Let us here at PoP! guide you through a minefield of books that seem full of win from the word go, but which once you crack them open have you shouting… It’s a Trap!
Written by Frank Miller
Art by Miller and Lynn Varley
Published by DC Comics
Frank Miller is one of my favorite comic book writers of all time. While I haven’t been quite as enamored with his more recent work, the comics that he wrote and/or drew during the eighties and the majority of the nineties are some of the most enjoyable comics I have ever read. His incorporation of noir style into mainstream comics helped the medium to develop and mature during this era, and he completely redefined established characters like Daredevil and Batman for generations to come. Recently, I was able to fill up one of my comic book blind spots when I read Miller’s celebrated graphic novel Ronin, originally published in 1983-84 as a six-issue miniseries by DC Comics. This book was advertised as a samurai tale told in a futuristic science fiction setting, which immediately piqued my interest. As I labored through it, I was less than satisfied with the way Miller blended the two genres and was unsure why this book is so well-regarded among many of his fans. While I wouldn’t call this an out and out failure, it definitely ranks near the bottom of Miller’s works in my eyes.
The story begins in feudal Japan, where a young samurai is charged with protecting his mentor against the attacks from a demon named Agat. After Agat kills his master, the samurai becomes a disgraced Ronin, which is a samurai without a master, and vows to take revenge on the demon. He soon tracks Agat down and kills him while sacrificing himself at the same time, thus preserving his honor.
The story then shifts to 21st Century New York, which has devolved into even more of a violent, crime-infested cesspool. The only real civilization is found within a large biodome made of a living metal and owned by the Aquarius corporation. The Aquarius employees and their families all live within the dome, which is powered by a central artificial intelligence entity named Virgo. The company’s aim is to use the living metal to improve the city, but they are under considerable pressure from a potential client to make weapons of mass destruction. Virgo works with a limbless psychic named Billy, who comes into contact with the Ronin’s sword and inadvertently causes an explosion that frees the spirits of both the Ronin and Agat that have been imprisoned in the sword. Billy soon awakens outside the Aquarius dome completely possessed by the spirit of the Ronin and sporting some new bionic limbs that he forced Virgo to create for him. Meanwhile, Agat takes possession of Aquarius’ owner, Dr. Taggart, and begins talks with their prospective clients about making weapons. Casey McKenna, Aquarius’ head of security, is charged with bringing Billy/Ronin in, while her husband, Dr. Peter McKenna, who invented the biocircuitry used by the company, begins to investigate why the company has changed its anti-war policy. When Casey comes into contact with the Ronin, she is quickly seduced by his hyper-masculinity and joins him in his quest to take down Agat, who now has Virgo on his side.
The plot of Ronin is way more intricate than is found in a typical Frank Miller tale, and it doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that sprawling, multi-character plots are not his strong suit. Miller is at his best when dealing with single protagonists, while his contemporary and rival Alan Moore is quite good at writing several interlocking subplots. Here, though, Miller just has too many balls in the air, and the constant shifting between these plots is quite jarring and doesn’t allow the reader to invest much in any of the characters. The dealbreaker for me, however, came near the end, where Miller reveals the true villain of the story and completely debunks much of what we thought this story was all about. I’m not against a story that takes a severe narrative turn as long as it’s done well, but here, I wasn’t that interested in the story in the first place, and the Shyamalanian “tweest” near the end just left me annoyed.
There is still a lot here for Miller fans to enjoy. His patented visual style is all over the book, with a handful of action scenes and splash pages that are truly gorgeous. The way the people outside of the dome are written and drawn, however, are almost embarrassingly caricatured to the point of almost being offensive. I know that good taste and subtlety are not Miller’s forte, but in this book, his patented “thug characters” seemed a bit out of place, as did the cannibalistic sub-dwellers that live in the sewers that only existed for the Ronin to hack to pieces and rescue Casey from.
Many of the themes and motifs explored in this comic were revisited and improved upon in some of Miller’s later works like The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City, and Hard Boiled, all of which are better and more satisfying reads. With Ronin, it seems like Miller is throwing all that he can at the reader, and unfortunately all of the elements presented here do not coalesce into a compelling narrative. While some believe this to be one of Miller’s more important titles, I consider Ronin to be at best an overly ambitious exercise in the kind of visceral, over-the-top storytelling that he would put to better use just a few years later. 2.5 out of 5 Topless Nazi Chicks.