REVIEW: Absolute Masterpieces I: Absolute Ronin

Considering Ronin is essentially considering Frank Miller across the divide of over 25 years as a creator in the comics industry. The man who made Daredevil indelibly noir, and who ushered in the return of the Dark Knight seems have shifted his perspective a bit on the role of violence for his often troubled heroes.

But let me back up a bit and consider the Absolute presentation of this seminal work. Absolute Ronin collects the 6-issue miniseries that ran from 1983-84 under what was at the time heralded as the “new” DC. The effusive forward by former DC editor Jenette Kahn proclaims that Miller’s work “…ushered in a new era of comics.” And based on the concessions Miller was able to negotiate with DC at the time, it sounds like Kahn isn’t far off the mark: he was able to get the book released with glossy, magazine-stock pages, kicking up the sex and violence—at 1980’s DC of all places—in a long-form story mixing anti-corporate paranoia, samurai fiction, and an apocalyptic vision of the next century. And the kicker: Miller was able to gain and maintain creator rights with a company that was still smarting from a contentious relationship with the creators of its flagship character.

For those unfamiliar with the book, it follows a nameless Ronin from feudal Japan, whose battle with a shape shifting demon has brought him into the beginning of the 21st century, and into the body of a mentally and emotionally troubled man-child with tremendous psychic abilities. What follows is a chase through the toxic sprawl of future New York by the Aquarius Corporation, led by its tough-as-nails head of security, Casey McKenna. The story ultimately resolves itself into a meditation on violence as both catharsis and crisis with the Ronin’s “possession” of Billy taking on disturbing implications in its closing pages.

The Absolute presentation reproduces the original work in an oversized format that’s at times, quite beautiful. If I have one complaint—and really, it’s my own damned problem—it’s that some of Varley’s colors could have benefited from a little more contrast and/or darkening. The techno-tower of the Aquarius Corporation is often portrayed in yellow and green hues that seem a little muted on the page. The book also includes an image gallery featuring promotional materials as well as a few of Miller’s uncolored pencils from the book. I would have loved to see an interview or conversation with Miller included with the other materials, but perhaps the idea was to let the work speak for itself.

To read some of the critical blurbs included in the Absolute package, the book went over especially well with other comic creators, who admired Miller’s storytelling, and I suspect, his ability to throw a little weight around and win one for the creative-types. The praise was well-deserved: Ronin is a successful work of fusion, bringing together the tone and sci-fi weirdness of European comic magazines like Metal Hurlant (a publication, according to Ms. Kahn, much-admired by Mr. Miller and his contemporaries), alongside Japanese manga, and 60’s Kurosawa samurai-eiga.

Ronin was, for all its inventiveness, also a test run for many of the visual motifs and social themes explored in his later works: the hero, often broken and rebuilt through violence, warrior women who loved and killed, the failed states, and fetish costumes of murderous, sadistic gangs. Its occasionally expressionistic artwork enlivened what was essentially a long chase piece, its passages of grim, deep-red violence (painted by frequent Miller collaborator, Lynn Varley) a shock to the system. Miller’s lines weren’t as tight as they would later become in The Dark Knight Returns, but that was probably appropriate for a story about a world in a state of chaotic ruin, peopled by demons both figurative and literal.

I noted at the beginning of this piece that Ronin shows a creator of two minds over nearly three decades about violence. While I wouldn’t call Ronin, anti-violence, but this work—and to a degree his runs on Daredevil and his crafting of The Dark Knight Returns seem uneasy with the hero as violent defender. Two-fisted justice gets the job done, but it’s also part of a spiral of escalation. Matt Murdock’s life gets worse and worse under Miller’s pen, and whereas Bruce Wayne becomes rejuvenated by his return to the cape, it nearly destroys both the man and the legend by the final pages (but Miller has a fake-out for us in that story’s closing pages). To get spoiler-y, in Ronin the truth is that neither the Ronin or his demon adversary are real—they are, in fact, Billy’s power fantasies, manifestations of the tremendous amount of power and rage contained within him, unleashed thanks to pent-up frustration. I didn’t get the sense that the Ronin’s resurrection in the final page was, in fact, a good thing.

Flash forward to the decade that threatened to be the end of us all in Miller’s stories, and he’s still meditating on violence, but it seems he has fewer reservations about it. From his outré portrayal of Batman in All-Star Batman and Robin to his proposed Holy Al Quaeda, Batman!, Miller the elder seems more amused by violence than Miller the younger. Both share the same fascination, but the latter seemed to imbue his stories with a bit of melancholy that’s missing in the former’s recent, increasingly sporadic output.

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