Monday, 6 October 2014

Ronin (#1-6)

"Let this trial hone your spirit, your fighting skill.  When you are a mighty warrior, avenge my murder. Let my soul rest" - Lord Ozaki

I don't really want to dwell on it, but it's not a very controversial thing to say that in recent years Frank Miller's work hasn't been as good as in his heyday of the 1980's.  The Dark Knight Strikes Again, All Star Batman and Robin The Boy Wonder and Holy Terror have all been pretty badly received.  And he didn't do much help for himself when he intemperately described Occupy Wall Street as a band of "theives" and "rapists".  But today I'm accentuating the positive and looking back at one of his more overlooked projects, the miniseries Ronin.  Sandwiched between his acclaimed run on Daredevil and the game changing Dark Knight Returns, this story of a masterless samurai and the demon who killed his master transported through time to the dystopia that is New York in 2030 is quite superb and although the cyberpunk aspects feel a little dated now 2030 is in sight, the story is compelling and the structure of the book very much ahead of it's time when it was first published by DC in 1983-1984 (although I own it as a UK first edition trade paperback, published after The Dark Knight Returns was such a big hit).

What's so impressive about revisiting this comic thirty years later is how modern and fresh it feels.  There are techniques used in the book that didn't really become widely used in comics until much later.  There are pages made up of sequences of panels that run the width of the page, now known a the "widescreen" style.  He makes effective use of splash pages and two page spreads and the final sequence of events is so epic it comes on a fold out page, several pages wide.  He also uses pages made up of much smaller panels, around sixteen to twenty a page which would be something that he also used in The Dark Knight Returns.  It even uses "decompression" effectively, the longer length of the issues allowing him to slowly build mood and tension.  There are no thought balloons, narrative captions or sound effects, it relies totally on the dialogue and art to tell the story.  And what art it is. This is fully Frank Miller's vision; he wrote, pencilled and inked the entire book, with his then wife Lynne Varley providing a vivid colouring job.
Now in glorious widesccreen!
Considering the time it was put out, it's definitely one aimed sqaurely at adults.  The violence is graphic in places but not gratuitous, and Miller proves he's one of the top fight scene choreographers in western comics really capturing the feel of a Japanese chanbara movie on the page.  The language pulls no punches either, the racial slurs "nigger", "honky", "chink" and "nip" are all used making the denizens of future New York come over as unpleasant possible it being a dystopia and all.  Finally there is near nudity of both the male and female variety, used not to titillate but hammer home how vulnerable the characters are at that point.  So the sum total of all this is that Ronin is and was most definitely not a comic for kids.

The story begins in 13th Century Japan.  Lord Ozaki is out travlling with his bodyguard, a serious young samuai who is never named, and is his body guard.  They are attacked by masked men, but the samurai cuts them down.  Lord Ozaki explains that his sword is a "blood sword", it feeds and gains power from blood.  It is the only thing that can kill the demon Agat, but only when it has been first whetted with blood from an innocent soul.  Ozaki and the Samurai then stop off at the equivalent of a strip club and Ozaki leaves to have some sexy time with a geisha.  Sadly for him the geisha turns out to be Agat who kills him.  When too many people appear he retreats saying he'll get the sword at a later date.  Now in possession of the blood sword, the samurai now a Ronin, contemplates his future:

Ronin: "I failed Lord Ozaki.  My shame is deep.  My choice is simple.  To wander the land.  Dishonoured.  Masterless. A ronin. Or pray to all the Gods for forgiveness and offer my life as payment."

It looks like he intends to commit seppuku, but Ozaki's ghost appears to him telling him to live and train and one day avenge his death.  So the Ronin chooses that option instead.
Billy, the sortof star of the book
The action then moves to the "present", sometime in the 2030's. A limbless man called Billy is hooked into the computer core of a sentient computer called Virgo inside a huge futuristic complex called Aquarius.  He tells her about the dreams he's been having about the Ronin, immediately casting doubt on whether what we just saw was real or not...

We then meet the leader of Aquarius's security teams, a strong, black female called Casey.  A Frank Miller heroine that is neither a teenager, a prostitute or a teenage prostitute.  In many ways she is the star of the book.  Anyway she is showing representatives of another company around, showing them the powerful security measures they have in place.  They are taken to see Billy who shows them what he can do with cybernetic limbs.  When they are gone however he asks Virgo why she didn't tell them he was controlling them with his mind.  She says they are working on a way that will allow everyone to do what Billy can do and for now he should just sleep and dream.

So he does.  The Ronin is now much older and more experienced.  He rescues a woman being attacked by Agat's men and tells her his story, before going the next day to Agat's lair.  He fights his way to him, but Agat mocks that he can't kill him and grabs him from behind.  The Ronin says he can if the sword tastes innocent blood first and impales himself and Agat, using his own blood to power the sword.  Before they both die, Agat casts one last spell and traps them both inside the sword.
I could look at this twopage spread all day.  The sense of pain and sacrifice it conveys is amazing and the composition and colours are outstanding.
When Billy wakes and tells Virgo about the dream, she tells him she came across a news video of the sword being discovered two weeks ago and subjected to testing for mystic powers.  A laser struck it and it incinerated everyone close by.  Billy says the souls have escaped and the Ronin is coming to take over his body.  Virgo shows him Agat appearing in the complex and fighting his way through the security measures, meanwhile the Ronin has taken control of Billy's body, changing his shape and building cybernetic arms and legs.  Before Agat can kill him, Virgo fires Billy/Ronin into the sewers.  Agat decides he will stay in the complex for now, meanwhile in the sewers, the Ronin stands up, his transformation complete and no trace of Billy left at all.

The Ronin staggers through the ruins of New York, unable to say anything but "tachi" which is a type of Japanese sword.  Virgo tells Casey she must find the Ronin as he is out there "alone and helpless".  She tells Casey what happened with Billy, and Casey is somewhat sekptical.

Virgo: "Casey, Casey, Casey. You're acting like a computer yourself.  One of the old style ones.  Not the real kind but the ones from the movies that short out if they're faced with a new idea.  It's the twenty-first century Casey.  Try to keep an open mind."
Introducing Casey.
Ronin meanwhile gets into a tangle with a neo-nazi gang who badly beat him and leave him for dead.  Next we are introduced to the owner of Aquarius, Taggert, who is dictating a memo about working with the Sawa corporation and how he will have nothing to do with their military work.  We don't really get to know his character apart from this pacifism as he is killed by Agat who then takes his place.

Casey sends out a security team to retrieve the Ronin, who is currently being dragged to the workshop of an eccentric man who wants to use his cybernetic limbs to power his spaceship.  Ronin awakes and kills him, and handily the man has a samurai sword in his possession.  Now armed, the Ronin returns to the nazi gang and slices them up.  Then the security accost him.  We don't see what happens next, we just hear the report to Casey that he killed three of the team and escaped.  This displeases Casey who takes the death of her men personally.
Miller would use this technique of near black and white with splashes of vivid red in his later works.
In one of New York's parks, Ronin has found a horse and manages to tame it. Meanwhile Casey reviews footage of his fight with her men and notes that one man was fatally injured by his gun exploding.  Which means the Ronin has access to Billy's powers. Taggart reiterates to Casey that he wants the Ronin bought in alive. Ronin meanwhile has hooked up with an old hippy who has managed to "liberate some threads" for him.  Handily this includes samuari armour and kimono, so he looks super-badass especially when riding the horse.  The hippy then offers his services to the Nazi gang who are fighting with the black gang - The Panthers over territory.

Back at Aquarius, Casey is spending some quiet time with her husband Peter (a white man, so an interacial relationship, another daring inclusion in a comic of this era), the man who invented the bio-circutary that makes up the complex and Virgo herself.  The circuitary is alive and can reproduce itself and Taggart tells the Sawa representatives that it could also have considerable military uses.

Back with the Ronin, the hippy sends him into a bar and tells him to loudly say a word.  That word turns out to be "nigger" and the head of the Panthers doesn't take to kindly to it being said and Ronin is forced to kill him to defend himself.  He is angry at being used like this by the hippy but sticks with him for now.  Doing this deed impressess the nazi's and gets Ronin and the hippy somewhere to stay at their bar.
Another great use of colour and black and white as the Ronin psychically attacks.
After Casey and Peter have made love (and there is melancholy rather than an afterglow, like they are growing apart and neither know what to do about it), Virgo tells Casey she has found the Ronin.  Casey and her team move out, Virgo notes that Casey has an antique magnum with her.  They confront the Ronin and a big fight ensues.  The tasers bring him down but he manages to make all their equipment explode except Casey's magnum which is the only weapon not based on the bio-circuitry.  Before she can kill him, the gang knock her out, strip her and dump her and a couple of her surviving team down a hole in the ground.  When the Ronin is able to stand, he angrily tosses the hippy to one side and jumps down the hole after them.

This ends the more dsytopic parts of the book.  Ronin's powers start to make the second half of the book more dreamlike as he and Casey flip-flop out of reality and fantasy.  Down the hole in the dark, Casey realises they have been left as food for cannibal mutants down there.  They come for her, killing the other two men she was down there with, but the Ronin arrives and fights them all off.  The battle scenes last the entire length of the chapter, as it cuts back and forth between them and the goings on at Aquarius.
Tech support isn't usually this badass
There a drunken Peter confronts Taggart over his decision to use his bio-circuitry for military purposes.   He begs Taggart saying doesn't he remember the weekend he, Casey and Taggart conceived Aquarius?  Taggart says he does, then has Peter removed.  Peter then tells Virgo he knows something is up with Taggart as Casey never was at that weekend meeting.  He also dismisses the Ronin story as stupid.  When he tells his suspicions to another friend in the complex, that friend is murdered.  Realising he can't trust Virgo he suits up and travels to her core.  He has one of Casey's antique guns and starts firing at Virgo's memory banks, he demands Virgo show him what happened to Taggart so Virgo does.

Virgo: "Are you beginning to realise what you are up against Peter dear? Are you beginning to realise the limits of your scientific conceit? This is a demon, Peter.  A demon. A creature of magic."

Peter refuses to believe it however and says Virgo must have killed Taggart somehow.  Meanwhile, with all the mutant cannibals dead, Casey and the Ronin share a tender moment and a passionate kiss.  Later he makes a fire and it begins to snow, it's heavily implied the Ronin's powers are causing this as he draws more on Billy's.  He can even speak English properly now.

Casey: "You killed three of my men!  Why can't I hate you? Why do I...what are you doing to me?"

The Ronin says that they should live for the moment.

Ronin: "Our lives are as fragile and as brief as a cherry blossom.  And as fragrant."

And they make love by the firelight.
Sexy times.
Peter meanwhile has been caught and confined.  A therapist is sent to talk to him.  Taggart is annoyed that he did not authorise this, but Virgo is taking more and more control.  She says that the Ronin and Casey are one their way to Aquarius, although a little too soon as "Billy's mind has not been properly prepared".

As Ronin and Casey ride on the horse, he tells her she is a samurai.  Then they are confronted by attackers who look like those who attacked Ozaki and the Ronin at the start of the book.  The Ronin fights them off and Casey suddenly has a sword which she uses to cut down two of them, although she can't figure out how she knew what to do.  Ronin's arm is cut off and reality flips back on.  Casey is in her torn uniform not a kimono and the attackers are just robots.

They cut off all Ronin's limbs, which triggers a flashback to Billy's childhood where a bully made him lash out and kill him with his powers and caused his mother to describe him as a monster.  The Ronin draws on this memory and lashes out too, blowing up the nearby robots, then he reattaches his limbs and goes to fight some more but Virgo sends flying robots that gas him, and when Casey tries to escape into the underground Virgo blows it up.
Reality ensues.
Peter, drugged and theorising madly says that Billy probably repressed most of his power, but he'd be angry and have a rich fantasy life.  Probably one where he'd want to cut off other people's limbs himself.  The Ronin is now imprisoned amongst Virgo's core bio-circuitry.  Casey is alive and coming for him.  Virgo keeps talking to her, trying to dissuade her.  The security team have been told not to let her in, but they are loyal to her, not Virgo and casey suits up and begins travelling to Virgo's core.

Taggart/Agat ponders how Virgo is managing to have such a hold over him when he wants to kill the Ronin now.  Virgo says she keeps him around as he reinforces a certain state of mind in the Ronin.  We then get a converstaion between Billy and Virgo, he is worried about Casey, but Virgo keeps him under her control by saying "you don't want to be a bad boy do you?"

Casey finds Peter, and he tells her that the Ronin is Billy's fantasy made flesh.  To free Billy and defeat Virgo she needs to break down the fantasy and make it fail.  Peter then gets shot and Billy whines that Virgo is making Casey sad.  When it looks like casey will be killed, Billy ignores Virgo and blows up the robots attacking her.  Casey carries on fighting her way to the Ronin, while Billy and Virgo argue.
"Consider this a divorce" (sorry)
The Peter reappears, with his wounds patched up by bio-circuitry.  He finally reveals Virgo's plan.  The bio-circuitry wasn't alive enough for her.  So she used Billy's Ronin fantasy to unleash his true power, with the fantasy keeping him in check while she learned about psi-powers so she could make bio-circuitry the planets dominant lifeform.  Casey then blows his head off.  She tells Virgo it's time to end this and travels to her core.  Virgo says it's nice to have everything out in the open.

Virgo: "You should at least be flattered that Billy cast you in the role of a fellow warrior, rather than some more traditional damsel in distress."

Casey finally arrives at where the Ronin is being held while Virgo nastily asks how it feels to be "a freaks wet dream".  Ronin implores her to free him so he can fight Agat or at she should kill him and use his blood to power the sword.  Deciding to change the script, Casey confronts Agat, and blows his head off with her magnum.  He was a robot all along.  Then she blasts the Ronin out of his prison, and holds Agat's head aloft.

Casey: "Rise, your master has been avenged.  The demon is dead... and a woman killed him for you."
She says he has only one option left, to commit seppuku.  She will be his second - the person who beheads the victim after the ritual stomach cutting is complete.   As he starts to slowly disembowel himself, Billy screams at how much it hurts.  Virgo tries to calm him, but he ends up just screaming "shut up!!" over and over.  When Casey strikes off the Ronin's head, Billy causes an explosion so huge it takes out the whole of Aquarius in a four page foldout spread.  The final image of the story is Casey, sat amongst the ruins, looking up at the Ronin, alive and whole again.
A happy ending...?
It's quite an epic story.  Yet strangely intimate as well.  It goes without saying that Casey is one of the coolest female characters I have ever read in a comicbook, even in this day and age.  Some of the story recapping is a little redundant when reading it in a trade, but back then it was coming out every six weeks and trade collections were not yet a thing, so it's totally forgivable.  The art as I hope my examples show is glorious beautiful and I'd probably credit this book with beginning my fascination with anime and manga and all things Japanese too. This is a real tour de force, by an extremely talented artist and writer.  When I compare it to the hate-filled garbage of 2011's Holy Terror, it makes me sad to think how far Miller's talent has degenerated over the years.  However in the 80's for me he was up there with Alan Moore as someone who made comics that really spoke to me and helped instill a love of the medium that has lasted to this day (obviously). Ronin is still in print and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to find out what Miller was like when he was still respected and not just the punchline to a joke as he is now.  You won't regret it I'm sure.


  1. wow frank miller was good once!! i never heard of this b4

  2. He was. And now he is best know for All Star Crazy Steve and Dick Grayson Age Twelve or being Islamophobic. Still I like to remember the good times.

  3. I think I like the art for this story better than the plot. That's some decent art.

    I am fully in favour of racist language being used in works of fiction to show (a) that a character is horrible, or (b) that a character we have been thinking of as 'good' actually has some pockets of horribleness, possibly based upon unquestioned received attitudes, that even they are not aware of.

    Also, damn you for reminding me of "Dick Grayson, aged twelve." Damn youuuuuuuu! 'Cos now I can't stop hearing that in a gruff "I'm Batman" voice in my head. Sorry, how old did you say that the boy you're kidnapping was again?

    Art, whether writing or drawing,* should bring you closer to different people because it forces you to get inside their heads and see the world from their point of view, and to at least try to depict people how they actually are (although that's impossible because it would take years). Sadly, in the case of Mr Miller and the world's Muslim population, it doesn't appear to have worked.

    Like, what with all these nutters around, maybe the only hope for the future is some sort of enlightened, tolerant, compassionate secularism where nobody is forced to do what they don't want to do, whether it's a Catholic being forced to use birth control or an atheist being forced to attend a prayer meeting. So the worldwide Islamic state wouldn't get off the ground, but neither would Islamophobia. But that sounds a bit like that John Lennon song, so I'll stop now.

    *Other types of art are available, e.g. sculpture. But I don't want to keep you all day.

  4. Heh sorry about reminding you of Dick Grayson Age 12, but damn Linkara does some funny reviews of Frank Miller's stuff. Still you're right about the art, it is magnificent stuff. The plot is decent, but it remains primarily a treat for the eyes. I wish he'd go back to this style rather than the far cruder Sin City style he appears to use in all his art nowdays.

    Though I douby Holy Terror could have been saved by better art, that's one nasty book. I do like the idea of beneovolent secularism, that's almost what we have in the UK anyway. But I'm not sure how you could enforce it, make me a dictator and I'll do it :D

  5. Sin City is a joke. It's relentlessly daaaaaaaaark and all the women are whores. I don't want the women in my fiction to be whores even if the writer claims that they are dead strong and empowered, honest.

    What actually happens in Holy Terror? I've never read it.

    You can be dictator if you want. Free cats for all!

  6. Linkara has actually reviewed Holy Terror, it was his 300th episode. Basically though, it's about a Batman and Catwoman analogue foiling a terrorist plot. Unfortunately it equates all Muslims and Islam with terrorism and comes off looking very crude and bigoted. The art is horrible as well.