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 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