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!|
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|
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.|
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."
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.|
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.|
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|
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.
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.
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)|
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."
|A happy ending...?|