Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Frank Miller, and the issue is Ronin #5, which was published by DC and is cover dated May 1984. These scans are from Absolute Ronin, which was published in 2008. Enjoy!
In 1983, Miller decided to go a bit nuts after DC said they’d allow him to – Ronin was originally planned at Marvel, I guess, but Jenette Kahn, no dummy, saw that Miller was on a meteoric rise and told him to do whatever he wanted. Well, it took over a year, but what she got was this thing. Man, it’s weird. HOWEVER! It features Miller beginning to spread his wings, artistically, and we see a lot of stuff in Ronin that would reach fruition in The Dark Knight Returns (yes, I know that’s only the name of the first issue and not technically the entire thing, but that’s what everyone calls it, so let’s stick with it). So let’s check some of that out, shall we? As usual with some collections, I have to apologize for the scans. The Absolute Editions are terrific, but they’re also gigantic, and they don’t always fit on my scanner. I tried to get as much as I could on it, though, so I hope you enjoy it!
Obviously, one thing Miller has tended to do is become more abstract over the years. As I’ve pointed out plenty of times this year, many artists do so, so it’s not surprising that Miller did, and while Ronin can be very intricate (as we’ll see), Miller also goes a bit more abstract in several places (it’s a long-ass comic, with a lot of room for many styles). So here, he uses blacks very well to create sharp contrasts, as our unnamed hero and Casey sit by the fire. The shadows, more than Lynn Varley’s gorgeous paints, help make the fire bright and help carve sharp lines on the ronin and Casey. Miller’s faces, which we saw yesterday he generally drew with a hard jaw line, have become more squared-off, and many Miller women are starting to look like Casey there, with a curved line indicating cheekbones, which Miller does instead of keeping the face round and inking in lines to indicate the cheeks. It adds a harshness to his women, which, considering the kind of women he writes, is probably not accidental. The ronin’s and Casey’s lips are a bit plump, which is also a Miller staple moving forward. Miller also likes the rigidity of a grid for some scenes, which helps pace the comic better and makes his explosions out of the grid a bit more dramatic.
The Miller from yesterday would use thick lines, sure, but the Miller from today is using shredded blacks to achieve the same effect, as we see in Panel 2. The folds in Peter’s clothing would have been lines a few years earlier, but Miller simply makes them wider black chunks, which makes Peter look a bit more ragged. Meanwhile, by the time we get to Panel 6, Peter is very abstract, with his face fading into white on the left side and Miller using basic shapes to create his eye and the wrinkles on his face. It foreshadows his extreme chiaroscuro of his “Sin City” period. Panel 1 is excellent, as he uses the blacks to create a contrast with the explosion, which Varley paints in white fading to lighter and then darker blues. Varley’s colors on this book are tremendous, and that panel is just a small example of it.
This is part of a double-page spread, but as usual, the version I have is too big to fit on a scanner and I didn’t want to try to put these two pages together with the blurring at the spine, so I just scanned one. It doesn’t really matter – you might not get the rest of the conversation in the middle row, but this post isn’t about the words, it’s about the art, man! This is a fantasy, as the ronin and Casey seem to be sharing a delusion, so Miller uses a less solid line, but it’s also wintry, which explains the abundance of white on the page. In both the top drawing and the bottom drawing, he uses scratchy lines to fade the characters at the bottom, nicely implying both aspects of the scene. Miller, as I noted yesterday, was able to do delicate work when he tried, but what’s interesting about the middle row is that it seems he’s not trying very hard, and compared to the impressionistic work above and below it, the ronin, Casey, and the horse seems a bit clunky. The bad guys are better because Miller uses a thicker line, but his attempts at a lighter line in the first two panels don’t come off well. Perhaps by this point, he simply wasn’t able to do that anymore. It’s odd.
As I noted yesterday, Miller has never been the most fluid of artists, preferring the brutality of violence rather than the balletic grace of fighting (whether this makes him better than others or worse is entirely up to you). He does know how to stage a fight, though, which we see here. In Panel 1, the ronin has leaped past the bad guys, and Miller simply draws a stream of blood on his blade to indicate the violence he inflicted upon them (I cut that top off a little, and I apologize). We get a close-up of him turning back, which leads to a nice overhead view where we can take in the solitude of the ronin as the bad guys charge him. In Panel 4, Miller doesn’t draw the ronin’s sword, instead using the blood trail from the body downward to indicate the path of the blade. To add a bit of tension, he shows this panel from the point of view of that dude with the spear, who’s charging at him. The blade is leveled at the ronin, which moves our eyes toward him, of course, but also sets up the next panel, where we return to a third-person view as the ronin takes spear-dude out. It’s a fairly clever layout. Miller’s messy line work is again evident, as it appears that he wanted to make it clearer that this is a fantasy, but also to show how things are moving quickly around – note the sloppy hatching on the spear that creates miniature speed lines. I could be wrong, but it does seem like Miller had a plan like this.
This is another part of a double-page spread, but again, it’s not completely necessary to see both sides. I just wanted to show how cool this drawing is, as Miller uses these beautiful squishy black chunks to create this robot, rendering it completely with shapes and Varley’s greens, which makes it both abstract and very detailed. It’s disintegrating, which is why it looks stressed, but it’s really neat how Miller constructs this thing out of negative space. It’s breathtaking.
I’m certainly not the first person (or even the thousandth, probably) to note that a lot of what Miller perfected in The Dark Knight Returns he tried first in Ronin, but it’s still fascinating to look at Ronin as a proving ground for the later work. Something like this page could easily feature the Joker, right down to the progression of “HA”s at the bottom, as Peter and Sandy come to a horrific realization. Miller slowly breaks the layout apart as Peter’s world falls apart, culminating with the two characters minimized in the lower right as Billy’s laugh echoes around them. The similarities to DKR is striking.
Miller switches between reality and fantasy here, showing again that his messier lines are partially because he wants to show the difference (I can’t rule out the lateness of the comic, of course). In Panel 1, the ronin slices the head off a robot, as Miller’s lines are definitely crisper, even if the background, for instance, shows a lot of rubble. He focuses on Casey in Panel 2, but then Panels 3 and 4 are in the fantasy world, again, and we get indistinct shapes and lots of scratchy line work. As we saw above, the impressionistic nature of the fantasy world really sets it apart from the “real” world, and the fact that Miller leaves so much white is an interesting touch.
Man, Miller just lifted these demons and put them into DKR, didn’t he?
The more abstract style Miller used in Ronin would reach an apotheosis in The Dark Knight Returns, but everyone knows what that art looks like, so I’m going to skip it. I have three days of Frank Miller in which to go through at least four styles, so I have to jump over it. I’m sure you’ll manage! Find comfort in the archives!
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