“If I am to have a long and very successful career, I hope that it is like Bob Dylan’s,” Frank Miller said in his very first interview with The Comics Journal. It was November 1981; he was 24, three years into his four-year run as writer and penciler on Marvel Comics’ Daredevil, the book that made his name. In the photo accompanying this interview in the Comics Journal collection Frank Miller: The Interviews 1981-2003, he is wearing a turtleneck with great arrogance, which is not easy. “He had a very successful act for years,” Miller continued. “Then he decided he wanted to do something else and when he played his new music, he was booed off the stage for it. But it didn’t stop him.”
Don’t think twice, don’t follow leaders, don’t look back: That was how Miller rolled through most of the ’80s, at least until Hollywood waylaid him. On the strength of his 1986 Batman miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, he was hired to write RoboCop 2, delivered a script, watched as the studio brought in Walon Green (The Wild Bunch) to radically rewrite that script, hung around director Irvin Kershner’s set anyway, shot a cameo appearance playing a character called “Frank the Chemist,” and somehow got hired to write RoboCop 3, which in its finished form reflected Miller’s vision even less than Robocop 2. It was not a good experience; his go-to joke about screenwriting is that it’s like “creating a fire hydrant with a block’s worth of dogs lined up to pee on it.” When he returned to comics in the early ’90s, his first major project was a black-and-white crime series called Sin City; the fact that you could see him simultaneously rediscovering the joy of drawing comics and reveling in fantasy after fantasy of brutal, violent revenge was probably not a coincidence.
Miller and the movie business stopped speaking until the early 2000s, when Robert Rodriguez proposed the idea of using green screen to create a Sin City movie that would drop actors playing Miller’s characters into CGI backgrounds designed to look like Miller’s panels. The finished film, a hit in 2005, is a technical marvel and one of the most slavishly faithful adaptations of anything, ever; it so exactly mimics every beat of the comics that Rodriguez credited Miller as his codirector and declined to take a screenplay credit. It’s even faithful to certain infelicitous aspects of the work that might have benefited from a gentle punch-up. There’s something to be said for safeguarding certain hydrants from the uric acids of the studio-notes process; there’s also something absurd about treating third-hand noirisms like “She smells like angels oughta smell” or “Kill ’im for me, Marv — kill ’im good” as if they’re Clifford Odets or some shit.
The sequel that arrives in theaters this weekend — Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, again codirected by Miller and Rodriguez — took nine years to make, during which time Miller began work on his solo-directed, clangingly bad adaptation of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, split up with his wife and longtime creative collaborator Lynn Varley, emerged as a boisterous proponent of the war on terror, produced some comics that ranged from misunderstood to despicable, and blogged sporadically at Frankmillerink.com. The oldest post archived there is a March 2010 tribute to Sin City actress Brittany Murphy, who’d died the previous December; the most recent one is a frothing, sneering open letter to the Occupy movement that reads like a memo from the desk of Ed Anger — or maybe Dylan yelling “Judas!” at an entire generation. Said screed went up in November 2011, not long after Legendary Comics published Miller’s long-aborning Holy Terror, a superheroes-punch-Al-Qaeda graphic novel whose wild-eyed conviction was matched only by the toxicity of its Islamophobia.
In a sense, it’s like Miller’s having two third acts at once. In one story, he’s a crank who may have torpedoed one of the most illustrious careers in comics through a mix of self-indulgence and impolitic ranting; in the other story, he’s the dark dreamweaver of Sin City, a celebrated co-auteur without whom this clearly-still-perceived-as-potentially-lucrative franchise (there’s also a TV series in the pipeline) would be nothing. His name appears twice in the Dame to Kill For trailer, like some seal of approval from Badass Housekeeping. For Miller in particular, it’s an interesting reversal of fortune: Comics may not want him anymore, but the movies do.
1. Lanky Frank Explodes (1978-1983)
Miller landed in New York for the first time in 1976, at 19, carrying a cheap portfolio held together with the same kind of baling twine he’d used to bind hay while working for a dairy farmer back home. Years later, he’d describe the pages inside as “a primitive version of Sin City. They were crime stories, and nobody was in tights at all. And people looked at me like I was completely nuts, because there was only one kind of comic book being published.” The artist Neal Adams, a renowned spotter of young talent, took one look at Miller’s work and advised him to go back to Vermont and pump gas. Instead Miller kept coming back to pester Adams at his studio, until Adams — still convinced that Miller couldn’t draw — agreed to put a word in for him at Gold Key Comics.
Miller’s first professional comics work appeared in two books cover-dated June 1978 — a silly three-pager about a gluttonous Arab sheikh in Gold Key’s Twilight Zone comic and a six-page ghost story called “Deliver Me From D-Day” in DC’s Weird War Tales. Before long, he was freelancing for three comic-book companies simultaneously — a necessary hustle, since the going rate back then ranged from $25 per page at DC to as much as $35 at Marvel. “I went for days without food,” Miller told The Comics Journal in 1981, “the whole down-and-out New York scene, existing without a place to live. There were months of near-starvation.”
His early Marvel work included issues of John Carter: Warlord of Mars and Spectacular Spider-Man. Miller didn’t work on the title for long; the $29.95 Complete Frank Miller Spider-Man collects a grand total of six comic books, including an Amazing Spider-Man annual in which Peter Parker web-swings down to CBGB (“Punk-rock heaven!”) to check out a
fictional band called Shrapnel. Note the flag backdrop, foreshadowing Miller’s use of the Stars and Stripes all over Dark Knight Returns.
In Miller’s first Spectacular story, the second half of a two-parter written by Bill Mantlo, Spider-Man temporarily loses his sight and teams up with the blind crime fighter Daredevil. Created in 1964 by Stan Lee and Bill Everett, Daredevil still had his own Marvel title, but by the end of the ’70s its sales had fallen so low that Marvel was publishing it bimonthly. When penciler Gene Colan asked to be taken off the book in 1979, Marvel had little to lose by giving his job to an unproven newcomer.
On the first page of Daredevil No. 158, the Black Widow wipes away blood from a split lip, preparing to enter a melee already in progress. A text box in the corner trumpets the arrival of “Lanky Frank Miller,” a “truly great new artist” poised to “explode upon the Marvel scene like a bombshell.” This was hyperbole even by the hucksterish standard set by Stan Lee. It also turned out to be true.
The script is by “Ramblin’” Roger McKenzie, who’d soon ramble on to new assignments as Miller’s fame grew. The villain is a generic heavy who calls himself Death-Stalker and says things like “Tell me, Murdock, do you still remember our first encounter?” before narrating said encounter in a flashback sequence. And Miller’s pencils look like the work of an ambitious 20-year-old trying hard to cop Neal Adams moves on deadline. All that aside, it’s unmistakably a Frank Miller comic. He plays fast and loose with anatomy, twisting bodies in unnatural ways. He turns the jagged energy lines radiating from Death-Stalker’s electrified gloves into a design element that spills across panel borders. The issue builds to a climactic fight scene in a graveyard, where Daredevil knocks out a streetlight to even the odds, and the next page turns the hero-vs.-villain throwdown into pure abstraction: two silhouettes, lunging and kicking across five wide horizontal panels. The black-and-white original art for this sequence could be a page out of Sin City, right down to Death-Stalker’s trench coat.
There’s a moment in the 1953 movie version of Kiss Me Kate in which a dancer slides into the frame sideways, as if stealing a base, and comes to a tire-screeching halt at the feet of Carol Haney. There’s a second of silence, and then he starts to snap his fingers, rebooting the beat and bending the music to his will. The dancer is Bob Fosse, still a year away from choreographing his first Broadway musical. He and Haney proceed to carve up the screen in a brief burst of Fosse-choreographed movement, and for about one minute the movie has sex and jazz and modernity in it. That’s how the lights-out fight in this issue of Daredevil feels — it’s an announcement of Miller’s arrival but also a statement of intent. It’s Frank Miller figuring out how to do “Frank Miller” right before your eyes.
During Miller’s four-year run on the book, the B-list costumed villains who’d once made up Daredevil’s rogues’ gallery mostly disappeared; his New York quickly began to look more like Travis Bickle’s, albeit with way more gangland violence involving ninjas. It was still a late-’70s/early-’80s commercial superhero comic, published under the Comics Code Authority, and Matt Murdock was still a difficult hero to write — self-righteous and guilt-ridden, like Peter Parker with a law degree and no jokes. But Miller found ways around both those limitations. He built up secondary characters like Daily Bugle crime reporter Ben Urich and the doomed crook Melvin Potter. In 1981, he introduced Elektra, his homage to Sand Saref, the femme fatale from Will Eisner’s The Spirit. A female ninja and mercenary who turned out to be Murdock’s old college sweetheart, Elektra was supposed to show up for one issue and then die. Instead she practically took over, serving as both love interest and antagonist from issue to issue. A sadomasochistic triangle became the book’s central relationship — Elektra, the mentally deranged assassin Bullseye, and Daredevil, now the third-most-interesting character in the mix.
And as an artist, Miller kept getting bolder, downplaying anatomical realism in favor of a rougher line, deploying formally innovative layouts to whip your attention across the page. Even with a moderately trained eye, you can spot his influences. The use of text as a three-dimensional element on splash pages …
… is another homage to Eisner:
And if you’ve ever seen Bernard Krigstein’s staggering 1955 EC Comics short Master Race, which uses repeated images to create slow-motion effects on the comics page …
… countless sequences in Miller’s Daredevil will look familiar.
The book kept selling, so Miller got to go on making auteur comics within the corporate-comics system. You can feel him seeking out new things to get away with. Panels without borders. Symmetrical layouts anticipating Dave Gibbons’s work on Watchmen. Stories broken up by impressionistic Pete Hamill-ish narration — “Come in a little closer. Wipe the stardust out of your eyes and check out what’s really happening down here” — and moody, action-free shots of the city. A fight scene staged in a movie theater showing The Maltese Falcon, featuring two oblivious film buffs yammering over the action about “the frightening yet attractive nature of violence” and why Mary Astor was a better Brigid O’Shaughnessy than Bette Davis.
Toward the end of his Daredevil run, Miller took a road trip to a comic convention with longtime Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont. By the time the ride was over, they’d outlined the story for the first solo Wolverine comic, a four-issue miniseries that dropped the X-Men’s Canadian antihero into clan warfare in modern-day Japan. This was in 1982 — before Wolverine became one of Marvel’s most omnipresent and overused characters, before a succession of writers burdened him with hopelessly convoluted backstory and softened his edges, before the Hugh Jackman movies (including 2013′s The Wolverine, loosely based on this series), before there was nothing left for him to do but die. We are probably too Wolverined-out as a culture to see this book clearly anymore, but it’s still one of the definitive Wolverine stories, even with some of Claremont’s most egregious over-narrating weighing it down. “The bear howls — more rage than pain — an’ lunges for me. I hit him too hard, too fast — he doesn’t know yet how badly he’s hurt. He’s become a true berserker — his fury givin’ him a terrible, almost irresistible power an’ endurance.” That’s Wolverine, fighting a bear, still possessing the presence of mind to provide us with a dictionary definition of “berserker.” You could remove 75 percent of the words in these comics and they’d still work just fine, which says a lot about how strong a visual storyteller Miller already was.
After Daredevil, Miller wrote his own ticket. 1983’s Ronin almost became one of the first books published by Marvel’s adult-oriented Epic Comics imprint. Instead, Miller took it to DC, partly because the company’s editor-in-chief, Jenette Kahn, agreed to meet his demands regarding coloring and paper stock. The two key influences you can see Miller processing in Ronin — Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s manga series Lone Wolf & Cub, and the prog-rock sci-fi of French graphic novelist Jean “Moebius” Giraud — would eventually become core-curriculum works for anyone interested in non-cape comics. But in the early ’80s, it was hard to find any of this material in English, let alone in Barnes & Noble. (In the early ’80s, Miller shared a Garment District studio with Walt Simonson and American Flagg! creator Howard Chaykin, who turned him on to the French stuff; he was exposed to the Japanese comics by a girlfriend, Laurie Sutton.)
Ronin’s story is a fairly routine sci-fi/fantasy pastiche about a Hal 9000-like supercomputer and a samurai who time-travels from feudal Japan to 21st-century America after attempting to kill his demon nemesis. It’s actually less engaging than that sounds, due mostly to flat characterization and somber dialogue on Miller’s part; he’s never said so, but I’ve always assumed the subplot psychic man-child whose violent power fantasies come to dangerous life is an early example of Miller holding an unflattering mirror up to his audience. It’s not a perfect book, but there’s a palpable sense of excitement about the medium’s untapped potential on every page. They’re pretty nice-looking pages, too:
Color matters in Miller’s books, even when (especially when) it’s sparingly applied. Miller’s colorist on Ronin was Lynn Varley, who’d previously worked with him on his final issue of Daredevil. She made Ronin look like no other book on the stands, employing earthy browns and reds for the samurai sequences and painting the future hospital-scrub green.
2. Not Just Some Guy Who Puts on a Cape (1986-87)
So how do you follow a long, critically and commercially successful run on a superhero title and a creator-owned book that helped open the insular world of American comics to a host of new influences? If you’re Frank Miller, you start making slightly gassed-up pronouncements like “It’s very weird, standing at the beginning of a possible history and not at the end of one, because there’s nothing left of the road behind me” in interviews. And then you go write Batman for a while. Ronin was a suggestion about what comics could be like if capes and tights weren’t the only game in town, but of course they still were.
It’s hard to look at 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns in 2014 with anything like fresh eyes. It’s not that it’s overrated. No other modern superhero comic aside from Alan Moore’s similarly pop-eschatological Watchmen has affected the genre as profoundly. The whole process of making deliberately “modern” superhero comics in the ensuing years became about either affirming or denying the implications of these two stories — what they said about the superhero as an idea and that idea’s largely unexamined payload of cold war ideology, about the psychological kinship between superheroes and their nemeses, about violent fantasy and nostalgic refuge and vigilantism, about the kind of world a real-life Superman or Batman might make. This was deep stuff in ’86, when the version of Batman that mainstream culture knew best was Adam West with permanently arched eyebrows painted on his cowl. But over the next 20 years, every hack in comics (and more than a few geniuses) basically beat these ideas to death. Plus, there’s the movie problem: Christopher Nolan’s three Batman movies essentially owe their philosophical underpinnings to Dark Knight and their visual signature to Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s “Year One,” a noir restaging of Batman’s origin published over four issues of DC’s monthly Batman book in 1987. It’s not fair, but a few decades’ worth of derivative works have a way of making even the most vibrant source seem a little stale.
Time hasn’t dimmed the book’s formal bravado — the elegant balance that Miller’s art strikes between realism and what he’d later call “bigfoot cartooning,” the mix of bold single images and pages splintered into sixteenths, the sheer balls-out confidence Miller clearly has in his story and his ability to tell it. But Dark Knight’s politics have aged sliiiiiightly less well. Miller was mugged repeatedly during his early years in New York, and while those experiences undoubtedly informed his Daredevil’s depiction of the city as a playground for thugs, Dark Knight is Miller’s true Bernie Goetz moment — it’s a kind of Death Wish–libertarian argument about crime and punishment, rooted in a yearning for a big, bad avenger unfettered by due process or compassion, and full of lily-livered shrinks and liberals blah-blah-blahing about rehabilitation. Talking to The Comics Journal again in August 1985, while the book was still in the works, he said he was “having fun with” the fascist overtones of the Batman story. But elsewhere in that same interview, he seems determined to collapse any distance between Dark Knight’s politics and his own.
“Now, presenting a vigilante as such a powerful, positive force is bound to draw some flak,” he said, “but it’s the force I’m concerned with, more as a symbol of the reaction that I hope is waiting in us, the will to overcome our moral impotence and fight, if only in our own emotions, the moral deterioration of our society. Not just some guy who puts on a cape and fights crime … I think Clint Eastwood is more in touch with what we should do with superheroes than virtually anybody in comics. Dirty Harry is clearly larger than life; his behavior would certainly land him in jail. But that’s irrelevant, what is relevant is that, through all his hostility, and despite his dirty language, Harry is a profoundly, consistently moral force, administering the ‘Wrath of God’ on murderers who society treats as victims … plainly bigger and greater than normal men, and perfectly willing to pass judgment and administer punishment and make things right.”
After 9/11, when Miller’s politics seemed to veer hard to the right, a lot of people were surprised. Maybe they shouldn’t have been. But that’s the thing about Dark Knight: At least until they started making Sin City movies, it was Miller’s best-known work, but it’s also probably his most widely misinterpreted. Like Moore’s Watchmen, it attempted to suggest that the world had outgrown the simple certainties of the superhero mythos. “I joked to Alan once that he did the autopsy [on the idea of superheroes] and I did the brass-band funeral,” Miller said. “Because it really did feel to me like a handful of grown-up fans waving our childhood heroes a fond goodbye.” Instead, superhero comics assimilated everything about Watchmen and Dark Knight except the idea that superheroes were an exhausted form. Marvel and DC both seized on the so-called “grim and gritty” approach as a foolproof way to make superhero comics seem cool again, adding more nihilism, violence, and moral ambiguity to their house styles in order to make an aging customer base feel better about its attachment to children’s fiction characters from the ’60s. “All of a sudden Green Lantern turns into a drunk driver,” Miller groaned years later. “Gag me.”
The other really striking aspect of Miller’s mid-to-late-’80s work is just how much of it there was. The first issue of The Dark Knight Returns hit in February of ’86. Miller also returned to Daredevil that month, writing the first of six issues full of ripe Catholic imagery, subsequently collected as Daredevil: Born Again. The miniseries Elektra: Assassin, illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz, began in August of that year and ran through the following March. The graphic novel Daredevil: Love and War, another collaboration with Sienkiewicz, came out in December of ’86. And “Year One” ran in the pages of Batman between February and May of ’87. That’s one of the most astonishing 12-month hot streaks in the history of comics — the weakest of those projects is Love and War, and Love and War is still kind of a masterpiece, even if it’s basically just a showcase for Sienkiewicz, probably the greatest abstract painter ever to work in comics. I mean:
It’s weird — Miller’s a good writer and a great artist, and yet some of his best work is the stuff he’s written for other people to draw. Elektra: Assassin, which Miller and Sienkiewicz initially dreamed up as a way to keep the Marvel checks coming in while they worked on Love and War, is a sexual-abuse survival story buried inside a fragmented rogue-spy thriller that reads like William Burroughs cutting up Mack Bolan. It’s the surreal high point of Miller’s ’80s output, not to mention his most eighties book of the ’80s, a clash between cyberpunk and Miami Vice rendered in colors evocative of chemical sunsets or poison candy.
“Year One,” with pencils by David Mazzucchelli and autumnal colors by Richmond Lewis, is a thoughtful reconstruction of the Batman mythos Miller had just blown up in Dark Knight. It’s less about Bruce Wayne learning to punch muggers and more about Lieutenant James Gordon, newly transferred to Gotham from Chicago, struggling to hold his marriage together while uncovering corruption on the force and chasing a mysterious masked vigilante around town. It’s kind of amazing that it took until 27 years after this for someone to decide that Young Jim Gordon was an idea with legs.
3. Trench Coats (1988-2001)
Shortly after that explosion of productivity, Miller went off to Hollywood and didn’t draw for two years. He returned in the early ’90s with prestige projects for Marvel (the meditative graphic novel Elektra Lives Again and The Man Without Fear, an unnecessary but well-executed retelling of Daredevil’s origin story) and some unusual collaborative projects. He wrote 1990’s Hard Boiled — a hyper-violent three-issue story about a tax collector who discovers he’s an indestructible cyborg — for the artist Geof Darrow, whom he’d met through Jean Giraud. That same year, he worked with Watchmen’s Dave Gibbons on the sci-fi miniseries Give Me Liberty, the first of several stories chronicling the adventures of Martha Washington — product of the Cabrini-Green projects, soldier in America’s second Civil War, future astronaut, and savior of the human race.
Gibbons and Miller would revisit Martha on and off throughout the ’90s in a string of stories that don’t get discussed enough. Miller’s long been a semi-public Ayn Randite, and the totally bonkers Martha Washington Goes to War is basically Miller and Gibbons doing Jack Kirby’s Atlas Shrugged. But it’s fascinating that even as Miller entered his Self-Conscious Manliness Period — during which he’d produce several hairy-knuckled volumes of Sin City and the graphic novel 300 — he was also writing comics featuring a black female protagonist more fully realized than any other woman who’s ever appeared in his work, Elektra included. At the time, the Washington stories seemed like a curiosity; these days — now available in a 600-page collection that no one but the already-converted will ever pick up — they seem like the first of many roads not taken.
Dark Horse published the first chapter of “The Hard Goodbye,” the first Sin City story — Miller prefers the term “Sin City yarn,” but I don’t — in April 1991. Over the years, Miller has spoken fondly of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but his first exposure to crime fiction was Mickey Spillane, and Sin City is his way of admitting he never quite got over it. In Eisner/Miller — a fascinating joint interview modeled on Hitchcock/Truffaut — he suggests that in Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels, he “was almost doing Conan as a private detective.” That’s not a bad description of Marv in “Hard Goodbye,” a seemingly indestructible bruiser who wakes up to a dead body in Chapter 1 — Goldie, she of the angel smell — and spends the rest of the story seeking answers and revenge. Chapter 8 begins with Marv walking in the rain, a sequence that goes on for 10 pages. There’s some narration, but nothing actually happens; it’s a beautifully illustrated scene in which a guy takes a walk. That kind of indulgence was the whole point. Miller had his autonomy back, and he used it to make the trenchcoat-iest comic imaginable. That rain sequence, he’d say later, “was me saying, ‘This is where I’m going. I’ve been away from comics for two years, and I’m back.’ I sat down and did exactly what I wanted to do without thinking about it. That was my walk in the rain.”
Miller worked on Sin City for almost 10 years. Open any of the seven trade-paperback collections at random, and you won’t hit a boring drawing. Comics being a visual medium, that’s certainly an achievement. Maybe the sheer spectacle of Miller pushing past whatever limits he had left as a maker of images is enough to put the series in the pantheon; it’s certainly enough to keep you turning pages. They’re impressive art objects, but reading them doesn’t exactly feel like reading. Did Miller start calling them “yarns” because calling them “stories” felt like an overstatement? Even Basin City itself — vaguely tropical, except when Miller needs it to snow — is a pretext, not a place. Every story’s about bad men doing bad things to worse men; the women are prostitutes or stone psychos or scared-little-girl strippers seeking the protection of a man with big, strong mitts. After all that talk about how corporate comics’ superhero obsession has hampered the medium’s growth, Miller went off to Dark Horse and immediately self-imposed a set of aesthetic requirements that was just as limiting. It’s as if he tunneled out of one jail and into another, slightly less crowded jail. Everything that’s wrong with Sin City made it into Rodriguez and Miller’s 2005 movie more or less intact. Onscreen, with actual people saying the words, it plays like a spoof without jokes.
The only other major work Miller produced in the ’90s was 300, a gorgeous and historically problematic retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae. As a comic, it’s a solemn ode to the kind of patriotism and masculine burden-shouldering I’m guessing Miller doesn’t see too much of in contemporary American life, to war as a force that gives us meaning. When it became a Zack Snyder movie in 2007, it was a broader paean to machismo in general. Snyder followed Miller’s text as rigorously as Rodriguez did on Sin City, with the addition of a few shots of Gerard Butler athletically taking Lena Headey from behind before riding into battle, just in case we were inclined to mistake all the Spartans’ talk about limp-wristed Athenians for overcompensation. It’s an empty enough movie that anyone could project what they wanted onto it; if you wanted to perceive the film’s depiction of a tiny, brave fighting force holding the line against an army of ooky Persians as coded war on terror cheerleading and/or Islamophobic propaganda, you were free to. The blame for that aspect of the story trickled back up to Miller, who was somehow able to resist responding, You ain’t seen nothing yet.
4. Stealth Be Damned (2001-Present)
Miller moved back to New York just in time for 9/11, and began reckoning with that day’s events in his work before the dust had even settled. His contribution to the 2002 benefit book 9-11: Artists Respond was a two-page, three-panel comic, as stark and unequivocal as anything in his back catalogue:
Back then, it read like a condemnation of fundamentalism in all its forms, and maybe it was. But it was also a statement. Miller wasn’t ready yet to let the healing begin. In context, the piece’s rawness was striking. “An atom bomb of anger and cynicism,” David Brothers wrote in 2010, “dropped into the middle of a book filled with stories about unity and tolerance and sadness. The rest of the book is your mother comforting you and putting ice on your black eye, while Miller’s two pages are your father asking you if you gave as good as you got, and if not, you better do better next time.”
Before the planes hit, Miller had finished the second issue of The Dark Knight Strikes Again, a Dark Knight sequel inspired in part by the “adolescent fever pitch” of the alternative comics he’d checked out during a visit to the annual Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland. Said second issue is the one in which Batman flies a plane into Lex Luthor’s headquarters, then addresses his corporate/government adversaries in the language of terrorism: “This is only the beginning. Tyrants, your days are numbered. You can’t fight us and you can’t find us. We strike like lightning and we melt into the night like ghosts … ”
… which, like a lot of the supposedly wild ideas in Miller’s Batman work, is really just a core element of the mythos taken to its logical endpoint.
It was a deliberately unpretty and willfully unsolemn book that a lot of people really, really hated; it might also be the greatest superhero comic of our young century. Batman puts on Kryptonite boxing gloves and beats the shit out of Superman, who in Miller’s future DC Universe is still a government stooge, the tip of fascism’s spear. Superman makes love to Wonder Woman in the ruins of the Fortress of Solitude. “The earth moved,” she tells him. “I’m pregnant again.” Batman’s new sidekick Carrie Kelley leads an army of teenage-mutant mini-Batmen into battle, shouting “LOOK SHARP! YOU KNOW THE ORDERS! PLAY IT LOUD AND HARD! STEALTH BE DAMNED! IT’S SHOWTIME!” You can imagine Miller yelling the same thing at himself before gouging each sequence into the page.
It’s a book without a drop of reverence or respect for tradition, including the classic Frank Miller story it’s nominally a sequel to, and its energy feels utterly unencumbered by craft. Every face Miller draws is a caricature; Varley, coloring with a computer for the first time, practically napalms every image with self-consciously digital-looking shading and gradients straight off a ’90s rave flier. (“Don’t look at it!” screams the Atom. “It’s gonna blow!”) If you were trying to engineer a Batman comic that would still look cool after a decade’s worth of pop-cultural upheaval, you might arrive at something like this; the book’s garish cheap-tech look and feel foreshadows Crank: High Voltage, M.I.A.’s album covers, Sleigh Bells, seapunk, and rappers employing the telltale digital gurgle of Auto-Tune as an aesthetic rather than a crutch. It feels like the work of a gang of excitable art students, rather than a 44-year-old man who was reportedly paid millions to make it. Frank Miller, born again.
Or that was how it felt, for a minute. Maybe the vituperative reviews scared Miller out of this lane; maybe 9/11 just flipped a switch. Either way: He never did anything quite like it again. Sin City dropped in 2005. Miller’s solo directorial debut, The Spirit — a cinematic translation of Will Eisner that had way too much Sin City in it — followed three years later. Gabriel Macht played the title character like a store-brand version of Bruce Campbell (who would have at least been able to give this material an ironic backspin). Samuel L. Jackson wore a Gorton’s Fisherman hat and yelled about eggs. And Scarlett Johansson obliged the budding auteur by dressing up in a Nazi uniform, a geisha costume, and a nurse’s outfit. A profoundly misbegotten movie from beginning to end.
“Misbegotten” has sort of become a theme in late-period Miller. Holy Terror was announced in 2006 as Holy Terror, Batman! He’d later describe the original proposal as “unrestrained” and “pretty rough stuff … It kind of caught fire as soon as you looked at it.” He’d set out to write a piece of unrepentant propaganda, but at some point he decided that what he was writing wasn’t a Batman story anymore, or couldn’t be. But it begins that way, more or less. Rain on “Empire City,” whose signature landmark is a statue of blind Justice: The Fixer, Miller’s Batman stand-in, chases a Catwoman analogue over the rooftops. He catches up to her. They kiss. They fight. They have sex in the shadow of a giant crane. Then the bombs start to explode, full of nails and razor blades. We meet only one of the bombers, but the fact that she’s a dark-haired “exchange student” named “Amina” to whom the towers of Empire City resemble “sharpened sticks aimed at the eyes of God” tells us most of what we need to know.
We can pick up the rest from the non sequitur insert shots of young men stoning a woman to death and a cell-phone-toting Saudi-businessman type beating his burka’d wife, and the dedication — “Respectfully” — to Dutch filmmaker and provocateur Theo Van Gogh, who was murdered in 2004 by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim who objected to, among other things, Van Gogh’s use of the term “goat-fuckers” to describe his faith. Miller’s Fixer can’t even muster insults that compelling, although he does address a captured terrorist, rudely, as Mohammed (“Pardon me for guessing your name, but you’ve got to admit the odds are pretty good that it’s Mohammed”) before snapping his spine in a torture session. No one apart from comics fans seemed to be calling for Miller’s head on a pike when this book came out; you have to wonder if he took that as a negative review.
“I can tell you squat about Islam,” Miller told his editor Bob Schreck during a rather odd convention-panel appearance three years ago. “I don’t know anything about it. But I know a goddamn lot about al-Qaeda and I want them all to burn in hell.” It was a fine bit of rhetoric, leaving open as it did the possibility that all 1.6 billion of Earth’s Muslims might be sleeper-cell collaborators who deserved the same fate. Miller wouldn’t presume to say for sure! He’s not an Islam expert! He’s an al-Qaeda expert, though, which is why the book depicts al-Qaeda hatching their deadly plots from an underground lair beneath the city’s oldest mosque, like COBRA or the Legion of Doom. As they’ve been known to do.
It’s not the only late Miller thing that teeters here, on the line between deliberate and inadvertent parody, depriving you of the clues you’d need to classify it. Example: I’m convinced that 2005’s All- Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder — source of the “I’m the goddamn Batman” meme — is one big joke about the post–Dark Knight superhero-badassery arms race, a joke that Jim Lee’s grimaces-and-cheesecake artwork isn’t in on. The Batman in All-Star is a psychotic loner who basically abducts Dick Grayson and forces him to be his Robin; Dick stays around in part because he figures out that Batman’s gravelly “Batman voice” is just a Clint Eastwood impression, and feels pity for him in that moment. Chris Nolan couldn’t make this movie, but Will Ferrell could — squeezing into the suit, shouting down anyone who mocks him for calling his Dodge Stratus “the Batmobile.”
Anyway: If you’re really determined to explain Holy Terror away as something other than a smear on 23 percent of the world’s population, maybe it’s Miller’s way of holding America’s post-9/11 fantasies about bombing its enemies back to the Stone Age up to the light. Maybe he’s trying to demonstrate through exaggeration that our desire to police the world is as rooted in naive power fantasies as the superhero story tends to be. Maybe he’s trolling us all. But in order to believe that this book is a joke on anybody except the undifferentiated Mohammeds that Miller dreams of blowing away, you have to ignore just about every public statement he’s made about Holy Terror, which he insists is both “propaganda” (in the manner of those old comics in which Captain America urged us to buy war bonds while socking ol’ Hitler in the chops) and a sincere response to post-9/11 reality. If it’s really a satire, Miller is Andy Kaufman.
It’s a shame, too, because if you can manage to look at it as nothing but ink on the page, this is one of the liveliest, most restless things he’s drawn in years, all angry spatter and slashing lines. It might be his outsider-art apotheosis; it’s definitely a more immediate and personal work than Sin City, and it’s hard not to wish he’d put this much energy into a project less rancid at its core. But maybe it still is his apotheosis. The thing Miller admires about his heroes isn’t their power — he’s yanked that away from them, over and over. He worships their certainty. Their moral clarity, their willingness to judge and mete out the punishment that society can’t or won’t, their refusal to back down or equivocate. For some people, September 11 made the world seem full of ambiguities in a way it hadn’t before; for Miller, it made real the black-and-white world he’d always dreamed about. The dust clears, and the artist is visible alone at his drafting table in lower Manhattan, drawing Holy Terror‘s fake Catwoman, whose inner monologue sounds not unlike Miller explaining himself to himself:
“All my life there’s been something wrong. Something missing. A sense that everything I’m seeing all around me isn’t entirely true. That this seemingly ordered world of laws and logic and reason is nothing but a shroud, a chimera. A mask. But every once in a long while, the mask falls away. Every once in a long while, the whole world makes perfect sense. The world reveals itself. I am at peace. And at war.”