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Frank Miller's Ronin: An Appreciation
By Kristy Valenti
Tuesday February 14, 2012 06:00:00 am
Our columnists are independent writers who choose subjects and write without editorial input from comiXology. The opinions expressed are the columnist's, and do not represent the opinion of comiXology.
Frank Miller works best as a lover, not a fighter (evidence: the last fifteen years). But, in the early 1980s, Miller was in love. He was in love with the medium of comics, completely; he loved it so much that these shores could not contain it — his affection roamed far and wide, ranging from manga to eurocomics. He was also in love with a colorist, Lynn Varley, whom he latter married, and their professional lives would become inextricably linked. 1983-'84's six-issue Ronin is, perhaps, the purest expression of Miller's love; as such, it's beautiful, even if it's a bit of a mutant (or just about one).

In Ronin, "created, written, and drawn" by Miller, a telekinetic quadriplegic named Billy becomes linked with Virgo, an AI that controls Aquarius, a fortress made out of biocircuitry. A fortress is required because New York has been destroyed and is overrun with murderous gangs (many characters, such as a sadistic nun, would be quite at home in Sin City). Billy is in love with Aquarius' head of security, Casey McKenna, a tough black woman. Billy and Casey's story is intercut with that of a samurai whose master was killed by a demon, Agat. From beyond the grave, the master commands the ronin to defeat Agat; when the ronin does so, Agat curses him. When a magical sword turns up in Billy and Casey's time, Billy is "possessed" by Ronin; the two fuse and take form thanks to Virgo/Aquarius' technology. But Agat has returned, and "possessed" someone as well …

Honestly, the story is confusing and doesn't really hold together (but if … then … ?). But, plotting Ronin was not foremost in Miller's mind when he was headhunted by former DC President and Publisher Jenette Kahn. In an interview with Jen Contino, Kahn said

I asked him to lunch […] And so it was that Frank proposed what was to become Ronin. But what he talked about was more than a story concept. He wanted this project to be on coated stock and hand-painted. Bob Rozakis worked with Frank to achieve both the paper and the sophisticated coloring, neither of which had ever been used by a major comic book company. Lynn Varley did the lush and subtle painting and the story flew beyond traditional comics conventions. Although Frank was soon to create a more radical and fully conceived work, Ronin was bursting with new ideas and breathtaking art, and set the stage for The Dark Knight Returns and the modern era of comics.

Though obviously this quotation is in her own interest, the gist of what Kahn is saying is essentially true — if Ronin had flopped, there very well may not have been Batman: The Dark Knight Returns or a Watchmen; the course of graphic novels may have been very different. Ronin came at a moment when the old guard at DC was changing out with the (then) new: Karen Berger is credited as the editorial coordinator in the first issue. (Ronin is trademarked DC, copyrighted by Frank Miller Inc.) It was an ambitious experiment, and above all, Ronin was — and still is — exciting.

The first five pages of Ronin, in particular, are a study in how to hook readers into a comic. (On the sixth page, this being Miller, a stripper shows up. Colored by the incomparable Varley, the stripper is green, tying her to Virgo/Aquarius, even though they've yet to be introduced.) The very first panel sets the reader immediately down in a "superflat" Japan, via the style of clouds, mountains and monuments. Miller is playful; he draws word balloons coming out of statues, building suspense while establishing the samurai and the master characters, and their relationship. Wide, narrow panels free the master and the samurai from grids, gives them room to draw their swords and fight when attacked by Agat's henchmen. As with the statues, Miller keeps calling attention to the art form during the action: at one point during the battle, the master calls for the samurai to stop "posing." By page five, the reader knows that the samurai is utterly devoted; the master is in grave danger, the sword's magic is conditional, and what exactly is at stake. But once the reader is taken inside Aquarius, the colors cool, become darker; the panels slash vertically down, just as the fortress draws minerals up from the earth to fuel its biocircuitry.

"Biocircuitry" is an apt metaphor for Ronin. Miller's art starts out heavily crosshatched, mutates: taking on this influence or that, adapting. His ink splatters are like decadent Kirby Krackles; Aquarius' interiors borrow from Heavy Metal artists, while his costuming nods to the sartorial side of 2000 AD. And Miller acknowledges his debt to Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojim's Lone Wolf and Cub (one character is named Koike; another is named Gibbons, probably in honor of artist Dave Gibbons, with whom Miller would work on the Martha Washington series in the future). Miller's art refines from Book One to Book Six, with Book Six being more recognizably "Miller." In turn, Ronin would go on to heavily inspire comics such as Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (in particular, the horizontal panels), and cartoons.

If it was a honeymoon period for Miller and Varley, it was for their collaboration, as well; as in the aforementioned example, her coloring adds another layer to the storytelling, rewards readers paying close attention. It's frankly startling to see coloring that effective in a DC comic, and depressing to realize it was possible 30 years ago, but apparently not today, if one is to judge from their offerings. In 1983, the future was still bright for Miller and Varley, and so the comic is filled with ochers, oranges and teals to offset reds and greens; as the years went by, the colors would slowly leach out. Without Varley, Miller, and his comics, are largely reduced to black and white.

In many ways, Ronin maps out where Miller would go. Ronin combines sci-fi, the supernatural, Christian symbolism, a tough black female protagonist, banks of T.V.s, cannibalism, weeabooism, bitch/mothers, badass/femme fatales: a dystopia where only a few brave souls' rugged individualism stands between humanity and annihilation. It also forecasts where he would end up: going Hollywood, railing against the Occupy movement, making comics preoccupied with white men's impotence, terrified of the Other. (If everyone loves a lover, it may be that everyone hates a hater.) Frank Miller is best as a samurai, when the comics medium is his master; as a ronin, he's lost his way.


Images ©1983-1984 Frank Miller Inc.

Kristy Valenti currently works for The Comics Journal and Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Uncharted Territory is © Kristy Valenti, 2010

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(11 months ago)
Nice article. You make me want to dust off my copy and read it again. It's been too long.

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