Sep 30, 2017

The Importance of Being Frank (Miller), by Alan Moore

So I recently bought the three volumes of Frank Miller's legendary Daredevil run. I read the Elektra portion nearly 15 years ago and was underwhelmed, but I've grown an appreciation for Miller since and am loving this go-round. I wanted to take some time to talk about Miller's pacing and technique, when I remembered that back in 1983, in the pages of Daredevils #1, published by Marvel UK, someone else already did it. And you'd probably listen to him more than you'd listen to me. So here's...

The Importance of Being Frank
by Alan Moore
First published in Daredevils #1, 1983
transcribed by Duy

Listen, don't you kids try and talk to me about comics! I've been reading the damn things for the past twenty two years and I'm bitter, jaded and cynical in terminal proportions. I was there back in 1961 when Marvel comics began their grand experiment in attempting to endow two-dimensional superheroes with believable personality quirks and genuine human anxieties. I was there a few years later when the noble enterprise had sunken back into the same weary, formularised rut and it seemed that in order to become a superhuman you had to have a bad leg, a dicky ticker or a maiden aunt with chronic varicose veins.

I was there when Jim Steranko started filling the pages of Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. with dizzying exploded layouts where time could slow down to a crawl by means of breaking an action down into lots of tiny frames, or where the trajectory of a character's leap could be splintered into a sequence of flowing kinetic images. I was there when Neal Adams took over on the art chores on D.C.'s Deadman in Strange Adventures, turning the strip in the process into a harsh and brutal fantasy classic where every panel exuded a palpable grimness. I was cheering from the front stalls on the opening nights of Goodwin and Simonson's Manhunter of Jim Starlin's ingeniously paranoid Warclock, of Barry Smith's sumptuous Art Nouveau interpretation of Conan.

I was also there when all of these strips fell beneath the scythe of plummeting sales and their creators wandered off, with a few notable exceptions, to devote their energies to the production of lavish and self-indulgent portfolios that were affordable only to the Getty's Rothschilds and Lord Kagan's of this world. All of which served to prove that ancient, inexorable maxim which cruelly states that "Good stuff doesn't last because good stuff doesn't sell."

So listen. Don't talk to me about comics. It's too painful.

Now, given the fact that I'm old, cranky and unresonable it shouldn't be surprising that I greeted the arrival of Frank Miller with dour pessimism and little enthusiasm for his future within the comics medium. I remember an evening over at Steve Moore's place where we were both thumbing through a stack of recent Daredevils and growing uncharacteristically excited about the low-key drama of the storytelling, the understated plausibility of the characterisation. Suddenly, in the midst of this pathetic adolescent euphoria I stopped dead.

"I dunno what we're getting worked up about the stuff for. Within a couple of years this Miller guy's going to have an ego the size of Wembley and drift off to draw coffee-table extravaganzas full of moody barbarians with naked women surgically grafted to their legs."

A couple of years later I was introduced to Frank Miller while we were both guests at the '82 Comicano convention, and it grieves me to report that he is one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet, that his ego is constrained to entirely manageable proportions and that from all indications he seems to intend to remain in the comic field until his eyesight goes the same way as that of the character he is most frequently associated with. You live and learn, lads. You live and learn.

Now, it strikes me at this point in my narrative that there may well be those amongst you whose first exposure to the extraordinary abilities of Mr. Miller is the issue of The Daredevils that you are currently grasping in your clammy paws. There may be those amongst you who are wondering, quite justifiably, what all the fuss is about. Well, gather round and we'll make the picture go all misty around the edges while I take you back to the dim and distant days of 1979, and to my first encounter with Frank Miller and the sordid elegance that he has brought to Daredevil.

In 1979, nearly twenty years after I first picked up a copy of Flash comics at the age of seven, my once-fanatical comic buying had dwindled to the merest trickle. Every month both D.C. and Marvel seemed content to regurgitate the same stale plot devices and insipid characterization that had been their trademark for the previous ten years. Spiderman would break up with his girlfriend due to a misunderstanding. The Rhino would break out of Ryker's Island penitentiary and go on a rampage simply because it was a Thursday night and there wasn't anything else to do.

For my own part I tended to turn my back upon the situation and content myself with either 2000 AD or the occasional underground comic, where it at least seemed that people were attempting to break out of the mould and do something different, something that would contribute towards realizing the enormous potential of the comics.

Why the hell I bothered to pick up a copy of Daredevil 158 is something which continues to mystify me up until this present day.

The cover wasn't anything special. The story inside, by Roger McKenzie didn't seem to be a massive step forward for the comic book industry, although to be fair it did have its moments of tensiona nd drama. The artwork itself was pretty ordinary... except that it did have these little touches here and there. There was a scene where the Unholy three carried a helpless Matt Murdock over the rooftops of New York, in which somehow the eerie and unnatural lighting of Wally Wood was combined with the physical presence of budding Neal Adams. There was a spectral final sequence in a graveyard with Death Stalker leaping through a tombstone... there was definitely something there. The man could without a doubt tell a story, albeit by fairly conventional means. I made a vague subconscious point to pick up the next issue...

The next few issues came and went, and with each one there was a notable increasing sense of confidence about the art. The layouts seemed to be getting slightly more daring too... in the Doctor Octopus episode in issue 165 there were sometimes as many as eleven or twelve frames on a single page, arranged so as to give the maximum dramatic impact to each scene. In one frame mobsters would be shooting pool, their cues sending balls skittering across the green baize. In the next, a single red glove would reach out of the darkness, one finger extended to halt the ball in mid motion. Sadly, the writer seemed to have taken the opportunity of the extra frames to cram in as much dialogue as possible, even during those sequences where it wasn't really necessary. But what the hell... it was getting there.

In one frame mobsters would be shooting pool, their cues sending balls skittering across the green baize. In the next, a single red glove would reach out of the darkness, one finger extended to halt the ball in mid motion.

Also, to the discerning eye, there were a number of interesting artistic influences working their way out through the pages of this new, revitalised Daredevil. A sequence in D.D. 164, where, in a retelling of his original story, Daredevil pursues a terrified racketeer through a subway, bore a striking resemblance to a scene from a story entitled 'Master Race' drawn for the old E.C. comics line by comic strip pioneer Bernie Krigstein. In the background of certain panels which showed Daredevil racing over the rooftops of a gritty and seamy New York, billboards would be partly visible bearing the words "The Spirit"... a reference to Will Eisner's habit of incorporating the logo of his Spirit strips into some element of his splash-page design. The logo would appear on a torn poster crudely pasted to a brickwall.. or even on a billboard.

Daredevil 164, 1980. By Roger McKenzie and Frank Miller
"Master Race," from Impact #1, 1955. By Bernie Krigstein

It became obvious, both by means of these in-joke asides and also by Miller's own method of telling a story in pictures that here was someone who had learned at the feet of impeccable masters. There was a touch of Eisner, a tough of Krigstein, a smattering of Steranko... but more and more as the series progressed there was a generous helping of pure Frank Miller.

In issue 164, for example, we are treated to a brief but powerful piece of narrative when reporter Ben Urich reveals Daredevil's secret identity by means of a photograph which he holds up and asks the blind hero to describe. In six tiny, narrow frames we see Daredevil turn first one way and then the other as if in an attempt to escape having to admit that he can not see the picture, which remains unmoving and unwavering in the foreground throughout the entire six frame sequence. Eventually, Daredevil is forced to turn and face it, admitting his blindness. Through the way in which Miller arranges the shows we are made to feel the anguish of Daredevil's decision in a manner which makes the speech balloons almost redundant.

Through the way in which Miller arranges the shows we are made to feel the anguish of Daredevil's decision.

Again, in issue 164, we are allowed to see Miller's usage of symbolism for dramatic effect. There is a frame during the flashback sequence that takes up most of the book in which Matt Murdock's father is ensnared by a racketeer known as the Fixer in a shady deal which will ultimately lead to his death. As the Fixer holds out the fatal contract for Murdoc Senior's signature we see the weary and defeated face of the down and out boxer encircled by the smoke rings from the fat mobster's cigar, just as he himself has been encircled and outflanked by the Fixer's oily, persuasive argument. Of course, in the world of cinema this sort of stuff is old hat, (There's a scene in Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" where the hero and his treacherous commanding officer walk casually around a large office. The twising, maze-like pattern of the floor tiles which their steps seem to follow is analogous to the labrynth of justifications and rationalizations that the junior officer is becoming ensnared in) but in the world of comics there are precious few who pull these sort of stunts without looking either clumsy or mannered. This Frank Miller was obviously becoming someone to watch.

With issue 168 the reason why became readily apparent. It was with this issue that Miller took over the writing of Daredevil, making it the only Marvel title in some while to have a single individual at the creative helm rather than the usual artist/writer collaboration.

Now, as anyone will tell you, those happy instances where writer and artist are combined in one person have yielded some of the most exemplary pieces of work that the medium has yet produced... Harvey Kurtzman's E.C. war stories, Will Eisner's Spirit stories, Art Spiegelman's horrific and touching Maus serial, all of these benefit from not being the product of a writer who wants to cram in as much pretty writing as possible, teamed with an artist who is equally intent upon filling every available inch of page with exquisitely detailed rendering. At the hands of an artist/writer the medium achieves a kind of grace and balance seldom achieved by other means.

It is also a sort of an acid test.

After all, a writer and artist working in collaboration with each other have always got someone else to blame if the strip doesn't work. Starting with issue 168, Miller would have no-one but himself to blame if the series dive bombed.

It didn't. It flourished. Over the space of a very few issues Miller's writing became as self-assured as his artwork, and, as his confidence increased we began to see more and more daring graphic storytelling devices creeping into the pages of Daredevil.

Beyond that, the stories were damned good fun even if you didn't happen to be a pseudo-intellectual comic's critic like myself.

In 169 we were allowed to see the world through the eyes of a psychotic killer whose diseased brain is transforming everyone that he sees into an image of the red-garbed vigilante who is his greatest enemy. In 171 we watch the gargantuan Kingpin of Crime, dragging himself, bruised and bloodied, from a tangle of collapsed girders in the wake of an explosion that has apparently claimed the life of his wife, Vanessa. We close in implacably upon his barely-conscious face, blood dribbling from nose and lips, as inch by inch he hauls himself from the rubble. Suddenly his eyes open and we see the look of dumb disbelief dawning in them as the realization of his wife's death floods into his battered consciousness. His face fills the frame, those awful stricken eyes making it look suddenly lost and childlike as he whispers her name.

In the five brief panels that make up this sequence the Kingpin is transformed in Miller's capable hands from the podgy, pompous buffoon of the early Spiderman appearances into a man who has buried his humanity under a mountain of iron resolve as vast as his physical body...

This treatment of the Kingpin is a fine example of Miller's approach to characterization as a whole, whether it be with a creation of his own, like the female mercenary killer Elektra, or with some other writer's creation like J. Jonah Jameson, the Kingpin, or Daredevil himself.

Naturally, I could go on and on describing my favourite episodes at tedious length. After all, there are a hell of a lot of them. But all things considered I'd probably end up repeating myself and you'll be seeing these particular masterpieces for yourself in the months to come, anyway.

I think it's preferable that I should try and isolate some of the elements of Miller's technique and try to define exactly what it is that makes him such an original and influential figure, on today's comics landscape.

Firstly as a writer, I admire Miller's approach to characterization almost more than any other single factor. Prior to MIller the traditional Marvel comics approach to characterization had been fairly simple and largely uneffective. Stone-faced characters would perform fistfights and love scenes with the same air of general indifference while huge thought balloons floated above their heads informing us of the turbulent emotions that they were, in fact, experiencing.

This is a clumsy method for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it looks silly. The range of facial expression available to a distressing number of artists is very often limited to "mouth open" or "mouth closed". Simply telling us that these characters are going through major identity crises isn't really adequate. Not when the characters concerned show all the passion, response, and feeling of a catatonically withdrawn pomegranate.

Secondly, it's unnatural. In real life, meeting someone for the first time you're forced to reach an opinion of their personalities on the basis of the things they say and the things they do. You don't have handy thought balloons hovering above their heads informing you that in five minutes they intend to either invite you home for lunch or steal your wallet. You don't have conveniently suspended caption boxes explaining that they're only behaving like a complete jerk because of the emotional upset caused by the Green Goblin having fed their girlfriend into a liquidiser.

In Miller's work, thought balloons and captions have become less and less a part of his characterization technique. All we know of what's going on inside his character's minds is what we can deduce from a raised eyebrow, a quirk of the lip or a narrowing of the eyes. Just like in real life. (It's perhaps worth noting that Miller's creation Elektra, who most comic fans seem to love for her well-defined character as much as her 'less-is-more' approach to costumery, has never utilised thought balloons to expound upon her motivations. Thus, much of her characterization is in the reader's mind. Perhaps that's exactly why it's so effective.)

The second aspect of Miller's work that deserves comment, that aspect which makes his stories such a fluid joy to read, is his flawless and precise sense of timing.

He seems to compose his stories with a musician's sense of rhythm and metre, often interrupting the staccato drama with a sudden oddly-shaped or silent frame that strikes a brief pause, a single downbeat before the story spirals off again in some new direction.

In issue 172 Miller introduces a startlingly effective device which both serves to smoothly change the scene and also to strike the necessary downbeat. By using tall panels running from top to bottom of the page and featuring some aspect of New York's variable cityscape, Miller subtly sets the mood for the scene which is to follow and also gives the reader the curiously involving sensation that he is being allowed to eavesdrop upon key events within the story.

Then there is Miller's eclecticism to consider. This, in itself, is nothing new. indeed, the most successful artists within the medium have usually been those who allowed a wie range of outside influences to shape their styles. With Eisner it was the cinematic offerings of people like Orson Welles. With Steranko it was the pop-art and psychelia in vogue amongst the West Coast poster artists of the mid sixties. With Barry Smith it was the Symbolists and the Pre-Raphaelites. All of the above influences have proven popular and durable, and most of the new artists entering the field have selected some combination of them with which to enhance their fledgling styles.

While Miller is in many respects in the same category, he at least has chosen a much more extensive and yet still largely untapped vein of influence... that of the Japanese comic art tradition.

The way in which the Japanese approach the problem of comic storytelling is subtly different from our own occidental methods. For one thing, you have to read all the books starting from the back and working forwards reading from right to left across the page. That aside, there are less obvious touches. Small monochrome frames will be used to suspend time entirely, freezing the instant as a rain of deadly arrows streak through the air. long silent sequences will be employed to build a tension that finally erupts in a paradoxically cold and controlled display of violence.

From the Japanese strip Baby Carriage and Wolf (Lone Wolf and Cub),
Frank Miller's favourite strip.

In the Japanese strip Baby Carriage and Wolf (Duy here. I think there was a translation miscue back in 1983. Moore was referring to the manga that would become famous in the Western world as Lone Wolf and Cub.), which Miller cheerfully admits is his favourite comic strip in the entire world, there is a sequence where the adult hero, an impeccable superswordsman usually referred to as The Lone Wolf who pushes his infant son around Japan in a baby carriage, is confronted by a small army of sinister figures armed with blowpipes. The scene detailing their approach is remarkable in the tension that it conveys.

First we see their long and eerie shadows stretching towards us across a pathway as they march along in single file, silently and ominously. Next we see their feet, and from the way that they are all advancing in step we get the idea of their unstoppable, perfectly regimented progress. The next shot shows their mid sections, the full figures decapitated by the frame border. We get to see the deadly blowpipes that they are carrying... or rather we see the weird, basketball like helmets that conceal their faces, making them even more the relentless and faceless harbingers of terrible death.

Comparing sequences like this with some of the ones in Miller's recent Wolverine series, produced in collaboration with Chris Claremont, we can see a similarity of pacing, mood and atmosphere with Miller somehow translating the more esoteric elements of Oriental storytelling for the eyes of a western audience.

Finally then related to this eclecticism in Miller's work, we've got the element which in my opinion is probably the single most important factor in his make-up, that being the continued eagerness to experiment and break new ground, which keeps his work fresh and exciting, rather than allowing it to stagnate on some plateau of imagined excellence.

This latter route is one which a number of people seem to have opted for in the past, and, whilst they may still be occasionally venerated within some fanzine retrospective of their illustrious careers, you'll notice they don't actually seem to be doing much these days.

if Frank Miller can keep moving forward, both through the agency of his new maxi-series for D.C. comics and through whichever other areas he chooses to apply his talents to, then I think we may be in for some rare treats in the years to come.

Of course, if in three years time no trace remains of Mr. miller beyond a couple of luxurious Good Girl Art portfolios featuring Elektra and The Black Widow, then may I keep my critical options open by being the first to say "I told you so"?

Here's the article as it originally appeared in Daredevils #1, 1983, which I leeched off of 4ColorHeroes: The Alan Moore store 15 years ago. The store's defunct now, though.

And here's some more goodies:

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