FRANK MILLER’S SCI-FI SAMURAI EPIC
Even if you’ve never read Frank Miller’s 1983-1984 series “Ronin,” you probably know a lot about its legacy. You probably know that it was the bridge between Miller’s work on “Daredevil” and his genre-redefining work on “The Dark Knight Returns.” You might know that it was one of the first — if not the first — creator-owned works published by DC Comics. You might know that it helped introduce both manga and Moebius to a mainstream superhero audience. You might know that it helped inspire “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
Its legacy has overshadowed the actual book itself. “Ronin,” originally published as a six-issue series, has been kind of forgotten. Neither as culturally important as “The Dark Knight Returns,” as fondly remembered as “Daredevil,” or as starkly obvious as “Sin City,” “Ronin” has become “that weird sci-fi samurai thing Frank Miller did back in the eighties.”
But who wouldn’t want to read a weird Frank Miller sci-fi samurai book?
Especially one that, even twenty-five years later, still looks like a bizarre message from the future.
DC’s newly released “Absolute Ronin” will go a long way toward reminding people why this comic was — and is — so important. It’s a gorgeous, thick, oversized hardcover, and the effect of such a presentation is to open up Miller’s linework to the level of near abstraction, turning “Ronin” into a gleeful ballet of shapes and form. The brush-heavy samurai sequences, at this larger size, look less detailed and more textured. The pen-and-ink futuristic landcapes look like the notebook noodling of an ADD-addled design student. The whole book, as literally heavy as it is (weighting in at, oh, I don’t know, eight-thousand pounds) seems light and airy, with the brighter, more vibrant colors highlighting the enlarged open spaces. Don’t get me wrong, “Ronin” is a relentlessly dense comic, but seeing it printed at this size, in this format, allowed me to enter into its world for what seems like the first time.
I missed “Ronin” when it originally debuted. I was reading comics haphazardly as an eleven year-old, and even if I knew about the direct market at the time — which I didn’t — I doubt Frank Miller’s Franco-Japanese feudal/sci-fi concoction would have meant anything to me. It would have been too ugly, too odd.
But when the series was collected into trade paperback for the first time, in 1987, I was ready for it. I didn’t really understand it. It had something to do with a samurai who woke up in the future and then everything went kablooey. But, boy, Miller’s artwork was unlike anything I’d ever seen — and, by then, I’d read his “Dark Knight Returns.” But in “Ronin,” Miller attacked the pages with a kind of improvisational ferocity. His stylistic shifts were not without reason, but every new chapter of the book brought a series of new techniques, some of which informed his later work and some of which were left completely abandoned. But in “Ronin,” he tried them all on for size, and even though I didn’t have the patience or the interest to figure out which character was which, who the guy with no arms or legs was, or what the artificial intelligence was up to, I knew that Miller’s art was shockingly different. I loved “Dark Knight Returns,” but I couldn’t stop looking at “Ronin.”
Yet, twenty years later, “Absolute Ronin” has given me a chance to delve back into Miller’s offbeat world, and it is a complete revelation. “Ronin” is indeed a flawed masterpiece, but seeing it in this format emphasizes the masterpiece more than it does the flaws. In theory, it’s the same basic content as the trade paperback version (with a few added bonus sketches in the back), but it’s a completely different reading experience. I have read all of the DC absolute editions, and there’s no doubt in my mind that “Ronin” benefits the most from this oversized format. It simply works at this size, in a way that it didn’t in the size and shape of a normal comic book.
“Ronin” begins with an ambush, set in feudal Japan, as Lord Ozaki and a “freshly-trained” samurai face off against a trio of attackers. It’s a scene based not on any kind of historical reality, but on movies and comic books. (Frank Miller illustrated the covers of the original “Lone Wolf and Cub” manga reprints for a reason.) On the second page of “Ronin,” Lord Ozaki chastises the young samurai, and yells, “Stop posing, boy!” Immediately we enter a self-aware world that is as much showmanship as substance, and in a story in which appearance becomes reality, Ozaki’s admonition becomes a fatally unheeded warning, though not immediately. The samurai lives to fight another day.
Unfortunately, his master doesn’t survive quite as long.
Lord Ozaki dies at the hands of the demon Agat, a shape-shifter, and from the spirit world, Ozaki tells the young samurai to roam the Earth, train, and avenge his foul and unnatural murder. It’s the set-up for a samurai movie-of-the-week, or maybe an entire television series, and Miller could have used that plot mechanism to fill six issues with bloodshed, mayhem, love, loss, and revenge. And he did, but not in the way that readers expected. For after twelve pages of supernatural samurai set-up, Frank Miller cuts to:
Billy Challas, a limbless simpleton from the 21st century. The samurai melodrama was a nothing but a dream, or was it?
Miller presents a bleak and disturbing version of 21st century New York City in the first chapter of “Ronin.” Scabrous hoboes roam the streets, killing each other, wielding hammers, eating from cans. Fires rage in the background, and the only safety seems to be inside the insectoid Aquarius Complex, where science works to hold the line for humanity. In a chaotic world, Aquarius is the only bastion of hope, and its technology-fueled promises for the future hinge on the newly-developed mental cybernetics — the kind of advancements that allow Billy to manipulate mechanical arms with his mind.
But just as Miller establishes the reality of that futuristic world, he cuts back to the tale of the masterless samurai who fights a four-armed rat ninja before the final showdown with the demon Agat.
I can just imagine readers in 1983 scratching their heads over this book, wondering what Frank Miller was up to with his radical stylistic shifts between the language and artistry of feudal Japan and 21st century New York. But then things get even weirder as the Blood Sword — the very implement used to kill Agat in the past — appears in the 21st century, and poor Billy’s world begins to crumble around him. Agat’s image flashes on Billy’s computer monitor as Aquarius’s artificial intelligence — Virgo — tries to make sense out of these seemingly supernatural events. Reborn in the future, Agat frees himself from the Aquarius Complex, and Billy is overtaken by another spirit from the past. Cybernetics and magic combine, an explosion rocks the Complex, and the first chapter ends with a reformed Billy Challas rising up from the sewer, limbs made of metal and a face reconfigured to look like a certain feudal samurai.
Just as he did earlier in the story, Miller establishes a plot engine that could propel the story through the rest of the series. It is not merely the tale of an ancient samurai roaming the land, seeking revenge. It’s a sci-fi samurai, propelled through time, seeking revenge.
Once again: movie-of-the-week material, or a concept strong enough for several years of a television series.
But Miller doesn’t work that way, and everything you think you know by the end of chapter one proves to be wrong in the end. No wonder my fifteen year-old self didn’t bother to make sense out of “Ronin.” It’s incredibly layered, full of irony, and although everything is explained at the end, it requires a patient reading with an attention to detail. It’s not an overly challenging work of graphic narrative, necessarily, but its resonance is deep and powerful.
It turns out to be the Adam and Eve story from the Bible, reconfigured as a sci-fi samurai epic. Miller isn’t the most subtle of comic book creators, and so he even includes a scene where Casey — the Aquarius security chief and apparent “Eve” analogue — eats an apple as the demon Agat — a.k.a the serpent in the Garden — spreads his influence. But Miller will surprise you since Casey-as-Eve is Miller’s attempt at misdirection, for we find out later that Virgo, the artificial intelligence, is the real victim of Agat’s influence.
And Billy Challas may not be so innocent after all.
One of the most striking revelations of the book may be the moment we discover that the victimized, armless and legless Billy may be creating this entire samurai scenario as an excuse to hack off the limbs of others. What a weird, Freudian book this “Ronin” is. It’s certainly not the straightforward, moody action comic readers of the time — or any time — would probably expect.
In strange bit of serendipity, the day after I finished reading my copy of “Absolute Ronin,” I stopped into my local comic shop and found that owner and proprietor James Arlemagne was liquidating some old magazines he had found in the back room. In addition to a couple early issues of “Love and Rockets” and a single copy of “Warrior,” he had issue #101 of “The Comics Journal,” published in 1985. The cover feature of that issue: the Frank Miller interview.
This was the pre-“Dark Knight Returns” Frank Miller. Much of the interview was given to his discussion of that then-upcoming project, but the subject of “Ronin” came up more than once, as it was his most recently-published work at the time. Miller talks about how much he learned by doing “Ronin,” and how different it was — in approach, in content, in form — from anything he’d ever done before: “Ronin was a process of liberation,” says Miller. “I went from the sort of material that I’d been trained to do, that everybody was doing, toward developing a new direction for comics.”
Miller goes on to say, “It not only taught me a great deal, but it broke down walls for me, it showed me that there’s endless different things that I can do with comics.” That’s not just hyperbole on Miller’s part. “Ronin” shows him experimenting with storytelling solutions that he’d never used on any of his earlier work, and yet as unorthodox as some of his pages must have looked at the time, especially to audiences unfamiliar with influences like Moebius and Hugo Pratt, he always worked in the service of the story. But style was certainly foremost on his mind: “I’m very, very proud that I was able to take on so many new problems and find my own solutions. Dealing with a real void,” says Miller. “So little has been done with comics, in the whole time they’ve been around that to push it like that made me feel like I was starting my career, I was starting my explorations of the form.” He continues, “One of the things that ‘Ronin’ did was to dynamite my own and anybody else’s expectations of me. And now, I feel like playing around a lot. It’s very weird, standing at the beginning of a possible history not at the end of one, because there’s nothing left of the road behind me.”
The explosive conclusion of “Ronin” wasn’t just the end of the first phase of Frank Miller’s career — although it was certainly that — but it was also, as he points out, a beginning of a new “possible history.” And, as we now know, that possible history led to the golden era of his career, as he wrote and/or drew, in rapid succession, “Dark Knight Returns,” “Batman: Year One,” “Daredevil: Love and War,” “Elektra: Assassin,” “Elektra Lives Again,” and “Daredevil: Born Again.” Although he would go on to greater, creator-owned heights with “Sin City,” those mid-1980s superhero comics are still considered, by some, the pinnacle of his career. And without the experimentation — and artistic achievement — of “Ronin,” none of those things would have been possible. And, honestly, as genre-bending and revolutionary as those superhero stories are, none of them seems as daring, or as innovative, as “Ronin.”
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of the in-this-month’s-Diamond-Previews’ “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
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