When a historical era is marked by turbulence, bloodshed, and larger than life figures, it can appear almost mythic to those who examine it later. The American Old West is a good example of this sort of retroactive impression. A cursory glance at the era makes it seem like it was a time where gun-slinging lawmen and dangerous outlaws clashed daily on the streets. Shifting across the seas, feudal Japan has a similar feel to the days of the Wild West, regularly depicted as a time where highly skilled samurai frequently crossed swords in battles and duels over honor and revenge. That epic sense of struggle and conflict has made both eras incredibly popular settings for stories in a variety of media.
This March, writer Peter Milligan and a group of talented artists tell a different type of samurai story when they kick off the weekly five issue miniseries "5 Ronin" from Marvel Comics which reimagines Wolverine, Psylocke, Deadpool, the Punisher and the Hulk as 17th century Japanese warriors. CBR News spoke with Milligan about the project.
CBR News: Peter, in the past couple of years we've seen the rise of the Marvel Noir line, an imprint tasked with taking a look at what happens when a Marvel character is reinterpreted during the 1920s through '30s. Beyond that, we've recently seen "Deadpool Pulp," which reimagines that character in a '50s-style setting. Considering the relation between the pulp magazines of the '20s and '30s to comics, and comics in the '50s, it's easy to see where those ideas came from, but reimagining Marvel characters as samurai in Feudal Japan seems like an unexpected and interesting idea. Where did it come from and what drew you to it? Are you a fan of films like "Yojimbo" and "The Seven Samurai?"
Peter Milligan: First off, I am a big fan of Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai." To be honest, this was my initial "entry point" into the world of Feudal Japan when Editor Sebastian Girner and I began talking about this project. Secondly, I know what you're saying when you suggest that the '20s and '30s seem on the face of it a more obvious setting in which to re-imagine these characters, but other eras work equally well, and for different reasons. In "Namor: The Depths," for example, the 1950s was a good time for my story, partly because it just predated the whole Space Age and the new era that the '60s ushered in.
The original idea of Japan came from Sebastian -- he is very interested in all things Japanese -- but I immediately saw that I could use this setting to tell a story I wanted to tell. I've said this elsewhere (and will probably say it again!), but what interested me was that this era of Japan was in such a state of flux. One era was ending and a new one beginning. These times are difficult to live through; people are unsure where they stand, and this is a great arena for looking at character and seeing how characters act when taken to uncomfortable places.
The characters being reimagined for "5 Ronin" are an interesting lot. Wolverine is an obvious candidate, and as a fan of the film "Lady Snowblood," I can see why you chose Psylocke as well. Deadpool, the Hulk and the Punisher are a bit unusual on the face of it, though. What made you want to reinterpret these particular characters for this setting?
Of course, there are a lot of Marvel characters to choose from -- but I think when you read the story you'll see how right the characters we have are. Deadpool is perfect; he could have been originally designed for this story. I don't want to say any more because it will give an important part of the plot away. Punisher also perfectly fits with what we wanted. Both of these characters manage to be archetypes (in a world of comic book stereotypes) and that's why they so neatly and usefully worked with this story. Hulk is a little different. Part of the fun there was writing against type or character expectation. Though, again, an integral part of Banner/Hulk's character perfectly matches what we wanted in this book.
What can you tell us about the setting of "5 Ronin?" What's sort of the climate of the country at the time?
Well, as you say, it's Feudal Japan; specifically, the early seventeenth century. In 1600, there was a famously bloody and pivotal battle at Sekigahara, where the Western and Eastern clans fought. This battle ended what became known as the era of the warring states. In other words, the world of Japan that we find is going through a some kind of cataclysmic, epochal change. It's a violent age, an age of deep anxiety. Though it's a very alien time and place, I feel that this era speaks to us about our own troubled times. We have our own cataclysmic changes going on, our own sense of anxiety and "uprooted-ness."
How big of a role does the fantastic play in this story? Do your protagonists have their traditional super abilities?
I don't really want to talk about exactly what "superpowers" our characters have, but there is certainly an element of the fantastic running through the story. It must be said though that the characters are more grounded in reality -- albeit a strange reality -- than they might normally be in your average Marvel epic.
How much does real world history factor into "5 Ronin?" Will your cast be rubbing elbows with any historical figures?
Actual real world history does impact upon the story. One big event is the catalyst for a lot of what happens. All that follows with our characters is either a version of what actually happened, or the kind of thing that happened. There is one important character who is based loosely on an historical character. It must be said though that knowledge of Japanese history is not absolutely necessary to understand and enjoy "5 Ronin."
In terms of personality, how similar and how different are the protagonists of "5 Ronin" to their traditional Marvel Universe counterparts?
In their characters, who they are, I tried to keep them the same people -- though, of course those people are in a different setting with different problems. I mean, Logan is Logan. Punisher is certainly Punisher. Oh, God, is he Punisher. And Psylocke -- well, you'll have to see about Psylocke for yourselves.
How is the story structured in "5 Ronin?" Does each issue focus on one lone character or is this a team book?
Each episode focuses on one character, but there is a degree of slippage. These characters' lives are linked, woven together by something or someone they're not immediately aware of.
The story's plot deals with five characters, each with a burning desire or goal. The themes deal with how we cope with change in a changing world. How we ourselves either embrace or are resistant to change. And what happens when we get what we thought we wanted.
What are some of the obstacles and adversaries you plan on throwing your characters' way? Can we expect, for example, Samurai versions of classic Marvel villains?
Struggling with their own demons and the adversaries thrown up by this violent, changing world is enough to keep anyone, even a re-imagined Marvel hero, busy.
The villain is based loosely on a historical figure. Logan has a number of supporting players whose identities will be revealed in the book that focuses on him.
David Aja, Mark Brooks, Giuseppe Camuncoli, David Mack, Ed McGuiness and John Cassaday are providing the covers for "5 Ronin" and the series rotating cast of interior artists include Tomm Cokker, Dalibor Talajic, Lawrence Campbell, Goran Parlov and Leandro Fernandez. Based on that roster, it sounds as though "5 Ronin" will be one of the most beautiful books Marvel publishes in 2011. What's it like to be working on a series with all these great artists?
This is the easiest question to answer so far. It's been amazing to see the artwork come through, both interior and cover work. Brilliant. To work with one of these very talented artists would be great. To collaborate with so many brilliant artists on one book is spectacular.
Have you thought about what you might do if fans really respond to "5 Ronin? Would you like to tell more stories with these characters? Or perhaps give some other Marvel characters the samurai treatment?
This story and these characters were devised with this finite story in mind. But you never know.
Any final thoughts you would like share about "5 Ronin?"
After a while you just want to stop talking about it and see the bloody thing in the stores. Each book seems to have its own unique quality, yet somehow and very strongly the books add up to a whole.