Ronin #1 (1983), page 20 panel 2. Drawn by Frank Miller, colored by Lynn Varley.
Transcending influences is what separates good comic artists from great. Going beyond work inspired by others and into a completely unique mode of creation is a hard thing to do in such a relatively young field, one that's seen a very small amount of truly high-quality work done in it. Novel writers can take a pinch from Dickens and a bit of Tolstoy and a little Rushdie and Abe and Dennis Cooper (or whatever) and sew together an individual voice for themselves; it's the same in painting and movie-making and most other disciplines. In comics, though, the classics are few and far between, half of them don't live up to their reputations, and the other half are out of print.
Superhero comics -- where so little of real lasting genius has been put forth and so many artists have prefer bowing to market tastes instead of forging personal styles -- are especially self-cannibalizing. The history of superhero art, taken broadly, is a comedy of bad xeroxes, its trajectory a straight line from copyism of Alex Raymond to Jack Kirby to Neal Adams to John Byrne to Jim Lee. In this backwater of swipe files and hackwork, an artist's taste becomes an important part of his skill set; the ability to channel someone from outside the current vogue may as well be individual style for all it matters. In a world where copying someone new is a significant contribution, only the very best can rise to becoming themselves.
Which brings us to Frank Miller. Where his noirish, gritty writing has become the dominant mode of hero comics in the past quarter-century, his art's imprint is surprisingly hard to discern in today's post-Image field. Perhaps it's because he's got the wrong influences: though Miller's post-1985 work is that of a fully-formed, blazingly individual talent, the comics that got him famous (basically all of which remain in print) are not the typical Adams/Byrne contraptions, but rather stylish art clearly done off the backs of Steranko, Eisner, Kirby, and Kane. That's an oversimplification, and reductive, but give Miller credit: he knew who to draw from, and the synthesis found in his Marvel work of 1979-83 is a powerful brew. Miller, even as a young imitator, was a comics sophisticate -- he knew how to steal from the best.
This is what makes Miller's work on Ronin so fascinating. Usually we can glimpse artists' development, their collecting of influences, only obliquely, as small bursts of layout switch-ups or inking experiments appearing randomly throughout stings of issues. But by 1983 Miller was enough of a superstar to do whatever he wanted, and he chose to work through a final set of inspirations before beginning his first truly individual and non-derivative work, Dark Knight Returns.
Ronin is Miller in the lab -- the panel above shows his great inspiration of bringing foreign traditions into direct dialogue with the American comics history in his work, crossing dangerously potent strains of Japanese (particularly Goseki Kojima-influenced) minimalist brushwork with the Eurocomics futurism of Moebius or Druillet. Miller also had a new set of influences to show off: Gary Panter's "ratty line" is all over Ronin, and there's something of Vaughn Bode's oversized softness in this picture as well. Miller had also graduated to the master class of Kirby and Steranko study, attempting his own spin on the artists' more difficult stylistic quirks. Here we see a cold, abrasive brand of Kirbyist foreshortening, as well as Steranko's interest in portraying the images of television screens taken to the next level with a bold shorthand for holograms. The panel may abound with empty white space, but there's more in it, more art and learning and tradition in what marks are there than can be seen in most complete issues. Miller, informed by his experiments in others' workings, would soon be moving on to his own thing -- but it is a joy to see him at play in pure comics, like a sponge full of the best from the medium being squeezed dry.