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 17: Brian Bolland (Part One)

Brian Bolland (born in 1951) is a british comic artist known for his meticulous, highly detailed line work and eye catching compositions. Reknowned as one of the ultimate Judge Dredd artists for British comic anthology 2000AD, he spearheaded the ‘British Invasion’ of the American Comics Industry with Camelot 3000 (with Mike W. Barr), the first ever 12 issue Maxi-series to be released by DC comics.

Most notable, however is his masterwork. Along with writer Alan Moore Bolland created one of, if not the definitive examples of Batman in the critically acclaimed Killing Joke.

Drawn into comics in 1960 – a couple of years after they began to arrive on the shores of England (in 1958) – by Dell Comics Dinosaurus! which appealled to his love of Dinosaurs at that age. Turok, Son of Stone and DC’s Tomahawk furthered his childhood fascination with the form and before long he was writing and drawing his own work from his home in Butterwick, Lincolnshire. A fascination with DCs heroes, in particular Batman and Robin was formed from seeking covers featuring ‘any big creature that looked vaguely dinosaur-like, trampling puny humans.’

It was in 1962, aged 11, most likely from comic books bought on a family holiday to Skegness that he came across Carmine Infantino’s Flash and Gil Kane’s Green Lantern and the Atom. His interest locked firmly on the artists of DC at the time, not favouring Marvel, feeling the covers were crude and the paper quality crude. Even at so young an age Bolland remembers taking direct reference from the early artists of the classic superhero series – including Joe Kubert (dad to Andy and Adam of X fame) and Mike Esposito. His appreciation of the work of Jack Kirby came through the eyes of a seasoned professional much later. His interest was in no way limited to US imports as he enjoyed the comparable UK strips of Syd Jordan’s Jeff Hawke and David Wright’s Carol Day as well as Valiant, a weekly comic book collection by Brit practitioners such as Eric Bradbury (Mytek the Mighty) and Jesus Blasco’s Steel Claw.

Coming from a quiet household Bolland embraced the cultural revolution taking place throughout his country while studying O Levels and A Levels in art, moving on to five years at art school in 1969 learning graphic design and Art History.In 1973 he wrote a 15,000 word dissertation on Neal Adams – an artist his teachers had never heard of. He is sited as saying that ‘During my five years in three art schools I never learnt a single thing about comics in any form from any of my tutors.’

His feverish need to understand the form led him to study off his own back the American legends of the burdgeoning art form from across the pond; Foster, Herriman, Alex Raymond and Winsor McCay, Noel Sickles, Mily Caniff and Roy Crane as well as the Europeans… Moebius, Manara, Breccia. Later the Filipinos – Alex Nino, Nestor Redondo. Discovering an untapped resource in these incredible figures of a seemingly undiscovered art form was like sailing the coast of a country no one around him knew existed. In a world in which comic creators are responsible for some of the most influential cultural icons and most reliable film franchises in popular culture its perhaps difficult to understand how exciting this glance at the edge of a culture formally unrecognised in the halls in which he was learning yet precise and clear in its form and intention might have been but I think its a position most of those who collect comic books would wish they could experience. And there he was at the edge of it – having familiarised himself completely with the form. All that was left was to try out for himself.

Bolland self-published fanzines which was published in underground magazines Friendz, International Times and OZ. Following a cover design for RDH Comix featuring Norwich Cathedral. But it was an underground magazine about to hit the big time as ‘the biggest weekly listings magazine’ named Time Out that gave Bolland his ‘first paid job’ producing a proper illustration of Jazz bassist Buddy Guy.

Meanwhile, he produced the first episodes of an adult Little Nemo in Slumberland parody entitled Little Nympho. This took off and he continued to design full page strips for a 50-copy fanzine entitled Suddenly at 2’0 Clock in the Morning as well as smaller strips entitled ‘ the Mixed up Kid’ to the Central School of Art’s college newspaper The Galloping Maggot.

But it was meeting and befriending Dave Gibbons (later of Watchmen / Green Lantern fame) at a comic convention at the Waverley Hotel in London, joining Art Agency Bardon Press Features. A couple of two-page strips featured with DC Thomson but Bolland would refer to this as his ‘lowest time’. However, it was a title through a client called Pikin that offered Bolland a chance to get his hands dirty. It was for a title to be sold in Nigeria (the first of its kind) and was a weekly comic book featuring an African Superhero named ‘Powerman’. He quickly realised that Gibbons could produce a page a day and struggled initially to keep up the pace. The pages had to simple and numbered because of the lack of familiarity in Nigeria to this form of work. Not only was this work “the best way to learn the simple rules of comic book storytelling,” but “better still, it was going someplace where nobody I knew could see it.” He “drew around 300 pages of that very straightforward, simple-to-follow work, and I guess the storytelling flowed naturally from that.” Even so friends from his school days had to help him occasionally to complete as he ‘was always struggling to get the last eight to ten pages finished’. A little help was also offered from Dave Gibbons and 2000AD and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen artist Kevin O’ Neill.

But it was here he struck a particularly lantern jawed law man associated with the success of so many of the greatest artists from the UK. As Gibbons joined Carlos Ezquerra at 2000AD for Prog 1, Bolland remained on Powerman but as it dropped monthly his agent at Bardon, Barry Coker offered him a cover on 2000AD. From his first he created more than a third of the first 30 covers. Moving inside 2000AD as well as taking on occasional inking duties on Gibbon’s Dan Dare was the dream and for prog 41, editor Nick Lauman called on Bolland to complete an unfinished Judge Dredd story from when on he became a regular artist on the title. He offered art to the most prominent Dredd storylines ‘Luna-period’, The Cursed Earth’, ‘ The Day the Law Died’, The Judge Child Quest’ and ‘Block Mania.’ He found it difficult to deal with the requirement to produce double page spreads (as Dredd started at the time) and Bolland struggled to complete the required work, eventually splitting it between himself and Mike McMahon.

Bolland was heavily influenced by McMahon’s ‘impressionistic’ style and described McMahon as ‘ the real idea man on Dredd,’ although acknowledging that ‘the average comics reader, certainly at the time, does tend to prefer realism.’ Aping the impressionism of McMahon and applying his own realism ‘finally cemented the iconic image’ according to Mark Salisbury. It was Bolland who created the look of iconic characters featured in Mega City One – namely Judge Death (and the other three Dark Judges) and Judge Anderson. Judge Death was drawn as ‘just another villain in just another excellent John Wagner script’ and was inspired by the look of Kevin O’ Neill’s Nemisis the Warlock. He also drew the great majority of Walter the Wobot: Fweind of Dwedd strips in 2000AD and the first three Dredd issues for the united states as well as a number of covers.

Mix that together with magazine covers for Time Out and every major comics publications (according to Wikipedia) and fanzines such as Nick Landau’s Comic Media News and Arkensword and the ‘hazard cards’ for a game called Maneater. And, as will be remembered around the age of 30 in the Uk completed two covers of the Fighting Fantasy Adventure Game Books and RPG scenario pamphlets for Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone.

He handled ad work through the agency – in particular Palitoy’s Star Wars toys 1n 1977 and on the associated material for the opening of the comic book shop Forbidden Planet. But his future lay across the sparkling Atlantic Ocean with a comic company that had spawned his interest to begin with…..

CONTD IN PART 2 (THURSDAY).