“5 Ronin” has thus far been a series with no seeming purpose, focus, or reward. Unfortunately “5 Ronin” #4 starring Psylocke continues the streak of misses for this series. Alternate reality stories hold a lot of appeal in that it’s a chance to see characters that readers know and love in a whole new light. We get to see paths not taken, and what small changes in a world might change an individual. Mike Carey is doing this to great effect in his “Age of X” crossover going on right now. However, taking big characters and recasting them as people who are not themselves hundreds of years ago is not really the same thing. It’s a device that, without a really brilliant story to prop itself up, has no purpose or emotional touchstone.
In “5 Ronin” #4, Psylocke is recast as O-Chiyo. She's first seen as a six year-old girl talking about butterflies with her father. A few pages later, we’re introduced to her as an 18 year-old woman, living as an Oiran (a courtesan) known as Butterfly. O-Chiyo is apparently trying to become the best Oiran around so that her reputation will precede her, and she’ll eventually be called upon by the Daimyo at which point she can kill him during sexy times. Apparently she blames the Daimyo for her father’s death, which we learn about in talky panels as she confesses to a customer, a Ronin (also Wolverine from “5 Ronin” #1). It’s a big mistake not to show us what has happened to O-Chiyo in the cut, and it leaves us completely emotionally stranded from the character. Her want for revenge feels empty to us, as does she. As a result, the story feels empty and predictable. It’s also frustrating to see Milligan’s interpretation of an Oiran, which doesn’t track very well with the actual definition and only serves to make the story feel more unbelievable and less engaging.
Additionally, this uninspired storytelling suffers from the worst aspects of telling rather than showing, which in a comic book is particularly egregious since we have stunning artists at our disposal. And the art here by Goran Parlov is excellent. It's lovely and easy to follow and I’d look forward to seeing it in almost any comic. However, it’s a bad fit tonally for this tale. Making the story about a courtesan so pretty and colorful seems like a miss, and not just on its own, but in the scope of the series as a whole. A series that has skewed dark and emotive, grim and gritty, suddenly takes a hard right and becomes light and beautiful, full of color and vibrancy. It’s annoying that it’s for the one “chick story” that this happens. Independent of the art, it’s frustrating that the one story in the series about a woman casts her as a prostitute. It may be the oldest profession, and a common one for women, but in the context of the series as a whole, with four male leads and one female lead, it feels like a lazy choice.
If Milligan’s story or execution had been particularly good or emotionally resonant, maybe he could have saved it from the unfortunate choice of casting Psylocke, the only lead female, as a prostitute, but it’s not. We’re left, instead, with a bad decision and a poor execution.