Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #37: Much About Samurai and Mecha
Comics have always been political despite what some in the fandom scream on Twitter.
If any singular creator’s work has enhanced the political in contemporary comics, it is writer Greg Pak. His work with Boom! Studios, like the series Ronin Island with Giannis Milonogiannisand Mech Cadet Yuwith Takeshi Miyazawa, deal with post-colonial themes, presenting these with subjects commonly associated with Asian cultures, like samurai and giant robots.
When looking here at the beginning pages of Mech Cadet Yu, we see Stanford Yu in a janitorial position, speaking a different language, and being othered from more privileged characters. During a ceremony in which the giant mecha descend down to choose their pilots, Yu is not present due to his social status. He is not supposed to have a role in defending his world from alien invaders, yet he finds one of the mechs crashed in the desert a short distance from the ceremony. And with this robot behind him, Yu enters that world that had shunned him.
Takeshi Miyazawa’s art helps to foster this sense of bright hopefulness that is interlaced with the return of a catastrophic invasion and the sense that Yu will never be accepted as a pilot due to his class and otherness. The world is vibrant even when on fire or being crushed under a massive invasion force; characters emote in a way that plays with our hearts; and the mecha themselves feel classic as though pulled straight from early 70s Toei TV series.
Likewise with Ronin Island and Giannis Milongiannis’ artwork, we’re transported into a full-color Kurosawa epic. And while Ronin Islandshares many of the same themes as Mech Cadet Yu, it does so with a more specific critique of imperialism. From the beginning of the series, our main characters, Kenichi and Hana, are the first generation to be born on The Island after an event known as The Great Wind that caused the deaths of thousands and forced a small band of survivors from many parts of Asia to take refuge on a single small island. In an effort to both find an immunity to the disease of The Great Wind and weaponize the disease itself, the current Shogunate created a breed of nigh unkillable demons of the recently deceased.
Ronin Island wears its disdain for imperial ideologies on its sleeve. From the general incompetence of a Shogun who clings to the old traditions of family names and blood to the ignorance of life outside the palace, Pak continually speaks truth to power. And for the residents of The Island who face an invasion from the Shogunate as well as the demons they’ve created, it only highlights the incompetence that endangers its people for short-term gain without thinking of consequences or the people caught in the middle.
For monthly western comics, it’s hard to find a series that will take its critical lens to ideas of invasion and colonialism, but Greg Pak has come through with an approach that is direct and surprising. At times to better push the medium, we need to push more critically into the stories we tell. Monthly series like Ronin Island and Mech Cadet Yu help bring those serious political themes into local comic shops where they need to be.
Get excited. There’s more than you think.
Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.