It’s 1983 and you’re fresh off a break-out run on Daredevil and an acclaimed Wolverine miniseries. Everyone wants you to revolutionize their books like you did Daredevil. What do you do? If you’re Frank Miller, the answer is to produce Ronin, a deeply weird samurai/sci-fi/cyberpunk love story, with DC Comics.
I’m convinced that, as a career milestone, Ronin may be more important than Daredevil. It was composed of ideas that were completely Miller’s, rather than derived from the minds of Stan Lee, Bill Everett, Chris Claremont, or Len Wein. While Miller clearly had a large amount of freedom on Daredevil, it remained a Marvel comic and had to conform to those standards. Miller has said he never had censorship trouble on Daredevil, barring a brief spat with the Comics Code Authority that resulted in an anti-drug issues being shelved for a couple years. Other than that, he described his time on the project as fairly painless, due in part to his relationship with his editor and Jim Shooter.
So, what does Miller do when he can cut loose without worrying about ruining someone else’s copyright? He does something very, very weird, and yet undeniably Frank Miller. While it is interesting to read, the most interesting aspect of the book is how it serves almost as a blueprint, or at least loose notes, for Miller’s later work.
There is a kernel of the woman worship that informs much of his Sin City work lurking in the subtext of Ronin. Casey McKenna, head of security for the megacorp that provides much of the drama for the book, is cast from the same mold as Gail, Martha Washington, and even Carrie Kelly. She becomes the object of the ronin’s quest, desire, and obsession partway through the book, after he spent the series being pointedly chaste. Casey fulfills a fantasy that the ronin has of heroism and love. This is a familiar fantasy and one that is echoed throughout Miller’s body of work, whether via Goldie from Sin City: The Hard Goodbye, Ava from Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, or even little Nancy Callahan from Sin City: That Yellow Bastard.
Miller’s also known for putting his heroes through their paces, above and beyond what normal heroes go through. His heroes go through their own personalized passion plays, and always with gritted teeth, stoic expressions, and muttered threats of revenge. While the ronin is mostly mute, he takes punishment like a champ, always rising above his pain to destroy those who hurt him. Sometimes this means coming back from a traditional beating, and sometimes, the ronin finds himself with several limbs missing.
Despite his intimate relationship with violence, the ronin has a very specific code of honor and seeks to do right by everyone he can. There are lines he won’t cross, and when he is tricked into using a racial slur to provoke a fight, his first move is to apologize. When that apology is rejected, he severs the man’s hands. When Casey is sent under the streets to be killed, he risks his life to go and rescue her.
Several other common Miller tropes and themes appear in Ronin. Miller’s strange, stylized use of the swasitka (seen on Bruno in Dark Knight Returns, various characters in the Sin City books, and I believe once or twice in the Martha Washington saga) appears here, seen on a mohawked and pierced black female, in addition to a group of Neo-Nazis. There is a clear distrust of corporations and organized religion in the story of Ronin, as well. A nun appears early on, and she refuses to give the ronin any aid, not to mention the demon-possessed CEO.
The weirdest part of Ronin is Miller’s art. It’s Miller by way of Moebius, for lack of a better description– odd shapes and textures litter the book, giving it a look that is almost entirely unexpected. It doesn’t look like any Sin City volume, which was appealingly ugly at times, or 300 or even Dark Knight Strikes Again. The technology at the heart of Ronin is organic in nature, and it shows in the art. Everything is rounded, but oblong and irregular. The figures and faces are classic Miller, but the clothes and their texture is rougher and ugly, with thick lines sometimes being the only thing that provides definition. Lynn Varley’s colors overload on a sickly pale green, as well, making the book even odder to look at. It looks like a sci-fi tale as told by a guy in a dive bar, with all the shiny bits sanded down and glowing consoles left muddy and unclear.
Nothing in Miller’s bibliography looks quite like Ronin, but he clearly learned a lot from his time on the series. His next major work as writer and artist was 1986’s Dark Knight Returns, and it was considerably more visually appealing, perhaps due to the influence of Klaus Janson. Despite that, you can see hints of Ronin‘s visual roughness in DKR. It’s in Selina Kyle’s face after she’s been beaten, the president’s face, the rumble in the junkyard, Alfred’s wrinkles, and the fight between Superman and Batman.
Daredevil was where Miller made his name and his rep. Ronin was where he pushed himself, possibly reaching beyond his grasp, and also showed glimpses of what he would eventually embrace wholeheartedly. In the five or six years between Ronin and Give Me Liberty, Miller mainly worked on corporate comics or one-offs in charity books or indies. Once Give Me Liberty and Hard Boiled hit, though, he embraced the dystopian sci-fi that he toyed with in Ronin. Hard Boiled and Sin City brought back leads with singularly focused minds and superhuman endurance. 300‘s series of spreads brings to mind both the pages dedicated to just illustrating the city in Ronin and the proto-widescreen storytelling Miller indulged in. That six-page fold-out in All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder? The end of Ronin has a four-page fold-out of an explosion.
Ronin is to Frank Miller what Zenith is to Grant Morrison. Both works function as something like a rough draft for their later work, with a certain level of inexperience or roughness holding it back. The enthusiasm, and the skill, is clearly present, though, which makes Ronin fascinating, rather than a relic.