Welcome to part two of my look at Frank Miller’s amazing Ronin. For thoughts on issue #1, click here. And keep coming back every Friday for the next four weeks to read my reviews of the final issues of this mini-series.
When last we left the world of our masterless samurai… well, let’s have Miller himself fill us in on the events we missed…
Yes, magic sword. And yes to a living computer as well. The Virgo that Casey is speaking to is a living, sentient computer that is creating the strange and mysterious Aquarius in ways that not even its human builders can completely understand. The thing that always strikes me about this section of Ronin is that it’s yet another declaration of how different this series is from nearly all other comics. We’re all used to reading comic stories in which everything is taken for granted. Pseudoscience explains nearly everything in superhero books, and that’s all part of the landscape.
But in Ronin that idea is turned upside down. The science in this mini-series may be very close to magic, but Miller takes pains to give it some sort of semi-logical grounding. By having Casey stand in the shoes of an incredulous reader, he asks us to see his tropes freshly and thereby have us feel a bit unsettled.
He also makes us feel unsettled by having our resurrected ronin on a cryptic quest as this issue begins. In page one, we watch him remove a sewer grate and climb up into the desiccated New York, mumbling the unexplained word “tachi.” Miller takes his time bringing the ronin through the impoverished and destroyed metropolis. New York has fallen far from its glory days, and again he is drawing an implied parallel to the New York of the Marvel Universe.
After being tortured by a sadistic nun at a homeless shelter, our protagonist wanders into a bar inhabited by some edgy people. We can tell they’re edgy because they have mohawks and body piercing and wear leather fetish gear. In other words, it’s not that different from a hipster New York bar today (couldn’t resist!). This segment of story is a bit dull and even exhausting from a plot standpoint – it drags a bit and doesn’t add much to the overall plot.
But the storytelling in this segment is spectacular, utilizing many of the techniques that show Miller’s transcendent manner of looking at a comics page. The sequence starts with a pair of pages which use parallel design, all rendered in the long stacked panel approach which was a classic Miller technique. A smart arrangement at the beginning shows the same two characters in an opening pair of panels, grounding the reader and giving them perspective on the scene as it flows. Similar parallel design has one page echo the other, with the panel designs and before-and-after progressions moving the reader through the pages in a compelling and unique way.
For four pages Miller uses this parallel narrative, until he subverts the moment and has it break down beautifully. From its objective style, the structure moves to a more impressionistic style as the ronin is beat up by the bar patrons. In the page above, we witness the thrashing. Rather than watch the fight unfold, we feel it, viscerally, in a rough and tumble view of eyes and fists and speed lines. Here Miller hints at some of his future obsessions with black and white in Sin City with an emphasis on sharp contrast. It’s a thrilling sequence that leads to a powerful page that could only be delivered in comics.
As the beating continues, the arrangement of long panels breaks down. Miller moves to a staccato rhythm, three tiers of four panels each, stacked on top of each other. But the panels don’t contain the violent scene. Instead the fight breaks out of them. We are shown how to feel about he beating but never are shown exactly what is happening. The fists in the middle tier tell us everything we need to know about the attackers, and the blood in the bottom tier tell us all we need to know about how badly the ronin is hurt.
This is bravura comics storytelling, a marvelously innovative way of portraying a scene that nevertheless can be understood by anybody reading this story. It’s the type of innovative flash combined with solid storytelling sensibility that helps to make this book so memorable.
As the ronin crawls away from the violence, still mumbling for his “tachi”, we again return to Aquarius where we find that the demon Agat has made his way into that futuristic fortress. He has his eye on the CEO of the complex, and in a gorgeous sequence of three pages takes over the man’s body.
Again Miller both echoes ideas he’s played with before and delivers new storytelling ideas in ways that readers intuitively comprehend but which also display remarkable creativity. He draws three pages with fifteen panels each that somehow manage to never feel crowded. Indeed, it’s all delivered with such flash and élan that the reader always can track the events clearly as Miller provides a gorgeous combination of interior and exterior perspective on the moments he’s delivering.
The small panels allow us to catch furtive glimpses, moments almost out of the corner or the eye, as Miller’s adroit storytelling compels readers to feel the impact of these horrific events. The movement here is crucial, and again he delivers movement in a way that captures the reader with a compelling approach to the material. There’s a rhythm on pages like this that feels like jazz improvisation in the hands of a master.
Comics are often compared with poetry, but as I implied above, Miller’s Ronin reminds me of nothing as much as great jazz. A master artist is playing with the framework of standard motifs and delivering them to us in a way that introduces those motifs to us anew. Pages like the one above are clever improvisations on the comic form, a formalist’s dream by liberating us from the typical comic book page by reintroducing us to a clearer perception of why we love it.
In fact, part of what makes this comic so thrilling from a storytelling standpoint is that it’s not all just flash and verve. Page 31 allows readers to slow down, take a breath and pay attention to the portentous dialogue that is so crucial to this story. Miller takes the time to reset the reader’s attention by focusing again on the lead character and the now veiled threat embodied in Mr. Taggart. The large images of Taggart’s face in panels two and six look almost banal but in his loose scratchy art, Miller implies menace wonderfully.
The conversation here is filled with double-meanings of implied danger, with the repeated repetition of “Mr. Learnid” giving the scene an off-putting sense of menace as well as yet another sort of musical beat that reminds me of a dissonant note in the middle of a lovely solo.
And after a wonderful sequence in which Miller again displays his passion for narratives that run parallel on opposing pages, we get to witness the revenge that the ronin takes on his attackers from earlier this issue. In a thrillingly impressionistic scene that echoes the battle scene at the beginning of Ronin. The violence is bloody but abstract, infused by a love for Japanese samurai art filtered through an American action artist sensibility. The horizontal panels at the top are broken by the short fencepost panels in the middle and the open panel at the bottom. It’s an odd page, with its focus on the hippie biker guy and the blood spatter in the middle pane, but again we see this inventiveness on full and glorious display.
Ronin #2 is a bit of a dull issue. It’s one of those transitional issues in which the plot doesn’t advance much and the story is mainly built around several set-pieces that feel unimportant. But even in an issue that builds the story in a plodding manner, the storytelling here is compelling, especially in the more violent scenes. There’s a rhythm here that is compelling and beautiful, despite the blood all over the floors.
Violence and action have their own vocabulary in Miller’s opus, and the artist shows many variations on those themes. Ronin #2 ends with the promise of a clash between the security forces at Aquarius and our young ronin. Join me again next week to see how the blood spatters.