Welcome to the final chapter of my looks at Frank Miller’s classic series Ronin
For the introduction, click here.
For a look at issue one, click here.
For a look at issue two, click here.
For a look at issue three, click here.
For a look at issue four, click here.
For a look at issue five, click here.
The cover of Ronin #6 is almost completely black. The only images on the cover are two people. They are a ronin committing suppuko and his second, who is ready to cut off the ronin’s head.
It’s hard to not see the cover as symbolic of this mini-series as a whole. As I discussed in my introduction to this series, Ronin as a project was a tremendous leap of faith, a major step away from Frank Miller’s comfort zone and therefore is a creation unlike anything that appeared in comics before.
Ronin was sui generis, unique and completely its own thing. At the time he created this oddball, astonishing comic, writer/artist/editor/auteur Miller was the most popular man in comics, riding high on the overwhelming success of his Daredevil and with absolute freedom to choose his next project. Instead of playing it safe, however, Miller created one of the oddest, most opaque comics ever created by a major mainstream creator.
There is literally no precedent in comics for a work like Ronin. There is no other example in which the most popular artist in comics takes a huge leap of faith and chooses to face the abyss of fan apathy for a project very different from what anybody could have expected. The fan market was relatively small back in 1984, and fickle. A work that was dramatically outside the norm was a tremendous risk both for creator and publisher.
Ronin was a failure.
It pains me to write those words because I love the book, but the original comics sold abysmally when first released. Longtime Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Jim Shooter asserts that distributor Bud Plant over-ordered so much on Ronin #6 that Plant sold his extra copies as cord wood.
Like a great warrior facing a great defeat, it could be perceived that Miller was committing suppuko to his career with Ronin.
Of course, the cover also illustrates a key scene inside the issue, so it can also easily be read just as a nice tease for events that will happen further on.
As the page above reminds us, Ronin #5 ended with all hell breaking loose. The truth had begun to be revealed about our ronin and all the glorious adventure in that chapter told the story of an angry boy with amazing powers who is indulging his adolescent fantasies.
Billy Challas was a troubled boy, born without arms or legs but with astonishing psychic powers. Billy accidentally killed his sister when his powers began manifesting themselves, which left the young boy with a deep trauma that the people of the amazing Aquarius Corporation worked to exploit in order to help develop the sentient computer Virgo. As we learned in Ronin #5, Billy created an elaborate fantasy based on a favorite TV show from his childhood. That show, apparently imported from Japan much like the Lone Wolf and Cub films and comics that inspired Miller on this project, involved a masterless samurai hunted by a demon.
Much of Ronin revolves around the imaginary world Billy creates: the amazingly powered and steadfast body he creates for himself; the ecstatic halo of control he exerts on the world; and the strange ways he manipulates reality to match his fantasies. Billy is the ultimate super-powered mutant, the true fanboy living out his fantasy, the boy attempting to control his external surroundings in an attempt to become a man.
Thus the themes of this comic can also be seen as symbolic of Miller’s reading audience. Billy Challas is a socially inept young man who lives a cloistered life in which his fantasies gain free reign. He sincerely believes that if he changes himself into a hero he admires, he will become free, gain world-changing abilities, and (of course) win the undying love of the beautiful woman he adores. He’s not a bad guy once you get past the surface. Billy lives much of his life inside his own head, creating a false reality. The only real difference between him and many comic fans is that Challas’s fantasies can become real.
We can see Billy as the ultimate wish fulfillment character come to life on the page. In some ways readers can identify themselves like the character because his emotional resonance reminds us of ourselves. But at the same time Miller takes pains to distance us from his story. His innovative art style gives readers an unconventional view of the characters, his omission of word balloons and captions – rare for the time — removes our objective view of events, and his use of dialogue is deliberately oblique. This was a unique reading experience in 1984, and it’s unique in different ways today.
Ronin #6 begins with a scene that shows a woman bent on revenge. Casey is taunted by Virgo, which has its spirit channeled through the disembodied head of a false demon. The head looks like a statue and electronic device at the same time, “It’s the ronin who’s doing things to you. Making you see things – feel things all wrong.” He tries to seduce Casey to his side: “Come to your senses, girl. You don’t really think I’m your enemy, do you?” When Casey replies, “I’m coming for him – and I’m coming for you” it’s clear from her empathetic eyes that she feels great love for the ronin and great anger at Agat’s forces.This lovely page sets the scene for everything that will follow. The latter half of Ronin #5 was very much about the mystery of how Casey will handle the revelations about Billy/ronin. By issue six, the eyes in panel six above telegraph she’s already made up her mind. She’s at peace with the fact she has committed to Billy. After all, love, no matter how strange, conquers all.
The setup for the page also sets up her dilemma beautifully. Panel one shows us Casey is literally boxed in by the city around her. We see abstract destroyed rebar or columns that imply rather than show Casey’s limited horizons. Her decisions have made her future well-defined. She has boxed herself in, but she is front and center in her decisions. She is guarded, but as always Casey’s eyes betray her thoughts. Casey is a warrior. She knows what is important to her, and she is ready to fight.
And though she knows how futile the experience is, how ridiculous her love must be, Casey follows her heart. The demon Agat knows Casey is closing in on him. Even as he talks a big fight (on page 12, not scanned for this article, he says “I must thank you, Virgo. You have delivered him to me. And now I shall toy with him… until that final, exquisite moment of his death…”), Agat has to know on some level that he has been defeated.
It’s fascinating on the page above how hard Agat works to persuade Casey, and how she is completely silent in the face of his declarations. He’s seductive and kind, appeals to her intellect and her heart, and even lectures her, “you should have stayed away, Casey. You really should have.”
Notice how Casey’s clothing switches back and forth in the scene, how she appears futuristic at one moment, classical the next. Is this an attempt to show the difference between her perceptions of herself and the outward reality or to literally show the flickering between fantasy and reality? As he did in the previous issue, Miller plays the whole thing vaguely, but I prefer to believe he was attempting to show Casey’s interior/exterior dichotomy, building up tension inside the reader as we attempt to make sense of the experience Casey is having. Events seem vague, fuzzy, unfocused, and the art shows that hazy nature of reality. This puts the reader on edge, and the blurry final two panels on this page drive the idea of unfixedness home to us.
After Agat temporarily hurts Casey, she manages to turn out the lights and flee from the villain. That gives us a moment to pause with a sequence of scenes that include the page above, and it puts things in a different light. Agat/Taggart hasn’t been in charge at all, or more to the point he isn’t as in charge of events as he believes he is. “You play your part, Mr. Taggart,” Virgo declares, and readers quickly understand that much of what we’ve seen so far is a sideshow, or perhaps an experiment (“our guest… amazing, isn’t he? Capable of even more than I myself expected”).
This tight sixteen-panel grid contains intense action and enough psychological complexity to spawn a whole other article about this issue. We also start to get an implication that Billy’s powers are ultimately limited, that at some point he will be broken as a rebel and emerge as a well-mannered servant.
Once again Miller returns to the eyes in this scene. The focus is on perception, on how Billy sees the world. “I can see it in your eyes,” Agat says. The page starts by zooming out from a close up of an eye and ends by zooming in on a close up of an eye, and in between, Billy spits in Agat’s eye because Agat threatens his eyes. Miller could hardly be more explicit about how important eyes, the portals to the soul, are to his narrative here.
And as Casey moves through the darkened Aquarius, fleeing from Virgo, she finds herself back at the apartment she shared with her husband Peter. Earlier on in the series, we watched the pair try to have a romantic moment together but discovered that both Peter and Casey no longer felt that passion for each other. The crisis with Virgo and Billy, however, has brought them more into alignment. Peter will haunt Casey later in this issue as well.
No matter the state of their marriage, the couple still has intimacy with each other. Each can tell the other the truths the other one doesn’t want to hear. So Peter unloads the truth onto Casey. “It’s the ronin, too. He’s… he’s not real…” and “Billy must be freed. His power… only chance you have.” As Miller’s viewpoint into the character keeps shifting and changing as we watch him, as Peter’s eyes show the deep, passionate truth he is delivering, Casey begins to understand the real truth behind what her husband is telling her.
Billy is both Casey’s savior and the greatest liar she will ever meet. He is using her for his own ends, but he truly loves her. His fantasy is bizarre and almost dehumanizing but it’s the only chance for her to defeat Virgo. Miller plays with dichotomies and balances here, delivering a scene that shows the paradoxically simple choice that all the dichotomies lead her to embrace. Only the man Casey loves can give her this truth that is so based on lies.
Before she has a chance to think about her next action, though, Peter is attacked and hurt badly by Virgo. In her moment of grief, Casey is weak, and our villains exploit that with a vicious attack. But Billy is once again at the center of the action. Shown just as disembodied word balloons floating against a sea of black, we watch Billy’s juvenile reactions. The odd geometric shapes that represent Billy grow from panel to panel on the fourth tier on this page, as the word balloons also expand… but for the moment the situation is diffused.
Lights come back on, everyone is safe, and Agat has a moment to monologue: “Let us just say that the ronin is only as healthy as what keeps him here” [embedded in a prison]. In a pose reminiscent of The Thinker, Agat professes a plan to his servant, even as we watch Casey flee and Billy protest. Things seem desperate, dark and uncontrollable.
Until we get to the revelations on the page below.
Thus we discover that much of this story has been a feint. The villain who we thought was the villain is in fact a dupe. The true evil of the story is the computer, not the man. Billy, our erstwhile hero, is actually a victim or maybe simply a plaything. The story was never really about Billy and Casey, we are told. Instead it’s about the ways technology wants to destroy the world.
Has the technology been perverted by Agat’s schemes or has Agat been merely another actor in the strange events? Is there a cautionary tale at the center of this story or is the cautionary tale merely another head fake away from the love story at this comic’s heart?
This question is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this series and also the reason why Miller’s mysterious project was so maligned. Readers aren’t given a safe answer or a battle to hang onto. In this final issue we get no scene like Batman riding in on his white horse in Dark Knight Returns or Matt Murdock avenging Elektra in Daredevil. This story is purposefully vague. And if you disagree with me, if you think the page above spells everything out, you’re not thinking of this issue’s astonishing ending. Hold tight, I’m almost there.
All good stories need to end with a bang, so we get the beginning of a classic countdown… and in a thrilling moment Casey slays Agat, only to reveal he is a cybernetic creature as well. She has learned from the experiences she has been through. Casey has become stronger for all her manipulation and battles. She has become cunning, vicious. She has become amazingly emotionally strong.
In a stunning moment of turnabout, she demands Billy commit seppuku. What do we make of this in the moment? Why would she do this? Why does she look so cunning on tier two?
The answer, we soon discover, comes from the idea that only by ending the fiction of his corporeal life can Billy ever become free. The body that has been holding him back must be slain so he can become the man he has always aspired to become. As the voice of Billy’s mom echoes taunts in his head, Casey cuts off that head as our hero’s second. That frees all of Billy’s astonishing mutant energy. For a heady moment he contracts inside himself.
Then a mighty, orgasmic moment of release spans an incredible four-page spread that unfortunately is too large for my scanner. All of Aquarius explodes in a bombastic explosion that ends the tale with a ludicrously large climax. As the dust settles and Miller zooms in on Casey’s face, we follow her eyes and see…
And here the comic ends, in a moment of true ambiguity.
Fans have debated this final page since Ronin #6 first appeared, and I’ve spent a good amount of time considering it myself. My take is that this final page represents a logical conclusion of the meta-story Miller has been telling. It represents a choice that Billy and Casey make, to embrace the reality of who they aspire to become over the truth of who they are. It represents the power of hope, of the idea of transcendence, of the importance of change in one’s life.
It also represents the idea that love can change people, literally in this case. It tells us that love is the gateway through which we can become more ourselves or perhaps a truer version of ourselves. It also shows that no matter the devastation that is created by that passion, it will always transcend.
We can even take that literally, as a note to Miller’s then-girlfriend Lynn Varley, who he took away from fellow artist Trevor Von Eeden. That breakup was tough on Von Eeden even when I spoke to him several years ago, and it’s easy to imagine passions going nearly out of control.
It’s intriguing to read this ending, and in fact this whole mini-series, also as kind of parable for Miller declaring his independence. In some ways, this whole project is an analog for a man who follows his dreams and fights to maintain his integrity even while all forces are arrayed against him. His analog way of creating comics is always in conflict with the plastic means of creating corporate comics. In that scenario, he’s the rebellious, amazingly-powered mutant who can create and destroy worlds while being attacked by forces that hate or don’t understand him. It’s easy to see Miller as a ronin, as a man without a master. His time at Marvel was ultimately disappointing or like another death, so he had to move on from his former master and become his own man.
Whatever the subtexts, I’ve discovered over these last two months that Ronin is an amazing work of comics art. It’s a culmination project, a work that shows all the growth and maturity Frank Miller achieved by 1983. It exhibits dizzying technical achievement and an astonishingly innovative approach to storytelling. It demonstrates Miller’s roving eye for new stories, new approaches and new characters. It shows a questing artist looking to deliver work that is vitally important to him. It represents the climax of the astonishing first phase of his career.
In the end, though, my most abiding memories of this reread will be of ambiguity. How much of this story is real and how much is imagined? If Billy created the world of the ronin from his imagination, does it make that world less real than the so-called real world? If Agat and the ronin were mainly remembered as children’s characters, does that insult them and make them seem shallow despite their strongly emphasized emotions?
As I struggle to answer those questions, my thoughts turn back once again to the way Miller draws eyes in this comic. The eyes are key to everything. We can see deep inside people in the eyes Miller draws. Those eyes tell us that these moments are real. They are important. They are transcendent. They may not be real in the sense that they are corporeal, but they are as real as our emotions. They are as real as our anger, our fear and, most of all, they are true of our love.
In the end, Ronin is a love story about a pair of very different people who transcend their lives through a grand adventure. All the ambiguity that comes along with it just makes this story even more wonderful.