When Frank Miller’s Ronin hit the nation’s comic shops in the summer 1983, it arrived with an impact few observers of the industry had ever seen before. The comics world’s most popular creator stepped away from the security of corporate-owned super-heroes to deliver a graphic novel as bizarre, idiosyncratic and experimental as any published up to its time.
Ronin was a bold attempt to deliver a work far outside the mainstream, created by a man at the top of his career. And yet, by the end of the series, Miller was seen as too outré, too unique and experimental for his own good. His star, once so ascendant, rapidly plummeted to Earth. It took the incredible success of 1986’s Dark Knight Returns to return the acclaimed writer/artist to creative prominence and restore him as perhaps the most important commercial comics innovator of his era.
The irony, as we’ll discover in this set of columns, is that Ronin is a stunningly risky project which should have helped grant him tremendous professional respect. It’s a deeply important and satisfying graphic novel that demonstrates the promise not just of one artist but of the entire art form.
Over the next six weeks, I plan (with the help, hopefully, of some of my friends) on exploring the strengths and weaknesses of this outrageous book. Will Eisner, perhaps the most innovative artist in the history of the medium, told Miller his book was “pretentious bullshit”, but was it really bullshit or was it a brilliant innovation in comics art? Was it a great creative leap forward or a creative dead-end? We’ll look at some of the history of this book but also look at Miller’s incomparable storytelling and explore the exceptional ways he builds his most important inventive motifs and stylistic quirks. We hope you will enjoy these columns and offer your comments on them.
A Quick History
By 1983 Frank Miller had a matchless position in the history of his artform. He was the hottest creator in a medium which itself was red-hot. He was acclaimed by fans and critics alike as one of the most exciting innovators in comics history. Miller learned the lessons of the great Will Eisner and gave them a modern noir sheen. Similar to Eisner, Miller delivered stories rich in both astonishingly clever rendering and tremendously memorable characters.
His 35-issue run on Daredevil helped to make the young auteur into a celebrity. Taking on a moribund title slated for cancellation, Miller’s spectacular storytelling, combined with smartly written stories immediately began driving increased sales. With the introduction of the mysterious and beautiful Greek ninja Elektra in Daredevil #168 (Jan. 1981), those increasing sales started to reach a fever pitch. In a rare cases of quality driving sales, Daredevil became the hottest series on the stands awhile also the most creatively interesting American monthly. Under the young innovator, Daredevil received a noir makeover as he placed Daredevil and Elektra at the middle of a vendetta from the Kingpin. It’s a sign of Miller’s considerable power that his art and writing is still considered definitive some thirty-five years after it initially appeared.
It helped matters that the material he delivered was legitimately great and compelling. As I discuss in an essay on the fateful Daredevil #181, his writing and art quickly became impeccable as his work quickly achieved a stunning maturity.
Miller was so popular he could essentially name his own price for his next job. That’s exactly what he did. Jenette Kahn, Publisher at DC Comics, aggressively courted him to migrate to her company and help drive sales there. She guaranteed Miller nearly complete artistic freedom and an extremely favorable contract to deliver his next creation through DC. After some contemplation, he jumped and began producing the ideas that would lead to Ronin.
The early 1980s were a creatively fecund era for comic art, with new publishers and a heady mix of old and new creators delivering some of the most innovative material ever delivered. First Comics, Eclipse, Comico, Fantagraphics, Pacific and a slew more imprints delivered thrilling material that seemed to promise a new era in comics (“for the new era in comics!” was the motto for Pacific).
Thus Ronin seemed to be riding a wave of innovation and euphoria in specialty retailers, perhaps arriving as the apotheosis of thrillingly modernist comic art. It should be noted Miller didn’t necessarily make the best financial decision for himself in jumping. Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter essentially promised his popular creator a blank check to deliver a series through Marvel’s Epic line, which already published books from then-luminaries such as Jim Starlin, Steve Englehart and Sergio Aragonés. If he had released his series through Epic, Miller would have retained all rights to his creation. Instead, all reprints of Ronin carry both a copyright for both him and DC.
But whatever the way he arrived there, the choice was to work with DC Comics. There he received tremendous creative freedom as well as the chance to do almost anything he wanted. After dabbling in a few covers and miscellaneous short stories for DC, Miller found his opus. He delivered a six-issue mini-series unlike any that had appeared before it, a true graphic novel about a boy in the future possessed by the spirit of a ronin (a masterless samurai) in the classical Japanese period.
Part of what made Ronin so special was that Miller brought in influences from manga to create the book. In the early 1980s, Japanese comics were extremely hard to find. No American publishers were releasing manga. As he reveals in an interview conducted by Peter Sanderson in Amazing Heroes #25 (June 15, 1983), the artist had to travel to Los Angeles to find copies of Kozure Okami, a 10,000 page samurai adventure. “As I looked at them, it was obvious they were the best comics I’d ever seen,” Miller reports in the interview. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s got to be perfect storytelling. The rendering just fascinated me. It was so unlike what we do.”
That manga, of course, is known to us as Lone Wolf and Cub, and it’s due to Miller’s evangelism of the masterwork that it was soon brought to the US. Lone Wolf became the first regularly-published manga in America when First Comics started a long run in 1987 (with covers by Miller). Before its publication, translated manga was rare, limited to one-offs such as the Hiroshima memoir I Saw It which served a political or social agenda.
Along with the Japanese influence, there is also a strong European influence in Ronin. Scenes set in the technological future owe much to of European masters such as Enki Bilal and especially the legendary Jean Giraud, a.k.a. Moebius. That material was also difficult to find. Much of it wasn’t translated into English, so borrowed books provided fuel for the creative fire. The influence from French science fiction produced a vision of the future in which technology felt organic; as Miller reports in the same interview: “What mainly interests me about French science fiction comics beyond the fact that Moebius is very simply a master of his craft is the fact that they manage to do work that looks to me very future-oriented. It’s very technological, but at the same time very organic, and at the same time it’s cartoons, not illustration.”
So what we have in Ronin is a young creator at the top of his game moving into areas rarely explored in America. He presented work that synthesized Lone Wolf and Cub, French sci-fi and his own robust storytelling sense into a novel years ahead of its time. Even Miller stated, “I really won’t know for a long time whether I caught up with it. It’s just like what Daredevil was to me: laboratory time. This whole project is a very big experiment for me.”
The package was a crucial element of what set it apart. Ronin was published on deluxe paper and sold for the absurdly high price of $2.50 per issue when most Marvels sold for 60¢. That deluxe presentation was very much part of the plan: “Everything is affected by this better printing and better color I’m getting. It’s affecting the writing; it’s affecting the drawing.” Miller stated.
Wrapping up the package was the gorgeously empathetic coloring by Miller’s girlfriend Lynn Varley and the fact that – in a first for American mainstream comics – a creator’s name was listed above the title. Each cover bore the tagline Frank Miller’s Ronin. The blood-spattered name in big bold letters took on symbolic importance as this was clearly his pet project. It escaped nobody’s attention that his billboarded name was also expected to drive sales.
Of course, nearly everybody who could spare two and a half bucks had to rush out and buy a copy of Ronin as soon as it hit the stands. Issues one and two sold phenomenally well. Until, that is, fans realized this was a weird graphic novel. Many were probably hoping for a continuation of the work he delivered for Daredevil, stories of ninjas and valiant heroes fighting for their lost loves. Ronin, by contrast, was more sophisticated, more psychologically rich and more intellectually complex than that melodramatic explanation.
Ronin challenged readers, with an artistic approach truly ahead of its time. It was uncompromising and often bizarre. It was the “difficult second album” of Frank Miller’s career, and like many artists with second albums his fans quickly left him to follow other popular material. Ironically one of those hot new series became iconic. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, originally intended as a parody of Miller’s Daredevil, was the hot comic of the mid-1980s.
Sales plummeted as Ronin went on, and they weren’t helped by the fact Ronin #6 was several months late reaching shops. By the end of the run, retailer Bud Plant was literally using unsold copies as cordwood to light his wood stove.
The reaction to Ronin helps explain the explosive popularity of Miller’s next major book, the iconic Batman: the Dark Knight Returns. After the massive hype and deep disappointment of Ronin, many retailers hesitated in investing in the even more expensive exploration of Batman’s future. To everyone’s surprise, though, Dark Knight became an overwhelming success and one of the best-selling comics of the 1980s. To this day, people such as Ben Affleck still talk about Dark Knight Returns with reverence.
Though it didn’t sell well when first released, Ronin has never been out of print and has continued to gain accolades from fans and pros alike. It’s now seen in its rightful light: as an audacious, bold attempt by a young creator to step outside of his comfort zone. Many praise Miller’s daring and smart storytelling, while also praising his “fusion” art style. The love story at the center of the book also merits attention for its wonderful sweetness and intriguingly kind approach to the couple.
Miller himself reflected, in the pages of The Comics Journal #101 in 1986: “Ronin was a process of liberation… 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… 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.”
I hope you’ll join me for the next six chapters of this series as I discuss this unique commercial comic book. Come with us to old Japan, to the Aquarius Corporation, and to the world Frank Miller creates. I think you’ll enjoy the journey and the destination.