The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom


Retcon Retrospective #2: Frank Miller’s Ronin

Written by: Ron Bricker

ImageCC2K’s Comics section presents to you our most in-depth weekly column, in which our daring writers tackle the most respected books, graphic novels, story arcs, singe issues, and series and discuss their effect on the comics industry, their influence on the medium and society, and much more. This week: Frank Miller’s Ronin.


This time around in the weekly retrospective, I wanted to take a look at one of my favorite stories; Frank Miller’s Ronin. Miller is responsible for a lot of titles you’ve probably heard of… stuff like Sin City, 300 and The Dark Knight Returns. The man is a damned genius in the world of comics, and I wanted to take this opportunity to look at the book in terms of quality, style and its upcoming movie adaptation.

Ronin is a story about a samurai whose master is murdered by a demon during the Edo period of Japan. This demon can only be killed by the blade once owned by the now departed master of the samurai. The blade must drink the blood of the innocent before it can vanquish the evil demon. Our hero kills the demon and is sealed away with the blade. But Ronin is about a whole hell of a lot more than a simple samurai out for revenge. See, Ronin takes place in a futurist New York City. Ravaged by poverty and cannibalism, the city’s heart is controlled by an epically large bio-computer birthed by a huge corporation. To make a long story short, this company’s head exec gets taken over by the demon from the past and the ronin from long ago comes back to finally have his vengeance. That’s our story, and Miller does an incredible job.

The tone of the book coincides, oddly enough, with the tone of most films coming out in the early 80’s (late 70’s). Sci-fi flicks like Blader Runner and Total Recall feel exactly like Ronin. Dirty, sweaty, steamy and gritty. The stories and the mood seem to hang over your imagination for some time when you experience these works. Ronin is no different.

But where this book really shines is in its style. Both artistically and semantically, Ronin was years ahead of its contemporaries. Miller’s writing is imaginative and edgy, which makes for a fantastic read. The art, though, the art is something truly special. While it may seem very weird at first, there is something to the rough, muddy, squiggly (yea, squiggly) lines spattered on every single panel of Ronin. Not every reader out there will be able to find anything too impressive in the, admittedly, confusing artwork within the spin of this story, but those that are able to move past the initial thought of unattractiveness will probably come to terms with the art for what it is. Every picture is flooded a level of complicity and dirtiness equal only to the city in which it takes place. Every person looks monstrous, just like their backdrop. To me, this is the best part about Ronin.

Image In fact, this is where I’m going to go out on a massive limb and attack the pants off of Watchmen. See, Ronin was a series that ran from 1983 to 1984, Watchmen ran from 1986 to 1987. People have claimed that Watchmen was the series that brought comics out of their nasty habit of reading like picture books. I know you’ve probably heard it from me before, but old comics suck. I said it man, and now what are you gonna do about it? Old comics are filled with unnecessary exposition and dialogue. Kinda like Chris Claremont, with old comics you have to sit through endless amounts dialogue describing every single event in the pictures. When a hero swings his sword, you have to read both about the speed at which he swung it and what he was thinking while he was doing so. You might even be lucky enough to get a nice omnipotent box in the corner telling you where the hero found his weapon. This, to me, is terrible. It makes reading those books a chore. Comics shouldn’t be a chore.

Back to Watchmen. I’m not here to deny the impressiveness of Alan Moore’s opus. In fact, I’ll even recognize Watchmen as the brilliant piece of literature so many have come to label it. I’ll recognize the title, but I won’t agree with it. People think that Watchmen is the book that brought comics out of the Golden and Silver ages. Well, people are wrong. Three years before hand, writers like Miller were putting out books like Ronin. Books that did away with unnecessary exposition and narration. Books like Ronin that made comics real. Ronin lead the way for Watchmen. It cleared the forest and made Moore’s work worth reading. I’m not here to tell you that Watchmen sucked. I’m here to tell you that Watchmen shouldn’t be viewed as the second coming. People put the book on such a pedestal that if you were to say that you didn’t like Watchmen at your local shop, you’d probably get berated and belittled.

Image And with absolutely no legitimate segway, I’d like to return to something that I mentioned back in my introduction… the Ronin movie. Riding the Sin City and 300 trains, WB looks to ring in at the box office with another Miller adaptation. Ronin (without much info on the net) is slated to release in 2009. While this news can’t be considered new by any means, it still relates to this article. In terms of style, Ronin seems like the perfect candidate to spoon feed to both sci-fi fans and fans of gratuitous violence. Sporting a samurai and a giant, self-aware computer, the story stands a great chance at being a box office slam dunk. Warner Bros. is banking on that, and who can blame them?

But this fan isn’t convinced, oh no. See, what made the comic so damn enjoyable was not the violence or the talking computer. It wasn’t the demons or the cannibalism, and it wasn’t the swordplay. No. Ronin stood out because of its texture. The book oozed off of its own pages and into my eyeballs. Like maggots on a rotting steak, the comic is figuratively teeming with visual oddities and extremities. Creatures unlike any mind has ever spewed forth grace every single page. And I don’t think a movie can come close to the artwork present in this one. The title simply cannot be recreated on film, and that’s where I stand.

So my recommendation comes in with urgency. Read the book before you see the movie. Seriously. I know people say that shit all the time, but I’m calling it right now: the book is better. You’ve got a year from the posting of this article. Read the fucking book and enjoy it, Miller says so.