Art and script: Frank Miller
“If you find yourself on a cliffside, trapped, with a hungry tiger waiting above and a hungry tiger waiting below, and, by chance, you spy a single strawberry growing from the cliffside. Pluck the strawberry. And bite into it. And taste it. Our lives are as fragile and as brief as cherry blossoms. And as fragrant.”
So you’ve seen Sin City and 300. You’ve gone back and read Year One, Daredevil and the triumph of heroism and sacrifice that is The Dark Knight Returns. But before all of that came Ronin. If you haven’t read that then it’s still not time sit back to catch your breath!
It is surprising that Miller got away with this at all. Back in 1987 he was not yet the superstar writer that he would become as a result of Dark Knight. The comics industry was in decline. Creativity was not that much in evidence and the big publishers seemed afraid to take risks. Unless you could get your hands on Asian comics you would never have seen anything like this.
Ronin is wildly (and not always completely successfully) experimental. It is haunting and troublesome. The plot twists and screams, wrenching readers and characters from ancient Japan to near future America, swords and demons to organic computers and artificial intelligence. It’s certainly unique. It’s definitely intense. It’s maybe a bit confused, or at least confusing, and sometimes you think you might just be able to hearing something giving way under the strain. Ignore it, no pain no gain, right?
So, it’s sci-fi with Japanese demons is it? Well, yes, and even just taken on that level it’s a pretty spectacular story. But what Ronin is actually about is betrayal. As a consequence it’s also about loyalty, nobility, humanity and control.
The apocalyptic tone and thundering rhythms that have come to be a hallmark of Miller’s work are already building to a rumble. Never afraid to place tremendous demands on his characters Miller does not flinch as he tortures them, informed here by the great samurai traditions of the conflicts arising between duty and desire. There are also less abstract matters thrown in for discussion, uncomfortable questions about race, homelessness, corporate power and scientific responsibility
The story follows the titular Ronin as he hunts down the demon that assassinated his master, in order to exact vengeance, gain redemption and ultimately fulfil his destiny. It’s not that simple of course, for a start it involves a magic sword. Unable to defeat the demon in his own time he is reincarnated hundreds of years in the future into a New York disintegrating under some unspecified economic or social collapse, torn by violence and populated by mutants, monsters and madmen. Oh yes, and cannibals.
The supporting cast includes Mr Taggart, the founder of Aquarius Corporation, Casey McKenna, his head of security and her husband, Peter, the inventor of “biocircuitry” the invention that could save the world. Also, Billy Challas, a ward of the corporation who is being used to test cutting edge prosthetic limbs as he was born with none of his own. Billy seems to have telekinetic powers and has been having vivid dreams about a samurai and demon in ancient Japan. Alongside these humans, with concerns of its own, is Virgo the artificial intelligence at the heart of the Aquarius complex.
Yes, you may well think, "wow"!
This excitable fusion of genres extends to the artwork. A mad combination of styles stitches the graceful pen and ink of Goseki Kojima to the insanely compulsive detail of Geoff Darrow to produce something that is unmistakably Miller. In the space of a handful of pages he bounds through widescreen peaceful panoramic city-scapes, explosive violence covered in speed lines and full of abstracted manga-like ferocity, countless tiny tension inducing panels consisting of little more than captions and beautiful emotional close-ups. The angles and perspectives veer and lurch adding to the unsettling sensations of alienation and instability that are central to the story.
Every time you gasp at the art in his later work remember you saw it here first. More importantly, without this there probably would never have been a Dark Knight Returns.