Practitioners 48: Frank Miller (Part 2)

With the monumental success of the Dark Knight Returns at DC, Miller himself had returned to Marvel as the writer of Daredevil. Following his self contained story ‘Badlands’ pencilled by John Buscema in #219 and writing #226 with departing writer Dennis O’ Neill, Miller teamed up with David Mazzucchelli, crafting a seven-issue story arc that redefined the character of Daredevil. Miller often takes his marks from his previous projects and this was no different. Having offered DC’s Batman a dark and brooding future in the Dark Knight Returns it came now for Miller to obliterate Daredevil’s present. Daredevil: Born Again (#227-233) chronicled the hero’s catholic background and the destruction and rebirth of his secret identity, Manhattan Attorney Matt Murdock, at the hands of malevolent Wilson Fisk, also known as the Kingpin. Taking Murdock to the edge by losing his job, his identity, his ability to continue as Daredevil – Miller had Murdock do something unexpected. Cope. Rather than destroy Murdock completely and have him fight back from the bottom, Miller proved him a different type of hero. Not unbreakable and ultimately vulnerable but unflappable. This wasn’t the last time that indominitable trait has surfaced in Miller’s central figures. All others afterwards have stood defiantly in the centre of battlefields against unstoppable numbers or survive being hit by cars amidst rain mottled gunfire on a darkened street. Though Murdock was the last of these figures that could exist in the real world, a lawyer and a reasonable human being. Whether it be Leonidas of Sparta with his unbounded rage, Marv with his alcoholism and violent compunctions or Robocop with his unrelenting pursuit of the law the other characters are subjects of their worlds, also created by Miller. Outside of them they would be redundant. As such, Miller’s work on Daredevil is probably his most subtle.

Miller and artist Bill Sienkiewicz produced the graphic novel Daredevil: Love and War in 1986. Featuring the character of the Kingpin, it indirectly bridges Miller’s first run on Daredevil and Born Again by explaining the change in the Kingpin’s attitude toward Daredevil. Miller and Sienkiewicz also produced the eight-issue miniseries Elektra: Assassin for Epic Comics. Set outside regular Marvel continuity, it featured a wild tale of cyborgs and ninjas, while expanding further on Elektra’s background. Both of these projects were well-received critically. Elektra: Assassin was praised for its bold storytelling, but neither it nor Daredevil: Love and War had the influence or reached as many readers as Dark Knight Returns or Born Again.

Miller’s final major story in this period was in Batman issues 404-407 in 1987, another collaboration with Mazzucchelli. Titled Batman: Year One, this was Miller’s version of the origin of Batman in which he retconned many details and adapted the story to fit his Dark Knight continuity. Proving to be hugely popular, this was as influential as Miller’s previous work and a trade paperback released in 1988 remains in print and is one of DC’s best selling books and adapted as an original animated film video in 2011.

Miller had also drawn the covers for the first twelve issues of First Comics English language reprints of Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub. This helped bring Japanese manga to a wider Western audience.

During this time, Miller (along with Marv Wolfman, Alan Moore and Howard Chaykin) had been in dispute with DC Comics over a proposed ratings system for comics. Disagreeing with what he saw as censorship, Miller refused to do any further work for DC, and he would take his future projects to the independent publisher Dark Horse Comics. From then on Miller would be a major supporter of creator rights and be a major voice against censorship in comics.

Miller, like many of his colleagues had had enough and declared that he would only work through Dark Horse, preferable because it was an independent publisher. Miller completed one final piece for Marvel’s mature imprint, Epic comics. Elektra lives again was a fully painted one-shot graphic novel, written and drawn by Miller and finished by his long term partner Lynn Varley (who had coloured the Dark Knight). Miller has had a complicated relationship with Elektra, having killed her off once but brought her back several times since – of which this is the first in a story of Elektra’s resurrection and Daredevil’s attempts to find her. Released in March 1990 it marked the beginning of a decade of great change for Miller. This was the first time that Miller had inked for himself, dispensing of the brilliant Klaus Janson.

Meanwhile Miller was working on an amazing piece of pulp comic book artwork, Hard Boiled. In it, Carl Seltz, an insurance investigator, discovers he is also a homicidal cyborg tax collector who happens to be the last hope of an enslaved robot race. Drawn by the inimitable Geoff Darrow, Miller’s script encouraged incredibly meticulously detailed design work and a happy nightmare for any eyeballs brave enough to brush over it. Effectively, Where’s Wally if you are looking for a robot nipple or a discarded bullet casing instead of a fool in a bobble hat, it is a visual feast. Published by Dark Horse Comics Frank Miller and Geoff Darrow won the 1991 Eisner Award for Best Writer/ Artist for Hard Boiled. A largely forgotten piece now outside of collectors, Hard Boiled was a diamond made of corrugated Iron and blasted with a blowtorch.

At the same time again, Miller teamed up as writer with another even more legendary artist, Dave Gibbons and produced Give Me Liberty. The story is set in a dystopian near-future where the United States have split into several extremist factions, and tells the story of Martha Washington, a young American girl from a public housing project called “The Green” ( Chicago’s Cabrini–Green). The series starts with Martha’s birth and sees her slowly grow up from someone struggling to break free of the public housing project, to being a war hero and major figure in deciding the fate of the United States. After three series, according to Dave Gibbons himself at last years Kapow! – Martha Washington is dead. But those three series allowed Miller to flex his satirical muscle, using it forcefully on the political structure of the United States and its major corporations.

Falling out of love with the movie making process during ‘interference’ on his script writing duties on Robocop 2 and 3, Millr wrote Robocop vs. Terminator with art from Superman artist Walt Simonson. In 2003, Miller’s screenplay for Robocop 2 was adapted by Steven Grant for Avatar Press’s Pulsaar Print. Illustrated by Juan Jose Ryp, the series is called Frank Miller’s Robocop and contains elements of plots from both Robocop 2 and 3.

In 1991, Miller started work on his first story set in Sin City. His time in LA had brought about the same effect as his time in Hell’s Kitchen New York, only this time with an imaginary city populated by every dreg and lowlife you can think of. Every corner now a dank shadow for a mugger or rapist to wait, every street a setting for a murder, a shooting or a car chase. This was noir darker and with only two colours consistent throughout. Sharp black against a savage white. Using innovative silhouette techniques by colouring in the shadow to form figures, buildings and compositions.

The first Sin City ‘yarn’ was released in 1995 under the name The Hard Goodbye. Sin City proved to be Miller’s main project for the rest of the decade, as, responding to demand, Miller continued to put out more Sin City yarns. With it, Miller helped to revitalise the crime comics genre – giving way to other sprawling crime epics like Azzarello and Risso’s excellent 100 Bullets.

Teaming up with John Romita Jr, an artist comparable in style to Miller himself, Miller returned to the Daredevil canon. This time rewriting again the creation story of Daredevil and provided additional detail to his beginnings. Miller also returned to superheroes by writing issue #11 of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. In 1995, Miller and Darrow on Big Guy and Rusty the Toy Robot, published as a two-part miniseries by Dark Horse comics. in 1999 it became a cartoon series on Fox Kids. During this period, Miller became a founding member of the imprint Legend, under which many of his Sin City works were released, via Dark Horse, Miller did any number of covers for many titles in the Comics Greatest World / Dark Horse Heroes line – immeasurably valuable as one of the most recognisable and popular artists in the world.

Written and illustrated by Frank Miller with painted colors by Varley, 300 was a 1998 comic-book miniseries, released as a hardcover collection in 1999, retelling the Battle of Thermopylae and the events leading up to it from the perspective of Leonidas of Sparta. It played on the most basic Miller themes to great of success – those of honour, self determination and bravery in the face of great adversity. 300 was particularly inspired by the 1962 film The 300 Spartans, a movie that Miller watched as a young boy. In 2007, 300 was adapted by director Zack Snyder into a successful film, with Miller and Varley’s visuals the basis of the look of the entire film. Entire panels were effectively populated and animated digitally in a way that saw it leave an indelible mark on cinema goers minds. Even now, 5 years later, 300 is the film that prolific actor Gerard Butler is asked about most – most notably because of the notorious ‘eight pack’ on his stomach developed in order to match Miller’s incredible artwork.

Finally putting aside his dispute with DC, Miller picked up the pen once more for the giant and wrote the sequel to The Dark Knight, Batman: Dark Knight Strikes Again. Released as a three issue miniseries it was universally panned by critics and fans for beinga shadow of it’s predecessor and introducing too many obscure characters. In 2005, he took on writing duties for another alternative universe Batman story for All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, with Jim Lee on pencils. This also proved to not turn out as intended – somehow the characters unsympathetic and uneven – the Dark Knight himself unpredictable and aggressive. Jim Lee’s visuals also struggled to put across the hard edged nature of Miller’s script which hindered the expression inherent in it. A rare team up, it was perhaps ill advised – although both are clearly at the same level in their careers, neither had worked with someone like the other.

Miller has said he opposes naturalism in comic art. In an interview on the documentary Legends of the Dark Knight: The History of Batman, he said, “People are attempting to bring a superficial reality to superheroes which is rather stupid. They work best as the flamboyant fantasies they are. I mean, these are characters that are broad and big. I don’t need to see sweat patches under Superman’s arms. I want to see him fly.”

Miller’s previous attitude towards movie adaptations was to change after he and Robert Rodriguez made a short film based on a story from Miller’s Sin City entitled “The Customer is Always Right”. Miller was pleased with the result, leading to him and Rodriguez directing a full length film, Sin City using Miller’s original comics panels as storyboards. The film was released in the U.S. on April 1, 2005. The film’s success brought renewed attention to Miller’s Sin City projects. Similarly, a film adaptation of 300, directed solely by Zack Snyder, brought new attention and controversy to Miller’s original comic book work. A sequel to the film, based around Miller’s first Sin City series, A Dame to Kill For, has been reported to be in development.

Miller is no saint. In the renewed scrutiny over his existing projects, popular culture has balked at his depiction of female characters in particular. In Sin City almost every female character is a prostitute, victim, psychologically damaged or a killer. His depiction of women in his books is reminiscent of Noir conventions – and the men represent those conventions just as clearly. However, in the case of the female characters those conventions have perhaps become outdated and have less place in popular culture as a result.

With the poor critical response to his two most recent books and the furore throughout the comic industry over his statements about the Occupy Movement in the US, Frank Miller is perhaps a practitioner for his time. However, equally his work is, almost completely, a perfectly timeless collection, that may fall out of favour at times and find great recognition at others. Regardless, at the time – almost every comic book fan knows the adventures of Leonitus of Sparta, Robocop and Marv and in comic book stores all over the world copies of Martha Washington and Hard Boiled sit, hidden and waiting to be discovered by someone in that way that all great literature should be. But no one moves through the comics world can say they aren’t aware of The Dark Knight Returns, a book that will outlast Miller himself in terms of bringing generations of future readers, if not joy, a steady dose of gritty, hard won realism. And really, you suspect, that’s just the way Miller wants it.

Practitioners 44: Andy Lanning

Andy Lanning is a British comic book writer and inker, known, most credibly for his work for Marvel Comics and DC comics and in particular as collaborator with Dan Abnett. For an inker to make the leap to writing one of the foremost titles currently being put out by Marvel, as part of their Cosmic run, is impressive. His association with Dan Abnett has gone from strength to strength for years.

Lanning wasn’t always an inker though, at the spark of his career with Marvel UK in it’s earliest days, he found a position as penciller on the short lived, Jake and Elwood Blues inspired, futuristic Sleeze Brothers was a comic book limited series published by Epic Comics, between August 1989 and January 1990 – a run of just six issues. Written by John Carnell, it followed the titular brothers through a futuristic earth filled with extra terrestrials, pollution, crime and corruption. It was neatly drawn with a warner brothers-esque style with a semi realistic twist. The art style was arguably on par with other artists – Bryan Hitch for instance – who went on to become much more prolific and well known artists – working with Abnett and Lanning much later on their 15 book run on Wildstorm’s The Authority.

Working consistently alongside Dan Abnett, no one has ever been more of a fix-it guy on so many varying projects. He drops seamlessly into whatever position is necessary on any given project, pencilling, inking, co-writing and writing – he’s either the most prolific hanger on or one of the nicest, most capable people in the industry. To be able to work alongside so many names of the industry, including Abnett who alone is responsible for the sales of more than 1.5 million novels and hundreds of thousands of comic books, he has to be a hell of a guy to work with. Bouncing ideas backwards and forwards past him must be akin to a Chinese / South Korean ping pong final at the Olympics.

Lanning’s partnership with Dan Abnett began early on, with a Judge Anderson: Exorcise Duty for the Judge Dredd Annual 1991, with art completed by Anthony Williams. Lanning found popular acclaim inking Liam Sharp’s pencils for the industry shaking Death’s Head 2. A title with more than 500,000 preorders DH 2 was a flagship example of success at a boom time for comic books that’ll never be seen again. His sublime work on Liam Sharp’s detailed and precise and exacting illustrative work shows an incredible attention to detail. With Marvel UK Lanning was involved in Digitek (with John Tomlinson and painted art by Dermot Power) and Codename: Genetix (with Graham Marks, Phil Gascoine and inks by Robin Riggs in 1993)as part of Marvel Uk’s second generation wave of titles.

Lanning graduated to Marvel mainstream with Punisher: Year One (with Abnett, Dale Eaglesham and Scott Koblish) and the Avengers West Coast replacement, Force Works (again with Dan Abnett), which featured Iron Man, USAgent, Scarlet Witch, Wonder man and a long disappeared alien warrior guru named Century. Force Works was elevated some time later into an animated series.

Moving over to DC shortly afterwards with a run on Resurretion Man (with Jackson Guice), The Else world One-shot Batman: Two Faces (with Anthony Williams), Abnett and Lanning (or DnA as they are otherwise known) found a home with DC’s resident spit curled former-resisdent of Krypton, Superman with Prime-Time, The Superman Monster, Return to Krypton and Strange Attractors (on which he worked with Gail Simone as well as Abnett). It was the title for which Olivier Coipel became famous that raised the status for both Lanning and his writing partner as they took on Legion Lost, a reimagining of the debunked Legion of Superheroes title, that later became the ongoing Legion. In many ways Lanning maintains his Mr Fixit role in almost every job he undertakes, working alongside the big names of the industry and putting out consistent and notable writing. Impossible as it is to discern where Lanning ends and Abnett begins, it clearly works – as Abnett has worked diligently beside Lanning on almost all major projects (excluding his 2000AD output) for the last 20 years. To maintain a working arrangement like that for so long is notable in that as the profile of the two writers became greater, one would have stood apart as the creative mind. However, in 20 years, no cracks appear to have shown in the partnership. If anything both have had increasing fun obliterating universes together.

Based on Abnett’s other work (with Warhammer 40k), Lanning appears to be the populist and more comic book orientated, perhaps the thing that brings Abnett’s writing into line with audiences with less of a need for heavy weaponry and enormous armies. However it braeks down, Lanning’s partnership with Abnett clearly spawns enthusiastic and impressive ideas and narratives including some of the best character zingers ever heard. The pair have improved and enhanced their reputation in comic books by simplifying and man handling their characters and allowing events to take hold that other titles fail to. Effectively an editor’s potential worst nightmare, when handed a sand box that they have creative control of the effects are absolutely brilliant.

Lanning and Abnett collaboarted on the ongoing Nova series for Marvel in 2007, following the cataclysmic Nova series from the previous years Marvel Cosmic crossover Annihalation. Lanning and Abnett were handed the scenario whereby the Xandarian Nova Corps would be destroyed completely within 12 pages by the incoming Annihalation wave. triggering an intergalactic war. Some might have balked at the idea but this was Lanning and Abnett’s Raise en dentre. Grabbing the Xandarian Nova Corps helmet by the polished brass, they didn’t destroy the Nova Corps, they really Annihalated it. Thousands of Starships pummel the Nova Corps unexpectedly during a Corps meeting and rather than holding back slightly and allowing certain survivors to pick themselves up from the rubble and try to carry on, Lanning and Abnett killed every single Corpsman but one, our very own Richard Rider in less time than it usually takes to have a two headed character discussion. Rider doesn’t simply get knocked aside, he survives because he’s effectively at the heart of it. He spends four or five panels flirting with a fellow Corpswoman only for her head to be smashed to pieces and is sent hurtling backwards down to the planet below, trapped in the flaming wreckage of the Corps hall he was just in and had tried to fly through in order to escape. Issue 2 sees a battered and injured Nova, trapped under rubble in a quiet tableau of post apocalyptic destruction, snow and ash falling from the grey sky. He spends the rest of the issue scrambling through the rubble, a beautifully rendered example of the pause after immense death, tempered with Nova’s obnoxious banter with the discovered Novacorps Artificial Intelligence. Lanning and Abnett are patient and confident writers, allowing the events to breath and never afraid of the possibility of tragedy, carnage, laughter or brevity to take place within a panel of each other.

In June 2008, Abnett and Lanning announced they had signed an exclusive deal with Marvel and they have served the populist hulk very well. They piloted the Annihalation: Conquest storyline, in which the Phalanx take advantage of the vulnerability of post Annihalation wave societies and block off Kree space. This became a more paired down sequel to Annihalation, focussing very deliberately on very, very specific figures. From these, the title Star Lord, a reimagining of the adapted character that appeared in the late ’90s spawned a new Guardian’s of the Galxy title.

In this Lanning and Abnett have hit their stride absolutely. With a play pen involving some of the most notable characters in the Marvel Universe, they decided to opt for a Green Nymphomaniac murderess, a smart mouthed hero of the Annihalation wars, a warrior built to kill gods, a fallen space mage with schizophrenic tendencies and a talking Raccoon. The inclusion of Rocket Raccoon alone is worth a pat on the back and a pint in the hand. Rocket Raccoon was last seen frequenting 1980s Marvel comic books, being chased by Keystone cops in an absurdist forest surrounded by oddball creations. It was hard to see how the character existed then, let alone could find a place in modern comic book teams. But Rocket Raccoon returned, found in a Kree holding cell, he befriended Groot, a walking tree king so he could use him as a platform for his heavy ordnance. As tactical leader of the team, Rocket is one of the finest examples of writing outrunning the lunacy of a plot. Rocket, along with all the other members of the team are written sublimely. Private progress reports give each character their own distinctive voice and has seen Guardians become one of the most talked about series in years for fans in the know.

Lanning and Abnett have a habit of taking crackpot ideas and breaking all the rules, to positive effect. Their run on War of Kings, described usually as the Cosmic aftermath of Secret Invasion dwarves the events that took place on Earth. With the apparent death’s of Cyclop’s new-found brother Vulcan you would think they were resolving an unfortunate creative choice from the X-men universe (Vulcan wasn’t well liked and leadened the X-men universe immeasurably) until you realise that the External’s King Black Bolt, an iconic and famous figure in books, often stood beside Reed Richards, Namor, Iron Man, Captain America as pillars of a character filled universe dies with him, blowing a massive hole in the side of creation from which nasty things pop out for the Guardians to deal with. The death of a long standing Shi’ar leader (and X-men regular) in Empress Neramani and the raising of Gladiator as new Emperor of the Shi’ar state is plotting that had been denied for nearly 20 years. These character’s were seemingly immovable on the chess board of Marvel’s tactical board. Lanning and Abnett set fire to the Chess board.

But more than that, the love story between Ronan the Accuser and the External’s Crystal is thought provoking and engaging as the clumsy Accuser finds himself out of his depth but slowly charms the warm and emotionally open Crystal to him with his honesty. Gladiator’s struggle with his obvious rise to power is touching as a picture of man who’s devotion is to the seat of power but comes to understand that his future is at the service of his people. It’s powerful stuff, more than acceptable for a historical, political play or romance but it is found in the pages of a comic book in which a Raccoon bounds about the panel shouting insults at his fellow team mates as they fight at the edge of space. They have brought back the multi layered space opera unexpectedly and I know that we at Beyond the Bunker will continue to read it for as long as Lanning and Abnett continue to put them out. Long may they write of Empire building in far distant galaxies. They could even show a certain bearded film maker a thing or two….