where refugees from all three nations have come together to establish a new society – one that both honors the traditions of the past while building a better, more egalitarian world.
That notion of disparate cultures finding common ground is easily the book’s strongest element. These are three nations that haven’t always gotten along well, historically speaking, so this alternate history premise serves as a great jumping-off point to explore the friction between honor and tradition on one side and opportunity on the other.
That tension is embodied in the book’s two young leads. Kenichi is the son of a respected samurai, while Hana is a Korean orphan with a chip on her shoulder. Both are partaking in a coming of-age rite as this issue opens, establishing a friendly but firm rivalry between the two. It’s appreciated how writer Greg Pak dives right into that story rather than getting tripped up on world-building right out of the gate. This issue finds plenty of time for exposition later on.
These two characters are likable, if a bit broadly rendered in this issue. The script doesn’t provide a great deal of insight into either character beyond basics like “Kenichi wants to live up to his father’s example” and “Hana doesn’t like being looked down upon.” Their mentor figures are even less developed. The real problem comes as the story abruptly shifts from the ritual to the return of the Shogunate and dire warnings about a new threat looming on the mainland. All of this unfolds too suddenly and without any real build-up.
I generally like my first issues fast-paced, but this is one case where waiting to get to the heart of the conflict might actually have been preferable. If anything, this issue left me wondering whether the monster angle is even necessary in the first place. Would this story not be just as thematically resonant if the Shogunate itself were the main antagonist? A lot will depend on the true nature of and motivations fueling this monster army.
Part of this stems from the fact that the art isn’t quite fantastical enough to capture that side of the conflict. Artist Giannis Milonogiannis and colorist Irma Kniivila bring a clean, energetic vibe to this setting, but there’s an understated quality to the art that works against the more outlandish elements. The appeal of two feisty children jostling their way to victory doesn’t quite carry over to images of warfare and human suffering.