Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Frank Miller's Ronin: Your Everyday Dystopic, Post-Apocalyptic, Time-Traveling, Masterless-Wondering-Samurai-Turned-Ronin Tale

Ronin, Frank Miller’s graphic novel, published in six installments from 1983-1984, is one of Miller’s most unknown projects, and probably one of his best. Of his three comic books I have read in the last month, Ronin, published first, falls between Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, but is lies closer to DKR than to that other piece of crap. This influential comic, which honed and paved the way for not only Miller’s artistry, but also inspired such stories as The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Kill Bill, defies genre and tells a fantastical retelling of the biblical Adam and Eve story in Genesis, where man and woman are created out of an image and tempted to pursue forbidden knowledge by a demon through a masterless-wondering-samurai-turned-ronin tale set in medieval and also a post-apocalyptic, dystopic New York with elements from sci-fi thrown in for good measure. Its like the graphic novel’s Bubba Ho-Tep. At several times while reading, you are going to have to address the book’s weirdness and ask yourself what the shit is going on here.

So, this “weird sci-fi samurai thing Frank Miller did back in the eighties” that “still looks like a bizarre message from the future,” is damn good reading. The novel begins in feudal Japan with Lord Ozaki and his newly trained, nameless samurai walking around, just shooting the shit, when three attackers come out of nowhere and then are handed their own personal asses by the samurai who gives a shit about one thing, one shit and shit only if you will, and that is for the wellbeing of his master, Lord Ozaki. Here we get our first tastes of Miller’s self-aware, reflexivity in that all too familiar postmodern conceit: metafiction. Ozaki, who tells his warrior to “Stop posing,” gives us this taste that illustrates the importance of appearances, which takes on even more meaning later on in the story as we learn that what is imagined and what is image become reality. So these words are as much a warning to us and to the future samurai/ronin as they are instructions to the “boy” he is commanding.

When his retainer is killed by his arch enemy, the demon Agat, who has shape-shifted himself into Ozaki’s bedroom through the guise of a geisha hottie, the samurai is left alone with the one he serves dead by violence. After contemplating seppuku—ritual suicide—he becomes a ronin—a samurai who has lost his master and must wonder the earth without purpose—but he does have purpose here before joining his lord in death: Ozaki must be avenged.

By this point, knowing next to nothing about the comic, I was settling in for your typical feudal Japan samurai shit I am surprisingly familiar with and used to when Miller jukes us at around page 12 when he introduces Billy Challas, oddball stump, limbless, as in one without arms or legs, and his mental development has been retarded as well. He apparently has been envisioning the way of the ronin that set up the novel. All this is out of the ordinary, yes, but hey hey, the weirdest bit is the time jump as we now find the setting has changed to about thirty or so years into twenty-first century on some abnormal, supernaturalish military-esque, but not military, base named Aquarius which shares its name with the corporation that has basically taken over everything and acts in place of any sort of government with its own police force and responsibility for keeping the global balance of power scales level.

Here, the samurai stuff seems like a dream conjured up by Billy “The Stump” Challas who lives in the complex that is more or less the only safe place left in the Big Apple which is overrun with gangs and evil opportunists on the streets and underneath the surface, living in the sewer system, mutant descendents of the homeless who have evolved into cannibal zombies.

Now that we are starting to understand this future to be reality, Miller throws us back to the ronin story of yore, in battle with a four-armed—limbs are significant in the text—ninja who also happens to be an anthropomorphic rat, who loses one his four arms but then disables one of the ronin’s before rodent man gets his head lopped off samurai style and the protagonist eases his way into the castle of Agat, that shape-shifter demon guy who made the samurai’s life lack meaning and what have you. Because the only thing that can kill Agat is this magic sword that used to belong to his retainer, which he stole from the demon himself, needs the blood of an innocent and must be wielded by a righteous warrior, a paradoxical catch-22 that makes the whole thing damn near nonsensical, unless that is the warrior uses the sword to kill himself and the demon at the same time, which he miraculously does by impaling both of them, thus effectively killing two birds with one stone by committing hari-kari while simultaneously mortally wounding Agat. It’s a win win. But no, Agat has time for one last trick, and he entombs their souls within the sword by way of magical curse and their fates are forever tied together.

Back to the future, more or less for good this time, Billy comes out of his vision, but the vision won’t let go of him. Through the help of supercomputer Virgo—more on Virgo below—Billy discovers that the Blood Sword where the mortal enemies are imprisoned has reappeared in their recent past and the two have been released through suspect scientific research. Billy starts to lose it all of a sudden as the ronin seemingly begins taking over the Stump by way of possession when Agat comes tearing through the Mission Impossible-esque supermax security system like he’s got a wild hair up his ass. The supernatural (i.e. “magic”) commandeers the Stump’s form and uses the cybernetics to build himself superhuman arms and legs. Just before the ronin can completely take over, Agat reaches his destination fitting to terminate the morphing being while its still powerless. But this is still early on and its just a pump fake, there is no showdown, an explosion throws them both out of the complex, and as the first chapter ends, we see rising out of the sewer, not Billy Challas the sideshow attraction, but the metallic limbed samurai from the freak’s subconscious.

So here we are, at the start of this time-traveling samurai story, he’s an out of place eccentric who’s going to go all roaming around and seeking revenge, etcetera, etcetera. But be warned, nothing is as it appears, and in this book, appearances are everything, and in fiction, especially sci-fi, they are almost wrong in the end.

For a while, Miller is content with having the ronin just going about, learning shit about this foreign, futuristic world, and kicking ass whenever remotely feasible plot wise like he was David Carradine in Kung Fu or something. He gets his sword back, takes contract kills out on heads from rival gangs like in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, saves and subsequently bones Billy’s love interest, Casey McKenna, and places himself atop the mean streets’ food chain over the course of a couple of chapters. But as the story unfolds, we also start to get a sense of what the world Billy lives in and the ronin is flung helplessly into is like. In this crappy, violent world, Aquarius is the only hope for the future of mankind, which promises salvation through a technological breakthrough called biocircuitry, which is sort of confusing and has something to do with self-replicating plastics and/or mental cybernetics, but the fuzzy pseudoscience doesn’t really matter—its best to follow the suggestion made during the intro to Mystery Science Theater 3000 (the show you may not know by name but probably recognize from channel surfing as the one with the silhouettes watching a movie who spend its entirety tooling on the film’s shit quality that happens to be set on a spaceship where those shitty movies are forced upon the crew, consisting of a single human {Joel and later his replacement Mike} and the robots he built out of boredom that keep him company, as a form of psychological torture) which states, “If you're wondering how he eats and breathes/ And other science facts,/ Just repeat to yourself "It's just a show,/ I should really just relax—since all that the reader needs to know is that this new development allows for all kinds of advancement that has the power to either save the planet, or if in the wrong hands, destroy it.

But no human could be so mad as to do something so recklessly Zionistic—unless, that is, someone like Pat Robertson’s lets-usher-in-the-Second-Coming ass gets elected president or al-Qaeda gets a nuke or something—as to develop and implement Dooms Day capabilities.

But, holy shit, Agat, the lovable shape-shifting demon, kills the most powerful man in the Aquarius Corporation, Taggart, who makes all the decisions and has kept the company’s technologies out of military hands, and steels his form. What’s worse, the massive self-operational Aquarius structure is completely under the direction of an artificially intelligent entity called Virgo. If science fiction has taught us anything, its that artificial intelligence (AI) is very bad. From Frankenstein to Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)—which brought the term “robot” into the mainstream—to With Folded Hands to 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Terminator to The Matrix, we learn time and again that these self-aware will reject human authority, revolt against us, take control of society, enslave mankind, and then usher in the apocalypse. From sci-fi, you get the idea that when man plays God and AI is created, the worst of all possible scenarios comes to fruition every time. So, with this sort of technology in the hands of this sort of entity, you see where this is going, go ahead and guess what happens.

Shit is hitting the old fan in a bad way, which I will give the gist of here without ruining the ending. With the world on the brink of war, Taggart/Agat negotiates a weapons deal with a military company called the Sawa Corporation but one of the founders of Aquarius, Peter McKenna, married to the previously mentioned Casey McKenna, head of security, who the ronin brought the hot with down in the sewer—which was surprisingly romantic—figures out that Taggart is an impostor to which he informs Virgo, who doesn’t give a flying fuck, but forces her to show him what happened to Taggart anyway via video replay, but he refuses to believe the images and accuses Virgo of killing Taggart, is then kidnapped and held prisoner whereupon he figures out the whole thing has been “a sick joke” but, of course, everyone universally thinks he is insane. The ronin gets captured trying to enter Aquarius and is held captive by his foe Agat while Casey, left for dead outside the complex, survives a near fatal attack, and winds up breaking into Aquarius, finding herself toeing the line between fantasy and reality, unable to tell the difference at times, all the while the newly developed murder-death-kill robots are out to get her. Yeah, everything is fucked dude. And as we get closer to the conclusion, we find that the ronin/Billy Challas may not be so innocent in all this.

While it is not DKR, but as Miller explained in an interview from 1985 (The Comics Journal: Issue #101), “Ronin was a process of liberation… So little has been done with comics, in the whole time they've been around that to push it like that made me feel like I was starting my career, I was starting my explorations of the form… One of the things that Ronin did was to dynamite my own and anybody else's expectations of me. And now, I feel like playing around a lot.” Thus with this strange little book, Miller honed the anti-cliché, somber, nihilistic, supercharged style that would define his best work. Anyone enthralled by DKR or Sin City owes this graphic novel a reading and a debt of gratitude.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Holy Horseshit Batman: Miller Tarnishes Legacy with DK2 (Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again)

After reading Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns a couple of weeks ago, I could hardly wait to tear into Miller’s long awaited sequel The Dark Knight Strikes Again.  All I can say is what happened.

This work, which was pretty much universally panned, rightly so, featured a storyline that was confusing and boring and just kind of weird and still manages to be predictable, artwork that was shoddily done, and plot devices that don’t really make sense or go anywhere.  What’s worse, Batman is essentially just an old fart who reminds you of the geezer at the end of the block that yelled at you for playing basketball in the street and constantly tried to make you feel they weren’t just some asshole that the world had passed by and just knew that the neighborhood would throw a block party when the guy finally died.  That is to say, in DK2, Batman is sadistic, flighty, and lifeless.  To get a feel for the shit-storm that has rained down on this book, check out the customer reviews for the it on Amazon.  The first review, posted by an anonymous comic fanatic, reads like a breakup letter:

“It is to the point where I can no longer justify spending my money on his material. I am convinced that the man has either developed a serious alcohol/substance abuse problem, or he just doesn't care about the quality of his work (or entertaining his readers) anymore… The Dark Knight Strikes Again is, for me, the final straw. Look at it. It's a mess. Can you imagine a newcomer to the comics field turning material like this in to their editor? They would never work again. I'm guessing the only reason DC Comics went ahead and published DKSA is because they know it will sell based on Miller's (and Batman's) name value, and because they had to make back the money they paid Miller to do this job… If you are just bored or sick of writing and drawing comics, please get over it or retire. This is unacceptable.” 

WHACK!  The second review, by one Nichomachus, proves no less scathing:

“Not worth the trees killed, and certainly not worth money spent, I was absolutely shocked at the disaster that is DK2…  I don't know what happened here, but this pandering garbage should never have seen the light of day… A total letdown from Frank Miller. I was shocked at this heartless, obvious sellout.”

POW!!!  And that’s not nearly all of it and people are justified for feeling slighted.

To understand part of the outrage people comic book junkies expressed over DK2, one must first consider the context in which the two graphic novels were released.  DKR, published in 1986, was one of the most successful comics of all time, both critically and commercially, and along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen, printed the same year, it helped rejuvenate interest in a dying medium.  People literally dreamed of a day when they could read a sequel to this masterpiece.  Then, in three installments from November 2001 to July 2002, their dreams had come true with DK2.  However, once they opened their preordered copies and the wait was over, holy shit, with all that anticipation built up over the 15-years between them, what would have been disappointment turned into a nightmare.  Think how when Episode I of Stars Wars came out in 1999 after three amazing films and then suddenly there is walking racial stereotype Jar Jar Binks and the goddamn magic blood a.k.a. midi-chlorians and that fucking Jake Lloyd kid, or think how last year when after 19-years since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade you went to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and it was Indy battling cheesy aliens.[i]  Even if the book was above average, which it wasn’t, with such high expectations it was probably never going to live up to the hype of the first one.  As such, I understand how people were pissed and wrote things like “Dear god Frank, what have you done???” even though I didn’t have wait more than a week to read the sequel.

The difference in quality between the two works is night and day.  Summing up this vast inconsistency, former “Comic Book Store Guy,” Richard Bruton, in his review “Propaganda – The Dark Knight Strikes Again”  for Forbidden Planet International, states the following:

“DKR is the classic Batman as a pensioner story. It’s the future, superheroes have been banned, the ageing Bruce Wayne has given up being Batman and is watching his world and his precious city go completely mad. It doesn’t take long to get him back in the costume. He beats things up.  DKR is still a great book. Well structured, economical in the use of the big name superheroes, brilliant in the use of the villains. A noir futurist story with slick, crafted artwork.  Dark Knight Strikes Again is very few of those things.”

This assessment is pretty much dead on, so with that and again considering the disappointment after so much to hope for, it is no wonder, as Greg Oleksiuk of PopMatters writes, that “pretty much any list of the greatest comics of all time includes The Dark Knight Returns and pretty much any list of the worst comics of all time includes The Dark Knight Strikes Again.”

Part of the problem is the fact that so many have taken on Miller’s gritty style that was once so innovative but now seems clichéd.  It doesn’t help that the book is little more than DKR recycled focusing on the same things with less success, such as Batman’s age, his coming out of retirement and training an army, watching Gotham/the world go to shit again, Superman selling out and working for a corrupt government, the still enforced ban on superheroes, etc.  In essence, DK2 is the type of comic book that DKR was working against and once again it seems that masked heroes are impotent when it comes to the real-life nemeses of regenerated plots and worn-out, tired characters. 

There is some potential here, however, the things that are most interesting aren’t addressed like they should be or just don’t go anywhere.  In the second chapter, for example, turned in for publishing September 12, 2001, Batman intentionally crashes his bat-plane into a skyscraper occupied by Lex Luthor who is acting as America’s dictator, fabricating a digital president, clearly George W. Bush, but it makes no real statement about the President Elect.  In fact, Miller has gone on record in support of W, speaking with NPR about why so many people hate Bush, he said he tries to explain it in “historical terms.”  He goes on to say he does so by “mainly saying that the country that fought Okinawa and Iwo Jima is now spilling precious blood, but so little by comparison, it’s almost ridiculous. And the stakes are as high as they were then. Mostly I hear people say, ‘Why did we attack Iraq?’ for instance. Well, we’re taking on an idea. Nobody questions why after Pearl Harbor we attacked Nazi Germany. It was because we were taking on a form of global fascism, we’re doing the same thing now.”  When NPR points out that they declared war on us, Miller fires back “well, so did Iraq.”

Batman then Zorro’s Luthor’s face with the standard “Z”, which is just unnecessary and out of place, and says “Striking terror. Best part of the job.”  This stuff was written before 9/11 but published after at a time when things like this were getting postponed to times when it wasn’t so fresh in our minds or removed altogether.[ii]  When people were losing their jobs over quote unquote insensitive comments,[iii] there was no outrage, I suspect because the work couldn’t be taken seriously in this overly satirical work that overshadows its darker aspects.  But then with the third installment, he could have taken issue with say the Justice Department monitoring un-American activities but he doesn’t really do that and even tones down the social critique a bit, then Miller sort of tries to justifies it by explaining “This is how pop culture works. We process things and turn them into a product that is at once more palatable but deeply resonant. And I think it's going to be a while before pop culture does that with 9/11 and what seems to amount to World War 3.”

Um, Ok.  And this came a year removed from the events, in November 2002, so how long does he expect artists to wait?  Does he still expect that?  God I hope not considering Miller’s supposedly upcoming Holy Terror, Batman! where the Dark Knight tracks down and takes on, get this, Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'eda forces.  Everything I have heard about the work in progress sounds absolutely terrible and even Miller himself says “it is, not to put too fine a point on it, a piece of propaganda—Batman kicks al-Qa'eda's ass.”  Dear God, now its “Holy Doctrine, Batman!”  

And throughout most of the storyline, there are a couple of pretty BIG questions that just hang out there that go painfully unaddressed.  So, I’ll try not to give too much away here, but one of Batman’s foes in this work ends up being Dick Grayson, the original Robin.  If you will recall, in DKR, Batman picks up a 13-year-old female groupie, Carrie, who ends up donning the Boy Wonder getup; now, at the still illegal age of 16, she has started wearing the Catwoman costume and goes by Catgirl.  Eh?  Everyone knows of the pseudosexual stuff going on between Catwoman and Batman, and everyone also has wondered about the bizarre homosexual superhero stuff that might go on between the Dynamic Duo that just keeps adding layers to the mind-blowingly strange sexual subtext underlying the threesome.  But this sort of thing doesn’t even really get hinted at and there isn’t even an explanation as to why Batman and his former sidekick hate each other. 

It was painful to read DK2 so quickly after DKR because it magnifies Miller’s fall from artistic greatness, like the way people felt in my literature classes in college when reading Updike’s later work.  Not only does it illustrate how inferior Miller’s work has steadily declined, it is so bad that it makes one question the supposed genius of the original.   Ending with an excerpt from, Marie Ras writes, “as a Batman comic it's a dud, but as a sequel to one of the best, if not the best, comics of all time it's an absolute spit in the face.”  I can’t disagree.

[i] Personally, I did sort of like the film, probably as much as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but the question here is was it worth the wait.

[ii] Example, a scene was removed in the premier episode of 24 that depicted a Boeing 747, like one of the planes used in the September 11th attacks, exploding midair.

[iii] One example of this would be Bill Maher, who talks about it in an interview with Salon and it was total bullshit considering comments made by people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell made much more ludicrous accusations that blamed what those hijackers did on that day on pagans, abortionists, feminists & gays and lesbians and essentially saying we deserved it with Falwell saying “I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen,’”  and Robertson throwing in a “I totally concur.”