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

BTB Investigates: Is Thanos the real Avengers movie bad guy?

The previews for The Avengers movie next year reveals the expected obliterated New York / Chicago / Seattle streets and the various Avengers charging into battle looking pouty and slightly impractically dressed and the suggested central bad guy, Thor’s half brother, Loki, flailing about in a cloak looking fairly imposing in a way an impish theatre actor might in a storm scene on stage. While we’re looking forward to the Avengers movie based on what we’ve seen – I can’t help but think that there’s an absent power behind the throne on this one. There’s a few reasons for this one:

  • Joss Whedon, assigned to direct this little number, is not one to work on a one threat script. Whether it’s Firefly or Buffy or Angel, it’s the initial threat, usually controlled by a shadowy puppet master and then often revealed to be a cosmic threat of unimaginable power. Not just that, he has a wry sense of humour and an acute understanding of what audiences like. He’s also a populist. Unafraid to do what is cool and follow expected narratives, he is a creature of loose habit. His plot structures have always incorporated big and very charismatic entrances of large scale bad guys. He’s also got a history of abstract and old school sci-fi and horror influences in everything he does, usually taking the source material and advancing it to be acceptable to TV/ Movie audiences.
  • Marvel has shown increasing bravery in bringing forward obscure characters from it’s ranks in it’s current spate of films and dealing with broad and fun themes rather than taking themselves too seriously. They also stick pretty close to source material and introduce figures that represent the proper threat for the development of the character.
  • The Avengers themselves have to be facing a threat on a scale that tests them well enough. Thor alone beat Loki. Loki is not a threat. The Hulk is clearly being held in reserve until the effects are finished but who is he going to face?
  • Mark Millar’s Ultimates is informing the Avengers. While there is an invasion of fantasy hordes in Ultimates 2 which may well fill the gap, it’s been well done and may still happen without undermining the theory that it’s Thanos that’ll step into the fray. An Alien invasion isn’t discounted either as appeared in Ultimates 1 and the Nazis might still be involved. Hard to say. Point is extra terrestrial or god attack, it doesn’t matter, Thanos is attached to both.
  • Rumours state that Thano’s glove from the Infinity Gauntlet series is visible on the Avengers set photos. Thanos brought the entire Marvel Universe to a standstill in the early ’90s as he took hold of the Infinity Gauntlet and threatened to destabilise the universe. A threat easily big enough to justify a call out at Avenger’s towers.

But why Thanos? 

Thanos is a being of credible bad that has sulked, skulked and schemed his way around the backwaters of Marvel’s cosmic universe, occasionally bringing the whole thing into doubt with his plans. Lover of the dubiously aged Death and as such effectively immortal, he is a corrupted Titan, a shrugging destroyer of time, space and any sentient being stupid enough to wander into his path. He’s Marvel’s Lobo. He has a death grin, incurable curiosity for how much chaos and death he can cause and how brilliantly he can destabilise the powers of the universe. For fun.

  • He’s a cosmic being and a god. Thor made it clear that Valhalla was a realm in space, responsible for galactic peace. Thanos is a deity on par with the Frost Giants. A corrupted and deformed child of gods. As the story goes according to Marvel.com – On Saturn’s moon of Titan lived a colony of Eternals, and Thanos was born as one of the last sons of the original colonists, Mentor and Sui-san. However, he was born misshapen and monstrous in comparison to the other Eternals, particularly his handsome and carefree brother, Starfox.
  • He is a collector of Cosmic Cubes. The one connecting link between all of the films (excluding Iron Man) is the Cosmic Cubes. The Red Skull was killed by it, underestimating it’s power in Captain America while the Cosmic Cube was cared for by Odin and stolen by Loki at the end of Thor. Thanos has long been associated with the cosmic cubes – which he aquires and uses regularly to keep causing trouble.
  • He’s just returned to the Marvel Universe in a plot involving a cosmic cube. Guardians of the Galaxy, while a lesser known title outside the industry is critically acclaimed and one of Marvel’s most consistent books. Returning wild and beserk, Starlord effectively punches him in the face with it to bring him down. But the fascination with the Cosmic Cube is obvious in the character and clearly a fundamental aspect of Thanos from the view of Marvel.
  • Abnett and Lanning aren’t writing him in the usual way. Thanos has never been hailed or fanfared like a galaxy spanning threat, narratively. Thanos is a tinkerer and walks in from the side lines to see what he can get away with. That wry curiosity and mischievousness was always the defining characteristic of Thanos. Even when associated with the destruction of butt loads of planets, Thanos is intellectually involved but never held up as a purveyor of all-hell-breaking-loose. But Thanos has been elevated this time. He’s not stronger, Thanos was always tough. He’s not more imposing, or larger. But the way he’s being written this time round suggests a greater awe, as if this character is just about to lift beyond his station in Marvel. It’s not uncommon, Iron Man, Thor, War Machine have all had massively increased status in the universe since seeing celluloid. Is Thanos gonna get the same treatment?

Thanos is a great bad guy and although the natural resistance has been removed now that Marvel is under the Lassetter banner of Disney and internally responsible for it’s own brand there would be sensible resistance at using an obscure, radiator chinned, purple god with a chip on his shoulder as the central pivot for a major blockbuster that’s never been tried before. Abnett and Lanning’s response is likely a reply to the existing rumours that Thanos almost got a big screen appearance.  The contrivance of plot that would be needed to introduce a second disgruntled child of the Gods when any sensible writer can apply the same emotional palette to the existing character without dropping a stocky, purple, alien gorilla face with 1980s shoulder pads into the action. But it’d Thanos. Against the Avengers. Directed by Whedon. Keep wishing guys but in all liklihood it’s just too cool to risk.

Bunker backs Miles Morales as Ultimate Spider-man!!

With the riots taking the streets apart all over England (in particular in London) there is a distinct lack of respect on the streets right now. At times like these, any sign of anyone moving things forwards is welcome and Brian Michael Bendis has tried to do this with Miles Morales, the new incarnation of Spider-man in the Ultimate line.

With Peter Parker killed in the pages of the Ultimate Spider-man series a short while ago a replacement needed to be found and Marvel have taken a brilliant opportunity and run with it. The Ultimate line is an opportunity for Marvel to present modern ideas over the out-dated or original ones. It is not a replacement for the Marvel Universe, Spider-man still swings around New York with a little less rhythmn in the main continuity as Peter Parker. But the Ultimate line is being used effectively here and Marvel and Bendis need to be applauded for their efforts.

The Death of Peter Parker (Ultimate Spider-man 160, Marvel)

Miles Morales is half-black, half-Hispanic and as a result representative of two groups that have been unintentionally marginalised in mainstream comic books. It’s a positive, challenging and brave step by a company that could, given its success, easily rest on its laurels. As such Marvel is still attempting to push the envelope and we here at the Bunker are resolutely behind the idea.

However, sadly, and unsurprisingly, it hasn’t taken long for the backlash to begin. The internet chatrooms and comment boards piling up with the usual bile and overly aggressive response to the introduction of Miles Morales as the web spinner. According to an article written by Cynthia Wright in the Atlanta Post entitled ‘Backlash To Black-Latino Spiderman Indicates We’re Not A Post-Racial Society,’ Cynthia highlights the backlash to the introduction of Morales. Below is the article in question….

by Cynthia Wright
Yesterday, USA Today released a story that Marvel Comics Ultimate Spider-Man would take its web-slinging hero in a new direction. Although, Peter Parker has played the Spider-Man character since its creation decades ago – the revamping of the Marvel comic is to attract a new generation of comic book readers, in response to its static past. So, it wasn’t really that surprising that Marvel decided to kill the character off around two months ago.
Unlike the comics’ overwhelmingly Caucasian days of yore – when it came to passing on the infamous red and blue suit – Marvel decided to push the envelope. Instead of embodying the usual stereotype for superheroes, the decision was made to pass the torch to a half-black, half-Hispanic teenager named Miles Morales.
Brian Michael Bendis, the writer behind Parker’s death and Miles arrival told the newspaper that it was long overdue, even in the more ‘diverse’ Marvel universe.
“Even though there’s some amazing African-American and minority characters bouncing around in all the superhero universes, it’s still crazy lopsided,” Bendis admitted.

Face of the Future: Miguel O'Hara - the half hispanic, half Irish Spidey of 2099

However, not everyone agrees with Bendis’ assessment, a quick glance through the comments of the USA Today article reveals that even if Marvel wants to be more contemporary that doesn’t give them the right to rewrite comic book history. Of course, it should be of no surprise that some white comic fans feel that iconic comic characters should be left unchallenged by today’s more political correct society – especially when it comes to a biracial teenager becoming the newest incarnation of one of their most beloved superheroes.
Over on the website Bleeding Cool, they decided to publish some of the more “enlightening” comments from the USA Today story in one of their Tuesday posts. The comments ranged from bashing the need to always be politically correct, to complaints over the comic books direction and the rage over the killing of the white Peter Parker so that Morales could replace him.
With several comic-based movies taking liberty when it comes to the race of their supportive characters (i.e. Nick Fury played by Samuel L. Jackson, Perry White being played by Laurence Fishburne), it is apparent that supporting roles are the only roles not susceptible to such a huge backlash. However, making the “minority” a main character is still seen as unacceptable.
As one commenter responded:
“Peter Parker could not be whiter. A black boy under the mask just don’t look right. This opens up a whole new story line with a whole new set of problems. Who is going to believe a black man in a mask is out for the good of man kind?”
So, a black man in a mask isn’t capable of helping out mankind? In a historical context, it wasn’t the black population using masks to strike fear and terrorize others in American society. How quickly that one caveat is forgotten.
Blatant ignorance aside, it is hard not to be offended by some of the reactions regarding Morales’ ethnicity. With the current demographics of New York being so diverse – it would make sense to have someone akin to Morales. It is about time that minority characters are given more precedence instead of being relinquished to the only role that seems deserving—the sidekick.

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?

Dropping Science: Timelapse Cityscape

You may have gathered by now that I rather love timelapse photography but with the quality of work that’s flying around at the moment that’s hardly surprising. This is an amazing piece by Canadian photographer, Dominic Boudreault which – in his own words – attempts “to show the duality between city and nature.”

It was shot from late 2010 to early 2011 in Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, Chicago and, of course, New York.

Be sure to whack the volume up before watching for a bit of Hans Zimmer goodness!

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