Saturday, October 24, 2009

Holy Graphic Novels, Ronin!

I continue my march through the works of Frank Miller and Alan Moore with two totally different graphic novels: The Killing Joke and Ronin.

TKJ seems to be one of the most famous modern Batman stories, possibly just behind The Dark Knight Returns. The look of this book is wholly unlike that one. Where DKR's art was impressionistic, with evocative pencil strokes that contained little detail, TKJ's art is lush and rich. An afterward explains that the artist has retouched the book from its original form, but still, even if it was uncolored it would be gorgeous. The color isn't an afterthought, though... particularly in the nightmarish carnival scenes, it lends a hallucinatory quality to the proceedings. Even the pure whiteness of The Joker's face feels somehow new here.

I think that TKJ is one of the most attractive comic books I've read. I can't say that it has the best story... it's good, but doesn't really amaze.


I like the idea of showing The Joker's origin, but it feels kind of anticlimactic. I suppose this is inevitable - it would be really hard to come up with a story that matches the consistent menace and creepiness of the character - but given that, I almost would have preferred that they kept the mystery there. It does serve a really important purpose... by seeing what The Joker was like before his life collapsed and he turned to crime, the idea of him achieving redemption becomes feasible. Heh... it sure is easy to criticize and second-guess other writers. Anyways, it would have been cool to either have a more exciting origin story for The Joker, or found another hook that showed there was a real human underneath the pallor.

That idea of redemption, incidentally, was hands-down my favorite element of this book. It's kind of depressing that that the idea of a bad guy atoning for his crimes and turning good would seem so radical, or even that a good guy would reach out to someone with a plea to stop the endless cycle of violence. I think it's even more radical to tell that story in the context of a well-established comic world, rather than inventing new characters for it... it helps the book immediately impress on us the importance of what Batman is offering, since we know who Batman is, who The Joker is, and how fraught their relationship is. That final page, of course, is ambiguous... I don't think you can really know whether The Joker has given up or not. But even the possibility that he might have surrendered is exhilarating. It's also incredibly significant, of course, that Batman laughs at the joke. This means that he isn't in a pure power play, forcing The Joker to play the script written by Batman; he's engaging with him, giving and taking, letting his facade slip a little, accepting something offered by The Joker.

Back to the downside - the shooting of Gordon's daughter was incredibly dramatic and powerful, as I'd expect, and the whole photo thing was extremely creepy. Still, the whole incident plays into the comic convention of nothing ever changing - she didn't die, she'll get better, Gordon had a rough time but he's fine now. Gordon's trip into madness was yet another thing that I thought sounded much cooler than it ended up being. It mostly came down to seeing pictures of his daughter and saying "Oh God" a lot. The most interesting part by far was The Joker's patter, but the visuals didn't really convince me that Gordon was on the edge. (Of course, this may be a case where I would have a different reaction if I was more plugged into the Batman mythos and had stronger relationships with these characters.)


On an almost totally unrelated note: Ronin! There actually is a tenuous connection: Ronin was the book that paved the way for The Dark Knight Returns, and DKR has affected every Batman story (and many comic stories) since. Ronin stands entirely on its own, though, as a fully independent universe.

I really, really liked Ronin a lot. Let's talk about the universe, the story, and the meaning.

I believe Ronin was written in the 1980's, and it projects that decade's gritty view of New York far into the future. Manhattan in the 21st century is a chaotic, lawless land run by racial gangs. Worldwide, economic recession has largely decimated the nation-states, and corporations hold what little power is left. However, in the center of urban squalor lies mankind's hope.

A scientist, Peter McKenna, has succeeded in bridging the gap between biologic and electronic components. He is able to create living organisms, fleshy robots and buildings, and an artificial intelligence called Virgo. With the support of Mr. Taggart, a natural leader and keen businessman, McKenna builds Aquarius, a gigantic, living, utterly secure oasis lying among Manhattan's decaying skyscrapers. Throughout the book you repeatedly catch glimpses of Aquarius, and it looks much like kudzu: a breathing, living thing spreading across the landscape.

The whole setup is pretty fascinating... that's not the whole thing, but enough to see that the book can play with some pretty interesting ideas. The barrier between man and machine is breaking down, and as the book progresses the characters are trying to make sense of what it all means.

Now, for the story.


"Ronin," of course, refers to a masterless samurai. The book actually opens in ancient Japan, where we learn about a samurai's battle with and eventual loss to a powerful demon. His follower pursues the demon throughout his life, and the conflict eventually brings them into the time of Aquarius.

So, in addition to the man/machine tension inherent in the future, you also have the added tensions between ancient and modern, magic and science. In the center of all this, though largely absent from our sight, is Billy, who in some ways seems even more out of place than the samurai. Billy is a man-child with telekinetic powers. Throughout the book he is goaded and manipulated into using his powers. Finally, in a shocker near the end, we learn that Billy may have invented the whole story of the ronin and the demon from his own mind, and the chaos their battle has brought to the world is the result of his feverish imagination.

It's a deeply satisfying story, complex and full of interesting little twists and reversals. Best of all, the story sets you up to seriously ponder the underlying meaning that they're getting at.

For me, the book seemed to ultimately be hinting at the creative power of storytelling. This isn't a new idea, but it's still an incredibly exciting one that I never seem to tire of. Billy has had a rough childhood, and is helpless to act on his world the way he wants... he gets picked on, he loves a woman who won't love him back, his mother smothers his ambitions. Within the story, Billy acts out through telekinesis, reshaping the world to act out his fantasies. In a way, that's what most artists do: they create a narrative, and bring that narrative to life in the context of their medium. You could view the whole book - both the past AND the future parts - as being one long dream of Billy's. Well, how is that so different from the author's experience while writing it, or our experience while reading it? The fictions we create and consume can exert enormous influence on us... they may not be "real," but they have very real effects on us.


Both books were excellent. I'd give a personal hat tip to Ronin for its originality and really fascinating world, but you can hardly go wrong with either one.

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