Frank Miller’s Ronin is a weird amalgamation of cyberpunk, Akira style post-apocalyptic body-horror, and mystical samurai chanbara.
Written and drawn by Miller himself at a relatively early point in his career when he had already made his presence known, this six-chapter comic further built his reputation as an artist willing to explore the medium rather than churn out the same material. Lettered by John Costanza, and coloured by Lynn Varley, Ronin is oblique and confounding, like the titular character himself.
The story begins in feudal Japan as an unnamed man who we will refer to as simply Ronin watches as his master is killed by a demon and vows revenge. A masterless samurai is a man with a bleak future, shamed and without purpose, and their choice is either seppuku or vengeance. Ronin is inspired to wander the country getting stronger to enact his vengeance on a demon who is largely without much personality, a monster going for a generic kind of villainy.
Once Ronin confronts the demon again, they’re inexplicably sent to a post-apocalyptic future New York, and we shift perspective intermittently to a test subject with no limbs called Billy. He is experimented on in a massive ever-sprawling structure called the Aquarius Complex, which is devoted to the development of cybernetics.
A weird living fortress, the complex’s brain is a personable AI called Virgo. The AI is a powerful presence hovering over the employees and fostering a close relationship with Billy. This environment is also home to a security officer called Casey whose relationship with Ronin evolves throughout his awakening and journey through the nightmare-scape, becoming the highlight of the story.
A cursory glance at the internet surprisingly shows little mention of Akira in relation to Ronin, which I found strange at first, as the homage seemed massive to me. Putting aside the obvious Japanese influence on the story, Ronin also grabs himself a red cloak similar to Tetsuo in Akira. And the story has an integral role for a telekinetic character who had a traumatic childhood, which all leads to an explosive mind-trip of a climax (to put it mildly) and slightly ambiguous resolution.
Yet digging deeper, I realise that though the manga of Akira began publication in December 1982, and Ronin in August 1983, the US translation was only published in 1989, and of course the anime adaptation came out in 1988. So basically unless Miller was reading or came into contact with the original untranslated manga, it seems a coincidence that the two works seem so similar in tone and subject matter. Perhaps something was in the air at the time. Akira was a very prophetic piece of fiction, not only commenting on Japan’s past and its relationship to modernity and technology, but it also seemingly predicted many of Japan’s troubles to come the next decade.
Ronin by contrast feels more contemporary to the time it was written. Miller paints a bleak view of New York, populated by desperate and harsh citizens, hard boiled and resigned to dystopia. It reminds me of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Crime is rampant and casual. There is a racial divide with Neo-Nazis battling Black Panthers. It all feels very ’80s.
The story sags a bit after Ronin awakes and wanders New York with minimal dialogue. As Miller rambles on about the ramifications of the mutating fortress, Ronin himself features less and less, and becomes increasingly boring whenever we do revisit him.
All of the back and forth with characters inhabiting the fortress is exposition, and for the purpose of setting up the demon who now possesses an influential human figure intent on weaponizing the complex. This could have been conveyed in half the amount of pages Miller takes to get to the point of the comic, which is a massive revelation that makes you re-evaluate everything.
Another aspect of the comic that can try a reader’s patience is an inexplicable romance that blooms out of nowhere and feels forced. Though Ronin’s motivation for the romance is ultimately explained, why Casey falls for him is murky and not as clear.
Things pick up in chapter 6 as Ronin becomes more talkative and Virgo becomes more of a pervasive presence overshadowing even the demonic villain. The story twists and turns finally reaching the massive reveal, and coupled with Billy’s suppressed identity bursting at the seams, it makes for an action-packed finale in cyberpunk settings, within the bowels of a technological fortress manned by killer robots and armed security guards.
Miller manages to craft Ronin as its own dystopic beast, separated from other takes on the genre, Akira included. He builds a dark world rife with racism, cannibals and the threat of total annihilation around the corner.
The art is an acquired taste, especially for modern readers more used to realism, detail and clarity. But it can grow on you, simply for being so different from the norm. There is a change in style from chapter 5 onwards, where the art becomes more sharper and less rough. Regardless of the style, the composition is excellent in typical Miller style, conveying so much with so little.
The imagery is often dour, with a particular highlight being a pretty horrifying few pages involving darkness and cannibals descending on Casey in a vulnerable moment, with Miller using massive amounts of deep black forcing the reader to imagine the incoming terror.
Ronin is an important work in Miller’s career, and for some a defining comic of its era, though for others they may feel more cool towards the material. It does feel longer than it needs to be, and there are a lot of scenes in the complex that drag the pacing, essentially tons of exposition, without adding much to the story.
A dark voyage into violent fantasy, Ronin avoids seppuku and attempts to impact the reader with a vengeance.