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.

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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.

Practitioners 31: Tim Sale

Tim Sale, was born on May 1st 1956, in Ithaca, New York, but spent most of his early life in Seattle, Washington. He attended the University of Washington for two years before moving to New York to study, in part, under artist John Buscema at the School of Visual Arts.

Sale has an incredibly distinctive style. His characters rarely represent realistic proportions and his style of art is decidedly abstract, relying on impressionistic and silhouetted ideas as much as clear visual representation. His compositions are carefully applied, often at dizzying or deliberately engaging perspectives. He is assured in his use of space, very much in the same way younger, more technically complete artists are, but he feels no compulsion to fill open spaces. This gives his work a compelling and assured feel that draws the reader in.

The physicality of his characters is always exaggerated which reinforces the innate characteristics of the character. Batman is big and broad, his neck long and ascending into darkness. The linework is clear and precise when necessary but betray emotional lines when necessary. He is an economical artist, assured enough to apply his own style.

Sale does divide opinion, in part because of his continued association with Jeph Loeb, a marmite figure in comic books. Most artists do not like to be compared to Sale due to his disproportionate bodies and arguably loose compositions and detailing. In spite of his considerable talent he has fallen down the same path as McFarlane. A pronounced and distinctive style that has its time and moves on, Sale has perhaps been left in the 90s.

But that doesn’t reduce his relevance. He pencilled and inked Dark Victory and Long Hallowe’en alongside Loeb 15 years ago and it continues to sell today. His compositions and the realisation of the Bat-universes character offered a visual insight distinct and intriguing enough to represent familiar characters such as the Joker and Two Face in ways previously unseen. Some later incarnations of Catwoman were lifted from Sales work on Dark Victory.

The problem for Practitioners such as Sale and Loeb is that the industry advanced. Techniques continued to develop, the demand for greater sophistication and accuracy increased from the readership. Its hard to say whether the industry will swing back towards the more cartoon strip years of the ’90s. However, it was a period of unprecedented and unrepeated growth for the comic industry and Tim Sale became a legend during that period.

Tim began doing art for the series Myth Adventures in 1983 and was soon working on Theives’ World, a shared fantasy series created by Robert Lynn Asprin in 1978, comprising of 12 anthologies. After meeting Matt Wagner and Diana Schultz (who were at the time creating for Comico Comics) and Barbara Randall of DC Comics at the San Diego Comicon, Sales career began to develop.

The majority of Sale’s work has been with Jeph Loeb. With him, they developed a cooperative style of creating books, in which the art and the writing influenced each other. The duo, creditted as ‘storytellers’, produced extremely popular work such as Batman: Long Hallowe’en, Batman: Dark Victory. Most recently they have worked on the so-called ‘color’ books for Marvel Comics involving mainstay characters from Marvel such as Spider-man, Daredevil and the Hulk.

Through his association with Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale worked on the artwork for Heroes. He was responsible for the paintings created by precognitive artist Isaac Mendez as well as other artists on the show. He is also creditted as creating the comic book font used throughout the series, based on his own handwriting.

Sale is another marmite character in the comic book hall of fame. His dereliction of standard artistic practices such as proportion and physicality means that very few artists want to be compared to him. I have to admit that if my work was assocaited with Sales I would look for where I had gone wrong as on a technical level, Sale does not deliver. But that is his strength in the eyes of a great many comic fan. Artists are by the nature technical, but Sale moves beyond that and offers up artworks taht are deliberately abstract and caricatured. Hs Wolverine is broad shouldered and bubbled, his Gambit gaunt and haunted. His London is empty and uncongested and yet, as the first time I ever saw his work I have been unable to forget it. As an artist I admire Sale’s willingness to apply his own distinctive style to the comic book page. An industry should thrive on individuals like Sale as they push the form outwards towards alternative modus. If everyone in comic books drew like the Kuberts, Quitely and Coipel, with infinitely careful pen lines, consistent detailing and carefully applied physical proportions comic books’d be a dull place. Sale comes from the same stable as Jon Bogdanove, Erik Larsen and Todd McFarlane. Artists that contributed to the single most successful period in comic book history. While they may not be fashionable now clearly they have a great and broad appeal beyond the kernel of uberfans and tightly monitored comic book applications. An artist like Tim Sale would not get work in the comics industry right now, however the more I think about it – looking at a struggling comic industry – even with the money turning over in associated features – the more I think tahts not such a good thing. Men like Sale didn’t need to be optioned by a film company to pay their bills. They paid it through sales. And if you’re working in popular culture how many other benchmarks are there?