Throwback Review: Frank Miller’s “Ronin” (DC Comics, 80s August Special)
Welcome back to 80s August, The Splintering’s month-long celebration of the greatest decade since the first seppuku!
Today we’re going to examine Ronin, a six-book miniseries by comic book legend Frank Miller and published by DC Comics in 1987.
Set in a bleak, alternate future (it has to be “alternate” because it references Soviets as contemporaneous to the story), Ronin tells the story of a disgraced samurai warrior and his sworn demonic enemy Agat, who are awakened from a centuries-long slumber trapped inside a magical sword. They both emerge more as spirits than corporeal beings, possessing the bodies of two powerful humans: the Ronin inhabiting the body of an armless, legless telekinetic named Billy, and Agat the corporate head of an enormous technology company known as Aquarius. The ronin/Billy creates mechanical appendages for himself, and the two enemies are separated following a massive explosion.
Unsurprisingly, the plot follows both the unnamed ronin and the demon as they prepare for their final showdown. Along the way, the ronin himself is caught up in gang wars, pursued by security forces, and subject to an oddly executed romantic subplot. On the other hand, Agat allies himself with a massive, nigh-omnipresent computer known as Virgo, and turns Aquarius’s manufacturing apparatus towards weapons and warfare (to turn against his hated enemy, of course).
If this sounds a little bit like Samurai Jack to you, you wouldn’t be the first to make that comparison. Other than the basic premise, however, Frank Miller’s Ronin and Genndy Tartakovsky’s animated series don’t share too many other similarities. Not only is Ronin far more adult-oriented, but there are other themes at play in the book while Samurai Jack relies more on fish-out-of-water moments to drive the narrative.
Ronin begins as a clash between magic and technology, where a world subject to technological rule is forced to come to terms with ancient magics in the form of Agat the demon and the ronin himself. By the last couple of issues, however, the story loses quite a bit of the magical fantasy and instead becomes more of a mind-bending science fiction tale. This thematic shift is just part of what makes for a less than satisfying conclusion, as the big “twists” at the end render some of the earlier plot points nonsensical (not to mention making the ronin himself seem infinitely less cool).
Artistically, plenty of Miller staples are present and used to great effect in Ronin, such as tight repeating panels, silhouettes, and grotesque detail. The page layouts are infused with astonishing variety, ranging from vertically organized action scenes reminiscent of classic Japanese artwork, and and artificially split images used to show passage of time or establish emotional distance between characters. There are multiple two-page splashes, however, which do little else but show a birds-eye view of the futuristic world, and these didn’t strike me as the best use of real estate given how frequently they appeared.
On pages with a lot of dialogue, there are some moments where its tough to follow who is speaking, and some visual differentiation would have helped (especially when the Virgo computer is speaking).
Overall, Ronin is not Frank Miller’s best work, but it probably still blew a few minds upon its original release in 1987. The ending doesn’t quite stick the landing for me, but Ronin is still a remarkably engrossing story with inspired page layouts and a truly creative premise. Even at its worst, it’s still pretty darn good.
Unless you are specifically not a fan of Frank Miller’s art style, I feel comfortable recommending Ronin to most comic book fans, particularly if you enjoy bizarre spins on the science fiction genre. On first read, the story is a bit tough to follow, so I highly recommend picking up all six issues or a trade paperback version (which is readily available) to read it in short order.
Thanks for reading!
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