Monday, September 15, 2014

You Used to be Sooooo Good: Frank Miller

Welcome to another edition of You Used to Be Soooo Good, where Justin and I, Dan Moore, discuss things used to be awesome but now, eh, not so much. On this day we discuss one of the greatest, most important men to ever come down the chute to write and draw men in tights punching other men in tights in the facial regions.

Frank Miller:  You Used to Be Soooo Good
He just looks like a creep these days.
DAN: Mr. Miller is the highly influential creator of some of the greatest comic book opuses out there. He’s the master of Batman stories, and gave us this, one the most iconic images of Bats in comics history. 

My God.  Just look at it.

The man changed the comic world, taking it from the nerdy clich├ęs of the Simpsons comic book guy to becoming okay for the masses to enjoy them.


JUSTIN: He somehow went from being one of the greatest and most influential comic book artist/writers of all time, a man who revitalized and redefined not one but two major characters while creating a totally distinctive style, to an insufferable self-parody who turns out mean-spirited fascist drivel.

DAN: His politics seem to have completely taken over his creative mind. To the point where he had to re-do a Batman comic into a totally different character as it went on to become a propaganda piece depicting a masked hero beating up Al-Quaeda operatives. Which, to me, seems like a pointless indulgence as actual terrorists run amok around the world. Is seeing a pretend hero beating up actual villains supposed to make us feel better? Feel patriotic somehow? The whole project, from inception to execution seemed 100% pointless and ego driven.

JUSTIN: Yes, his latest "classic," Holy Terror, is essentially just his own fantasy about killing Muslims. Here's how Grant Morrison felt about the idea when it was announced:

Batman vs. Al Qaeda! It might as well be Bin Laden vs. King Kong! Or how about the sinister Al Qaeda mastermind up against a hungry Hannibal Lecter! For all the good it's likely to do. Cheering on a fictional character as he beats up fictionalized terrorists seems like a decadent indulgence when real terrorists are killing real people in the real world. I'd be so much more impressed if Frank Miller gave up all this graphic novel nonsense, joined the Army and, with a howl of undying hate, rushed headlong onto the front lines with the young soldiers who are actually risking life and limb 'vs.' Al Qaeda.

It's just a shame that such a brilliantly talented artist/writer evidently allowed the events of 9/11 to turn him into a vindictive, bitter old vulture.  Not unlike what happened to Dennis Miller. I mean there's a place for political commentary in comic books to be sure, but it kinda has to be kept as subtext, or it just becomes regurgitated propaganda.  During World War II DC Comics used to depict Superman beating up Hitler and Hirohito on the covers of several issues, but inside the stories were never about that.  The editors wisely understood that even if Supes beats up our enemies abroad in the pages of his comic book, in real life our soldiers still have to face actual horrors overseas.  In the end, while comic books can contain relevant social and political topics, they need to be presented as the backdrop for an escapist story somehow, or it doesn't really work as an art form.

Yeah, Generic Superhero!  You beat up that sword-wielding mummy!

DAN: This was a man who was at one time, the most important, creative comic book writer/artist around. Masterpieces routinely came from his hands at what looked to be a whim. From his early Daredevil work (which I discovered much later in my teen years, but helped me fall in love with his style) to THE ONE (we all know what it is) to his later Sin City opus. Just amazing output in the paneled color book world. When you heard or read his name attached to a project, you penciled it in on the calendar to pick up. His stuff was the blockbuster movies of the comic scene.

Then, he just lost it. 2001 was the year he went coo-coo. The sequel to THE ONE is one of the most insanely over politicked, horribly miscalculated and god-awful-to-look-at comic books mine eyes have ever seen. He went from the simple structured idea of the original (retired conquering hero returns to triumph over evil), adding many complicated, enjoyable layers, to the muddled, confusing structure of Strikes Again. To this day, I don’t know what the hell he was trying to say. As you said, there's a place for political commentary in comics, but have an idea of what that commentary should be at least.

That fat, pustule-ridden monster wearing Converse Chucks
is supposed to be Lex Luthor.  Yup.

And, again, I must mention the awful art work in Strikes Again. Miller’s square like, simple line work is very pleasing to the eyes when he does it right. Some of his Sin City art, much like the Cross of Coronado, belongs in a museum. In Strikes Again, I don’t know what he was doing. It looks like it was all rough draft work he did on a cocktail napkin and said “eh, it looks good enough”. Comics are first and foremost a visual medium. You don’t always have to love what you’re looking at to enjoy it.  But it sure helps. This is an ugly, gross-looking book. The characters are misshapen, horrible-looking people. The backgrounds are non-existent. And the action scenes are, to be kind, impossible to decipher. It’s as if he all of a sudden forgot how to draw and started over with his left hand.

JUSTIN:  Agreed, Frank Miller's work was at one time EVENT READING.  When I got back into comics in 2002 I scooped up every classic Miller piece I could get my hands on.  He was the Martin Scorsese of spandex-clad heroes. 

The Dark Knight Returns is the finest single work in the history of the medium.  It is the yardstick by which all other comic books will be judged.  The story is note-perfect, the artwork is chaotic but captures the tone and movement exactly right.  The Sin City series contains some of the most beautiful-looking comic art I've ever seen.  And let's not forget about Batman: Year One, which is now essentially the canonical origin story for how Bruce Wayne decided to dress up like a bat and beat up criminals.  Frank Miller created The Batman as we now know and love him.  Every good Batman film since 1989 owes Miller a creative debt.

Amazing expressionist-influenced use of light and shadow.

But then he put out The Dark Knight Strikes Again, which as you said is sloppy-looking, full of gruesomely malformed characters (who don't even look consistent across the three chapters), and features a near-impossibly convoluted story.  Let's leave aside for a moment that TDKR didn't require a sequel of any kind - it ends exactly as it should; if Bruce Wayne ever decided to hang up the cape and cowl, this is how we would probably all envision it.  Even eschewing that fact, the story of TDKSA (with the exception of some neat jailbreak sequences) is uninteresting and barely comprehensible, and on top of that Batman's barely in the damn thing.

Miller somewhat redeemed himself by agreeing to co-direct 2005's Sin City, which is a near-perfect cinematic adaptation.  The energy and audacity of this CG-driven film set the bar for so many imitators (most notably Zack Snyder's 300, coincidentally also based on Miller's work).  While we no longer had good Frank Miller comics to look forward to, it seemed at least he'd be contributing to the medium of film. 

When Miller first laid eyes on Mickey Rourke he famously remarked,
"This guy doesn't even need makeup.  He IS Marv."

Aaaaaaand then he made The Spirit.  Seriously people, if you're thinking of watching this movie, DON'T.  It's one of the stupidest, most poorly-assembled collections of images and noise ever inflicted on the human senses.  Picture Sin City without a good story, memorable dialogue, or watchable performances.  The acting is so terrible it strikes me that turning in performances this bad probably requires just as much effort as going for an Oscar.

As for Sin City 2, it was fine.  Same kind thing as the first, but the best stories had already been adapted.  The two original stories written for this movie aren’t great.  And holy jumpin’ Christ did this film tank at the box office.  Just sad really.

I know you've read Miller's All-Star Batman series - let's hear the breakdown on that turd.

DAN: All-Star Batman & Robin (since renamed Dark Knight: Boy Wonder which doesn’t actually matter because he never finished the fucking thing) looks amazing. The covers are glorious, the interiors are astounding and the overall quality of the penciling is topnotch. Because Miller didn’t draw it. Jim Lee did. Lee is one of the premier comic book artists ever & his collaboration with Miller on Batman should have been a stop-the-presses sort of comic. It was…for the wrong reasons.

Miller used to be able to completely nail the way Batman thought and felt - as a somewhat reluctant hero fighting for justice in the name of his slain parents. In ASB, his interpretation of the character is way goddamn off.  Like, WAY GODDAMN OFF.  He portrays him as a sadistic, overly violent asshole who has no sympathy for Dick Grayson, as poor Robin had just seen his parents murdered much as young Bruce had. But nope, the tragedy that should bind them just makes Bruce a huge jagoff.  I believe, and I could be wrong as I’ve tried to purge the memory of this tripe from my brain, that at one point he physically abuses Dick. That’s right. BATMAN. BECAME. A. CHILD. ABUSER.  His characterization went in the opposite direction of what a hero should be.

Also, the writing was embarrassing to read. Take a look at this, and try not to laugh. GOD AWFUL.

Just wow.

I mean, NO ONE talks like that. Especially not Batman. That’s something you’d hear from a drunken derelict in a barroom at 3 AM, not from the Dark Knight who had rescued a young trauma victim after his parents were just dispatched.

JUSTIN: Just astounding.  Cuz when I think of Batman I think of soulless pricks who beat up children and drop R-bombs (does "retarded" qualify as a "bomb" word?).  Apparently Miller was just projecting his own middle-aged douchebaggery onto the character of Batman.  I guess Frank just doesn't like kids who cry nowadays.

By the way, comic book ‘journalist’ Mike Sterling called ASBR "the single greatest Batman series ever published."

Well, clearly Mike Sterling is a maniac.  Sorry, I know everyone's entitled to an opinion, but to call this the greatest Batman series is simply incorrect.  It'd be like saying the movie Batman & Robin is better than The Dark Knight.  That statement is just categorically wrong.

It's shocking how bad this film is.

DAN: I get, sort of, what he was going for with it. What he was doing was showing that a guy that runs around dressed in horned pajamas beating up men with names like Joker & Penguin would be a tad off kilter in the brains. I get that. But the depiction of the character he displays in the book is so over the top, so not the hero type that it becomes silly instead of ‘disturbed’.

JUSTIN: Well of course, Batman's somewhat disturbed by nature; that's part of his appeal.  He could be any of us, driven by revenge against a faceless criminal, and therefore ALL criminals.  But turning him into a sadistic, maniacal, child-abusing asshole goes against everything Batman is supposed to be.  If he's no more admirable or heroic than the villains, what are we rooting for?  This idea was summed up beautifully in Batman Begins:

Ducard: Compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share.
Bruce: That's why it's so important.  It separates us from them.

When you remove that he's no longer Batman.  He's just a fascist vigilante who operates without any rules.

So I guess in the end Miller’s transformation (and by proxy Miller’s interpretation of Batman) boils down to one of many cases where 9/11 (understandably) made America go insane for a little while, except in Frank Miller's case he took way more crazy than his fair share, and never gave it back.


There you have it. Will it ever become Miller Time again in the comic world? I’m gonna go out on a limb and say God no. We have his past excellence to read over and over, but I think his future output will just continue to disappoint. Join us again next time when we bitch about trivial matters that make little difference in this world of ours. 

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