Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Frank Miller Takes Over the World

I have an employee who is into geek-culture stuff in a way that doesn't include actual comics.  She likes horror movies, Army of Darkness, and watches the TV shows and movies based on comics.  She just finished watching Daredevil (so say we all), and she was wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shirt with art from the 90's cartoon while she was talking to me about the show.

"You know," I said, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a by-product of Daredevil."
She eyed me, somewhat skeptically.
"Frank Miller made ninjas cool in comics via the Daredevil comics run they're adapting for the show.  After that, ninjas were everywhere in comics, but Miller did them best.  It was the 1980's and Eastman and Laird were drinking beer and figuring out what might be popular for a comic and, hey, NINJAS.  The 'Teenage Mutant' part is referring to some X-Men stuff.  New Mutants, I think."
The look of skepticism was giving way to a bit of fear.
"Yes, I think you can argue that Bruce Lee started the craze, but in comics, I point to Frank Miller."
"Yeah," I said, refusing to let it go.  "The crazy turtle uses sai, right?  Elektra!  That's Miller.  What's the name of the bad guys the Shredder works with?"
She felt a trap.  "The Foot?" she ventured.
"Uh huh.  And the name of the ninjas in Daredevil?"
"...the Hand?"
"Right.  Now... let's talk about how Frank Miller is responsible for Batman v. Superman."
She was not impressed.
"Directly or indirectly, Jack Kirby and Frank Miller are responsible for everything in media right now," I concluded.
I don't think she bought a word of it.

In general, I'd argue the conversations the comics kids are having online these days don't seem to talk so much about what's happening in their comics as they do the characters in broad strokes, undergrad 101 media criticism of race and gender (which I welcome) and the creators, like they're following demi-celebrities who might talk back to them.*

But, really, it's kind of funny that the current crop of kids getting into comics don't seem to much like Frank Miller.  I mean, it's questionable if we'd still have the Direct Market and therefore the stories that were movie-ready had Miller and a few others not dragged comics in a new direction beginning in the late 70's/ early 80's.  But whatever he was doing then doesn't work for them now.

one thing I know - Miller liked arrows

What's funny is, you could argue that Miller currently stands at the zenith of his cultural impact, even if the Dark Knight III series isn't getting so much as a mention in the web-o-sphere (I'm of no opinion on it after reading the first two issues.  It's all prelude so far.).

There's a second season of Daredevil on the air, clearly inspired by his work.  And Batman v. Superman is riffing on iconography and attitude lifted straight from The Dark Knight Returns.

But Miller is of another time, not this era of social media where there's no veil between artist and audience, no opinion on creators that won't be voiced and retweeted, analyzed and scrutinized, no statement made by the author that won't be rebroadcast ad infinitum.  What the kids say about him is usually less about the content of his comics and more about his politics.  They don't care for his artwork or history, for which they have only an inkling of context.**

You also have to admit, Miller hasn't done much for his brand the past decade.  He diluted any point he might have made about the Occupy Wall Street movement by writing a post that sounded like an angry, vicious grandpa (and, upon cold reflection, it's possible Miller may have had half a point, but this is why you worry about your mode of delivery if you want to win over converts.  But to expect him to apologize is... well, not very Frank, I'd venture.).  He's a crank and curmudgeon in interviews, and gives opinions unpopular and lacking in compromise.

Doesn't remind me of any of the characters he's worked on at all.  Cough.

But, as Miller was given a larger media footprint in the mid-00's and managed to alienate the incoming comics scene, it seemed hard to believe this was the same mind that brought us the mind-bending Ronin or idolized Will Eisner.

In a different time and place, where comic reading didn't necessarily mean you spent $1200 building a movie-replica Halloween costume to wear in a stinky comic convention or chat online all day with your pals, and there wasn't, really, much in the way of comics media, what pictures I saw of Frank Miller were black and white publicity stills cropped to small pics on book covers, half in shadow.  And if I saw Miller say anything, it might have been via Comics Scene, a sort of semi-legit comics publication that makes Wizard look like Wizard.  But I don't recall any of the few issues I ever found containing interviews.  And if it were there, nothing in that magazine was edgier than a Nerf basketball.

Jack Kirby and Stan Lee gave us heroes for Post-WWII America, and Kirby gave us mythology in our comics that is just now making its way to the screen (and if you want to talk influence, Darkseid to Thanos).  But Miller bent and broke the concept in new ways while Moore went inward on a journey that exploded the heroes from the inside out.

Miller re-habbed Daredevil from an also-ran at Marvel into one of the most compelling dramas in comics, all of it fodder for the current TV show, current takes on Daredevil and Wilson Fisk, and introduced a new kind of character to comics in Elektra (and one that Marvel keeps trying to dilute for reasons I cannot fathom).

Hell, even Wolverine in the comics got a much needed layer of dimensionality from the combined efforts of Claremont and Miller's joint venture with the Wolverine mini-series back in the 1980's, most recently adapted a bit into the feature film The Wolverine.

Really, when we say "Miller's Batman", we mean Year One and Dark Knight Returns.  There's a bit more to it than that, but those 6 comics are what people mean.  And, they are that good.  Dear Jesus, they really are.  It's been decades and only a handful of creators have come close to both telling a story that resonant and with that kind of mass appeal.  My head may ring at the end of a Morrison book or I may feel like I've slipped between dimensions at the end of a book by Moore, but I feel a bit like I've gone a couple rounds with a heavy weight by the time I put down Year One for the two-hundredth time.

Hell, the idea of "Year One" comics?  Miller.  Lest we forget.

For as relatively little work as Miller did on Batman, his fingerprints have been all over the franchise of movies and cartoons since Burton's Batman.  If not exactly in plotting or execution, our definition of Batman as a grim, driven shadow figure, unrelenting and single minded in purpose - a zealot.  Nolan's Batman trilogy was perhaps possible without Miller, but Miller's take was and is the catalyst which not only brought us The Batman, the ideal antihero/hero for the last 30 years of action-oriented storytelling - with dozens and hundreds if not thousands of knock-offs and wanna-be's in every medium out there.  The video games (the hugely successful Arkham Asylum owes a huge amount to Morrison, but the worldview flows from Miller), action figures and endless merchandise is, yes, an amalgamation of 75+ years of Batman, but Miller's take is the strongest strain in the DNA today.

Indeed, the perception of superheroes themselves and how the public talked about what made for a "good" superhero versus a "boring" one got caught up in word-of-mouth convos had between nerds telling the public why Batman was cool in 1989, 2006, 2016, etc.. et al., and how superheroes not in that mold needed to get out of the way, as if dark could exist without light.

His impact - if you really want to draw it out, on providing spoofs, included the emergence of the "ninja" market in comics, created TMNT, which - in turn - created the black and white explosion of the 1980's, which often copied Miller or TMNT.  And, of course, just a few issues in, cult classic series The Tick featured stories like "Night of a Million, Zillion Ninjas".  And we'll just assume Boris the Bear covered the topic.

While fanboys knew about Miller's work on various projects, his name surged onto the film scene with the first Sin City movie, 300 and then, abruptly, that weird time someone let him direct The Spirit.   It seemed those same fanboys of my generation were now in Hollywood, and they were making the calls.  To us, Miller was both rock star and respected author, an artist of vision who had given us the stories that defined our youth, revisions of longstanding characters that breathed with an immediacy and vitality that reflected not just the world we saw outside our windows, but also worked on some primal level, bending truth for us impressionable kids.

But some of us knew.

The force that was pushing the industry had given up on masked crusaders by the early 90's, retreating to his Sin City books, seeking a playground to no longer merely insinuate the world of blood and sex and violence beyond the edge of the panels that wouldn't get DC or Marvel in too much trouble, but show it in stark black and white.  Then, his opus of the Gates of Thermopylae, 300, hit the shelves as an oddly shaped, large format hardback, for sale in better bookstores.  And, in its way, an absolutely fascinating story.

I read a lot of what Miller put out in that era, and liked all of it.

In what Morrison or Moore might see as some shamanistic magical inversion, the next thing I knew, I was watching a Sin City movie that was, perhaps, the greatest love letter to comics we might have seen had American Splendor not arrived in 2003 and been so damn pitch perfect.  As Pekar participated in his film, Miller was on set during the filming of Sin City, his ethereal strippers, cold killers, filthy gangsters, brilliant psychopaths and divine hookers come to life in stark black and white.

Sin City seemed almost an answer to the toothless Daredevil film that arrived DOA in 2003, setting back careers and the superhero film genre.  Miller's work translated with no edge, too much respect for the imagined children in the theaters instead of the kids he'd already messed up with a lifetime of turning Batman from a neighborly hero into a grim shadow and a Daredevil who's girlfriends were ninjas and ex-junkie/pornstars.  For chrissake - they not only cast Jennifer Garner, America's sweetheart, as Elektra, they gave her a movie of her own.

The danger of adapting Dark Knight Returns was the same danger of mishandling/ misunderstanding DKR that has plagued comics since the 1980's:  Those that saw only the violence, the flash, the grim certainty of the story would recreate it as something less than a complete tale written by an adult with a worldview and understanding of character and, instead, strip it clean of nuance, of the gray areas, and come away with a black and white tale of a hero against a world that would do better if everyone listened to him...  Maybe it would.  A gun is a coward's weapon, a liar's weapon would be some interesting commentary to throw at Zack Snyder who swears he's sticking to canon even as he has Batman drive over his perps and wields some heavy artillery in the trailers for Batman v. Superman.

In such a rush to get the images of Dark Knight Returns to screen, DC shattered DKR against the floor and picked up the shiney pieces without understanding their function, and tried to re-assemble them, unhappy with how their imitation machine of Miller's work had performed in Man of Steel.

Somehow, Marvel sorted it out.  The Daredevil show on Netflix is a weird mish-mash of a lot of interpretations of Daredevil, and still, it's own thing.  But, indisputably, it's Miller, too.

Frank Miller, cloistered somewhere letting everyone else do the work on Dark Knight III while he takes a paycheck and draws jack-off pictures of Superman punching The Atom, is still having his moment.  The "film directing" business may have not turned out and the pop-culture commentator thing may have gone south, and his last comic I'm aware he produced was a sort of odd propagandist tract.  His new work may lack the punch or touch the same cultural nerves as his work of 30 years ago.  But it's possible we'll see it through new eyes one day.

And, man, those old comics still matter, and they've driven the superhero comics medium, the genre, the films and the pop culture conversation about what makes for compelling characters in a direction that sometimes seems absurd, and sometimes necessary.

*it IS thrilling.  Karen Berger liked my tweet this weekend and I got all excited.

**It's one thing to listen to the Sex Pistols in your suburban bedroom being mad at your mom for making you go to Grandma's on Sunday, it's quite another to see Johnny Rotten screaming at his own fans from fifteen feet away.


horus kemwer said...

Dead on.

And it's not just BvS that draws on DKR, it's there in Nolan's Dark Knight, and Year One is in Begins, and DKR is there again in Rises. Hell, I always used to argue that the Burton Batman was really just a half-assed take on DKR.

Shocking to me the kids aren't into Miller - cause, like, they are and they don't know it? (I guess that's the point of the post . . . .)

BTW, Ronin was always my top Miller - let's hope Snyder doesn't suddenly convince DC to let him defecate all over it.

The League said...

Yowza. That is a truly depressing and all too likely...