by Frank Miller (DC Comics, 1987)

Back in the days when I was collecting comics, when Marvel was a name that still meant something, Jack "King" Kirby was still alive (yes, I'm that old), and the X-Men title was still just a metaphor and not a marketing frenzy, I remember certain names to whom one could look for consistent, intelligent, meaningful, quality work. Some of those names: Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Alan Moore, Berni Wrightson, Kirby and, perhaps the best of them, Frank Miller. In much the same way as Moore's Watchmen did, Miller's The Dark Knight Returns took established ideas (and in Miller's case, established characters), then deconstructed them and put them together in completely new ways. Miller gained a lot of renown for Dark Knight ... but before that there was Ronin, which established the already-respected writer/artist as a force to be truly reckoned with.

Ronin, at first glance, is a science-fiction/fantasy tale of magic, demons, masterless samurai, artificial intelligence and biotechnology ... but first glances, especially where Miller's work is concerned, can fool you. Once you learn to look past the surface (and the fact that there is anything beyond the surface is itself a major triumph in comic art), you find in Ronin a story of incredible richness and subtlety, full of wicked humor, three-dimensional characters and action scenes so intelligently, sensitively delineated they are breathtaking.

The story itself is as full of twists and turns as the best science-fiction novels; it takes the overused "mad computer" concept and runs with it, bringing some fascinating changes with it at almost every step of the way. All of this is so far beyond even Miller's own highly mature work on Daredevil and Elektra: Assassin, that it is unsurprising to me that it is not to some readers' tastes -- readers of the type who want their comics to be ice cream instead of a gourmet meal, if you ask me.

Ronin succeeds on many levels, starting with the artwork. Miller is well-known for his fascination with the two very different worlds of hard-boiled crime stories a la Raymond Chandler, and of the Japanese middle ages (the era of warlords, samurai and ronin); this work is one of his earliest attempts to fuse those worlds together. The results are incredible, from the dirty, rubble-strewn street scenes and overhead city drawings beclouded with smog, to the above-mentioned action sequences of Miller's nameless Ronin in action; the fighting is so cleanly rendered, the participants become, in Miller's own words, "human motion lines," and the effect is memorable; I can sit here and recall any of dozens of panels in Ronin that are prime examples of what I mean. One of the best sequences is that of the Ronin and Casey McKenna doing battle with Agat's minions in the snow; the moment is worthy of Akira Kurosawa's samurai epics.

Then there are the characters. Miller has never subscribed to the notion of comic characters being, in the memorable words of Alan Moore, "muscle-bound oafs uttering muscle-bound dialogue while attempting to dismember one another." Perhaps nowhere in Miller's work is that ethic as strongly embodied as it is by one character in particular, of Security Chief Casey McKenna. Casey is an intelligent, adult human being, full of faults and foibles like all real people. Her relationship with her husband, in fact, is very telling. The very adult moments between them, even as sensitively handled as they were, caused a sensation -- nobody in comics had ever dealt in such mature notions, and it was galvanizing. Casey's relationship with the Ronin, misleading as it is at first, is also handled in an extremely mature and intelligent fashion -- particularly the moment when Casey realizes that in order for the madness to end, she has to "break the myth." Miller has a gift for character, as well as for dialogue -- that cannot be understated. It is one of the main reasons his work succeeds where that of so many other so-called "auteurs" in the field (Todd McFarlane springs immediately to mind) fails miserably.

One final aspect of Ronin I'd like to mention is its ambiguity, its refusal to be simplistic and one-dimensional. Miller knows that good and evil are highly subjective terms, and refuses to make judgments or paint simple pictures. Characters who at first glance seem evil, become good; other characters who are at first shown as good are later revealed as something else entirely. Others sit on the fence for almost the entire story, and their true natures are not revealed until the endgame. More than anything else, this indicates that Miller is working on a completely different level from most of his contemporaries, and it is a huge reason Ronin works as well as it does.

The story ends on such an uncertain, haunting note, it will stay with you for a long time to come. This so-called "lack of resolution" has led some to say Miller's story was muddled -- wrong. It was very well-thought-out ... think about it: How many things in your life ever ended with the clarity of a movie or comic book? Miller's awareness of this makes the end of Ronin extremely powerful. You draw your own conclusions, make up your own ending based on what he's already told you, use your imagination rather than let Miller imagine everything for you. For that reason alone, Ronin is far more than a comic book; it is indeed a graphic novel, and I use the word novel here in its best sense, as I would use it to describe a work of prose. Miller and Ronin are both that good.

review by
Jay Whelan

6 November 2010

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