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 47: Alan Moore (Part 2)

Having conquered (and irritated) the British comic book industry with his time on 2000AD, Captain Britain and Warrior, Alan Moore was about to cross the Atlantic. DC Editor Len Wein offered him a place in the DC lineup – though reserved judgment carefully and only offered a minor, formulaic, failing title.

Swamp Thing was a stereotypical monster title quite a distance from the mainstream legends of DC. Whether Wein offered it as a low priority title that mattered little if Moore failed or saw the potential in Moore’s alternative and original work in the UK, but nevertheless – few could’ve anticipated the work produced. It remains difficult to know if it is because of Moore’s current reputation retrospectively illuminating old work through association or if the Swamp Thing under Moore really represents timeless writing but along with artists Stephen R. Bissette, Rick Veitch and John Totleben, Moore revolutionised the character. Taking advantage of the low importance of the title, Moore created beautifully experimental storylines addressing environmental and social issues alongside the horror and fantasy, supported further still with research on Louisiana – where the storyline was set.

Moore recognises comic books as a as a mature medium – potentially as influential, challenging and intellectually stimulating as books, theatre, films or television – when at their best. He recognises that there is no limitation to the content that can be applied to any character or situation, whether they wear a spandex jumpsuit or a psychic formation of roots and swamp vegetation with regenerative powers. He elevated the subject matter and the characters and trusts his reader’s intelligence as any writer should. Through Moore’s writing it becomes clear that the base material is not limited in its scope to be elevated and broadened to meet any audience or handle content thought previously beyond it’s remit. In short, Moore fails to recognise limitations. A comic book page is as alive to him as a page of prose, poetry or a painting in a gallery. In turn this elevated him above the rest of his fellow writers.

Using Swamp Thing as an experimental platform to revive many of DC’s neglected magical or supernatural characters, Moore resurrected a number of figures to greater status that even after 3 decades have not seen them recede back into the minor leagues, including the Spectre, the Demon, the Phantom Stranger and Deadman. One such figure was introduced by Moore. John Constatine is a working class magician based visually on the musician Sting, who later became the central character in Hellblazer, DC imprint Vertigo’s longest running title. From January 1984 to September 1987, from issue 20 to 64, Moore guided Swamp Thing to critical and commercial success. Thanks to Wein’s successes with the first UK invasion – featuring Moore and his soon-to-be-counterpart artist Brian Bolland, the doors were beginning to open for UK and European artists such as Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano, Peter Milligan and Neil Gaiman to continue in the same vein. Many were influenced directly by Moore and continued the tradition of brave and successful rethinks of existing titles – such as Morrison’s run on DC’s Animal Man some years later. These titles formed the foundation s for Vertigo comics.

Moore’s two-issue run on Vigilante furthered his credibility as a brave, alternative and unrestrictive writer willing to look at difficult and hard hitting stories. The central figure, Vigilante is rendered sidelined and shocked as a father, having abused his daughter, pursues her until he is chewed up in the back wheels of a vengeful young woman’s car. The daughter, having lost her Mother is traumatised and beside herself at the loss of her Father, offering a difficult, challenging and controversial conclusion more recognisable as literary conventions than the black and white moralism of comics.

Eventually, after consistent successes, Moore was offered some of DC’s most prominent characters, starting with Superman, entitled For the Man Who Has Everything, illustrated by Dave Gibbons, in which Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman arrive at the Fortress of Solitude to discover Superman overwhelmed by a plant that offers up his wildest dreams. Moore followed this up with Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? – effectively the first example of A Death of Superman storyline – some 8 years before it was thought up by Jurgens and co, designed as the last Superman story in the pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Universe and illustrated by Curt Swain. The final fates of Brainiac, Lex Luthor, Clark Kent, Superman and Lois Lane are decided, handled masterfully and with a typically deft touch by Moore.

In 1988 came a Batman story that helped redefine the character along with other titles such as Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One but was cited as ‘a rare example of a Moore story where the art is better than the writing.’ This was The Killing Joke, a script developed based on artist Brian Bolland’s idea of developing a creation story for the Joker. Escaped from Arkham Asylum, The Joker shoots Barbara Gordon through the stomach, crippling her and then parades photos of her broken body, naked, lying in glass to her Father as part of a twisted fairground ride in a bid to drive him mad. It fails. However, while opinion differs on the effectiveness of the writing – a history for DC’s most famous villain was created, a second tier character was offered a chance to define herself as a central character as Oracle in following years and Batman was darkened and hardened further into the easily recognisable figure we know today. However Moore acknowledges it as not his greatest writing and upset Bolland by referring it to ‘just another Batman story.’ However, Moore had offered Bolland a platform on which to create a defining career project. He’d once again created a wave of success at an apparent low point in his own career. Something that illustrates the power of Moore’s writing and the influence of his involvement.

A set of panels from Tales of the Black Freighter - a comic being read by a character in Watchmen

Another artist gained global fame thanks to Moore’s writing. Dave Gibbons was assigned to a limited series known as the Watchmen, on which Moore asked him to maintain a consistent three tier, 9 panel layout. Collected as trade paperback in 1987, Watchmen is a seminal work and mandatory reading in understanding the history of comic books, cementing Moore’s reputation. A Cold War mystery in which the shadow of Nuclear War threatens the world. The heroes that are caught up in this escalating crisis either work for the U.S. government or are outlawed, all of whom are motivated to heroism by their various psychological hang ups. Using political and social climate to define the history and current state and status of the individual heroes it dealt with subjects like moralism, politicised ethics, loneliness, isolationism, mental illness, sickness, economics and capitalism among others seamlessly and seemingly effortlessly, interlacing the fates of characters defined by templates of central DC characters, but developed well beyond their original’s plotlines. Gibbons met Moore’s recommendations beautifully, allowing his vision to come to life. Watchmen is non-linear and told from multiple point of view, and includes formal experiments such as the symmetrical design of issue 5 ‘Fearful Symmetry’ in which the last page is a near mirror image of the first, the second to last the second and so on. Dr Manhattan, a character unrestrained by the limitations of the laws of physics allowed Moore to investigate the implications to free will if the constraints of linear human perception were removed. His most famous character, Rorschach, named after the basic visual psychological test sets the tone perhaps most effectively, bemoaning, pessimistically, a world entirely lost – to him most specifically. Isolated and increasingly unhinged and appearing early in the book as a seemingly inconsequential background figure, Rorschach represents most prominently the outsider aspect that all of the characters suffer from. A masterpiece, it is seen as Moore’s best work and the only comic book ever to win the literary Hugo Award, in a one-time category of Best Other Form. It is widely regarded as the best comic book ever written. Released around the same time as Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez’s Love and Rockets it has been seen as part of a movement in mainstream comic books of the time to reach out to adult audiences. Breifly, Moore became a minor celebrity, causing him, typically, to withdraw from the public eye and refuse to attend conventions. This is unsurprising perhaps as he was said to have been followed into the toilet by overzealous autograph hunters at the UKCAC.

Moore proposed a series named Twilight of the Superheroes in 1987, the title a twist on Richard Wagner’s opera ‘Twilight of the Gods’. A series set in a future DC Universe, ruled by Superhumna dynasties, including the House of Steel (watched over by Superman and Wonderwoman) and the House of Thunder (presided over by the Marvel family). About to combine in a dynastic marriage, a move that could threaten world freedoms, several characters, including John Constatine, attempt to stop them and save the world from the power of the superheroes. Perhaps because the proposition would reinstate the many worlds already eliminated in the Crisis on Infinite Earths it never saw the light of day, though DC retains rights to its contents. Many similar projects have appeared since, Mark Waid and Alex Ross of the most prominent of these, Kingdom Come, admitting to having read the notes but insisting that any similarity was purely coincidental and unintended.

Again Moore’s relationship with DC had deteriorated over rights as Moore and Gibbons were paid no royalties for a Watchmen spin-off badge set as DC defined them as ‘promotional items’. Reportedly, and rather appallingly, Moore and Gibbons earned only 2% of the profits earned by DC from Watchmen. Completing V for Vendetta for DC, which they had already begun publishing, Moore slung his bag back over his shoulder and made his way out into the cold wastes and warm embrace of independent comic writing.

Part 3 – Tuesday, 3rd December 2012