Ah, Frank Miller. What a guy! Not satisfied with being among the comic book industry's all-time great creators, the writer/artist extraordinaire spends ALL of his free time watching badass kung fu movies and studying martial arts!

OK, OK. That might be a slight exaggeration. But he did research the holy heck out of 'em during his legendary run on Marvel Comics' Daredevil, along with shrewd observations of the sword-swinging samurai's stringent life code.

What most captured his imagination was the ronin, a fallen (often disgraced) warrior without any kind of master. Likening members of contemporary society to these free-drifting, directionless assailants, Miller started to develop one of his less celebrated, though most accomplished, works.


Published by DC Comics between 1983 and 1984, the six-issue series, written and drawn by Miller, with painted artwork by Lynn Varley, takes place in a foreboding near-future incarnation of New York City, wherein a ronin from feudal Japan (along with a geisha-impersonating demon) has been released after eight excruciating centuries of captivity. Trapped inside a sword, no less.

Agat, the most repugnant of demons, is responsible for murdering the nameless ronin's master. (Typical punishment for pillaging a supernatural entity's blade, I assume.) Both the rogue samurai and shape-shifting evil spirit are thrust upon a lawless, ramshackle metropolis inhabited by squatters, mutants, and good-for-nothing scoundrels. Recipe for disaster? More like a cookbook for chaos.

Trying to fix the dire state of public affairs is the Aquarius Corporation. Its proposed solution for a world teetering on the verge of apocalyptic war: Biocircuitry. Supervised by an artificial intelligence system called Virgo (I know, what could possibly go wrong?), the company is developing electronics capable of self-organization and repair.

Meanwhile, Billy Challas, one of Aquarius' employees, has been experiencing strange, vivid dreams about the newly arrived ronin, his slaughtered master, and the murderous demon. Born without any limbs, though boasting telekinetic powers, Billy deliberates his outlandish visions with Virgo. He has no idea what's inducing them, nor any theories concerning their relevance.

Luckily enough, Virgo uncovers news of a bloodsword recently sold at auction. And guess what? It caused an explosion after being struck by a laser; the research center responsible seemingly ignored the "this sword has mystic powers" warning dangling from the price tag.

So the ancient blade has already claimed a multitude of human life and released a bloodthirsty demon from eternal captivity. Yikes! That's one immoral auction...not even an episode of Storage Wars could offer a bidding war bearing that level of depravity.

Anyway, back to Agat. He's been keeping rather busy since arriving in the Big Apple, negotiating weapon deals with the Japanese, slaughtering innocent people, oh, and mimicking his victims' appearance in hope of furthering his diabolical conquests. Put simply, he's become a quite dreadful nuisance.

The ronin, meanwhile, hasn't adapted to his new surroundings quite so efficiently. He's met exactly one person: An aging hippie named Head. After offering leadership, the tree-hugger has instead decided to sell the skilled assassin as "The Elvis of Violence." His asking price: Some beer, rice, and a bed to sleep in.

But Agat has no interest in dubious business transactions. All he wants is the pesky ronin dead.

From this point readers are treated to a blistering bonanza of violence, cyborgs, psychics...basically, anything deemed sufficiently awesome by a creator clad with complete freedom. The reason DC Comics permitted such zaniness? Industry politics.

Jim Shooter, then editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics, wanted Ronin to feature as part of the Marvel Graphic Novel series. But the book's more controversial content would've been compromised...for instance, leather-clad Nazi gang members might've fallen short of the final cut. Frank Miller was far from impressed...this was his book. A passion project. He wanted to do things his way.

On the flip side, Jenette Kahn, publisher of DC Comics, was willing to accommodate these creative demands. Offering to publish the book, she offered zero editorial interference, so Miller was free to craft his brash, pulpy, batshit bonkers new project.

A good bloody job, too, because Ronin represents a hugely significant component of the illustrious creator's career.

Remember the cool kung fu stuff I mentioned earlier? Well, that wasn't quite the extent of Ronin's inspiration. Far from it, actually.

The classic manga series Kozure Okami-later translated into English and published as Lone Wolf and Cub-offered major inspiration. Though Miller was unable to actually read it at the time (the abovementioned English language edition was still but a twinkle in Dark Horse Comics' eye), Kozure Okami's influence is seen in both Ronin's artistic and narrative composition. Echoes of French-Belgian comics also resonate in the dense, unrelenting layouts; detail-lavished depictions of a broken NYC provide a fascinating glimpse at a bleaker, scratchier incarnation of Moebius' artistic output.

Such a mish-mash of influence (coupled with a peculiar sci-fi/samurai premise) was never likely to result in a book that pleased everybody. Writing for The Comics Journal in 1983, Kim Thompson had precious few kind words to offer the creator or his ambitious project, claiming "Miller's work is undercut by grievous flaws, and they are flaws that appear to be part and parcel of his artistic gestalt, rather than technical difficulties that might be corrected in the future."


Nonetheless, Ronin was a hit, injecting energized inspiration to the actively evolving medium and its creators. Not least in terms of visual extravagance-among DC Comics' first prestige format titles, each issue was printed on deluxe, art-embellishing paper stock, offering 48 pages of ad-free, uninterrupted story.

Rumors persist to this day about film/TV incarnations of Ronin. Officially acknowledged interest stretches back to 1998, when a big screen adaptation was (purportedly) in development at New Line Cinema. Directors including Darren Aronofsky have since endured thwarted efforts to make the project a reality, while more recent proclamations of progress involve the likes of SyFy adapting the property.

Will it ever actually happen? As with all things Hollywood, a pinch of salt must be taken whenever "news" breaks. But in the right hands, there's little doubt that Ronin's gritty visuals and high concept story would make for quite the big (or small) screen experience.

One thing is certain: Frank Miller, along with Lynn Varley, concocted a remarkable comic book odyssey in the early '80s, and though overshadowed by later, more commercially celebrated works, it stands to this day as a towering triumph of dark, edgy, steadfast storytelling.

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