Frank Miller’s Ronin

In 1983, Frank Miller had established himself as an innovator in comic books. After wrapping up his stellar run on Daredevil at Marvel Comics, he moved over to DC for a unique experiment combining cyberpunk and traditional samurai film called Ronin. Borrowing heavily from the very same movies that Miller no doubt avidly viewed as a youngster, the book’s setting is split between dream-like ancient Japan and a future New York City where buildings sprawl over the comic page like living creatures.

The plot is very simple and complex all at once. Charged with defending his master from assassins, a nameless samurai fails to keep his master Ozaki safe. A demon named Agat manages to kill Ozaki, leaving the samurai with no other recourse but to perform sepuku. From beyond the grave, the samurai’s master demands that his student wander the countryside as a masterless samurai or ronin and train himself to kill Agat with a mystical blade, the only weapon capable of killing the monster. The catch is that the blade must be fueled with innocent blood before it becomes potent enough to kill Agat. After finally accumulating enough experience, the ronin hunts down Agat and, using his own blood as fuel, kills them both in one fatal stroke. Rather than being destroyed, however, Agat manages to trap himself and the ronin in the blade until they can be released.

The remainder of the story is set 800 years later in a dystopian world of societal decay. A young quadriplegic named Billy is having dreams of the demon and samurai’s battle. A gifted psychic, Billy is looked after by the brain trust of the Aquarius Complex. Both Agat and the ronin are released from their mystical prison after the sword has been found and experimented upon.

Free to roam this future world, Agat takes over the body of the Aquarius Complex’s head administrator. Meanwhile Billy has transformed into the ronin and used his abilities to grow new limbs from the biocircuitry around him. Reborn into a strange world that he cannot understand, the ronin struggles to survive, fighting street gangs, squatters and mutants as he carves a path back to Agat who is building a new empire for himself with the power he has gathered in his new body. Ronin meets a strange man named Head who promises to help him get around, but actually sees a potential for profit by billing his swordmastering friend as a stage act under the moniker ‘The Elvis Of Violence.’

Released on a heavier stock than standard monthly comics, Ronin was visually stunning in its presentation, helped in large part by painter Lynn Varley’s colors. With no ads interrupting the flow, the series offered a cinematic experience the likes of which was uncommon from DC Comics. This was the era when both publishers started to experiment with new storytelling techniques in the graphic novel format (the initial intention was in fact for Ronin to be printed as a graphic novel from Marvel), which may be why so much room was given to Miller to do as he wished with this story. Frank is still a young artist at this point, full of energy and a genuine desire to explore new ideas. As a fan of his work, Ronin is definitely one of my favorites.

As a comic book reader, Ronin is a fascinating bridge from the groundbreaking work that was done on Daredevil to the slick cinematic style of graphic art that has since become the norm in the medium. To a young reader unfamiliar with Ronin or with comics from the 1980’s, that element of the series may fail to make a significant impact. Nevertheless, Frank Miller’s Ronin stands the test of time as a visually breathtaking piece of work.

In 1998, Darren Aronofsky was hired to adapt Ronin for the big screen, but sadly nothing percolated from that deal. In 2007, 300 producer Gianni Nunnari announced that he would begin work on an adaptation of Ronin. Back in March ’09, Joby Harold was assigned to write the script for a movie adaptation from Warner Bros. after the project had languished in development limbo for ages. Director Sylvain White (Stomp the Yard, The Losers) has started to talk about the project again while promoting the Losers (due out this April).

“That’s something I had to let go of for a period of time while I was directing ‘The Losers’ but I’m back here in Los Angeles and as I’m finishing post-production on ‘The Losers,’ I will be diving back into the development of ‘Ronin.’ I’m just working along with the studio executives developing the story elements and they’re attaching a writer in the spring to do a new pass on it.”

“It’s a very complex graphic novel and it needs very careful attention,” he continued, “Of course to make a movie of that scale, you need a lot of money to pay it justice, especially with the incredible visuals that Frank Miller has in it, but at the same time, in order to get a lot of money to make the movie, it has to have enough commercial appeal, so I’m trying to balance those two things together to make the movie accessible but still smart and throw with all the great ideas and grand ideas that it has. Conceptually, it’s such an amazing property, so I think it’s strong appeal in that sense, and even for people, I think visually in the trailer, people will be gravitating towards that kind of subject matter and that kind of character, it’s amazing.”

No release date has been announced for Ronin. After seeing 300 in the cinema and hearing that Ronin was next in line for a big film version of Frank Miller’s work it struck as both a logical and exciting step. If you have never read Ronin, I heartily recommend it. I can only hope that the movie does it justice.

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