Ronin
Medium: comic
Year: 1983
Writer/artist: Frank Miller
Format: Six 48-page issues
Website category: Comics
Review date: 21 October 2021
It's important in Frank Miller's biography, but it's not good.
It was his first creator-owned title. He was trying to combine influences from manga and European comics. It's about a 13th century samurai whose master gets killed by a demon, only for both of them to get reincarnated 800 years later in the year 2030. It's very Frank Miller in some ways, but in others it's highly atypical. Good lord, it's slow. This thing crawls. Three hundred sodding pages and he makes stodgy use of them.
The story's key mistake is that it stars a samurai. (He becomes a ronin very early, but let's not split hairs.) This is asking for trouble, because samurai are boring. They have no personality. They show no fear or pain. It's like following the adventures of a tree trunk that happens to be good at killing. This one can't even speak English for most of the book, despite running around New York. The obvious way of making samurai memorable is to give them lots of screen presence, which you'd expect Frank Miller to nail. Nope. Three hundred pages, but sorry. Compare with Sin City and weep. The book feels meandering and constipated, despite having lots and lots of wordless pages and being full of Miller's realistic, minimal dialogue. That still doesn't stop it being talky. Our nameless hero is sort of passable as an action figure, but I still wasn't that interested in him... and I'm saying that even though I get a lot more from Japanese characters and stories than I did when I first read this.
The historical angle is okay, though. I was wondering if the 13th century was too early for samurai, but in fact they appeared in the late 12th.
It's ambitious, though, and it was ground-breaking in 1983. It's a creator-owned 300-page comic for mature audiences, with artistic goals and printed on better paper with no adverts. Miller had just finished his industry-redefining run on Daredevil, so it's not as if he didn't know how to write more commercial fare.
It's interesting to look back on this today. We've nearly reached its dystopian future of 2030, the portrayal of which doesn't actually seem unreasonable. New York's a post-apocalyptic cannibal hell, but hey. This was the 1980s. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns aren't much more optimistic. The biotechnology will make you nod and go, "yeah, seems plausible." Also, we're told that the end of civilisation was thirty years ago. If that's 2001, it might have been a more extreme 9/11, which would fit the themes of some of Miller's later work (Holy Terror).
Is this mini-series good? No, but I can respect its ambition. Alas, it fails because its cast is thin and third rate. The samurai's a samurai (zzzz), the demon's a demon (and is thus uninterestingly evil) and Casey's too much of a henchman to carry the story on her own. Mind you, her role grows enormously until, by the end, the story's hers. She's capable of being amusing, in a book that's otherwise humourless. Her story's conclusion is a deliberate inversion of the portrayal of appalling roles of 13th century Japanese women at the start, just as the racial slurs are underlining the world's hostility towards heroes who are Japanese or black. (The book understands that this is offensive language, but nonetheless today it's still a bit uncomfortable.)
Its first half's better than its second, I think. The story's more unpredictable and we've got memorable bits like the horrible nun, an unexpected husband and good Virgo-Casey dialogue. At one point, I wondered if Miller was about to remake Yojimbo. I'd be interested in seeing a fan version that cut down issues 4-6 into one punchier episode, or even ditched the whole thing and went off in more surprising directions.