Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Frank Miller's Ronin

Frank Miller's Ronin

By 1983, Frank Miller's work on Daredevil had garnered him sufficient praise and standing in the comics industry for him to be able to do a so-called creator-owned property for DC. 

'Frank Miller's Ronin' was issued as a six-issue series, starting in July, 1983, and appearing more or less bimonthly until August, 1984. This 1987 graphic novel compiles all six issues (unfortunately, however, the covers of the individual comics are not reproduced) and features an introduction by Jeff Rovin.

The setting: New York City ca. 2030, a wasteland inhabited by ultraviolent street gangs and under-city cannibals straight out of Escape from New York

Despite the city's horrible condition, the Aquarius corporation has nonetheless erected an enormous facility in the midst of this wasteland; within the facility, 'biocircuitry' has been engineered to create a sentient computer entity known as Virgo.

An armless and legless young man named Billy Challas serves as the main programmer / controller for Virgo, by virtue of his telekinetic abilities.

As the novel opens, in medieval Japan, the nameless ronin of the book's title is engaged in a death match with a demon named Agat; the ronin seeks vengeance, for Agat had killed his master.

Agat contrives to teleport both himself, and the ronin, to the far future - the New York City of Aquarius corporation. There, Agat uses his shapeshifting ability to take over the identity of Taggert, the corporate director for Aquarius.

The ronin finds himself alone and weaponless in the streets of the city; through some metamorphosis, part of Billy Challas's personality has merged with his own.

As 'Frank MIller's Ronin' unfolds, the ronin embarks on a hazardous, often violent journey through the unlikely hell of modern New York City, his goal: to find and kill Agat. The demon, for his part, unleashes the Aquarius security chief - a woman named Casey McKenna - to hunt down an eliminate the ronin.

But as the ronin leaves a trail of death and mayhem among the city's underworld, McKenna comes to question her mission, and the changes being made to the Aquarius corporation by a suddenly mercenary and amoral Taggert. Soon McKenna will have to make a choice: ally with the ronin, or her employer......

'Frank MIller's Ronin' mixes and matches a healthy quantity of early 80s sci-fi and pop culture tropes and themes. As I already mentioned, its vision of New York City is influenced by Escape from New York. There also are prominent elements of what at that time was the brand-new genre of cyberpunk. As well, the early 80s interest in all things Japanese finds an outlet in the character of the ronin himself.

In my opinion, 'Ronin' has not aged well. Much of this is due to the fact that Miller simply isn't a very accomplished draftsman. As with his other comics, 'Ronin' relies on a wide range of visual contrivances to direct attention from this fact......the use of unconventional panel configurations, unusual coloring schemes, multiple points of view within the same sequence of panels, as well as the elimination of all but a few sound effects. Other comic book staples - swoosh marks, external narration, thought balloons- are jettisoned.

In the absence of such staples, reading 'Ronin' can be tedious at times, particularly when Miller's artwork is so figurative that one cannot make out what, exactly, is going on. Too many times, in the absence of well-delinated artwork and external narration, the plot momentarily lapses into incoherence.

Modern readers are going to find Ronin's coloring scheme rather weak; the color printing of mainstream comic books of the early 80s simply isn't very good compared to what is now achievable with computer-aided composition and coloring.

'Frank Miller's Ronin' may be worth searching out if you are someone dedicated to comics of the early 80s, or are simply curious about Miller's initial forays into the medium, forays that since have led to his highly influential position in the comic book world of today. Anyone else will probably want to pass on this compilation.

1 comment:

Edo Bosnar said...

"Hasn't aged well..." Personally, I never thought all that much of this when it came out back in the '80s (and everybody else seemed to be falling all over themselves to heap praise upon it).