Welcome to my issue-by-issue review of Frank Miller’s Ronin. This week I look at Ronin #3. For the introduction to this series, click here. For my look at issue 1, click here. For my look at issue 2, click here.
If Ronin #2 reads like a bit of a transitional issue, issue #3 is the one where things start to pick up. In this issue, auteur Frank Miller accelerates his storylines, employs some wonderfully clever storytelling techniques and adds some necessary moments of real humanity within the story.
But of course, let’s start with a little recap of the story so far…
As we discover, a masterless samurai, a ronin, has emerged from ancient Japan to a futuristic world of high technology and deep economic depression. Inside the organic Aquarius Complex, the body of the CEO has been taken over by a demon named Agat. He has placed Aquarius’s security forces in opposition to the ronin. Vicious battles are happening on the streets of New York, and readers see those scenes play out in shadows on a fascinating sequence of pages early in the issue.
The pages are intriguing for a few reasons. One reason is the use of shadow and black figures in this sequence. Of course, in the 1990s Miller’s Sin City will present an extremely sharp black and white world. Here is seems the artist is playing with those dramatic contrasts, perhaps implying a world that seems to be made up of black and white. As this set of panels shifts, we see limbless cyberkinetic man Billy as a kind of flat gray blob, perhaps reflecting the blandness by which security chief Cassie McKenna and CEO Taggart see him.
The pages are also fascinating because of the interplay of characters in the scene. The evil CEO and the professional security chief are in deep conversation, with strong and intense eye contact, and there’s a sense that the two of them are battling it out verbally as a precursor for a deeper battle later in the run.
The pages are fascinating for more reasons. First, Miller takes a claustrophobic approach to the sequence, presenting it as small panels with a tight focus on faces. Colorist Lynn Varley uses a sickly palette for these moments, all greens and yellows, which gives the situation an antiseptic feel. Aquarius may be futuristic, but it can also be seen as unwell and we feel that here.
In one of his loveliest juxtapositions, Miller intersperses the pages of conversation here with a bright sequence in which the ronin tames and takes possession of a wild horse. While the people in Aquarius are caught in neon timelessness in compressed panels, the ronin is free in glorious sunlight in panels that feel wide open. Varley colors the sequence in earth tones that make everything feel warm. The art shows movement and energy – a delightfully abstract five-panel sequence shows the ronin tame his horse – and there’s even an image that can be interpreted as sprite-like naked girls frolicking in the grass (in truth, reading the page those images are probably of mutants running in fear but Miller didn’t deliver everything perfectly here).
The story moves back to some wonderful character-building as we watch Casey in conversation with the living computer Virgo. Notice in the page above how the entire scene is played out as the main character against an abstract background. It reads like a scene from a one-act play, all thoughtful conversation and deeply meaningful facial gestures. It’s lovely how Miller shows Casey’s yearning eyes in panel one and her uncertain eyes in panel four. Even more so, her look away from the reader in panel five as she expresses fear for Billy, and then the distancing from the moment in panel six emphasize the scene. Panel six is especially important in setting up a future scene because we feel the distance in Casey’s mind as she contemplates her marriage. She is literally far away from us, and there’s a sense in her body language that Casey is reluctantly being sweet-talked into her obligations.
It’s these kinds of human moments that make the melodrama and storytelling pyrotechnics of the rest of this issue really pop. It gives readers an emotional context for the overall storyline, providing depth of characterization through smart use of character-building moments. Miller is giving reader the space to breathe and to consider what is about to happen.
It also sets readers up again for the push-pull between moments inside the Aquarius complex and those in the desolate New York. We return to the streets to watch the ronin mounted on his white horse, confronting Nazis and black racists as they argue with each other violently. There’s a lot of veiled and not-so-veiled racism, sexism and anti-gay speech in these scenes. The “n” word is used, racist words for Chinese and Japanese people are thrown around, and an obviously gay character is used as a foil. That all gives these scenes an uncomfortable feeling for readers.
Though Miller clearly meant readers to feel uneasy when this comic was released thirty years ago, it feels even more uncomfortable now. Combined with the orange skin of the ronin, the racism in these moments feels at times a bit overwhelming and ostracizing. Miller overplays his point, at least for a modern sensibility, and that makes it feel painful at times.
The page above, for instance, has several wonderful elements. The four panels at the top of the page do a wonderful job of showing movement and give the reader a sense of the dead city. The sketchiness of Miller’s art may in part be due to his concern about deadlines, but also gives the landscape an unsettled feel that matches the characters’ estrangement from it. The energy of the final panel explodes the page end and gives readers an intriguing thrill that makes us want to read on (it’s interesting how Miller keeps this panel bound in panel borders when I would have expected him to have it be an explosive borderless panel, but that’s a small frustration).
But the language on the page distances me from what’s happening. The bar the ronin is going into, and the word used by the man experiencing defenestration – those are tough to digest, even in this futuristic desiccated world of ethnic mutants.
The page above is another key moment that focuses on character over pyrotechnics but that also shows Miller’s brilliant approach to the page. His division of the page into fifteen panels over three levels forces the reader to slow down, as the scene slows down in the room of Casey and her husband Peter. We had recently seen that Casey had put her husband out of her mind, and in a previous pair of pages learned their work was getting in the way of their marriage.
Here we see that breakdown displayed in a stark, excruciating sequence. Peter is in pain, frustrated by his inability to please his wife in bed. We read in his eyes a curious mix of frustration and happiness at his failure, as if it confirms to him that the relationship is dead. Perhaps he’s thinking he can move on. She has her back to him, which ordinarily would convey her anger. But as we see in the panels on tier three, she’s not angry as much as she is distracted. Her mind is on other things. Her mind is on Billy and the escaped ronin.
And suddenly we realize that Peter isn’t the one who failed to perform in this moment. Casey is the one who wasn’t interested in being with her husband. She has lost her passion. She wants to leave him, and the security alert allows her to leave him. The whole sequence is symbolic of the breakdown of their relationship and of the way that work has gotten in the way of everything the couple had tried to accomplish together.
Milller’s storytelling is seldom stronger than it is in this sequence. In its silence, its shifting perspectives and its intimacy, this page shows Miller delivering thoughtful moments that are empathetic to his characters’ pain. He wraps it up on the following page with several panels of plain blackness as Peter walks away. The use of black panels is lovely and symbolic but also provides visual foreshadowing of scenes to come in the next issue.
From there this issue seems to catch fire as it speeds towards its conclusion. A group of urban fighters are attacked by mysterious forces from underground, in a startlingly powerful panel on the page above. Borrowing a moment from Will Eisner’s classic Spirit story “Life Below” as well as from an issue of his own Daredevil, the scene with the hands always jolts me out of my seat. It also provides visual foreshadowing for the second half of this series as things grow darker.
The rest of this page showcases Miller’s obvious love for Japanese comics. Panels two through four resemble scenes from Akira, which wouldn’t reach America for another five years but which he could have read as an import. Panel three is especially dynamic, an almost abstract image combined with speed lines that convey motion and energy. Miller’s clearly hand-hewn image contrasts with the technology these people are riding, a nice reminder of the humanity inside these security suits.
And then – in a sequence of pages as thrilling as any in the series – we witness the electrifying battle that ensues. The ronin comes riding in on his white horse, firing arrows at those nearly abstract figures on racer bikes. The contrast between low-tech and high-tech is obvious and important here. In a digital world, the analog man may win out. Varley’s colors are an explosive mix of greens, reds and oranges, and Miller’s panel arrangement are a helter-skelter collection of panels that continually seem to want to find an order but continually seem unable to find their rhythm.
The fight is too chaotic, too wild. The black and white explosions resemble a strobe light as the fight becomes more and more staccato – until the ronin falls. His analog world cannot defeat the digital future. And in a series of noir panels that imply the dark direction to which this comic will soon move, we see dark shadows and sunset colors. This is a devastating battle. The Japanese rising sun is starting to set. That makes readers uncomfortable, which is where Miller wants us to be.
As we will see next week, things will become still darker as this series proceeds.