Welcome to the latest chapter of my look at Frank Miller’s Ronin. This week I look at the penultimate issue, Ronin #5.
For the introduction, click here.
For a look at Ronin #1, click here.
For a look at Ronin #2, click here.
For a look at Ronin #3, click here.
For a look at Ronin #4, click here.
As Frank Miller’s Ronin draws towards its conclusion, issue #5 gives readers some intriguing answers, asks some even more intriguing questions and delivers powerful storytelling that implants the events of this issue squarely in the minds of readers. It’s an issue of miracles and of technology, of great fierceness, and catastrophic defeat. Most of all, Ronin continues to show the depths of passion of its main characters.
You might recall that last issue found our ronin and his beloved Casey escaping from horrible sewer-dwellers. In those events, we saw the immense power and confidence of both characters, as well as the intense bond building between them. Ronin #4 ends with the couple consummating their love. Just as importantly, that issue also ends with the pair seeing each other as equals, a couple whose shared experiences and immense skills bond them in a deep way.
Ronin #5 begins shortly after the previous issue, with the couple on a rooftop in post-apocalyptic New York. Somehow, as the issue begins, we learn that a miracle has occurred. “Snow. But it hasn’t snowed in five years,” Casey says. To which the ronin gives the cryptic answer “we have escaped the castle of your enemy.” This is a lovely scene, underlined by Miller’s empathetic artwork, Lynn Varley’s warm coloring and the deep and searching eyes of the man and woman. But it’s also a spooky scene, a moment when the reader has no grounding, no ability to know what to expect.
We share the same confusion Casey expresses in panel four. The miracle of the snow is beautiful but why is it happening? What is causing this strange event? Is the snow intended to be a metaphor for the couple’s passion, or symbolic of the pureness of their love set against the grime of the city, or meant to be taken literally – or are all of those interpretations true? As the rest of the issue demonstrates, nearly all possibilities are reasonable. Since this issue reveals the truths about both the ronin and his animating force Billy, we will see the possible truth that causes this amazing event.
Page five sums up the situation beautifully: as the couple make love next to the passionate flames of the fire, with the snow falling, their characters and alluded to in a lovely manner. The ronin is acting strangely. The couple are still in the middle of the devastated city. And the forces of Virgo, implied by the green gelatinous blobs at the bottom of the page, are encroaching on their paradise. In the absence of a recap page, this early sequence sets up the story in a way both new and returning readers can easily understand and feel invested in.
We quickly end up back inside Aquarius, where several different actors are vying to achieve their goals. The page above gives a nice summary of the events. Taggart, the megalomaniac, is the reincarnation of the demonic enemy of our ronin. He sees Billy, the spirit inside the ronin, as the true enemy. There’s an element here of the ancient Japanese and modern American spirits merging inside both characters as this issue proceeds, an element that will become explosively clear later this issue.
Virgo, the living computer at the heart of the Aquarius Complex that is the cause of the living green gelatinous blobs, is following its own plans. Dr. Learnid and his companions are working to bring down Aquarius. Added to everything else, Taggart is anxious to sell the weapons Virgo created to the villainous Sawa Corporation.
All this plot is a bit much for the issue, with a few too many storylines vying for a bit too little space. Miller has perhaps taken on more plot than he needed to in order to present his complex tale. At times it seems certain ideas get short shrift in his ambitious take on delivering his world. Miller was, after all, his own editor on the project and had nearly unchecked artistic freedom from DC Comics. Like much else with Ronin, Miller’s writing ambitious outstripped his abilities. He took on more than he could really handle. The plotlines get confusing, but it’s fun to see him try to juggle all these balls at once.
The second half of this issue is nearly all action, as all the events from before come to a head, but we get one more moment of calm (in the page above) before the issue explodes. Miller’s slashing line work is a delight. The depiction of the ronin’s hair in panel two implies speed and motion in a series of thick lines, while the horse hoof in panel three is nearly abstract but shows the speed of the couple’s travel.
Varley’s coloring in panel one stands out on this page. Of course this sort of painterly coloring effect is normal these days, but in 1984 such scenes were extremely uncommon, seen only in upscale comics magazines like Heavy Metal and in the kinds of European graphic novels Miller used as references for this series. It wasn’t easy to create such effects. Nor was it easy to reproduce those effects on the page. This tiny moment represents part of the revolution that Ronin represented in its time: complete artistic freedom, upscale paper and the best color separations. No matter the story’s flaws, it was an important precursor for modern comics.
As the story pauses for one quick moment, we also watch Casey finally ask the important questions. This story would have been deeper and smarter if Miller had Casey voice concerns before this crucial moment, but her questions at this point smartly set up the key action scene that quickly follows.
Because as we flip the page, we once again are taken to a strange mix of old Japan and futuristic New York. Miller depicts a scene that could be taken from a classic samurai film, with the nearly abstract figures against the white background representing nameless, faceless enemies that must be exterminated. Though they talk, those enemies are nearly anonymous. Thus killing them is as weightless and transparent as the background of the scene above. They live in a haze of distance, which also means they are in a haze of reality.
Are these creatures as real as they seem?
Can I say the answer is both yes and no?
The warriors shoot the ronin through his arm, and as we see the green oozy substance flow from it, revelations spill out. The warriors’ arrow turns from wooden to Virgo-created. The green gelatinous glow reminds us of the spark of light shown earlier this issue. The battle we have been seeing has all been a subjective view, created by the psychokinetic Billy Challas. In this moment everything changes, and this book begins its pivot towards its explosive conclusion.
In panel one of this page, the ronin declares Casey a samurai, a rare honor for a woman. In the final triptych of panels on this page, we see her horrified reaction to the destruction of Billy. Her “oh my god” seems suspended in space, a feeling like we are reading her thoughts in the devastation of the moment. That tiny sequence is Miller’s “fence post” method of suspending time driven to its highest level, a nearly seamless way of drawing out her shock and pain.
As the camera pulls back on the next two-page spread, we see that the warriors have in fact been robots created by Aquarius. In fact, we learn in that spread that the ronin is actually an android, a creature that “malfunctioned during a field test” as Taggart declares to the Sawa investors. Further, the ronin was created in the likeness of a famous warrior from Japanese history. We are left to wonder: was any of this real? Has the entire story of the ronin and evil spirit all an elaborate fiction? If so, then, who took over Taggart’s body? As one mystery is revealed, another grows deeper.
Things begin to fall apart as they come together. The truth seems to diminish our warrior, and as the Aquarius robots carve off the ronin’s limbs, they diminish him literally as well. He is returned to the body of the armless, legless child Billy Challas, a boy with a terrible trauma in his past…
Set against a black border, this moment has a galvanizing effect. We feel the power of Billy’s abilities and the pain o the hell his amazing abilities have caused. It’s intriguing that we never see Billy’s face in these scenes, just the static face of the ronin android looking like a plastic Halloween mask. In the checkerboard design of the eight-panel page, we can see the past and present start to collide.
It’s striking how close this comes to a classic super-hero origin page. Miller was a lifelong comics fan and he obviously read dozens of origins of characters who can’t control their powers. In some ways Billy Challas is just another mutant, as standard to comics as Jean Grey or Logan, whose amazing abilities give him great abilities, great joy and overwhelming pain. It’s striking how Miller plays this scene straight, with no hint of irony or reflection on heroic tropes, but also can’t resist having the mask play a central role. Rather than being a pastiche, this scene is more a statement that Miller will use the tropes of super-hero comics and move them in unexpected directions.
On the next page, we get a panel of young Billy apologizing, with the words first coming from the boy’s mouth and then next coming from the ronin mask.
A two-page sequence in Aquarius sets the scene for the dramatic moment that will soon follow, and gives the reader more context on Billy’s amazing powers. “It’s like some sick joke!” as one character declares, and the climax of this issue shows the impact of Billy’s dream state and powers. He has his android simply stand back up by pulling his decapitated arms and legs back to his body, and ronin/android/Billy is ready once again for battle.
Billy is gassed and Casey seems crushed by a collapsing subway tunnel, but the most intense revelation of this issue comes on the following page…
What does that moment mean? How real is the ronin? Will Sawa win? Will the love between Billy and Casey span time or is it the product of their bizarre shared experiences? And most importantly, can the auteur Frank Miller possibly deliver a final issue that resolves all these plotlines he’s set up? Be back next week as we wrap up this series with a bang.