Practitioners 48: Frank Miller (Part 1)

Frank Miller is an American comic book artist, writer and film director best known for his brooding, dark, film noir depictions of famous comic characters and the development of noir dystopias, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City and 300, Ronin and Daredevil: Born Again. Batman : Dark Knight Returns is viewed as a seminal work in comics history, mandatory for any that want to understand what (along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen) changed the face of comics so dramatically in the 1980s. He is also, nowadays, a liberal hate figure after outspoken statements regarding protest camps in the US and UK against multinational corporations. This, among other things, has placed a pall over his previous work, calling into question his politics and views on women, crime and society.

Miller was born in Olney, Maryland and raised Montpelier, Vermont, the fifth of seven children of a nurse mother and an electrician/ carpenter father. He was raised as an Irish Catholic.

Setting out to become an artist, Miller recieved his first published work at Western Publishing’s Gold Key Comics imprint on the comic book version of The Twilight Zone, drawing ‘Royal Feast’ in issue #84 (June 1978), and “Endless Cloud” in #85 (July 1978). Jim Shooter, one-time Marvel Editor-in-chief recalled Miller’s attempt to join DC, emboldened by his sign up with Western Publishing. “He went to DC, and after getting savaged by Joe Orlando, got in to see art director Vinnie Colletta, who recognized talent and arranged for him to get a one-page war-comic job”.

Miller’s first listed work is the six-page “Deliver Me From D-Day”, by writer Wyatt Gwyon, in Weird War Tales #64 (June 1978). A two-page story, however, written by Roger McKenzie and titled “Slowly, painfully, you dig your way from the cold, choking debris…”, appears in Weird War Tales #68 (Oct. 1978). Other fledgling work at DC included the six-page “The Greatest Story Never Told”, by writer Paul Kupperberg, in that same issue, and the five-page “The Edge of History”, written by Elliot S. Maggin, in Unknown Soldier #219 (Sept. 1978). and his first work for Marvel Comics, penciling the 17-page story “The Master Assassin of Mars, Part 3” in John Carter, Warlord of Mars #18 (Nov. 1978).

Miller’s style was never super hero orientated but in an industry that was he had little choice but to pursue it, practicing the form and bringing Superheroes to life well enough to secure a position as regular fill-in and cover artist on a number of titles, including Peter Parker, Spectacular Spider-man #27–28 (Feb.–March 1979) which featured a character that grabbed Miller’s attention. As Miller recalled in 2008 “… as soon as a title came along, when [Daredevil signature artist] Gene Colan left Daredevil, I realized it was my secret in to do crime comics with a superhero in them. And so I lobbied for the title and got it”

Although still conforming to traditional comic book styles, Miller introduced his noir style to the pages of Daredevil on his debut, joining on a finale of an ongoing story written by Roger McKenzie. Living in Hell’s Kitchen in the 1980s Miller sketched the roof tops of his surrounding neighbourhoods and imbued the title with a greater accuracy than fans had seen before. New York was now a more dangerous place. His work was cited as reminiscent of German Expressionism’s dramatic edges and shadows as the Red Devil fought mostly now at rooftop level, among the water towers, pipes and chimneys.

Miller’s run was successful enough to bring Daredevil back from being a bi-monthly title to a monthly one but that was far from the limit of the success. With the departure of Roger McKenzie, Miller took over as writer and penciller, with long time collaborator Klaus Janson on inks introducing a skittish, visceral feel. Art became to form. Violence bled (within the limited parameters of the Comics Authority), fear was felt, anger and danger were portrayed. Everything was comics +. This was a slightly more frenetic, powerful version of the superhero canon – the focus on the darkness in the lives of the bright tights. Issue #168 saw the first appearance of the ninja mercenary Elektra, who despite being an assassin-for-hire would become Daredevil’s love-interest. Miller would write and draw a solo Elektra story in Bizarre Adventures #28 (Oct. 1981). This further characterised Miller’s work on Daredevil with darker themes and stories. This peaked when in #181 (April 1982) he had the assassin Bullseye kill Elektra. Miller finished his Daredevil run with issue #191 (Feb. 1983); in his time he had transformed a second-tier character into one of Marvel’s most popular.

Gotham's skyline from Miller's 1986 Dark Knight Returns (with Klaus Janson)

Additionally, Miller drew a short Batman Christmas story, entitled ‘ Wanted: Santa Claus: Dead or Live’ written by Denny O’Neill for DC Special Series #21 (Spring 1980). This professional introduction to the Dark Knight was to prove a point at which the comic industry stopped being something and developed into another entirely. It was the moment that comics began to move into a more graphic, realistic, emotionally dynamic, engaging and challenging era. Elsewhere, Alan Moore was working on The Watchmen and would be asked in future to write The Killing Joke and further darken the world of Gotham and it’s central hero. But nothing that Moore was writing on the Dark Knight compared to one of the most important pieces of comic book literature in history. With Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley, Miller began to put together a fractured tale of a future without a Batman and a Bruce Wayne broken by the loss of Jason Todd. Now older and slower, a mournful Wayne is presented again with taking on the banner of the Bat. Only this time the world in which the caped crusader stepped into was very different…

Working with Chris Claremont at Marvel on Wolverine 1-4, inked by Josef Rubenstein and spinning off from the popular X-Men title, Miller used the series to expand on Wolverine’s character. The series was a critical success and cemented Miller as an industry star. Taking an older, curmudgeonly and effectively lonely character and dropping him into a world of greater brutality and violence proved very popular – the Wolverine series still continuing today, surviving the collapse of comics in the mid 90s and still going strong. While other great artists such as Adam Kubert and Marc Silvestri continued and concreted it’s success, Claremont and Miller set the tone. Brutal, fringe figures were quickly becoming Miller’s niche.

Marvel's Wolverine 2 by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller

In Miller’s first creator-owned title, Ronin, Miller had found himself with his original quarry, DC, and he was given the opportunity to further the concept of the isolated figure of violence on the edge of society. Ronin revealed most clearly the influences of Manga and bande dessinée artforms on Miller’s style, both in the artwork and narrative style. In the early 198os Miller and Steve Gerber proposed a revamp of DC’s central figures entitled ‘Man of Steel’, ‘Dark Knight’ and the frankly less inspiring ‘Amazon’. This proposal was rejected, however the first shoots of a seed of an idea were clearly being shown in those proposals. While the Man of Steel and the Amazon remained as they were, The Dark Knight was set to rise. In 1985, before the release of Miller’s finest work, he was honoured as one of the 50 honourees in the Company’s 50th Anniversary publication Fifty Who Made DC Great. Had they left it one more year, Miller would have rocketed into the top 5 with the release of the Dark Knight Returns.

Having never left, in 1986, the Dark Knight Returned and was welcomed with open arms. A four issue mini-series it featured a Gotham gone downhill, unprotected by a figurehead crime fighter as it had been time immemorial in the wider DC Universe. This was the first Elseworlds, a parallel world inhabited by a familiar but substantially different set of characters who could now live or die without consequence. However, Miller was never going to let them off that easily…

At the age of 55, Bruce Wayne returns to the hilt and takes back his role of Batman, it showcased a more adult form of comic-book storytelling by heralding new waves of darker characters. Miller, much like Moore, absorbed a great deal of the world around it though Miller twisted his into a more immediately engaging shape. Punk Gangs and Neo Nazis rule the streets alongside older, more familiar foes – all now even darker than before. The smell of paranoia over the Cold War and the threat of Nuclear War is musky in The Dark Knight, increasing the pall of murk that has descended on Gotham. Simultaneously though Miller gave voice to both liberal and right wing opinions during the series, through continual talking heads on various invented TV shows. With the themes of media, crime, personal responsibility, federal control, public opinion and the futility of redemption, Dark Knight represents a dark and risible future. It was excellent. A timely chime on a bell of collective paranoia, it tapped perfectly into the state of mind of society at the time. Rather than the patronising resolution by brightly coloured gods – here the solution contains only glimmers of salvation but deep shades of absolutism. It satisfies fully as emotional resolutions are struck so rarely in the real world, rarely in conjunction with the resolution of situations. In Miller’s world there are no easy answers. His worlds roll on beyond the final panel, stories often unfinished, character’s unresolved. 25 years later the collected novel remains a timeless best seller.

But what was to come next would cement Miller as a legendary artist and writer but it will be his move to LA that will reveal him as a true auteur. Noir bleeding from every pore, Sin City was still almost a decade away…

Part 2 will be here Next Tuesday

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Practitioners 37: Peter David (Part 1)

Peter David is an American writer of comic books, novels, television, mvies and video games. He was born in September 1956 and his most notable comic book work are an award-winning 12-year run on Incredible Hulk, as well as writing turns on X-Factor, Aquaman, Young Justice, Supergirl and Fallen Angel.

Peter David made his name on - and a legend of The Incredible Hulk with 12 Years as writer

Perhaps influenced by his background, David is known for his use of real life issues and humour, as well as popular culture and self referencing within the pages of his work. He is a prolific writer who’s style shows up his natural enthusiasm for characterisation and anarchic plot development. His characters are broad and often sympathetic. He develops worlds as he sees the and when allied with the write artist (Quesada, Frank) his storytelling flows beautifully and simply to the reader. His is an entertaining read, using sardonic humour and situation comedy, action and big scale themes to put forward serious issues Peter David is a very serious campaigner for LGBT issues after he and his gay friend were targets for ostracism and harrassment from homophobes in his second home town in Verona. He had moved there from Bloomfield, New Jersey. While it was his best friend Keith that was gay, the effect was enough for him to spearhead associated story lines in his mainstream comic book with deft, frank and uncompromising cander. His home life has also informed his work as his paternal grandparents and his father, Gunter escaped Nazi Germany to settle in the US, where his father eventually met his mother, Dalia, an Israeli-born Jewish girl, to whom David credits his sense of humour. While his writing carries none of his religious or family backgrounds, David’s acknowledgment of deeper social and political movements beyond the edges of the pages and his use of humour to augment and ease difficult subjects in his work suggests influences from his home in Fort Meade, Maryland (where he was born). He has two siblings, a younger brother named Wally, a still-life photographer and musician and a sister called Beth.

David was drawn into comic books at the age of 5 when he read copies of Harvey Comic’s Casper and Wendy in a barbershop. The Adventures of Superman TV series later got him interested in Superheroes. His favourite title was Superman and he cites John Buscema as his favourite pre-1970s artist. The closest David has got to writing Superman is his first -cousin Supergirl. A character that arguably David’s style suits more though I think many would be intrigued as to what he would do with the last Kryptonian.

As a young boy, his father was a journalist, writing reviews of films, to which he took the young Peter David along with him. Whilst the elder David was writing his own review, his young son was knocking together his own back at home. Some of these appeared in the article itself.

The seminal moment however was in meeting his idol, Stephen King at a book signing, telling him that he was an aspiring writer. King signed David’s copy of Danse Macabre with the inscription ‘Good luck with your writing career,’ which David now inscribes himself onto books presented to him with the same aspirations. Other writers that David cites as influences include Harlan Ellison, Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), Robert B. Parker, Neil Gaiman (Sandman, American Gods), Terry Pratchett (Discworld), Robert Craiss and Edgar Rice Burroughs while specific books he has mentioned as his favourites include To Kill a Mockingbird, Tarzan of the Apes, The Princess Bride, The Essential Ellison, A Confederacy of Dunces, Adam versus Jefferson and Don Quixote. Harlanm Ellison, an American writer of more than 1000 short stories, novellas, screenplays, teleplays, essays, a wide range of criticism covering literature, film, television and print media and editor of two ground-breaking sci-fi anthologies, Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, is cited as the writer David most tries to emulate in his work. Though emulation seems pointless now as David has become such a notable writer in the field, even if in a limited number of titles.

Strangely, David had given up on a career writing and came to work in book publishing, first Elsevier/Nelson and later working for sales and distribution for Playboy Paperbacks. He subsequently worked for five years in Marvel’s sales department as Sales Direct Manager under Carol Kalish, who hired him and then succeeding Kalish as Sales Manager. At the time he he made a couple of cursory attempts to sell stories, in particular for Moon Knight to Dennis O’Neill bbut this proved fruitless. Three years into David’s time as Sales Manager ‘maverick’ James Owsley became editor of the Spider-man titles. Owsley had been impressed with David’s willingness to work under him without hesitation when Owsley was assistant editor under Larry Hama, and thus, when he became editor, he purchased a Spider-man story from David, which appeared in Spectacular Spider-man 103 in 1985. A move from Sales to Editorial was seen as a conflict of interest at the time and in response to any possible criticism, David made a point of not discussing editorial matters while in his 9-5 job of Direct Sales Manager and decided not to exploit it by promoting the title. David still attributes the poor sales of the title to this decision but has commented that crossing over from Sales to Editorial is now common. None-the-less he was fired from Spectacular Spider-man by Owsley due to editorial pressure by Marvel’s Editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, and has commented that the resentment caused by Owsley’s purchase of his stories may have permanently damaged Owsley’s career. Despite this far from ideal start in his career as a comic’s writer, arguably damaging other’s careers unintentionally in the process, (or perhaps because of it) Jim Shooter’s replacement as Editor-In-Chief, Bob Harras, offered David a position as ongoing writer on a struggling title no-one wanted to write. A difficult, curmudgeonly title that was defined by its character’s complete lack of development – even for the comic’s industry. That title was the Hulk and Peter David was about to make history….

Part 2 on Thursday.

Hank Pym was NOT a Wife Beater!

Just stumbled upon this article on Jim Shooter’s blog and it’s quite an interesting read so I thought I’d do a quick share before heading to bed. Hank Pym hitting his wife is pretty much the most definitive moment in the character’s history so to hear the writer who created it admit that it may have been an accident is rather curious. Accident or not, it shifted Pym from from a character whose only defining trait was his bad pun of a name (He’s giant, he can control ants, he’s Gi-ant Man!) and turned him into one of the more interesting members of the Avengers. So in that regard I guess we should be thankful, though that sounds all kinds of wrong now that I read it back. Anyway, here’s the full text right from the Shooter’s mouth:

“Back in 1981 I was writing the Avengers. Hank Pym aka Yellowjacket was married to Janet Van Dyne aka The Wasp and things had not been going well for him for a long time.

Before I embarked on the storyline that led to the end of Hank Pym and Janet van Dyne’s marriage, I reread every single appearance of both characters.  His history was largely a litany of failure, always changing guises and switching back and forth from research to hero-ing because he wasn’t succeeding at either.  He was never the Avenger who saved the day at the end and usually the first knocked out or captured.  His most notable “achievement” in the lab was creating Ultron.  Meanwhile, his rich, beautiful wife succeeded in everything she tried.  She was also always flitting around his shoulders, flirting, saying things to prop up his ego.

As I was developing the storyline, I discussed the potential pathology of their relationship with a psychologist who happened to be sitting next to me on a five-hour flight.  The story made sense, he thought.  I went ahead with it.  During the time the story was running, I got a great deal of hate mail.  It worried me enough to ask Stan what he thought.  He said he got the same kind of mail in the ‘60’s regarding Peter Parker’s various romantic travails.  He asked me how Avengers sales were doing.  They were in fact, increasing by 10,000 copies per issue.  Stan said that people obviously cared passionately about what was happening to Hank and Janet, as if they were real people.  That’s the key.  And he said, “Don’t worry about the mail.”

In that story (issue 213, I think), there is a scene in which Hank is supposed to have accidentally struck Jan while throwing his hands up in despair and frustration—making a sort of “get away from me” gesture while not looking at her.  Bob Hall, who had been taught by John Buscema to always go for the most extreme action, turned that into a right cross!  There was no time to have it redrawn, which, to this day has caused the tragic story of Hank Pym to be known as the “wife-beater” story.

When that issue came out, Bill Sienkiewicz came to me upset that I hadn’t asked him to draw it!  He saw the intent right through Hall’s mistake, and was moved enough by the story to wish he’d had the chance to do it properly.

By the way, I was too busy to finish the story, so Roger Stern took over two-thirds of the way through.  I thought he did a great job.  He’s an excellent writer who doesn’t get enough credit.”

Fascinating stuff…and before you ask. No I don’t think Mark Millar’s ant-rape take on the event in Ultimates was an accident.

Don’t make me feel small, Bunkerites. You won’t like me when I’m small.

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