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.

1 comment:

Sean said...

Great article. Just read Ronin in one sitting the other night and was blown away by its audacity. I've long been a Miller fan and this was a huge find. Highly recommended