Rōnin, Book One (July, 1983)
Creator, Writer, Artist – Frank Miller
Colorist – Lynn Varley
Letterer – John Costanza
Cover Price: $2.50
Rōnin is one of those books that has been on my to-read list for… ya know, I was gonna say “a few years”… but, in reality it’s been since the mid-1990’s. Not sure why I’ve never gotten to it… I suppose there just wasn’t all that much urgency. Came across the lot of it in various cheap-o bins throughout the past few years… which was surprising. This book might “scream” a lotta things… but cheap-o is not one of them!
What I know about Rōnin is limited. For the most part, everything I know is “backstage” stuff. Like how it was part of the catalyst for launching the Epic Comics imprint at Marvel… even though Frank decided to take his story to DC. I guess today I’ll actually start to find out what happens on the page.
We open in Feudal Japan with Lord Ozaki and his unnamed Samurai bodyguard as they visit a statuary or gravesite (in which the statues can actually communicate) far outside the safety of the castle. The bodyguard expresses discomfort at the thought that they are so open to attack… Ozaki, however, waves it off… treating the Samurai as something of a worrywart. Well… it just so happens the Samurai was right to worry. Several Assassins descend on the pair, and a bloody battle ensues.
Before long, the Samurai and Ozaki neutralize the threat… by killing the lot of ’em. At this point we are introduced to Lord Ozaki’s Bloodsword. It is his sacred blade and it appears to actually drink the blood of its victims. We learn that Ozaki had stolen it from its master, the demon Agat. While the sword grows in power each time it kills, the only way it can deal a fatal blow to Agat is if it takes the blood of the truly innocent beforehand. That’s gonna be important, methinks.
As the sun begins to set the pair returns to the city for a night of drinks and all around revelry. There, they are treated to a dancing display by an overly friendly Geisha. Ozaki decides he wants to “get to know” the girl a bit better, and dismisses his dining buddies… including his Samurai companion. Well, I don’t need to tell ya, that’s probably a bad idea.
As the Samurai waits outside he hears a scream… and not the likes of which one may let out in passion. He rushes to his Master’s side, only to find that the Geisha was, in reality, the demon Agat! Without even a second thought, the Samurai launches into battle. It does not go well.
Agat leaves the Samurai alive. He wasn’t after him anyway… he only wants the Bloodsword… which was not on Ozaki when he was murdered. Agat likely sees the Samurai as an asset in this situation… leaving him alive may just hasten the return of his blade. He does, however, leave the Samurai a “momento”, in the form of a facial scar.
We advance a bit to a scene where the Samurai is back at the statuary. By this point there is already a stone dedicated to his fallen Master Ozaki. He kneels before the monument and prepares to commit seppuku… when the stone speaks! The Samurai is told that he must live on to stop Agat from reclaiming the Bloodsword. The Samurai is now… a Ronin.
And now… for something completely different… we shift scenes to a futuristic cybernetic fortress called the Aquarius. Wha–? Inside we meet a man by the name of Billy. He appears to have just woken up… and has begun speaking to an A.I. called Virgo. He describes having just had a dream… the one we just read. Hmm…
Virgo informs him that someone is coming to visit… and displays an oncoming tank on its screen. Billy asks to listen in, and so Virgo reluctantly provides an audio-feed.
We now learn we’re in a dystopian New York… year, unknown. At this point you may wonder just how far-gone New York has become… well, another flick of the wrist will tell the tale.
Dang. Anyhoo… that globby green dome appears to be the Aquarius. Our visitors arrive, and are introduced to the Chief of Security, a Ms. Casey McKenna. She provides them (and us) with a tour… with a special emphasis placed on just how secure it appears to be. There are passwords, voice recognition… all sorts of safeguards. She takes them on an elevator ride… where they (and we) are formally introduced to the sentient computer…
Estelle Getty Virgo.
Virgo rolls video feed depicting our pal Billy… in his room, which is referred to as a “test womb”. He is utilizing these amazing cybernetic prosthetic arms. He is able to do so via mental command. Here is where we also learn that Billy was born limbless. After the demonstration, Billy tries to tell Virgo more about his “scary” dreams… however, before he can, he is squirted in the mouth with some foam that causes him to fall back asleep.
Which takes us back to Feudal Japan (15 years later). Here we meet a woman and her infant child. They are being approached by some of Agat’s men… and they’ve got bad intentions. Luckily, a wandering Ronin just happens to be nearby. From what research I’ve done, I come to find that this scene was originally written to be a fair amount longer… however, due to a revision, it was shortened. The Ronin handily takes down the would-be assailants.
He takes the woman and child deeper into the woods where they set camp. She begins asking his motivations… and he replies that he is to kill Agat. At this point, his Master’s image appears in the flames of their campfire to remind him that he needs to cut an innocent in order to seal the deal. This obviously makes the woman a bit uneasy. To which, the Ronin laughs… her baby is too small… and she… well, she’s not nearly innocent enough.
We very briefly return to New York. Virgo is trying to wake Billy up. We get the impression that she/it can read his thoughts/see his dreams. It is plainly stated that nowhere in Billy’s education is there a single thing about historical Japan. Billy mumbles on (with his eyes open, oddly…) about going to the Demon’s Castle for the “final battle”.
At the gates of the castle, the Ronin faces off with an over-sized rat. We get a pretty awesome battle between the two, which the Ronin is able to come out on top of. Of particular note… before the fight began, the rat asks if the Ronin “wants to be killed”… to which, the Ronin answers, “Yes”.
After the battle, the Ronin ascends up a long staircase. At the top stands the demon Agat himself. Agat find the situation he is currently in to be rather comical. He is somehow linked to the Bloodsword and is certain that it hasn’t been “properly fed” yet. That is to say, it has not consumed the blood of an innocent. Well… our Ronin’s got an answer for that, pal…
The Ronin runs himself through with the Bloodsword before sinking it into Agat. Before they perish, the demon concocts one last curse… one which will bind them forever. From here, we return to Billy… who is probably just as confused as we are. Panicking, he asks Virgo what it all means. Virgo shows him a news video about a sacred sword which recently surfaced. It was found in South America where it was used as an object of worship. It displays strange powers… such as incinerating anyone who may try and test it scientifically.
Suddenly it all starts to make sense to Billy. The Ronin and Agat are real… and they are still around, as souls… both of which seem to want him for one reason or another. At this point, the Aquarius’ intruder alarm begins to sound. The screen indicates that Agat has returned. Also… Billy’s face now has the same scar as the Ronin.
We watch as Agat is able to walk completely though all the security checks that were introduced to us during Casey’s tour. He breaks through every last one, and flies up the elevator shaft to face Virgo. He hurls himself through the glass goddess, and is now in the test womb. At this point… Billy and Virgo begin something of a melding.
Virgo’s circuits and cables and fuses and whatnot start to attach to Billy’s limbless body… providing him with the body parts he’d been lacking. Before Agat is able to grab our man, he flies off. At this point, the Aquarius… well, goes boom.
Agat is sent flying… and land atop a building. He shakes it off, and surveys his new “kingdom”. He’s heard a lot about New York… and know he knows it as home… where he will wait.
We wrap up this introductory chapter by watching as two New Yorkers raft down the East River, dodging heaps of garbage and crud along the way. The “go ashore” while discussing the “lost boy” Billy. They then walk off in search of beers… and we get our first shot of the man himself.
Well… that was unexpected! I went into this thinking it was going to be a simple samurai story… and for the first dozen or so pages, that’s exactly what I got. What came next, however… dang… I really wasn’t expecting that. For a bit there it felt as though I was playing through Assassin’s Creed… like limbless Billy was in the Animus, and reliving the memories of this Ronin. That was pretty cool, I guess… totally lit me up at first. Not sure where we’re gonna go from here, but I’m looking forward to seeing this one through somewhere down the line.
Gotta say… the art here was pretty spectacular. Frank Miller isn’t everyone’s cuppa tea… hell, he’s not always mine… but this was some awesome stuff. Loved the double-page spreads. Lynn Varley’s colors were equally spectacular. I’m not sure why, but I always thought that the single-issues of this series were in black and white. Really not sure why I thought that. Needless to say, I was quite pleasantly surprised upon opening the cover.
Now, while I’m ultimately leaning toward sorta-kinda digging the futuristic twist we get here… I’m thinking I may have preferred a straight samurai story. It’s more straightforward… and I feel also plays better with Frank Miller’s art style. The dystopian New York was neat and all… but didn’t quite feel “right”, though of course that may be by design… or perhaps an accident of design.
Can’t really say for sure how I feel about the direction of the story as a whole without reading a bit deeper into it. If I were to place this issue in a vacuum… I think I would say, story-wise, I was a bit disappointed. It’s all due to my preconceptions and expectations going in, so I can’t really say that it’s an indictment of the story quality. It’s just not what I was looking for. I went in expecting Feudal Japanese soap-opera and action… and I get something far different. My continued reading may (and likely will) change my mind. All I do know, is that I enjoyed reading about our nameless Ronin a lot more than Billy.
No ads this time around… on a count’a there weren’t any. This was a 48-page epic on special glossy (and unflatteringly photographed) paper. Overall… I’d say this is one folks should read… though, if I’m being honest, it’s probably best read in its collected-edition format. As far as I know, it’s still (and always?) in print. It’s also available digitally… though, it’s the deluxe edition.