Say the name Frank Miller to a comics fan and you’re likely to get some version of the same myth.
It always starts the same. Frank Miller used to be a genius.
He’s the guy that rescued Daredevil from irrelevance and wrote the definitive Wolverine story before he single-handedly changed the face of comics with The Dark Knight Returns. His work was so influential that it is accepted as truth that he alone brought on the wave of “grim and gritty” comics of the 1990s.
But then the story gets to Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again and everything changes. Miller has gone from genius to crank. His new work (particularly All-Star Batman and Holy Terror) is so bad, so amateurish and slapdash, that the usual qualitative signifiers just don’t hold up. This is the platonic ideal of bad comics. His once evocative pencils are now cringe-worthy (when they’re not outright laughable).
And his dialogue seems almost designed to be insulting to the collective intelligence of his readers. Frank Miller on Batman: “I basically just right down what an alcoholic abusive uncle would say.” Remember this infamous scene?
Miller’s artistic downturn also coincides with what many see as a shift in his personality. The once astute social observer has been replaced by a racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, paranoid nutcase.
In short, everything about Frank Miller now makes it hard to believe that he ever had a career in the first place.
But there’s a problem here and the problem is this:
Miller’s work was always kinda shitty.
In fact, Miller’s work has always been uneven and sometimes laughable, and there have been more than a few hints at the fascist, misogynist, bigot he eventually became publicly.
Let’s take the book credited as being one of the finest Batman stories ever written, The Dark Knight Returns. I won’t get in to the hyperbolic praise DKR has gotten since being published because you’re probably heard it. Most of it credits Miller with returning Batman to his “dark” and “brooding” roots. But this is not technically true. Denny O’Neil rescued Batman from the camp ghetto years before DKR came out. If anything Miller traded O’Neil’s moodiness for a vision of “reality” so cliché and paranoid that it almost comes off as a kind of reverse-camp.
For all the praise it’s gotten for being the Batman story, DKR manages to paint an extremely out of character Batman. If people thought Miller’s depiction of Batman as an abusive and thuggish prick in All-Star Batman is off base, they should look back into DKR because he’s essentially the same creature. Miller’s Batman does not think; he punches. He’s not a detective; he’s a brawler. His solution to every problem, from gang violence to political corruption, is violence.
Compare the violent thug in DKR to the Grant Morrison’s paranoid planner or Scott Snyder’s brilliant tactician to see how one-dimensional and off-character Miller’s take on Batman is (and this is aside from the fact that Miller’s Batman kills and uses guns).
You can see a similar tendency in every one of Miller’s works. He doesn’t “do” character. His characters are all basically variations on the same macho power fantasy. They pose. They talk to themselves in a hard-boiled monotone lifted straight out of Spilane and Chandler. Their only tools are violence and their only goals are well, usually nothing more than their own whims (even Batman’s goals in DKR are essentially non-existent).
But this is not Miller making a critique of this kind of empty violence. No, this is Miller celebrating it. In Miller-world power is what separates right from wrong, men are judged on how much they effect their own will and women, are either victims in need of saving, over-sexualized whores, or scheming she-bitches (In DKR, Catwoman is an aging sex-worker, Carrie Kelly is a sexless child, and the new commissioner Yindel is the woman attempting to neuter Batman).
None of this is particularly more “adult” or “sophisticated”. Miller’s works don’t investigate moral problems or examine characters or even ask particularly difficult questions. Instead, Miller’s work depicts such investigations as symptoms of a morally bankrupt and indulgent society.
Adult work is work that escapes the moral black hole of “good and evil” that superhero comics have been stuck in for decades. Miller didn’t transcend the idea of good vs evil at all. He doubled down on it and insisted that those who boldy follow their own will are the true moral actors. Not those people who stand on principles like “thinking,” “caring,” and “talking”.
And let’s not forget the art. Miller’s recent art is consistently and uniformly bad. But his earlier art was often just as rushed and sloppy as his current work. Over the course of DKR’s run, Batman goes from being an actual human with something resembling a human shape… to a hulking grotesque.
Okay, credit where credit is due. Miller worked on some amazing stuff. His collaborations with David Mazzucchelli, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Geoff Darrow are brilliant. Batman: Year One in particular deserves almost all of the praise its received and Elektra: Assassin is amazing in spite of being unreadable. But I’m beginning to think that these works succeed in spite of, rather than because of, Miller’s involvement.
And, yes, Miller is entitled to his opinions about whatever he happens to have opinions about even when he supports said opinions with “facts” that are simply not true. But when you declare that all Muslims are genital mutilating, scientifically incapable, barbaric crypto-terrorists, and then proceed to write a book based on the idea, then you’ve officially jumped the shark and landed squarely in crazy old man land.
The sad part of all of this is that it is now impossible to look at his early work and not see the signs of the artist, and person, Miller later became. When you look underneath the layers of nostalgia and reverence, what you see is the same misogyny, the same asinine paranoia, and the same fascistic beliefthat power is its own justification. Maybe it’s a little less pronounced, maybe a little less blatant, but it’s there just the same.