By Chris Arrant
Yesterday, Marvel convened the latest of its Next Big Thing press conferences to highlight 5 RONIN. This five-issue limited series coming out weekly in March takes five Marvel heroes and re-imagines them in 17th century feudal Japan, living out their lives in this lawless time.
“The egg of this idea came from [editor] Sebastian [Girner’s] great interest and passion for all things Japanese,” writer Peter Milligan revealed.
Girner explained that the first inklings of 5 RONIN came to him about a year ago when he visited New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art during their “Art of the Samurai” exhibit.
“It [was] first time I [had] ever seen those large samurai helmets, swords, armors, scrolls and paintings up close,” recalled the editor. “They were meticulously made; not just for warfare, but art as well. It reminded me of the super hero costume; their helmets had symbols like heroes do, so ideas started shooting through my head. The next day I put some things down on paper and began working out which characters would work for it and their stories. I called Peter up and we took it from there.”
Together, the duo honed in on characters to refashion for the projects and settled on The Hulk, Psylocke, The Punisher, Deadpool and Wolverine. While some choices seem like no-brainers, others took some time to become clear.
“The character choices changed a little as Sebastian and I discussed the story,” Milligan explained. “[While I’m not] as obsessed with Japanese culture as Sebastian, I’ve always been a big fan of film ‘The Seven Samurai.’ [For 5 RONIN], I had to ask myself: ‘What’s this story for me?’ I think each of the characters represent a different aspect of this Japanese society; it’s quite uncanny. One of the great things about writing this story is how characters like Punisher, Hulk, Psylocke, Deadpool and Wolverine adapt, interact and merge with this feudal Japanese landscape.
“For instance, Logan was perfect for the role he plays. He’s already got strong ties to Japan. The Punisher’s the Punisher. Once we got into the book, we found all five characters easily resonated in this other culture. Psylocke in particular fit in quite well; I’m the most happy with where she ended up.”
Girner agreed, but says the easy road to find the right approach did not prove easy
“Psylocke’s story is, without trepidation, the most unique story in 5 RONIN, but also the one we spent the most time talking about before Peter began scripting,” the editor admitted.
From the X-Men’s dark-haired beauty to Marvel’s green-skinned goliath, the Hulk’s inclusion in this journey west stands out as more conspicuous since he’s never been associated much with Asia.
“In many ways, the Hulk was the most interesting and counter-intuitive,” Milligan said. “It’s perfect the role he plays. When readers first see him he’s not the rampaging green monster you’d expect; in many ways he’s a character trying to control the monster inside him—as a monk. The whole idea of Banner and the Hulk lives inside this monk, and I think it’s interesting that the character you see as the Hulk is still the Hulk, but in a way you haven’t seen him before.”
Although this new interpretation of classic Marvel characters definitely brings a new look for each of them, deep down they’re still the same characters people know.
“I think personality-wise, character-wise, they’re all recognizable,” Milligan contended. “It’s still the characters we all know—Punisher is a slam dunk, Logan is Logan. It’s Deadpool 100%; he couldn’t be anyone but Deadpool. Psylocke and Hulk as well.”
“We structured each story so that it plays with what you know about the characters,” noted Girner. “We integrated their looks and unique costumes into their design. Each Marvel character has a defining concept or struggle within themselves. The Marvel characters’ human qualities make them stand out.”
Each of the five issues in 5 RONIN works out as a standalone character study, but both the writer and editor were quick to point out how they build to a unified story.
“While each chapter focuses on a separate character and each story [is] illustrated by a different artist, but they’re all integrally linked,” promised Milligan. “As both the readers and the characters themselves learn as the story continues, they’re all connected in one way or another to the same thing. I shouldn’t say until you read it what [it is], but a catalyst draws them together on the same road. On the outset of the series, they all have the same problem—or all their problems are caused by the same thing I should say.”
That problem will be a person most will recognize, but not from where you might think.
“There’s one character we haven’t talked about, which is the big villain of the piece, but that character isn’t an analogue of a Marvel character—it’s based on a historical figure that’s a fairly dubious and wicked person,” Milligan said. “I found it interesting pulling these Marvel icons into the past and pitting them against a real life, living character.”
Although deeply rooted in the history and rituals of 1600’s Japan, 5 RONIN will still appeal even if you know nothing of samurai and the like.
“There’s kind of this loose atmosphere to the book, but we go out of our way to infuse it with Marvel characters and our story sense,” insisted Girner. “At the beginning of 5 RONIN we see how our five heroes’ lives have stagnated, but this catalyst forced them, willfully or not, back on the road towards a common goal.”
Girner took an unorthodox approach to cast the book’s art team, but with a larger goal in mind.
“For my part, I wanted to use five artists, just purely for pragmatic reasons,” he says. “It would take longer with one artist doing five issues, and we wanted to bring it out weekly to better serve the unique nature for readers in stores. Tomm Coker was one of the first people I talked to about the book. He worked with me on a Punisher story, and we’re both big fans of Japanese cinema. Tomm even whipped up a pin-up for me to include in the pitch.”
Joining Coker will be four other Punisher alums, each of whom Girner says he chose for different reasons.
“Dalibor Talajic just did an issue of PUNISHERMAX and HIT MONKEY, and just started an incredible new inking style,” he recounted. “Laurence Campbell recently completed a story with an incredibly chilling and cold as hell Punisher, which is want we wanted in 5 RONIN. Goran Parlov is maybe the best PUNISHERMAX artist we have, and the one thing he draws better than Frank Castle is women, so I was glad to hand over the Psylocke story to him. Leandro Fernandez did a Deadpool one-shot for us once, and although it was more comedy, he had one page where you see Deadpool’s face and it was completely torn, and you could see right into his soul that [he] had suffered and was deeply scared. That was exactly the kind of Deadpool we wanted to see in 5 RONIN.”
With five artists and five new takes on these heroes, Milligan feels he’s got what he needs to really push the story in 5 RONIN to its limits.
“We definitely have very visceral moments in 5 RONIN. There’s a whole bunch of holy cow moments. I would have to say the best moment in the whole series is when Logan and Psylocke are coming to grips with each other and their first meeting is so wild that Logan’s not sure if they’re fighting or having sex.”
Girner doesn’t argue with Milligan on that one, but brings his own pick into the fold—with a story:
“There’s also the first time we see Punisher; when I got that page in from the artist, I kind of lost it and went wow. Not that I haven’t thought that before about other pages, but there are certain moments that are exclamation points to a project and that Punisher page coming in was definitely one of them.”
5 RONIN hits stands each week in April.