Because the Future is Fun

Unpopular Opinions: Frank Miller has not lost it

Goddamn!

Unless you’ve managed to avoid any kind of movie media, billboard and TV spot, you’ve probably noticed that Arnold Schwarzenegger is launching a cinematic comeback. This month sees the release of action flick The Last Stand – hurrah! The Governator, back where he belongs on the Silver Screen!

Except – hold the hurrah. Reviews have been sketchy, and the consensus seems to be that Schwarzenegger’s presence on screen is no longer a license to print money. Fair enough – the Austrian Oak hasn’t headlined a picture in a decade, and while he still has muscles on top of muscles, acute comic timing and charisma to burn, the world has moved on since the Arnie era.

Which is a bloody crime, if you ask us.

Anyway, this train of thought set us musing about another pop culture darling of the 80s and 90s who finds himself out of favour in the here and now; the iconic Frank Miller.

Frank Miller was comic book royalty in his heyday. His was a name that stood proudly alongside Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman as a revolutionaries of the artform, and a key driving force in changing the reception of comic books from scorn to celebration.

Frank Miller was revered as the man who reinvented Daredevil, recreating a C-list Spider-Man clone as one of the most important characters in Marvel’s stable – done via a tonal shift from day-glo capers to hard-boiled noir that endures to this day.

Frank Miller was the writer who revived Batman with the legendary maxi-series Dark Knight Returns, turning a popular character with shoddy sales back into the cultural phenomenon he was born to be. TDKR was the book that finally banished memories of Adam West, heavily influenced every screen adaptation seen since, and altered the public perception of comic books forever.

Frank Miller was the mastermind behind Sin City and 300, creator-controlled classics that put Dark Horse firmly on the map as a power player within the comics industry.

Frank Miller was the man who had the world at his feet and could write his own ticket in the comic biz. Then this happened.

Oh, Frank.

This infamous panel comes, of course, from All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder, the book that paired some of the finest art of Jim Lee’s career with some of the poorest writing of Miller’s. It may have sold like gangbusters, but the ridiculous OTT direlogue provided a raft of instant internet memes, and made Miller a laughing stock. He has since claimed that such turgid wordsmithery was a deliberate parody, and that certainly seemed to be the case later in the run once feedback on issue #1 reached his ears, but colour us unconvinced that it was always the author’s intention.

Sadly, Goddamngate was just another nail in the coffin of Miller’s steadily deteriorating reputation. The next step in a seemingly terminal decline that began in 2000 with the Dark Knight Strikes Again debacle. The belated sequel to The Dark Knight Returns was every bit as unsatisfactory as it was anticipated, a crushing disappointment to a legion of fans who had spent years speculating on what and how he could follow such a vital piece of work.

The hits kept on coming, and not in any kind of positive context. Miller’s movie adaptation of The Spirit was one of the biggest flops of 2008, leaving fans of Will Eisner’s seminal superhero sick to their stomachs. His long-time passion project Holy Terror! was universally dismissed as offensive, ill-informed islamophobic nonsense. “Frank Miller has lost it”, mourned a generation of readers raised on his gritty and gloomy approach to the graphic medium, saddened by the downfall of a one-time great.

What if Frank Miller hasn’t lost it though. What if Frank Miller never actually had it?

Let’s back up for a minute, lest this look like cynical hit-trolling. There is no debate that the likes of Dark Knight Returns, Year One, Sin City, Ronin, 300 and Daredevil are bona fide classics; untouchable in their status as iconic works of their time, and books that the world of comics would be infinitely poorer without. No argument – these are truly great stories. But are they great storytelling?

Frank Miller, it seems, is in direct opposition to most industry luminaries as a scribe that works best under the firm hand of a good editor. Complete creative control seems to hamstring Miller and leaves him at the mercy of his own extravagances and follies. The author himself has never been shy to give credit where it’s due to his collaborators who have contributed dialogue and plot changes to his scripts, and remembers being frequently blocked by his then-Daredevil editor with warnings that his scripts were “too dark – that’s a Batman story”.

Naturally this gave rise to The Dark Knight Returns, something we can all be eternally grateful for – again, we’re in no way suggesting that this is anything less than a game-changing, spectacular piece of work and an essential element of the Batman mythos. It’s a great story, a great idea, created by a team on the top of their game. Viewed cold in the year 2013 however, is it truly great writing?

All the elements that leave people cold about Miller today – disproportionate levels of violence, tough-guy dialogue that occasionally lapses into pomposity, slightly disturbing hints at heavily right-wing views, liberal sprinklings of sexism and xenophobia – were all present and correct (albeit with a welcome satirical edge) in TDKR. This was what pop culture was in Reagan’s America, when Rambo ruled the box office and urban decay was a hot topic in music, film and literature. Machismo was king, and Miller was the king of Machismo. Perhaps the issue lies with the fact that Miller hasn’t adjusted his style in the intervening years to accommodate the changing attitudes, leaving these flaws increasingly visible in work that is approached without such a legacy.

Warning signs of Miller’s limitations were always there, but few of us wanted to acknowledge them. Ronin and 300 were bloodbaths in search of a plot, but they were so visually stunning we let them pass. Miller breathed new life into Wolverine with a classic mini-series, but we ignored the fact that X-godfather Chris Claremont was also involved in the project. Miller’s move to the movies involved scripting the dodgy RoboCop 2 and the risible RoboCop 3 (two extremes of the spectrum, with the first sequel a slightly numbing and sickening parade of vehement violence and the second confusing Happy Meal-peddling kiddy-friendly fare), but we blamed the poor finished articles on studio interference.

Then came Sin City, Miller’s final genuine classic work. And once again, it’s great stuff for what it is – ultramasculine muscle-flexing tales of decadence, desire and double-crosses, in an immaculately crafted world devised entirely under Miller’s control. Just how much substance stands up to scrutiny today though? Basin City may have been a fun place to spend time as a reader, especially as the book was like nothing else on the shelves during its zenith, but ultimately its lowest common denominator stuff where the male heroes are psychopaths and killers, and women either murder victims or hookers and strippers with hearts of gold.

Female characters are frequently an Achilles heel of Miller. This may seem like an odd thing to say about the man who created Elektra Natchios, undoubtedly the most fascinating femme fatale in the Marvel cabal, but Miller seemed to devise Elektra purely for the emotional oomph of killing her off.

The Assassin mini-series that followed her resurrection was fun (thanks in no small part to some stunning artwork), but Miller seemed at a loss of what to do with her once she had served her purpose in being shish-kebabed in Daredevil #181. Surely Elektra never existed purely to meet her demise and up the stakes between Matt Murdock and Bullseye? It would take another two decades and the pen of Brian Michael Bendis, Miller’s spiritual successor on the grimy streets of Marvel, to restore intrigue and intensity to Elektra, showing us just how much untapped potential the character still has.

So maybe Frank Miller’s work hasn’t declined in quality – maybe this is the level the man has been working on all along, and the changing tastes of a modern audience have left him behind. These days the genuine industry superstars are the likes of Brian K. Vaughn, the aforementioned Bendis, Jason Aaron and Scott Snyder; future legends who are spinning new twists on old protagonists by placing as much emphasis on character as calamity and consequence.

Where does this leave the poor outmoded raconteur? That all depends on your tolerance for his occasionally irksome politics and excesses. Regardless of whether he ever puts pen to paper again, and the quality of the work he provides, there will be no doubt that some of his career highlights will remain watershed moments in the industry. We just need to accept the limitations of the man and the artist in a changing world. Perhaps, much like with Arnold Schwarzenegger (see, there really was a point to that opening tie-in) it’s us that have changed as an audience, not Frank Miller as a creator.

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