TCJ ARCHIVE

Run of the Miller

From The Comics Journal #82 (July 1983)

Ronin is DC’s Big Project for 1983 — perhaps even for the decade. Frank Miller has been given total creative freedom, a contract rumored to be the largest ever signed in American comics, and an im­pressive upscale format that allows Miller 288 pages to do with as he pleases.

DC’s confidence in Miller is understand­able. In his brief career, the young artist has united huge commercial success with the kind of critical acclaim not heard since the now dim days of Steranko. Ronin is hugely ambitious, meticulously conceived, and original in execution: it looks and feels like no other comic book on the market. If nothing else, Ronin stands as a rare example of a commercial comic book that totally reflects its creator’s vision, unfogged by editorial meddling, counter­productive collaborators, or the pressures of indefinite serialization. Perhaps the most important point, Ronin is not merely a replay of Miller’s Daredevil: although there are similarities in theme and style, it is bolder, less compromised, and richer in conception.

Unfortunately, all the weaknesses evi­dent in Miller’s Daredevil have followed him to his new project, many in amplified form. Ronin further erodes Miller’s already precarious position as one of the very few major artists to emerge from mainstream comics since the early ’70s. His work is undercut by grievous flaws, and they are flaws that appear to be part and parcel of Miller’s artistic gestalt, rather than technical difficulties that might be corrected in the future. Ronin provoked in me not only disappointment, but also a sense of pessimism with regards to Miller’s future career: he seems headed straight for an arid no man’s land of mannered, disjunctive storytelling put in the service of second- and third- hand experience. Ronin is but the latest stop on the way.

Ronin’s central conflict is between a young samurai warrior and the demon that kills his master, thus shaming him and turning him into a ronin — a samurai with­out a master, a roamer. The focus of the battle is a Stormbringer-like sword: it is the only thing that can kill the demon, who wants it for reasons you can imagine. An added twist is that the sword can kill the demon only once it has spilled the blood of a good man. After 20 years of roaming, the warrior confronts the demon and slays him in a grotesquely logical manner that satis­fies the sword’s peculiar requirement; at the same time, his and the demon’s souls are fused to the sword.

Fuse-the-Sword

Ronin #1 (July 1983) written by Frank Miller, colored by Lynn Varley, lettered by John Costanza ©DC Comics.

With the help of Miller’s rapid-fire nar­rative techniques, the story barrels along at a rapid clip. But the kinetic energy is built on nothing very solid, and little of the story stays with the reader as a result. As he did in Daredevil, Miller will sacrifice almost anything for effect, and this squeezes from the material any impact beyond immediate shock value.

Let us begin with character and motiva­tion. Miller set himself a formidable task by placing the story in Medieval Japan, a culture that, despite Kurosawa revivals and Shogun, remains profoundly alien to the Western spirit. This is not an insurmount­able problem, but Miller doesn’t even come within a stone’s throw of solving it. He writes the young samurai as a dour, ethically-obsessed, somewhat dim fellow, and then seeks to ease the cliché by giving his aged mentor a more earthy, with-it appeal. I don’t know if playing the samurai within the classic clichés and then mocking him through his master is such a sharp idea: we’re immediately alienated from the ronin, whom we regard as something of a humorless clod. Worse, Miller’s often clumsy verbal jousting reflects a contempo­rary cynicism that is most distracting: some of the mid-battle banter would not be out of place in Spider-Man. (Or Daredevil.) Easi­ly the most leaden attempt at levity occurs when the young samurai begins to prate about his duties and his training, and the older samurai tartly quiets him with, “Oh, shut up.” True, the book needs humor: it’s the most humorless comic I’ve read in quite some time. But the attempts at wit here are terribly clumsy and labored, as if Miller had sensed a need for something to redeem the Oriental sententiousness, but wasn’t quite aware of what.

quite-aware-of-what

Ronin #1 (July 1983) written by Frank Miller, colored by Lynn Varley, lettered by John Costanza ©DC Comics.

The Japanese notions of uncompromis­ing honor and responsibility give the impetus to the ronin’s actions, but this imposes on the character a tediously linear line of action. Once the premise is estab­lished, we know he must kill the demon, and that’s that. Miller sets up two dramatic situations that might lead to a fuller psychological subtext for the book, but dismisses one out of hand and gives the other short shrift. First, there is the idea that the ronin has been shamed by his failure and must carry that burden with him until he has expunged it by ridding the world of the entity that caused this situa­tion. But the concept of shame — or its Western equivalent, guilt — is quickly disposed of after the initial shock, and never resurfaces. Second, there is the idea of the magical sword that must be soiled with the blood of an innocent — a potent if blatant symbol for sacrifice, in both the literal and the abstract sense. But Miller throws the idea away after teasing the reader with the suggestion that the ronin might slay a woman and child he has just rescued. Then, at the climax of the battle with the demon, Miller suddenly pulls out the by-now forgotten conceit and has the ronin slay the demon by plunging the sword through his own body and into that of the demon. It’s an, uh, striking image, but the notion of sacrificing innocents had more of a moral resonance than this gruesome trick; at the least, keeping it around as a possibility would have given the narrative a little more tension.

The first half of the book is a stage-setter, true. But even so, there is no reason for the lack of dimension Miller has imposed on it. I can’t imagine that Miller will be able to pick up his character a full sixth of the way into his story and give him any kind of subtext; in fact, the clumsy attempts at characterization (the old warrior) here and his track record with Daredevil lead me to suspect that it won’t get any better.

The artwork is thoughtfully designed and meticulously executed, and virtually none of it is any good. Miller still draws the human body very badly; his characters never balance or move correctly. Now, in a book that is mostly composed of fight scenes, it would seem quite a liability to have an artist who doesn’t draw action well. In a sense, though, Miller doesn’t draw action at all. I had begun to notice this in Daredevil, and it, is even truer of Ronin: Miller’s panels, individually, are usually immobile. They display people posing before and after the action; every move­ment happens between the panels. Signifi­cantly, the few panels where the characters actually do move are among the worst con­structed and least convincing.

Constructed-and-least-convincing

Ronin #1 (July 1983) written by Frank Miller, colored by Lynn Varley, lettered by John Costanza © 2008 DC Comics.

Miller’s much-vaunted story-telling skills have also collapsed into a set of annoying mannerisms. Why must nearly every panel be either the length or the width of the page? It’s as if he had set himself the task of drawing his story on the wood of a picket fence, alternating between horizontal and vertical sections. One result is that the reader is pulled along at terrifying speed. The narrow slivers of art leave no room for the eye to wander, and it is unceremoni­ously shoved from one panel into the next; whenever I hit the occasional “normal” panel, I felt like stopping to catch my breath.

Even if one makes a forcible effort to stay with one panel for more than the two seconds it takes to actually scan the elements in it, one is hardly rewarded. None of the panels are composed in any way that is aesthetically pleasing. How could it be? You can’t draw anything in a space that’s 10 times taller than it is wide. When Berni Krigstein subdivided a page into slivers of time, he had the sense to establish, in a normal image, the location and characters, before using his exquisite sense of timing and design to zoom in on a particularly important detail or moment of the action. Miller will render whole se­quences, from establishing shot to climax, in these oppressively designed panels, and the effect is alienating.

Miller’s command of perspective is also still shaky. On the double page spread showing the superscientific Aquarius Com­plex, for instance, the Manhattan streets and buildings splay out as if it they had been reproduced from a warped photo­graph. (No, it’s not stylization or forced perspective; it’s bad perspective.) Miller cleverly gets around this problem, though, by rarely trying to draw depth; when his panels aren’t entirely flat, he draws them in layers, like a 3-D comic.

3-D-Comic

Ronin #1 (July 1983) written by Frank Miller, colored by Lynn Varley, lettered by John Costanza © 2008 DC Comics.

The fuzzed perspective and the picket-fence continuity put the reader in a perm­anent state of spatial dislocation, which is made even worse when he enters the Aquarius Complex and finds everything built on platforms or floating in the air. As a result, when the demon invades the center and chases toward the protagonist, the tension is sapped by the fact that we haven’t the foggiest idea where he is, where he’s going, or how fast he’s getting there. This is bad storytelling by definition.

Much has been said about Miller’s devel­oping an entirely new way of rendering for Ronin—in fact, three of them. The first one is nothing more or less than an artless mess of crude cross-hatching. Ronin is being done as a full-color title, with the infinite variations of hue attendant; why, then, does Miller choose to do his modeling with cross-hatching, a system developed to work around early printers’ inability to work in con­tinuous tones? Well, one reason might be the fact that if Miller didn’t throw on a few layers of scratchy stuff, his bad drawing would be embarrassingly ob­vious. Any aspiring artist knows that if you have a mediocre draw­ing, it will look less blatantly mediocre the more lines you put on it. Miller’s cross-hatching muddies the shapes and design enough to let him get away with quite a bit of bad drawing, and “stylization” carries him the rest of the way.

rest-of-the-way

Ronin #1 (July 1983) written by Frank Miller, colored by Lynn Varley, lettered by John Costanza © 2008 DC Comics.

In interviews, Miller has ex­plained that he has borrowed much of his technique on Ronin from Japanese comics, with which I am not familiar. I can only conclude either that the Japanese comics that inspired him are bad, or that something got lost in the translation. Considering Miller’s track record with Kane, Krigstein, and his other misappropriated influences, I incline toward the latter.

(Incidentally, Miller also plays with this technique on a truly awful series of two-page pin-ups of “Great Fictional Detec­tives” or somesuch he is doing for Ms. Tree’s Thrilling Detective Adventures. I can only conjecture that he used this idiotic assignment to practice the technique, take the money, and run. It’s such an obvious, crass ploy on Eclipse’s part to use Miller’s name that Ms. Tree’s editor certainly deserves what he got, and any reader seduced into picking up this silly little comic on the basis of Miller’s name deserves what he gets.)

It is in the second half of Ronin #1, which is set in the future, that the latter two rendering styles manifest themselves. The second is merely, more or less, the first one, but with a thicker pen. The third, however, is the surprise of the lot: It’s Moebius. Not Moebius-inspired or Moebius-derived, but Moebius, period. Miller has told me in personal conversa­tion that he realizes he allowed Moebius’s style to take over too completely in the first issue, and hopes to fix this in future issues. I certainly hope so, for the duplication is astonishing.

Some artists have been able to absorb another artist’s style and do wondrous things with it; Joost Swarte’s spookily accu­rate duplication of the late Herge is the best example. Miller has no such luck. The main problem here is the fact that the Moebius panels and the non-Moebius panels clash frightfully. The former are fair­ly graceful and cleanly delineated, with few of the epileptic pen strokes that characterize the rest of the book; the latter are overdrawn and, well, ugly. When Miller goes in for a close-up of a character, for in­stance, he draws and draws until the paper almost groans under the weight of the planes and angles, each one defined by a pattern of cross-hatching and scratching; yet it fails because he is not sensitive to facial structure or expression.

We are now at the heart of Miller’s prob­lems as an artist: his drawing is all tech­nique and no observation. None of Miller’s panels gives any indication that he ever sat down and studied a face, a building, the way a fold of clothing falls on a robe, a leaf. I don’t mean to say that Miller doesn’t draw from life: in fact, Miller has quite a reputa­tion for scrupulous research. (Ed Hannigan once lampooned Miller’s alleged habit of scaling the Manhattan rooftops just to get the water towers right for Daredevil.) What I mean is that he seems totally unable to translate what he sees onto the page. Somewhere between his eye and his hand, reality runs afoul of his technique. This is a common syndrome among artists who start off by developing a technique. When they finally get around to learning how to draw, the hand has developed its set of motions, and refuses to be coerced into the infinite subtleties demanded by the act of creating drawings based on observation. (Here we have, incidentally, one of the evils of the American comics system. Because of the financial structure, it forces young artists immediately to develop a set of techniques: one has to churn out the stuff if one doesn’t want to starve, and it’s easier to learn a technique than to learn how to draw. By the time the artist is being paid well enough to slow down — if he ever gets that far — his techniques have killed off his ability to traduce his own sensibilities onto the page. This is why people like Jim Starlin and Marshall Rogers will almost certainly never draw well.)

Ronin is, despite all this, a very good-looking comic. Some of the credit for this goes to DC’s production department and printers (and to Miller for insisting that it be done this way), but a large part goes to the colorist Lynn Varley. On the evidence of Ronin, Varley is, quite simply, the best colorist in American comics. Most other colorists have, when confronted with the full process separations, tried to do the art­ist’s job for him by playing around with modeling and airbrush effects, while ignor­ing the fact that the greatest benefit of the full process is the acquisition is a more varied, and therefore subtler, palette.

Varley (along with, I presume, Miller) has made three important and good deci­sions in coloring Ronin. First, she has avoided the use of graduated coloring almost entirely, allowing the art to indicate shape and movement. Second, she has favored earth colors, using great quantities of greys and browns, and toning down primaries and secondaries, except when she is aiming for an effect. (For instance, the Aquarius complex is colored a bright, bilious green, giving it the lustre of a monstrous green spider crouched on the ashes of the dead city.) Third, she has deliberately restricted herself further by do­ing most of every page in one or at most two basic colors, but using the process col­or to give herself an infinity of shades within these colors.

Subtler,-Palette

Ronin #1 (July 1983) written by Frank Miller, colored by Lynn Varley, lettered by John Costanza © 2008 DC Comics.

The coloring is extremely well thought out and even better executed. I initially read the strip in black-and-white Xeroxes, and many sequences that were confusing in that incarnation take on a new clarity in the colored version. Specifically, Varley has given each location in the story a specific color-code, the background color clues in the reader as to where the action is taking place. This does nothing to alleviate Miller’s problems with spatial relationships (you still can’t really tell who is where in relation to whom), but gives the strip a sense of location I had missed earlier. It is also difficult to overstate the amount of mood Varley has imposed on what is essen­tially frigid and poorly felt art. The color­ing adds a dimension that is not at all pre­sent in the art itself. The medieval Japan scenes are colored in antique-looking earth colors that flare into expressionistic reds and yellows in the heat of battle. The interior of the superscientific Aquarius complex is rendered in pale, antiseptic greens that frequently carry over onto the faces of the humans within, giving them an unhealthy, artificial sheen.

The idea behind the second half of the story is complex enough that it is not worth summarizing; if you’ve read it, you don’t need a summary, and if you haven’t read it, there’s no point in spoiling the climax for you. I feel less easy discussing the story here than I did the art, since Miller has yet to show his full hand. Moreover, once I told Miller I was reviewing Ronin, he asked me to do a second review once the series was over. He may regret that request after reading this one, but I have agreed to do so. You may thus expect part two of this review in about 10 months, somewhere around Journal #90.

A few remarks, though. The switch from the past to the future in the middle of the first issue is a good, startling trick, and if there are more jolts like this in upcoming issues, the book will certainly have a good deal of energy. (Quality? That will depend on whether these ideas are any good, of course.) I am curious as to how the samurai-code-of-honor-demon stuff of the first half will blend with the ESP-post-holocaust-stuff of the second half. Frankly, my hopes are not very high, but we shall see.

Some influences in the writing stand out. I would venture to say that Miller may have borrowed some Heinlein books from Chris Claremont, although, for all I know, he may never have read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (the computer who has created a visual image for itself on a televi­sion screen) or “Waldo” (the crippled lead character who uses mechanical appen­dages).

My reaction to the storyline is ultimately this: It’s a clever, if derivative conceit, and it kept me turning the pages. But cleverness is shallow, and I don’t trust Ronin to deliver anything deeper. I think that the first issue gives away Miller’s aims if not his actual way of executing them.

Ronin is a gorgeous package, produced and controlled by a single creator. In that, it is a step in the right direction for Amer­ican comics. Ronin will teach the main­stream companies that they can make a huge amount of money without stealing their creators’ ideas, saddling them with unsympathetic and reactionary editors, and printing the material on toilet paper. Miller deserves credit for using his clout to effect this kind of change, and he deserves credit for trying to do something different. I just wish I thought it was any good.

FILED UNDER: , ,

39 Responses to Run of the Miller

  1. Tom Scioli says:

    “The narrow slivers of art leave no room for the eye to wander, and it is unceremoni­ously shoved from one panel into the next; whenever I hit the occasional “normal” panel, I felt like stopping to catch my breath.”

    It’s a perfect description of Miller’s strategy of speeding up then slowing down the pace of the reading experience. Even though the comic wasn’t to his taste, Kim’s observations in this piece were razor sharp. This is a really interesting time capsule. I guess in 1983 “Lone Wolf and Cub” wasn’t well-known, even among the critical community, because it would be the first thing mentioned in a Ronin review written today. The expectations for an action scene were different back then, too, as the type of action in Ronin has become the mainstream approach in American adventure comics.

    Excellent choice from the archive and a nice tribute.

  2. I don’t agree with all of this piece and I like Ronin a fair bit but this:

    “Ronin provoked in me not only disappointment, but also a sense of pessimism with regards to Miller’s future career: he seems headed straight for an arid no man’s land of mannered, disjunctive storytelling put in the service of second- and third- hand experience”

    is crazy prescient.

  3. R. Fiore says:

    Yeah, all that came after it is The Dark Knight Returns, Elektra: Assassin, Batman: Year One, Daredevil: Born Again . . .

    I’m going to have to take anoter look at Ronin someday. I thought it sucked dog dicks the first time around.

  4. John says:

    As with his precision takedown of Don McGregor’s writing, Kim was absolutely right—-Lynn Varley has certainly long been the better part of the collaboration with Miller.

  5. Frank Santoro says:

    “The artwork is thoughtfully designed and meticulously executed, and virtually none of it is any good.” – Kim did have a way with words, didn’t he? LOL!

  6. steven samuels says:

    Yes. Thompson’s writing never disappointed. But sad to say he did get this part dead wrong:

    “Ronin will teach the main­stream companies that they can make a huge amount of money without stealing their creators’ ideas, saddling them with unsympathetic and reactionary editors…”

  7. Tim says:

    This was quite interesting to read even though it felt kind of bitter. This review is so harsh it actually made me feel sorry for Miller, haha. Anyway, I think a lot of what is said about the art and storytelling here applies to Kirby, Steranko, and most other innovators working for DC and Marvel – overworked style vs. underworked anatomy and perspective, silly writing, etc. I just don’t know if it makes much sense to criticize genre work that way. I often felt the Comics Journal was measuring people like Todd MacFarlane by the standards of Art Spiegelman, and I just don’t get the point of that.

  8. Tim says:

    It’s understandable that in 1983 it wasn’t possible to foresee the shift in quality that came with the Dark Knight Returns, Year One and Born Again I guess … I always thought Ronin was quite visionary regarding the artwork, but the plot really was just very confusing. I’m not sure if Miller had actually written anything by then that really hinted at his talent as a writer. Of course, if you compared TDKR to stuff like MAUS, you could argue it’s just worthless. But then again, this comparison doesn’t really make sense to me …

  9. matthew says:

    ‘We are now at the heart of Miller’s prob­lems as an artist: his drawing is all tech­nique and no observation. None of Miller’s panels gives any indication that he ever sat down and studied a face, a building, the way a fold of clothing falls on a robe, a leaf…What I mean is that he seems totally unable to translate what he sees onto the page.’

    This doesn’t seem a fair criticism to me. I think it was Matt Seneca who observed recently how refreshing it was to see (mainstream superhero) comics images that were NOT photo referenced, but were totally pictures from the artist’s imagination…I concur, and feel that Miller’s style served his story very well.

    Did Mr. Thompson ever do that follow-up review?

  10. Jaz says:

    My earliest JOURNALs were from this era [I first encountered RONIN as a DC ad on the back cover of my first TCJ, #79, matter of fact--which had the "Crazed Ninja Bitches in Trenchcoats" review, if memory serves?], and it seemed like a lot of reviews were bent on exposing the shortcomings of deified fan favorites of the day–Grell, Starlin, etc. As in, “this is built up to possess greatness, when it’s deeply flawed and mediocre at best.” I know my own elitist tendencies are in part built on a foundation of having my young mind blown by JOURNAL critics steering my attention to my fanboy idol’s feet of clay–junk culture is certainly enjoyable, I’ll be the first to maintain, but these reviews really made me question whether my time could be spent on better comics! As in, sure, you can read McFarlane AND Spiegelman, but steady exposure to one may sour the benefit of the other–and this may not occur to the larger audience who not only reads JUST McFarlane, but also may think of it as the best they can get?

    [Does anybody remember where the Hernandez brothers interview appeared where one of the Bros, in response to being asked what he thinks of AMERICAN FLAGG!, says something along the lines of, this is being praised as the best that comics can do, when in a better world it would be recognized as an acceptable/mediocre/average accomplishment compared to REALLY superior work, or something like that? I think of this statement often...]

  11. Jaz says:

    [I may not remember my long-ago reading of RONIN very clearly--as Miller's #1 denigrater, I have no desire to revisit one of his bigger messes!--so forgive me if I'm getting the details wrong, but...]

    I’ve never heard anybody comment on this: Does anybody think the plot/situations of the SAMURAI JACK cartoon kinda resembles the beginning of RONIN [samurai vs. demon, action moves into future, etc.]?

  12. patrick ford says:

    What Thompson was talking about is abstraction has to be grounded in an understanding of proper perspective, structure, and anatomy. Miller cut in line without laying the ground work, and as a result his work is a bunch of affected mannerisms. He’s more or less the Brian DePalma, or Tarintino of comic book artists.

  13. zack soto says:

    Yes! That always sort of bothered me a little. The SJ scenario is both sort of fair game b/c it’s riffing on cliche but it’s also simultaneously very specific.

  14. Tim says:

    Wouldn’t you agree the same goes for Jack Kirby? Affected mannerisms, no understanding of proper anatomy and perspective? I would say this is one thing I learnt from American comic books, all this doesn’t matter so much if you know what you’re doing … I totally understand people who prefer Spiegelman over Miller, or Haneke over Tarantino, but you just can’t say Miller and Tarantino wouldn’t know exactly what they are doing either.

  15. Kim was a big fan of several of Brian De Palma’s films, of course.

  16. Jeet Heer says:

    “I often felt the Comics Journal was measuring people like Todd MacFarlane by the standards of Art Spiegelman, and I just don’t get the point of that.” That’s note quite fair. When judging a Frank Miller” and “I totally understand people who prefer Spiegelman over Miller, or Haneke over Tarantino, but you just can’t say Miller and Tarantino wouldn’t know exactly what they are doing either”
    I think this is a strawman argument. If you look at Kim’s criticism in detail (or that of the other Comics Journal critics) the point of comparison was rarely Miller versus Spiegelman or MacFarlane versus Spiegelman (the one exception is a Gary Groth piece which did make the Spiegelman/Miller contrast). Typically, with Kim, the point of comparison was between American genre comics (Miller, X-Men etc) and European genre comics (say Moebius or Herrmann). Kim thought, rightly, that the Europeans were just better at creating middle-brow genre entertainment. He wanted to raise Miller not to the level of Spiegelman but to a mid-level European adventure album, say Hugo Pratt. That’s not an unfair point of comparison. For me as well, MacFarlane failed not just compared to Spiegelman (they’re hardly in the same league) but to Kirby and Ditko.

  17. A lot of people who like Miller’s 1980s work don’t care for Ronin at all.

    Those reading these comments should realize that Patrick considers Miller (and Alan Moore, for that matter) a talent on a par with Don McGregor and Michael Fleisher. It’s a very harsh view, and I don’t think it’s a very thoughtful one. But then, he also lumps Miller in with De Palma and Tarantino, both of whom are far more sophisticated talents. I just shake my head.

  18. patrick ford says:

    The people who don’t care for Ronin, don’t care for it because Batman isn’t in it.

  19. Tim says:

    You’re right, I was digressing with the remark about McFarlane/Spiegelman and that’s probably not an argument that actually applies to this review … I just mentioned it because this review has this sort of fanatic vibe to it. I also agree Ronin is flawed, but I still would insist that things like a “proper understanding of anatomy and perspective” in an academic sense are not a valid category here and Miller knew what he was doing. And if you say Thompson tried to raise Miller to the level of Hugo Pratt, I guess he was actually quite successful (Dark Knight Returns etc.)?

  20. R. Fiore says:

    My objection to Ronin was that it was dumb science fiction. Also, I don’t believe he’d done Batman when he did Ronin. I kept mum about it because I was still on the pro-Miller bandwagon, and as I note above there were numerous post-Ronin Millers I quite enjoyed. I didn’t turn off to him until Sin City and Give Me Liberty.

  21. That’s probably the case for some, but a big generalization. For me, and it’s been a long time since I read Ronin, I think it was a case of Miller wanting to move onto the next phase of his career as a guy who creates his own stuff, only what he came up with was a mashup of then-recent influences (Moebius, Lone Wolf & Cub) that he had gulped down but hadn’t really digested/synthesized.

  22. sam sharpe says:

    Kim does nail this review, but the things that he finds as faults I’ve always admired about early(-ish) Miller comics. Reading Miller’s early work is like being in the back row of a black-box theater. There is barely any set and you can’t really make out the actor’s faces too well, but the dialogue and the pacing carry you though. If you look at Dark Knight Returns there are almost no backgrounds–it’s more like a play than a movie. Where Mr. Thompson was right on the nose was seeing where this would lead.

  23. Ian Harker says:

    Ronin was a bit limp but it’s an important work (starting point?) to a history Frank’s concept of “Fusion Comics.”

    It remains the Miller work that I “want to like the best”.

  24. Billiard Blatz says:

    Intellectuals will never understand the simple pleasure of a comic book. Get off the mainstream’s ass. Nobody gives a shit about Blankets or Chris Ware anymore. It’s about entertainment.

  25. Robert Cook says:

    I had stopped reading superhero and mainstream comics in the early 70s, becoming interested in the undergrounds and other cultural phenomena of the time. I came to Ronin because of the hype. I was not a reader of Miller’s Daredevil and not predisposed to have an opinion toward his work.

    I thought it sucked. The drawing is for shit and the story is cliched pastiche. Sometime before Ronin appeared there had been a festival of Japanese samurai movies at the uptown Thalia theater, (near me, and I attended a few showings).
    I may be wrong but I always guessed that Miller attended the festival, became taken with the genre, and learned what precious little he knew about samurais and the larger Japanese culture in which they existed from his viewings of a few movies. If I’m wrong, I can’t be blamed for assuming this, given RONIN.

    BTW, I think Kim’s use of the word “traduce” in the review is erroneous, unless there’s a little-used definition for the word I’m unfamiliar with.

  26. Robert Cook says:

    Oh, Kim’s takedown of RONIN was more fair than the work deserves.

  27. patrick ford says:

    My experience exactly. The ’80s were a time when I was young enough that for some reason if there was a loud enough buzz I felt I ought to at least have a look. The ’80s cured me of that. If I’ve missed some great mainstream super hero comic book since then, I can live with that.

  28. Tim says:

    Cool … the only thing that bugs me a little here is how you’d never find these condescending comments when people keep on raving about how they unironically enjoy the most obscure works of Kirby, Ditko or Steranko … and I can’t see the logic behind that. Maybe I’m wrong and I’m just imagining an agenda where there is none (and I would have to apologize for installing another straw man here).

    Otherwise, someone please explain to me based on what aesthetic reasoning Kirby and Ditko were genius artists and writers while Frank Miller isn’t, because I would like to understand it.

  29. Will says:

    If you ask me presenting this article from the archive is a strange way to eulogize this person.

    Kim Thompson should without a doubt be remembered as a vital contributor to the culture of comics for his work in Fantagraphics, and tcj but this article reeks of “pretentious douche-bag” and I don’t even really like Ronin that much.

    I think Thompson is very unfair with his assessment of the art work (I personally always thought the book looked pretty cool but was lacking in the story and character department). There’s nothing wrong with not liking someone’s drawing style but to pick it apart in such detail with such calculated aggression and such an heir of superiority, you get the sense that the reviewer’s energy is being wasted on being overly critical where maybe that energy could be better applied elsewhere creatively. Did Kim ever draw a comic in his life? Or write one? Maybe he should have instead of picking on people who have no hope of understanding how to interpret his critique in a positive way.

    Don’t get me wrong Frank Miller is an idiot and an apologist for the USA’s brutal policing of “globalization” across the world (and he’s the worst kind of apologist because he’s a metaphorical apologist [See Holy Terror] who turns his apologies into little bite sized comic books children and man-children alike gobble up and digest) but I have to side with him on this particular –frivolous– case.

    It’s not the greatest comic in the world but I think the review goes way overboard.

  30. Tim Hodler says:

    This was actually only one of four Kim Thompson articles we republished, selected to represent a wide range of the kinds of things he wrote. You can find the other pieces he wrote for the website (or which we republished) here.

  31. Greg Fontaine says:

    The term is “air of superiority.”

  32. Will says:

    Who’se the heir to that grammatical rulebook?

  33. Greg Fontaine says:

    To air is human.

  34. steven samuels says:

    Actually, Miller’s primary inspiration for the story was always supposed to have been the “Lone Wolf & Cub” manga mentioned by the others above. Samurai movies may have been a secondary influence, if at all.

    Been years since I’ve looked at it, but I do remember liking it back in the day. Agree with Fiore that “Sin City” is the real dividing line in his work.

  35. Robert Cook says:

    Or maybe he saw SHOGUN ASSASSIN, the mashup for release in the Western world of a couple of the Japanese movie adaptations of the “Lone Wolf and Cub” series. (I saw it at a grindhouse on 42nd Street in the early 80s, and it is fucking cool…very violent and bloody, it goes without saying.

  36. Alek Trencz says:

    “You have two choices: submit to me… or die.”

    “You are wrong… there is a third choice.”

    Shing. Splat.

  37. Matt Duncan says:

    Yeah, this is dead right. Miller didn’t get bad until after the first Sin City series. Also, it is hardly prescient to point out how an artist is going to get bad. Most artists’ early work contains the germ of their worst stuff.

  38. Billy says:

    I just read RONIN but I don’t really get the ending? Can somebody give me an idea to what it meant with the ronin and billy?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>