Thanks for joining me this week for the second part of my look at Frank Miller’s brilliant Ronin. This week I look at Ronin #1. For the introduction, please click here.
As I discussed last week, Ronin was a deeply innovative and progressive comic. In 1983, when DC Comics first released this epochal series, Miller was at the top of his game. He easily could have delivered a story that built on his massive success on Daredevil with another Japanese-influenced super-hero drama. Instead he delivered a groundbreaking work, synthesizing a slew of influences and ideas into a heady and intoxicating mix. This amazing series demonstrates his wandering creative eye and his zeal for thoughtful creativity. Ronin is amazing because it is unlike anything else seen in comics, before or since.
Ronin #1 begins in Japan during the classical period. We quickly meet Lord Ozaki and his unnamed samurai (only referred to as “boy”) as they are attacked by a faceless group of ninja warriors. Miller makes a smart decision to start with the battle scene because it provides a place of comfort for his readers. For everyone who remembered his Daredevil run with its ninjas and super-heroes, this was a comfortable landing place.
But that comfort almost immediately starts to fall away on page two. Lynn Varley’s coloring moves from representational to empathetic, deepening the mood of the battle scene rather than the specific incidents that happen. That makes the reader feel slightly dislocated. It’s not hard to understand what is going on in the scene, but this moment is an early statement that this tale will go in some unusual directions.
Just as essential to the delivery, the reader notices the jagged, hand-drawn panel borders. Rather than the straight-ruled borders that readers are included in most American comics, the borders here are slashing and loose, overflowing from the thrilling exploits they can’t quite keep under control. In the Japan scenes the borders are thicker than usual; in later scenes set in the future, the borders are thinner but just as jagged. This is a motif that readers are used to seeing in underground comics by the likes of R. Crumb, but it’s rarely used in adventure comics. Here the borders give the effect of declaring this book is hand-done and give it a sort of feeling of Japanese calligraphy. They also stand out because in our current era of computer-assisted comics, these ragged borders would be a difficult effect for many world-class cartoonists.
But the most essential statement made by these early moments comes from the art style that Miller uses. After traditional establishing shots on page one (which adroitly sets a traditional tone for the radical strangeness to follow), the storytelling takes a left turn on page two. In a pair of pages that include five horizontal panels that barely seem to contain their action, readers are delivered a fight scene radically drastically from way cartoonists traditionally created stories at Marvel.
The battle is shown in a middle distance, as if played out on a movie screen instead of a comics page. Characters hang too far on one side of a panel, or are shown in tight foreshadowing or odd distance, and it’s all a little dislocating. The storytelling style here feels untraditional, un-American in a comics sense. Of course, this approach shows the lessons Miller took from the Japanese comic we know as Lone Wolf and Cub, but almost no American readers knew that at the time.
Adding to the moment still more is the way that Miller undercuts the drama. The Lord is angry at his servant – “stop posing, boy!” he says at one point; “boy, you threw away your sword!” he howls in astonishment at another. Those slivers of dialogue satirize the fight as we watch it. Even while we consider how cool and intriguing the scenes are, readers also are told that these moments aren’t as cool or exciting as we think they are. The meta-commentary adds whimsy to these scenes. Things are not what they seem, and that’s key foreshadowing for later in this series.
Miller will return to Lone Wolf again later this issue, in a small tip of the hat that probably went over the head of most readers at the time.We’ll get to that in a minute.
These early pages make a statement: Ronin is not what you expect it to be. It’s a comic for a new generation and preconceptions should be cast out. The reader is intrigued, needs to move ahead, and feels compelled to continue unwrapping this gift that Frank Miller is giving us.
Master and servant survive their battle and quickly wander off to a nearby inn for a little celebration. Again Miller undercuts his scene with some light teasing, but that’s more like good-natured teasing than anything else. We come to like the master and his young samurai, and want to see them succeed. That makes the subsequent scene, and perhaps the key scene of issue #1, all the more powerful.
Wandering off with a concubine (quick note that there’s a good essay to be written about prostitutes in Miller’s comics but this is not that essay), readers and master both discover that she’s not some woman. Instead, inside the form of a woman is the evil demon Agat. Agat is Lord Ozaki’s despised nemesis, a spooky, shape-changing demon who seems to embody hatred. Miller draws Agat in a gorgeously diffuse style, all straight lines and implicit heft. The demon seems to shift shape right in front of our eyes, and Varley’s gorgeous coloring showcases that mutability.
He’s spooky because he is unknown. In just a few short moments Agat is also gone, but not before he kills the Lord and gives the acolyte a scar that he will carry forever. The boy is no longer a samurai. He is now a ronin. And few could predict how he long he could wear that scar.
When Ozaki’s ghost appears to the samurai, he provides a warning and a call to action. “Roam. Live like a dog.” Ozaki tells him. “When you are as mighty warrior, avenge my murder. Let my soul rest. Then you can join me.” The masterless samurai must wander the Earth alone until he can redeem his name. It’s a curse but the prophecy is also a mercy. This ronin has a mission, and that mission can redeem him.
It’s here that Miller again takes an unexpected turn with his story. It would be logical for a reader to expect at this point for Ronin to become a saga set in old Japan, but instead some deeply empathetic eyes take readers to a very different place and very different protagonist. As we soon come to know, we’ve come to the Aquarius Complex in a dystopian future New York, and our new protagonist is a limbless, cybernetically powerful boy named Billy.
A quick word before moving ahead to Aquarius. The eyes in this graphic novel are deep and soulful, full of marvelous inner life. It’s easy and compelling to dwell on Frank Miller’s considerable brilliance with storytelling and his marvelously creative art style, but the soul of this book is in the way Miller depicts eyes. Under Miller, eyes are empathetic and passionate. They see the future and the past. They see love, and imagination and anger, and they’re crucial here. They balance the pyrotechnics of the story with a humanity core to the story. The eyes in Ronin give the compelling transition between pages twelve and thirteen, and they will provide much more as the book moves ahead.
At the quarter-mark of the book, on page thirteen, readers are yanked from medieval Japan into a future world unlike any I’ve seen in comics before. Miller makes some fascinating choices here as he delivers a future that emphasizes organic growth and not hard scientific advancement. In this unique vision, we don’t get hard edges and advanced machinery. Instead we get organic shapes which are often indistinct and depersonalized. In the few pages with backgrounds, we get only small implications of the background, almost Krazy Kat style, but we get just enough to make us feel dislocated, to let us know this vision of the future owes little to the past.
Varley’s coloring again emphasizes the scene in a thoughtfully. After the empathetic earth tones of old Japan, she moves here to an almost sickly palette of bright yellows, greens and oranges. This coloring motif hurts the eye and gives these scenes a proper sense of antiseptic corruption. Varley underlines Miller’s themes beautifully, and it’s a delight to see them so smartly in sync. It underlines the power of thoughtful, integrated storytelling.
As I mentioned last week, this science fiction vision owes a lot to the work of Enki Bilal and Moebius, two great European cartoonists who were then appearing in the progressive Heavy Metal. The specter of Moebius especially can be seen on this tale. That beloved French artist was acclaimed for the way he made his cityscapes come alive and how his figures seemed dwarfed in the worlds they inhabited.
But Miller takes a different tack here. Again he uses similar slashing lines to the ones he used in the Agat scene to depict future Billy. Billy has powers, and those abilities set him apart. But as Miller explores Billy’s soul, again, he emphasizes the boy’s eyes, and as the eyes are emphasized the slashing lines give way again to standard blocky storytelling. It’s a subtle and powerful touch that tells readers so much about this character and how important his inner world will be for the rest of this series.
Just as we start to feel comfortable with Billy, the scene shifts once again to medieval Japan. Again Miller uses eyes as the transition. Page 21 ends with a close-up on Billy’s eyes. Page 22 begins with those eyes as an overlay against a scene at night. A woman and her baby wander through the woods. It’s here Miller explicitly tips his hat towards Lone Wolf and Cub as the infant is deliberately similar to the baby in that fabled series.
The story begins to get more tangled up during these scenes. Billy’s dreams are being watched somehow but they seem off, wrong: “Billy, how do you know about all this? Your education includes nothing on historical Japan. Yet the images I’m receiving from your brain – the detail…” The ronin is then attacked by an assistant of Agat with a rat’s head and a human’s body before the final confrontation between the ronin and demon.
In a series of thrilling vertical panels Miller depicts the battle between the ronin and his nemeses, and the battle concludes with a moment which feels both inevitable and shocking. Only the blood of an innocent man can destroy the evil creature. In a breathtaking two-page spread, our protagonist plunges his sword through his own heart and pierces the Agat’s misshapen body. The demon is extinguished and our hero is triumphant. But in a final curse, Agat ties himself and the ronin together forever. It’s clear to most attentive readers that this will be the conflict at the heart of the remaining five issues of this series, and the prospect seems intriguing.
I should take a paragraph or two here to discuss Miller’s use of full-page vertical panels. This is a motif he used extensively on his acclaimed Daredevil run, so it’s not surprising to see it pop up as part of his repertoire here. In early reviews of his work, there was a lot of talk among critics about the effect of these “fence post” panels on how readers followed their flow. The theory holds these panels had the effect of presenting frozen slivers of time, like flares from a flash or cells from a film.
Here Miller adds an additional effect by having characters break out of those fence posts at key moments. That frees them from the panels and underlines the importance of the actions they’re taking. It also builds the tension, so by pages 32 and 33 the double-page spread is electrifying climax to an amazingly dramatic sequence of events.
After the death, we’re snapped back to Aquarius and a terrified Billy. “It’s true, Virgo. All of it. The ronin – and the demon – they’re real and they’re free. But they’re just souls, and the ronin, he… He wants my body.” Alarms klang, Billy panics, visions of Agat appear in viewscreens. All hell, it seems, is breaking loose as the legend takes flesh.
In a spectacular quartet of two-page spreads that prove the freedom and excitement Miller obviously feels with this series, we witness first Agat breaking into the high-tech fortress, shattering glass and undifferentiated cyber-tech lacerating the page in a moment of pure thrill. We flip the page and find a two-page spread: Billy wrapped up almost like a baby in swaddling clothes, his face a mask of agonizing pain as the demon seems to take over Billy’s special enhancement. The sequence continues with a bold explosion, a cloud of red with just a small figure at its center. Finally we see the moment from outside Aquarius. Repeating a perspective we saw earlier in this issue, we see a titanic explosion and Agat flung far from the complex.
The reader’s breath is taken by this sequence of brilliant climaxes. Miller was always great at pacing, so it’s obvious we need a small breather after the four breathtaking scenes. He delivers a pair of traditional five-panel grids. First we discover Agat survived the explosion and is ready for vengeance. Then we cut to two workers who are journeying through the wreckage of the explosion and searching for a corpse. As page 47 ends, we see a head bob up…
And as issue one ends, you guessed it. We discover that head belongs to our ronin, now transported to the future and ready to continue his battle. It’s a dramatic moment, pregnant with excitement. But what does it mean?
Maybe more importantly, is this moment as important as the way Miller has presented it to us? In a book filled with so many amazing scenes and such gorgeous storytelling, is the story as important as the manner in which it’s told? I struggle with this question when thinking about Ronin. I’m quite a bit more fascinated by the astonishing presentation than by the romance and adventure at this book’s heart. The storytelling is so far above its time here – and will become even more so as this book proceeds and we watch Miller explore presentations for which there literally are no words – that it occasionally overwhelms the plot for me.
There will be a lot more pyrotechnics and brilliant layouts as Miller we read the next five issues, but there’s already so much on display in issue one that Ronin quickly towers above its peers. Miller takes some audacious chances here and makes fascinating decisions. He gives us two main figures who are essentially tabula rasas. He plays with art styles well outside his normal techniques. He delivers a story which often feels surreal. He presents an intentionally dislocating sci-fi setting. In short, he gives readers an audacious and fascinating comic, one I can’t wait to share with you in future installments of this series.
There’s a delightful archival review of Ronin by the late, great comic critic Kim Thompson here. He was much less thrilled with this comic than I was, which makes it worth a read…