May 8, 2014

How Frank Miller Won Me Over

When I started the Cube just about four years ago, I made it pretty clear that I didn't like, and have never liked, Frank Miller. At the time, the words I'd have used to describe his work included "overrated," "ugly," and "terrible."

Things have changed though, as things are wont to change. The problem with the internet is that things are forever, but we change, as people. Our tastes change. We don't like the same foods all our lives, we don't play the same games, and we don't like the same movies. Why should we like the same comics all our lives?

So, in short, here's...

How Frank Miller Won Me Over
or the Effects of Expectations
by Duy

The funny thing is that Frank Miller wrote one of my first comics ever,What If...? #35, featuring a story in which Elektra was not killed by Bullseye. It was an introduction to comics and is one of the examples I use to show that you can actually jump on most titles in the middle of the action, and was the first exposure I had to Frank Miller's legendary Daredevil and all the characters herein.

It is also the greatest issue of What If...? ever,
and I actually encourage comments arguing otherwise.

I was young though, so it's not like I took notice of Miller's name. When I finally started hearing about who Frank was, it was when I was about 15 years old, and looking for comics that were more "sophisticated" and "grown-up," because of course that's what you do as an adolescent: try to prove to people you're grown up.

The thing though, is that I always heard Miller's name in conjunction with another comic book legend: Alan Moore, who quickly became my all-time favorite writer. Next to the technical precision of Dave Gibbons' art in Watchmen and the sheer passion that exudes from David Lloyd's art in V for Vendetta, Miller's Dark Knight Returns looked... well, ugly. And next to Moore's sublime, calculated, close-to-poetic scripts, Miller sounded like he was writing for a Clint Eastwood movie, or a promo for a WWE wrestler.

"You don't get it boy. This isn't a mudhole. It's an operating table. And I'm the surgeon."

Miller and Dark Knight Returns were frequently mentioned in the same sentences as Moore and Watchmen and to a lesser extent V for Vendetta, but where I absolutely got the hype for the other two, I didn't get the hype for Dark Knight Returns at all. The buzzword used for it was "realistic," but I could see Watchmen as superheroes in the real world. I could see that world as an extrapolation of what would really happen if these characters truly existed. The Dark Knight Returns felt like a kids' cartoon taken to the adult extreme, and to top it all off, it ends with Batman kicking Superman's ass — not the best way to win me over, even if Miller did admit to structuring the story in such a way that serviced Batman at the expense of Superman.

The next Miller story I read was Batman: Year One, which was expertly drawn by David Mazzucchelli. But for all the talk about it being a great Batman story, it was barely a Batman story at all. As great a Commissioner Gordon story as it was, I didn't shell out the money for a Commissioner Gordon story, in much the same way that I would be annoyed if I paid money for a Black Widow movie and it was actually about Hawkeye.

Despite all that, I kept trying out Miller. In 2002, I read the second volume of his Daredevil run, which contained the original run of Elektra, from her first appearance to her death at the hands of Bullseye. It was, at the time, my favorite thing he'd done, but only because I thought everything he'd done that I'd read was overrated. Even back then, I still didn't really get it. I couldn't really divorce from it the fact that it was written for a monthly series that was never meant to be collected, so it just felt really dated. I wasn't quite at the point yet where I could appreciate something that created a blueprint or changed the game, still couldn't quite see Miller's supposed mastery at work.

I skipped Miller for a long time after that. 300 and Sin City didn't interest me for the same reasons: I really hated his art. I thought it looked ugly. I did my best, in college, to write about Dark Knight Returns just to see if I could understand it, but while I could distill its themes, such as its meditation on power and the power of the media, I still could not, for the life of me, find its appeal.

It was because of Miller, almost singlehandedly, really, that I realized when people used the word "realistic," they really mean "grim" or "dark," with lots of shadows and a lot of violence. Nothing in Dark Knight Returns is realistic in the sense of being truly believable, short of internal character logic prevailing, which is true for all good stories and is not something to be considered exceptional. We're talking about a story where Batman gets physically bigger with each chapter, and where a fifty-year-old man magically gets better just by feeling the thrill of fighting. How is that believable? Look, I've seen Michael Jordan play for the Wizards, okay? I know it's possible to do it in bursts, but that kind of walks the line of disbelief suspension.

So I ignored the sequel, Dark Knight Strikes Again. I ignored The Spirit movie, because it felt like Miller was just doing a Sin City spoof and not actually any sort of adaptation of the Spirit of any kind. As mentioned, I skipped 300 and Sin City. But the one thing I couldn't avoid was All-Star Batman and Robin, simply because this panel went viral.

"What, are you dense? Are you retarded or something? Who the hell do you think I am?
I'm the goddamn Batman."

At this point, I was just convinced that Miller had a classic case of overcompensation, and that this was why he always went overboard with the testosterone. I left it alone for a long time, until one day, someone — I forget who, exactly — told me, "You really should be reading All-Star Batman and Robin. Just don't take it too seriously. Just think of it as Frank Miller tripping." (That was a translation. Filipinos tend to use the word "trip" in the colloquial sense a lot, as in "just having fun for the hell of it.)

And you know what, that guy was right. Once I looked at it that way, All-Star Batman and Robin instantly became one of the most fun comics I ever read, similar to how Adam West's Batman all of a sudden was brilliant to me once I actually realized they were having fun.

Actually, that's a good comparison — Adam West Batman and Frank Miller's All-Star Batman seem like polar opposite takes on the character, though they equally fall into parody.

All-Star never finished, and I didn't bother with Miller after that. At some point in the last two years, though, my friend Benj, artist of Fallen Ash, and Cube Columnist Travis, told me to give The Dark Knight Strikes Again a shot, along with The Spirit movie. I knew these two guys well, and knew what  got them to enjoy stuff, and among them were guts, energy, and creative risks. So I went into Strikes Again with that in mind, no expectation of "realism" and "plausibility" at all. And you know what?

I enjoyed it. A lot. I didn't love it, but it had some of the most creative uses of superpowers I'd ever seen (the way Green Lantern kept himself hidden for years was an "Aw yeah!" moment, and the Flash's speed was so efficiently shown), and it was just filled with so much energy that, despite its lack of any semblance of narrative cohesion (not Miller's fault — apparently DC changed a bunch of stuff at the last minute due to 9/11), it became a real page-turner. I was finally getting it. Miller was having fun.

Then I watched The Spirit movie, and guess what? It was fun. I ignored it for a long time because it wasn't Eisner's Spirit, but Miller's love for the material actually shone through. Yes, it's campy — but so was Eisner's Spirit. And it's the second greatest campy comic book movie of all time. If you're like me, who ignored it because it looked truly cheesy, give it a shot and keep an open mind. I think you'll have fun.

Also? Easy on the eyes.

So I looked at the Miller runs I'd found overrated back in the day, and how did I miss it? Seriously? How did I miss that Miller was one of the first to do things like this,where he clearly was wearing his influences on his sleeve? This is badass, action-movie dialogue when Bullseye kills Elektra, and it's perfectly appropriate.

How did I miss all the Romance behind Dark Knight Returns? All the magic under the surface and the genuine love Miller had for Batman and all of Batman's influences? I mean, Batman on horseback!

Then I read Daredevil: Born Again and Daredevil: Man Without Fear. And reread Year One. And I realized how I had missed the mark on Miller all along: it's the effect of expectation. Everyone used the word "realistic" on Miller a lot. It's not realistic. There's "dark." A lot of his stuff isn't even dark. (Hello, Batman on horseback!)

When I stopped looking at Miller in those terms, I kind of saw Miller how I should have always seen him. A supremely talented craftsman who was so good at visual storytelling and who genuinely loved what he was doing, and who loved gigantic moments and badass dialogue.

Would my assessment of Miller work for everyone? I wouldn't expect it to. I'm sure some people buy into the plausibility of his stories, or will say that "I'm your worst nightmare. The kind that makes you wake up screaming for your mother" is something they hear every day. But learning to appreciate Frank Miller reminded me that it's important to have fun. That long-lasting and revered works can come just out of a love for old material and a desire to be true to it. That panned material can be enjoyable, and even great, if you just remove your preconceptions of it and look for the positives. And you know, rereading World's Funnest now, where Miller parodies himself, he's also reminded me that you can make fun of yourself.

So if you're creating comics, throw caution to the wind! Put your urban hero on horseback and don't be afraid to go the other way with it when it's run its course! Use all the dialogue you wanted just 'cause it sounds cool and see what sticks! Maybe you'll end up with an all-time classic, maybe you'll end up with a cult hit, or maybe everyone will hate it — except you'd be having fun, regardless.

Read some of Frank Miller's stuff here:


Aaron Felizmenio said...

Dude. This is the exact same reason why I love Frank Miller's works. When I was new to comics, all I ever did was read to have fun, to enjoy. And it still works for me! It's just crazy fun stuff. I'm glad I'm not the only one who shares this view. I almost doubted my taste because of his bashers. Although I must admit, I haven't read Holy Terror. Hahaha

Marcel said...

I've loved Frank Miller's work (well, most of it...) since I first picked up Daredevil #184 when I was 11 years old. You've articulated here what it was that captured my attention then and held it to the present, which is Miller's ability to make the most of THE DRAMATIC BIG MOMENTS. It was true with that issue's cover and it's still true, to varying degrees.

If you ever update this post, I'd suggest you mention Miller's writing on the MARTHA WASHINGTON books. They're every bit as full of melodramatic bombast as the works you cited, and also are a great demonstration of his ability to tailor the writing to his collaborators' strengths. I'd even say that the WASHINGTON series arguably represents his overall finest writing.

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