Welcome back to my issue-by-issue look at Frank Miller’s Ronin, this time looking at the amazing Ronin #4. This is where it all starts to become even more amazing, my friends. For the introduction, click here. For Ronin #1, click here. For Ronin #2, click here. For Ronin #3, click here.
I’m just back from sunny San Diego and the weird wild majesty of San Diego Comic Con. It seems every year some comic related item obsesses me. One year I was trumpeting a great self-published graphic novel about mental illness. Another year I was thinking way too much about the complicated life and career of Jim Shooter (though that ended in good karma, as I’m just finishing a book about the maverick writer/editor/publisher. This year I was enraptured with Frank Miller’s Ronin.
Over and over (and I apologize to my friends for inflicting my absurd wackiness on them– you should know by now how obsessive I can become) I found myself uttering the sentence “Ronin is even better than you think it is.” Once I delivered that hopefully intriguing hook, my friends indulged me with by endless babble which repeated much of the material I wrote in previous chapters of this series. You might remember my chatter (or may have just read it via the link above). I talked about how it was amazingly brave for Miller to take on comic project that was radically different from anything he had delivered previously. I muttered hundreds of words about the way he had to travel across the country, in the days long before scantalations, to find the manga he used as inspiration. I noted bow Miller throws in easter eggs as shout-outs to other comics throughout this project. I chattered about how his storytelling sense is spectacular and transcendent, delivering innovations that other cartoonists still haven’t embraced.
But honestly that analysis is a bit reductive. It doesn’t get at the heart of what makes this graphic novel truly great. The emotional core of this story is the bizarre and thoroughly unique romance Miller delivers.
It’s a romance born of adversity in a terrifyingly strange world. As we will soon see, it’s a romance that grows in a place of fear and terror. It’s a romance that literally fills a void and alters one’s perception of reality. In short, then, the romance at the heart of Ronin is as unique as the world that Frank Miller constructs for it to live within. Like everything else in the story of this very strange comic book, the romance in Ronin is sui generis, unique and emblematic of itself.
But let’s start with a reminder of the story thus far. It’s very nice of Miller to give readers a “the story thus far” in each issue, and though it’s a bit strange for this scene to appear 23 pages into this issue, the moment gives readers a nice grounding in the bizarre yarn Miller is unfolding. By seeing the events through the eyes of the brilliant Peter, who built the living Virgo computer and is the estranged husband of security guard Casey, we are given a point of view character through whom we can have a bit of breathing room in our perception of this story. In his incredulity ours is echoed, but at the same time we are forced to come along with the story as he does. In fact, by placing the recap midway through this issue, Miller is making another choice. He is asking the readers to come along with him for the first 22 pages, to ride the events as they play out because he wants us to fall into the story’s rhythm, embrace its adventure, feel the passion.
Miller’s artistic approach in the recap sequence is loose, almost impressionistic. The backgrounds and scene settings echo the designs of the great Moebius, an admitted influence on this project, and even the clothes have a future-European style about them.
The most important aspects of this Aquarius sequence are the coloring and the eyes. Lynn Varley’s coloring accentuates the scene, delivering a garish look that hurts the eye and makes us want to fight as well. It seems readers are being asked to perceive this future landscape as being even more dystopian than we had previously believed, and the glaring color is like a klaxon announcing the sickness at the heart of Virgo.
As he does throughout this series, Miller’s attention to eyes gives this scene much of its weight. We can see Peter’s perception of this story change as we follow him on the page above. He first has his eyes closed as the info dump falls on him. He’s skeptical, then clear-eyed, then ready for revenge as the sequence plays out. Though he professes “that’s the most idiotic story I’ve ever heard”, his face tells the opposite story. Miller does a beautiful job throughout Ronin of showing an interior/exterior dichotomy in his characters of delivering the perfect panel that crystallizes an essential moment.
Though Virgo is suffused in a kind of sickly noir brightness, the emotional core of this issue takes place in a deep, rich blackness that seems to consume everything around it. In the main storyline of this issue, Casey and two members of her security team have been captured by the shambolic half-men who live in the futuristic New York sewers. We witness a series of battles as the ronin tries to save Casey, drawn against a stark black background so rich and bleak that any hope seems to be swallowed alive.
Except that our ronin, the manifestation of a boy in love, has in himself the single-minded zeal to save her.
That’s what makes this first page so wonderful. Varley’s colors feel like an explosion of earth toned color on the page, all oranges, reds and greens, the colors of life and vitality. In contrast with the sickly tones in Virgo and the blacks in the Casey segments, this is burst of color bespeaks life and vitality. We have hope the ronin will save Caseybecause the colors indicate warmth and passion. They show us how much he cares without the reader having to be told that fact outright. And his eyes… once again, the eyes… speaking of adolescent determination and an untrammeled passion. He will not be stopped in his quest to save the woman he loves.
As we flip the page we find Casey, naked in the sewers and surrounded by blackness. She can speak to her fellow security people but she can’t see them, which leads to some wonderfully eerie moments. Casey may be naked but she’s not afraid. This is a strong woman, a fighter who looks up through the darkness in the final panel. She’s looking to lead her men, find a solution, drive for resolution. She’s a powerful lead and worthy of our attention and passion. There’s almost a sense that by removing Casey’s clothes, her enemies have unlocked a coiled power within her that had been restrained by her armor.
This implied fighting spirit sets her apart from many female lead characters from her era. The 1980s were not a great era for iconic female action heroines. Thelma and Louise became iconic in that era because they stood out so strongly against the way women were portrayed elsewhere. Though there were some individualistic women portrayed in early 1980s action films and comics, few were in prestige publications like this one. Casey reminds me a bit of Ripley, Sigourney Weaver’s character from the Alien films. Not just in appearance, though they do have similar body types, but also in attitude and approach. are strong women who can kick ass and lead people but who also have a feminine side that is appealing. We like them because they’re strong. Their strength makes them interesting women.
An intriguing aspect of this story is in its precursors . Miller’s mentor in comics art was the great Will Eisner. One of Eisner’s greatest Spirit stories was the devastatingly powerful “Life Below”, which showed our hero battling sewer dwellers who had hit their lowest ebb. Eisner’s tale is stark and powerful, one of his finest stories. Even more intriguing, Miller also references himself in this issue. Daredevil #180 (March 1982) actually contains a cover and several scenes that almost read as beta versions of scenes we will see later this issue.
The relationship between the chain-smoking Ben Urich and Daredevil is very different from the relationship between Billy and Casey, of course, but Miller’s storytelling is no less powerful in either work.
I should also note that if you really want to dwell in the darkness Varley creates here, you need to pick up a copy of the original issues rather than a collection. In my 1988 TPB collection, the colors are much more muted than in the originals. Varley targeted her colors for the slick paper used in the originals, and on that paper the blacks are so dark and rich that they feel like black holes.
That’s true, for instance, in this sequence that pops against the page. Miller and Varley’s work here borders on the impressionistic, like moments of fear illuminated by a flickering flame. The flames are literally light against the overwhelming darkness, and in the juxtaposition of eyes between the ronin and the security guard we can see hope flicker like a tiny torch constantly threatening extinguishment. It’s simply wonderful how the eyes in panels four and five echo each other, how we can see the terror of the discovery set against the revelation of the dialogue. For a moment it even seems like the glowing white dialogue boxes against the black backgrounds glow in the flicker of the flame.
This is art in ideal alignment with the story it’s telling. It’s the flash of innovative storytelling juxtaposed with the human story at its heart. The storytelling may provide the flash in this series, but the eyes of our leads give this story its sense of importance.
Yeah… but life and art just ain’t as simple and straightforward as we critics sometimes like to make it. In a gorgeous sequence, Miller delivers a moment so perfectly realized it brings tears to my eyes – not because of the peril to Casey but because the storytelling geek in me is so crazy about the effect Miller creates here. This is the scene that has haunted me since I read this book originally, one of the most brilliant bits of storytelling ever delivered in comics. (And a fascinating echo of that Daredevil issue I reference above).
If it wasn’t such an intense scene, this moment would almost feel like playful storytelling. It shows an artist comfortable enough with his work to revisit scenes and refit them with new thoughts. It’s not George Lucas revisiting Star Wars as much as a master storyteller revisiting tropes and approaches he loved with a new eye, playing with the forms of his chosen medium to deliver a spectacular and memorable scene.
Casey wakes up after the sewer-dwellers drag her into their hovel, which leads to the thrilling fight scene that includes the page above. It’s fascinating how Miller eschews the storytelling pyrotechnics here and emphasizes the battle. The eight-panel grid, in fact, channels Jack Kirby as much as it does Will Eisner. That of course is logical for a project like this, but it also gives the reader a nice grounding in the events. We feel comfortable amidst the chaos because the presentation makes us feel that way.
It’s also wonderful how Casey is shown to be a smart and intense fighter. She’s a warrior, with eyes (again the eyes!) that show her ready for a prolonged, nasty tussle. We see in the closeup in panel six that she is up for the fight and we sense she can win, no matter how naked and alone she feels. But her nakedness is not a sign of weakness. It unleashes her strength. At her core, Casey is a heroine, a warrior. No matter that her ronin springs into battle on the next page in a glorious and powerful reunion. She is her own person, with her own set of extremely powerful skills, and theirs is a love between equals. Thus when he poses in the final two panels, he seems more her fellow fighter than her metaphorical knight in shining armor.
Thus when the battle ends, the pair join as equals, hungry for each other because they have fight life and death battles to be together, because their love has spanned time and space, and they need each other in the ways that warriors need their equals, their counterparts, their true loves.
It’s a gorgeous sequence that mirrors the impotence Casey feels with her husband in Ronin #3, all jammed-together small panels. Where the earlier sequence feels frozen in time, more the memory of lost passion than the energy of new passion, this scene is the opposite. Intriguingly, it moves in a kind of stately rhythm: slow, subtle (I love clever bit with the sword, which feels classically Japanese) and passionate. Neither of them wants to rush their moment of intimacy. Neither wants to break their perfect rhythm. There’s a sense of savoring the moment to capture it forever in time.
Here is the heart of Ronin. The heart of this masterwork is not in itsstorytelling pyrotechnics, or the channeling of great cartoonists from around the world, nor even in the fascinating story of the Aquarius complex gaining sentience. The heart of Ronin, as I’ve said before, is in the eyes. It’s in the passion. It’s in an improbable love that spans centuries and transcends all boundaries.
Now that that love has been consummated, where will wild series go? Join me next week as I write about Ronin #5 and we will discover that answer together.