Publisher: DC Comics
Date: 1983 original miniseries, reprinted in 1995 in book format
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Lynn Varley

Why Ronin?

Frank Miller is perhaps most known for his Sin City series and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - this gem gets frequently overlooked. As I was aware of Frank Miller but simply could not get into Sin City (something I seek to remedy shortly) and had no interest in the world of Batman, I was glad to find Ronin, a story completely separate from either the Sin City world or Gotham. The vaguely anachronistic and downbeat front cover of a dispirited samurai dripping filth and sporting strange chrome armour (not to mention what appear to be grafted arms) on the cover intrigued me as well, and I ended up with a very enjoyable read.

The Story (spoiler-free)

The story of Ronin revolves around childlike, gentle Billy, a natural telepath/telekinetic mutant working for Aquarius, a megalithic corporate entity, in a world set somewhere in the dark future. Outside the sterile, nanotech-driven company (and others like it around the world), the cities are taken over by gangs of all sorts, organized by race, creed, gender, racial bias - you name it, there's a gang for it; barter and force has replaced civilised transactions; and in the dark parts of lower cities lair sun-sensitive, flesh-eating Morloks.

Billy, in addition to his mental powers, was born physically deficient - he possesses no arms or legs. He also has a simple mind, or at least so it seems. His best friend and mother-figure is Virgo, the AI for Aquarius, who not only runs the air filtration systems, elevators and security protocols, but also helps design and create Aquarius' products - which happen to be self-repairing, remotely controlled weapons. Aquarius seeks an edge on the market, a faster way to make human thoughts into the weeapons' actions...

Meanwhile in ancient Japan (no, really), a loyal samurai defends his lord from minions of a shapeshifting demon, who seeks to procure the lord's blade. It is rumoured that the sword is the only weapon able to destroy demonkind. After a brief flurry of bloody action the warrior succeeds and his master is saved...for now.

Finding out how these two stories intertwine (and they do, as the book hops viewpoints from Dark Future™ to Age of the Samurai™ repeatedly) I will leave up to the reader. But it will involve memory implantation, demonic possession, a confused love affair, cannibalism, swordfighting and utter chaos and destruction. In the end, nothing is what it appears to be, and the ending seems only a beginning.

The Art

The book's art is characterized by artwork that fluctuates from stylistic, sparse and powerful - combining bold strokes with panels accenting a single color blend (for example one panel may consist solely of shades of purple, the next one pure red, the next one pastel and washed out with one strong accent on it) - to busy, inelegant and cramped. It is no coincidence that the former style is used to illustrate images of strength, tradition and individualism and the latter claustrophobia, pollution, weakness and (often) despair. Or if you like, think of a juxtaposition of a traditional tori with the squirming, glistening Machine of the Matrix. Ronin does it flawlessly with technique, color, and other effects I don't even know names of but which undoubtedly have to do with perceived color warmth and saturation.

Concluding Thoughts

Ronin is a wistful tale of honor, love, bravery and revenge. The subtle humor and wry touches compound the characters' motives and behaviour, so that they really seem alive, with actual agendas and personalities. Nobody seems particularly larger than life, but as the protagonists strive to overcome what's thrown up against them they approach closer to the ideal. A good read to be sure, either for Miller fans or for curious readers who want to start with a standalone book rather than a series (Sin City).

liveforever has pointed out that the show Samurai Jack borrows rather heavily from Ronin's setup. After reading the w/u's at that node this appears to be quite correct.
belgand points out that Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is perhaps more 'well-known' than Sin City; not having any DC Comics background myself, I am not sure this is true. At any rate, I have amended the first paragraph. As an aside, I am now reading the aforementioned book, and I recommend it even if you only have a vague idea of the Batman mythos.