Frank Miller Can Draw
Travis Hedge Coke
Frank Miller has had poor health lately. We can all see that. He has politics or has expressed opinions that you may not agree with in part or in whole. He may write or draw characters or genres you would rather he did not, and sometimes maybe you prefer the way he does this comic with this character, but not this other character in this other comic. None of that is “why” Miller has worked in more than one style over the course of his career or even, sometimes, within the same comic. Frank Miller draws different things differently, not because of his health or his politics, but because Frank Miller can fucking draw.
I am not a great artist, but I did my time at CalArts, I’ve drawn and painted enough, and I have certainly read enough comics to know when someone can draw and when they can lightbox only, or cover their weaknesses with stock flair. I know some of you ooh and aah at a guy who can airbrush Michael Jackson upside down, but in general that’s all that guy can do. You’re still allowed to like it, and as a trick it’s pretty good, but I see that, I see that level of technical skill and control and wish they’d push it a bit and do more. Not everyone can do more. As I said, I am not a great artist. I can try all sorts of things, but especially as I age and my hands get more and more claw-like and twitchy. the days where I could passably ape early 90s Jim Lee or do reasonably good naturalistic portraiture is behind me.
Frank Miller can draw. He can do what Michael Jackson portrait guy and I don’t, and probably can’t. He can apply himself in a variety of styles, to specific ends, and he’s continued to push himself for decades.
Is his art good? This doesn’t mean “Do I like it?” but it also cannot be, consistently, based on any outside criteria. It’s seemingly competent. It appears to achieve the goals that Miller has set, for the majority of the audience. If he’s drawing a big-eyed manga caricature of a newsreader and a more human figure in the next panel, we can understand that the big-eyed figure is a cartoon, even if the human figure, too, is broadly cartooned. We can tell a horse from a dragon. But, at the same time, his musculature or anatomy are not so accurately representing reality that we could lay a photograph of the same scene over a panel and it would fit perfectly into place. Miller exaggerates muscle, hair, size, clothes and scenery, removing aspects or extending them to make them loom larger or recede into the overall image, and even in examples that I’m not super in love with, I can’t say I’ve ever seen him cartoon something incompetently.
So, whether his art is or is not good, I’ll say he is a good artist. He knows how to control style, levels of exaggeration and type of cartooning, how to shape a panel or page so that everything flows in the right directions with the right kind of energy for what he’s trying to achieve. You can look at a scene and go, “I don’t like what happens in this scene,” or “it’s ugly,” but I don’t believe anyone who reads a Frank Miller scene and claims they don’t know what was happening. When Frank Miller draws sex, you know it’s sex, you know what kind, you know how the different characters feel, you can feel the disparities and collusions. Same, when he draws a fight. Or, a car chase. An argument. An hallucination. A death.
To-scale replication of forms is not good drawing. It’s not good art. It can be, but what it is, is just a technique, it’s the equivalent of a finger-picking exercise on guitar. That’s not a song, it’s not playing, it’s practice. It’s refinement. It’s loosening up your fingers and your brain so you can get to the real good stuff. (And, yes, sometimes you get the real good stuff by playing a finger-loosening exercise and putting lyrics over it, but even that takes mad skill and the right moment.) Frank Miller isn’t a copy machine. He is not trying to bit-by-bit recreate genuine human forms and accurately replicate shadow over brick in Sin City or show us photo-realist human beings in a Batman story.
Frank Miller can try and fail. Everyone can. Everyone does. But, if you are going to judge his art and express your judgment, don’t pretend he tried to be Alex Ross and failed. Or, that he tried to be Gil Kane and failed (although the recent Atom mini-comic does feel very Kane to me, it’s Miller working in an idiom, if that, not Miller failing to be Kane). The Atom and Superman cover had a Superman that distressed more than a few people, but that standing-in-air-askew stance? Reminded me immediately of how Gene Colan used to draw Superman in the air, in the Seventies. The way the muscles are, the face, the chin, the crotch, it all comes together to a package. From package to spitcurl, that Superman is a guy. It’s not generic Superman. It’s not a vague stab at classicalism or naturalism. It’s a very specific person. We know, in that pic, who we’re supposed to root for, you know? Immediately.
Frank Miller doesn’t have to do generic versions. He doesn’t have to house style. Rely on nostalgia and clean, commercial vacuous style.
Frank Miller can draw.