I believe the first Frank Miller comic I ever read was an old Spider-Man story from Marvel Team-Up #100. A bit of research tells me that it came out in the Finnish Spider-Man comic in 1984, four years after its original American publication. I couldn’t tell you if that was exactly when I actually read it, but it was probably around then, so I would’ve been around eight or nine years at the time, I guess.
It guest-starred the Fantastic Four, which was a kind of a big deal for me at the time. That story was also the first appearance of Karma, who later showed up in New Mutants. She didn’t make much of an impression on me. Neither did Miller’s art. I don’t remember much about the first time I read it, but at that age, just about every comic I read made some kind of an impact, so I do remember thinking that Spider-Man didn’t look right. At the time I was pretty much used to two artists’ work on Spider-Man: I thought Al Milgrom’s Spidey looked pretty good, and John Romita Jr.’s version of the web-head was awesome. (Looking back, just being able to tell them apart at that point is a little amazing to me. What a nerd I was. Good thing I’m spending my time on more productive things these days, as evidenced by this very post!)
In any case, Miller’s art looked like neither. At the time I guessed it was okay, but it looked kinda messy to me. I’m pretty sure that at that point, I thought John Byrne’s slick, precise and neat-looking work on the X-Men was the ideal. (Much of that came from Terry Austin’s inking, of course, but at that point I was still a little hazy on what this inker guy was supposed to do and why he was needed at all.)
After that, they published a few of his Daredevil stories as backups on the Finnish Spider-Man mag, and I thought they were okay, but I didn’t really get a very good idea of what was going on there, since it was just a few issues from the middle of the Elektra storyline, and there just wasn’t enough of it for me to get a handle on the thing, even though all this stuff with crazy ninjas was certainly a step in the right direction.
The Dark Knight
I’m sure that the first time I really thought about Miller as an individual creator with an individual style was when the The Dark Knight Returns came out. At the time, I read the Finnish version, of course. It came out in 1987, and it rocked my world.
Suddenly, Batman was an old dude, and he was fucking scary. I had no idea where the story was going. The man was built like a fucking tank, and he got off on hurting bad guys, and for the first time, it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, Batman was kind of fucked in the head. As the story progressed, it was increasingly obvious to me that shit was weird.
You should understand: my conception of Batman was a little weird at the time, shaped by the 60’s Adam West version and all kinds of Finnish publications, which at the time were a kind of a mixed lot, so I’d read plenty of reprints of the old Kane and Finger comics and things in that vein. In my world, the most prevalent take on Batman was still that he was this kinda stocky dude with a utility belt who tended to smile a lot. All things considered, his adventures were pretty light-hearted. The idea of Batman being especially cool or scary or intense was a little alien to me, I think — Denny O’Neill, for example, had certainly done his share on that front before Miller, but I’d only seen very little of it.
And here was Miller giving me a Dark Knight who didn’t knock bad guys out with his batarangs, he threw them so that they stuck a couple of inches deep in the bad guys’ arms. His Batmobile was an heavily armored combat vehicle. By the time it sunk in that Superman was now a bad guy, I was thoroughly confused — I mean, it was Superman. And I didn’t get it.
Except… I kinda did. A part of me didn’t want to get it, but Miller sold the concept to me beautifully; granted, I didn’t really understand a lot of what this weird fucked up version Bruce Wayne was going through, but I understood the obsession, and while I didn’t really understand why Superman was a government stooge who fought his best friend, I understood the Batman’s contempt for Superman and even the reason for it. I knew that Superman was a big blue boy scout who never broke the law, and even though I was very young, I understood that this was that concept taken to an extreme. It made me uncomfortable in a way that made me a little angry, really — or no, that wasn’t it. I was uncomfortable at how much I enjoyed reading a story where Batman beat Supes to a pulp.
And the art? Well, everything looked weird and messy. I was used to comics looking a lot cleaner than that. I mean, at that point my Superman was still drawn by Curt Swan. My Fantastic Four was either Kirby or Byrne. All of them kept things pretty neat. Miller didn’t. But it worked.
I was about 11 years old at the time. I loved that fucking book.
After that, I knew who this Miller guy was, at least a little. At the time, there was really no way to find out more about him: the editors at the letter columns talked about him a little, but there was no Wikipedia I could go to and look him up. But he was on my radar.
After that, things started to move faster. During the same year, they also published Batman: Year One in Finland. I think even then, I liked that more than The Dark Knight Returns. There was less posturing, and I was amazed to find that I found James Gordon to be a lot more interesting character than Batman. His anguish over trying to be a good cop in a bad city felt real to me, and still does.
As good as Miller’s writing was — and it was very, very good — a huge part of all that was David Mazzucchelli’s art; again, I don’t think I’d ever seen anything quite like that — everything looked realistic, and people looked like people. Gordon’s pain, despair and happiness looked real in ways I hadn’t seen in comics before that (and have all too rarely seen since). The way the job and the corruption he’s been forced to coexist with and turn a blind eye to chips away at his self-esteem and convictions — and by extension, his marriage; the way Gordon and Sarah, his colleague and mistress, try to deal with the deception; the guilt Gordon feels about cheating on his pregnant wife; the way Miller sells us the idea that an honest cop would find working with a vigilante preferable to working with crooked fellow officers… it’s just a better, more mature story, if a less dramatic one than The Dark Knight Returns ever was, and Mazzucchelli’s simple, clean lines brought it all home. I was just a kid, but the whole thing resonated with me.
All things considered, they were treating me pretty well at the time over here: they also published what I think is probably still the single best Daredevil storyline ever, and what may well be the best thing Miller ever wrote: Born Again, also drawn by Mazzucchelli… and that just knocked me out. The first-person narration Miller employed in all of these works left me breathless.
There’s a sequence in Born Again, where Matt Murdock, the Daredevil, is trying to reach Karen Page, his former secretary and lover, who has fallen on very hard times and betrayed Matt’s secrets to his greatest enemy for a shot of heroin. As a result, he’s been banned from practicing law, his financial assets have been frozen, he has started to lose his sanity, and even his home and everything he owns has been destroyed. He has disappeared, and for all she knows, he’s dead. She has reached a physical and mental dead end; she’s wracked with guilt and addiction. Her life has become complete and utter shit.
So there’s a firefight going on, professional hitmen are trying to cap both her and her pimp. The pimp has already been shot, and she’s seconds away from a similar fate, and she’s scrambling to find a vein so she can get high one last time — not because she’s that much of a junkie, but because she has reached a point where her entire world is so small and desolate that the best thing she can hope for is getting high so she won’t feel the bullets. There’s nothing else. Matt’s racing across the snowy rooftops to reach her, this woman who sold his entire life for an armful of smack, he’s just lost valuable time fighting a lunatic dressed up as Daredevil, and it’s anybody’s guess how it’ll turn out.
Miller and Mazzucchelli handle the whole thing masterfully. By using ever smaller and smaller panels towards the end, they drag the whole thing out — Karen trying to find a vein, bad guys taking aim, tears running down her face, and then Matt’s billy club streaks down from the sky, knocking one guy down, an icicle sinks itself into another’s arm, and then we turn the page…
…and it’s a huge full-page panel of Karen and Matt just clinging into each other. There are no words. And you suddenly remember to breathe. And we get a little epilogue, from another character’s point of view, and that’s it for the issue. I could go on and on and on about the story and why it’s as good as it is, but let’s leave it at that.
Things Start to Get Ugly
And that was back when Miller was still concerned with characters. After that, it was starting to go downhill. Oh, sure, he had his moments. He did Give Me Liberty, the first series of which was pretty good. He did Hard Boiled, which was stupid, but fun — not a combination that usually wins me over by default, but with Geof Darrow’s hyperdetailed art, it was easy. And let’s be honest here: it’s Darrow that makes that book tick. Miller’s writing has a couple of moments, but the whole romp barely qualifies as a story. And, of course, he did Sin City, which — apart from The Dark Knight Returns — is probably what he’s best known for today.
But the elements that made him great were starting to drop off. And let me be clear here: when Sin City came out, I loved it. I’m a crime buff, always have been, and hell, Miller knows how to tell a story, when he wants to. And he really reinvented himself with the black and white art, which still looks awesome.
It wasn’t until some years later that I began to fully realize that what I took for heavily stylized dialogue in the context of that comic was now the only way characters in his work would ever speak. Everyone is either completely pathetic or hyper-intense. Seems like nobody speaks without going on some sort of a tirade.
I miss reading Miller. I miss liking Miller, because now he’s almost a joke, or at least a punchline. Everyone in his stories is either very tough or very weak, and if they’re the former, they’re generally hypersexualized to a point where it becomes impossible to take them even halfway seriously. Anybody who expresses a point of view Miller clearly disagrees with — which, these days, seems to be anything other than vaguely defined but forcefully expressed right-wing extremism — tends to be painted as a naïve moron who needs a beating. He no longer has characters, just weird caricatures.
Which, finally, brings me to what motivated me to finish this post, the thing that rescued it from the depths of the Drafts folder: I saw The Spirit some time ago. Miller wrote and directed it, and it’s a horrible, horrible movie on so many levels. I don’t think I’ve seen a movie this bad in years; certainly not by someone who is purported to be a master storyteller and whose record contains some extremely skilled work.
I love The Spirit, an iconic character created by the late, great Will Eisner 70 years ago. Technically, you could call him a superhero, but The Spirit’s mask and secret identity aren’t a big deal. He’s an adventurer who fights bad guys and gets constantly in trouble with women, but the stories are rich and varied, and often have a human element that really was unique in the 40s, where even the best comics characters tended to be relatively one-dimensional and simplistic. Reading the stories, you can absolutely see why Eisner is considered such a giant in the field; not only were they visually inventive, but everything else about them — the dialogue, the body language, the stories — was also very sophisticated, particularly considering the era. They were also pretty funny.
But Miller takes the Spirit, who is not really a terribly complex character, and manages to fuck him up completely. I don’t know whether Gabriel Macht, who plays the Spirit, is a good actor, because I don’t think I’ve seen any of his other work, but I do know that if you’re forced to open your mouth and say some of that shit, I don’t care who you are, it’s not gonna sound great, you know?
The Spirit is, essentially, just a guy — a hard-fisted guy, sure, and a reasonably smart guy, absolutely. But he’s not superhuman. He’s good, but perhaps more importantly, he’s also lucky. Miller’s version is a constantly monologuing — of course! — bore who goes on about how “his city” is his real love. (“My city. She’s always there for me.” “My city, I cannot deny her. She is my mother. She is my lover, and I am her Spirit.” “My city screams. She needs me.” “All the enemy has is guns and knives. I have the entire city as my weapon.” That, and boredom. I realize that I’m not necessarily in a position to really complain about a character’s narration, given my immediate past, but Jesus Christ, enough.)
Oh, and he cannot die. And neither can his nemesis The Octopus, who’s played by Samuel L. Jackson in an insane performance that absolutely screams “shit, son, I don’t care, I’m makin’ money here!”
And the thing is, a certain degree of over-the-top and cartoony violence is a thing The Spirit is known for, but what Miller doesn’t seem to understand is that magically getting better in a matter of hours from your injuries isn’t. The Spirit spends a lot of time being reminded of his own mortality in the stories — more often than not, at the end of an adventure, he’s bruised, bleeding and confused, but he’s generally still got a sense of humor about it. In fact, The Spirit really was a very funny strip a lot of the time. By comparison, Miller’s only real concession to humor seems to be the inclusion of America’s Funniest Home Videos style sound effects in certain action sequences. It’s like dropping in a couple of fart jokes.
It doesn’t help that the movie looks more plastic and artificial than any movie I can think of. If you’re a very good director who understands the technology and the storytelling, you can go wild with CGI and just slather it on, create an experience that looks and feels utterly unreal, but still sucks you in. I think Roberto Rodriguez did that with Sin City. And if you’re Frank Miller, you get The Spirit.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m expecting too much of him, but you know, when he wrote the two Robocop sequels and complained about getting horribly fucked over by Hollywood, I was ready and willing a string a couple of slick movie execs up for messing with what would surely have been pure genius. But… it’s kinda hard to not wonder if they smelled something long before I did. All I know is that at this point, it’s kind of hard to work up that kind of righteous fury for a wounded artist.
I mean, what can I say? “His old stuff was better?” I know what a depressingly moronic thing that is to say. But in my defense, I’m not objecting to change.
Mostly, I guess it comes down to this: I find it really hard to believe that the guy who wrote the screenplay for The Spirit is the same man who wrote Born Again. Could we get that guy back? ‘Cause I’d kinda like to read some comics by him again.
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