When I was younger, I loved watching cartoons with my brother. We watched superheroes, Dragonball Z and even the Powerpuff Girls. Never too old for Mojo Jojo! But the one that truly stole my heart was Samurai Jack. I don’t think I watched that one until I was a teenager but I fell in love immediately. The idea of a cursed samurai forced to travel through time seeking vengeance on the demon who wronged him was just enthralling. So when I heard about a classic Frank Miller story named Ronin which also featured a time traveling samurai and demons, I couldn’t resist. I have not been a fan of Miller in a long time but my love of Samurai Jack pulled me in. Ronin is both written and illustrated by Miller and is comprised of six parts, all of which I’ll be covering for this review.
Ronin is the story of a samurai whose failure to protect his master from the demon Agat resulted in his dishonor. Becoming a Ronin, he was determined to avenge his master’s death and regain his honor. Demons are tricky bastards though and despite the Ronin’s eventual victory, Agat cursed them to be bound together for eternity. When the sword containing the cursed souls of the Ronin and Agat are found far in the future in New York City, the souls escape and the Ronin is once again forced to hunt Agat before he can wreak havoc on the world. This futuristic, corrupt New York City is nothing like the medieval Japan that the Ronin knew and the Ronin will need help from a number of people, both selfish and good, if he is to succeed.
As I said, Frank Miller hasn’t been one of my favorite comic book authors in a very long time. He has a tendency to write the same story over and over and over again. It’s always the lone wolf facing off against the corrupt power structure and often being betrayed by the woman he loves because women are all traitorous deviants. All I’m saying is, it gets old. So my expectations were very low coming into Ronin and I fully expected to appreciate it for the milestone that it was in his career and for comics in general without actually enjoying it. To my surprise, I was thoroughly enthralled. Miller does an excellent job showing the journey of the Ronin from dedicated but naïve samurai to the world weary, determined ronin. Given some of his past female characters, I was really impressed by the security officer Casey McKeen. She was brave, smart and equally capable of saving herself rather than functioning as either the damsel in distress or Miller’s usual femme fatale. And best of all, Miller turns the story on its head about two thirds of the way through with an interesting twist which completely changes the tone of the story. It doesn’t hold up as well in the present since it’s a story that’s been explored before but given that this was written in 1983, Miller deserves a lot of credit for creating an ending that really makes you question the assumptions you had built from the rest of the book.
Much as I really enjoyed Ronin, there are a few caveats. Miller’s future is incredibly bleak. The world is consumed by poverty, disease and environmental catastrophe brought on by pollution. New York City is about as brutal as Sin City, with gangs ranging from white supremacists to Black Panthers to every kind of thug imaginable controlling the streets. And rich, corrupt corporations are engaged in the business of furthering Armageddon. Miller hasn’t exactly been known for being politically correct and even this far back in his career, it’s no different. There are ethnic slurs for just about every race imaginable, cannibals have bred from the “homeless winos” in the sewers underneath the city for…reasons and violence is the order of the day. You really shouldn’t be reading Miller in the first place if you’re looking for positive, politically correct stories and Ronin is no different. In addition to this, the art in Ronin is a little odd because there are moments that it fits perfectly and moments where it just looks terrible. Ronin was created pretty early on in Frank Miller’s career so it’s understandable that it isn’t perfect. It’s meant to be dark and rough to suit the story, but unfortunately sometimes that gets taken so far that it can be difficult to see what’s actually going on in the panels.
When I first started reading comics, I read The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One and fell in love with Frank Miller’s gritty, brutal take on Batman. And then after reading some of his later Batman stories and the later Sin City stories, I couldn’t stand him. Luckily, Ronin is classic Frank Miller before he got too wrapped up in conspiracy theories and his dedication to skewering anything even remotely resembling the politically correct. Ronin is gritty without being ridiculous, featuring a lone warrior in a brutal future that has no place for him. I’m glad I finally convinced myself to read Ronin and if you’re a Frank Miller fan, it’s well worth picking up!