In dystopian literature things generally go out with a bang, a revolution, a euthanasia, but not so in Hard Boiled. Dark Horse released Hard Boiled, rather sporadically, in the late summer of 1990 as a three issue limited series that concluded in the spring of 1992. Written by Frank Miller and drawn by the Jean Giraud-inspired Geof Darrow, it was critically acclaimed, winning an Eisner in ’91 for Best Writer/Artist Team. My experience with Frank Miller has been regrettably jaded, generally because the man can only write one story, and we see it in his long string of series from his praiseworthy Dark Knight Returns to his more recent entries (now Hollywood blockbusters), Sin City and 300. I’ve always found his writing contrived, personally. No one can forget All Star Batman and Robin. Why? Because he’s the “goddamn Batman.”
But I was surprised with Hard Boiled, and its rich, thematic statements so minutely prepared and integrated thanks to the handy work of Darrow, who, like Giraud, overwhelms the reader with a “Where’s Waldo” plethora of provocative imagery. On a macro level, the story takes place in a not-so-distant dystopic Los Angeles, but much of the core conceptualization has drawn upon ideas grounded in Eastern works like Akira. When I picked up Hard Boiled I was reminded of an interview with Mamoru Oshii who, while directing Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, said that the conceptualization of Neo Tokyo was heavily influenced by Hong Kong, a close analogue of the internet, the city being a “sea of information,” layered and nuanced in endless expressions of culture and language. Its breathtaking scope and limitless depth could be the only setting for such a film. This same atmosphere is present in Hard Boiled, and though it predates Ghost in the Shell by a year, the canon of cyberpunk media forms, from Blade Runner to Gibson’s Neuromancer, have added to the fray considerably. It is here where we start, and it is a daunting start indeed– one could easily write a thesis on the first splash panel of Hard Boiled– yet it offers what many dystopic articles lack: a cohesive, introspective plot that asks “Why?” and thoughtfully delivers.
Machiavellian corporate espionage, hyper-sexualized voyeurism, and torture porn, to name a few, are the sins of Los Angeles, which, alongside poignant satire of mounting consumer values ending in the complete commodification of the human body, serve as a baptismal font for the anti-hero Nixon, a murderous robot manufactured by the Willeford Home Appliances Corporation for use as a corporate assassin.
Hard Boiled’s cultural environment is engrossing, all encompassing, a consequence of Darrow’s art direction. The dichotomy between the visual overload of imagery and lack of actual dialogue is fascinating. Both contributors have a lot to say, and to see Frank Miller pulling back on his cliché-riddled exchanges is a relief to the reader amidst the work Darrow sets out for us to survey and take in as a whole. There is a plethora of visual statements throughout the work, my favorite being one from the first page: a woman exposed, being harassed by a vagrant while wearing a crucifix overlaid across a Playboy bunny shirt. This imagery is only amplified later on in the comic during a subway altercation where Nixon is confronted by a team of evangelists, and stretched out upon the cross is Bart Simpson. The image is a statement of the era, when traditional structures were beginning to shift under the weight of Modernism’s polio-ridden body, set upon the brink of collapse. The Church, as an article of Christendom, once a praxis of change in the inner city slums, has been overtaken and compromised by American cultural values of consumerism and commercial exploitation. While I don’t necessarily agree with that summary, it is a noteworthy observation of Darrow and Miller, and one that should be considered, before it is altogether ignored.
The general progression of the work is very linear, as we follow Nixon through his pre-programmed missions and pursuits; however, his mind is in a constant state of flux and disarray throughout the course of the work. His perceived existence is that of Carl Seltz– though this name undergoes several permutations, based on the inconsistency of his downloaded memories – and his primary occupation is an “Insurance Investigator,” though he also calls himself a “tax collector.” A dream of Nixon tumbling into the underbrush of the Amazon Rainforest where he is placed before an unmarked grave implies that his mind is filled with the memories of an unknown soldier killed in action. This is never confirmed, but aides the reader in experiencing Nixon’s amalgam of false memories competing for supremacy.
In Hard Boiled, identity, to Nixon’s dismay, is a loose construction, though it also plays a larger part in the satire at work here, much of it being directed at the average upper middle-class American. In the comic, Nixon lives in a prepared, serene suburb of LA, seemingly far away from anything awful or horrifying. That Nixon embraces so strongly this false existence is telling, even when at the final spread, amidst the typical outline of the suburban home, we see that his door is locked and girded with military grade components, as well as riddled with peep holes. It presents to the reader the dichotomy between the real and the fantastic. In Hard Boiled, Los Angeles is a living, breathing monster, tangible and raw like an exposed wound festering with maggots. The dire state of the urban populous is incontrovertible with families living on the streets in slum societies, a then and ever pertinent commentary on the growing disparity between rich and poor, implicated by a shrinking middle class. Historically, with the rise of computerization in the 1980s and the relinquishing of blue collar assembly line labor to automated machine assemblies (particularly in the auto industry), the streamlining of manual labor compromised the jobs of millions, resulting in the filling of industrial neighborhoods with poverty and crime. This trend affected the major cities, like Detroit, Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles, and is subject to Frank Miller’s own commentary as we see Nixon pull out of his driveway and plunge into the jaundiced, pollution-tinged cityscape.
Nixon’s identity is prepared and executed with little consistency, which shows that ignorance and escapism are also key topics Hard Boiled attempts to discuss. The comic is a commentary on the millions of suburban Americans living in a constant state of naivete, insisting that their lives are fine and well-adjusted, while larger disenfranchised subcultures exist in a permanent state of poverty and despair. Equally fascinating is the poor’s own self inflicted addictions, which can be seen in the “Pleasure Center,” an underground arena dedicated to extreme acts of violent sexuality that the mangy denizens of Los Angeles frequent. It is an archetypical Colosseum, a place where the masses gather to blanket their sufferings in vile acts of debauchery and dehumanization. From Rome to present day American television, the Colosseum has existed symbolically as means of severing human communication and debate, that those more fortunate can pretend that everything is all right until the problem reaches critical mass and detonates. The myriad of veritable “Pleasure Centers” throughout Los Angeles prove that Miller and Darrow insist that our society is heading in that direction without brakes or a safety harness. Though most dystopian works establish the despair of their settings as being unavoidable and serve as cautionary tales against that ultimate goal, the solution that Frank Miller does offer is intriguing.
Contained in the subplot of Barbara, a liaison for Willeford Home Appliances, Miller offers hope from an unlikely source. Barbara is a homicidal robot, who insists on having a name, and corrects her human superiors when they designate unit numbers for the other machines. Really, its the same old, self aware, artificial intelligence tale that inevitably calls into question the rapidly diminishing distinctions between humans and machines; yet Hard Boiled offers an odd parody. Here it is the humans, that through complete submission to brand name commercialism, have made themselves into a subhuman caricature unworthy of life. It is the machines that value their own existence more intrinsically than their flesh and sinew counterparts, which comes across when, after finding out Blanche’s mission to evangelize Nixon to the robot cause fails, Barbara goes to her room, consigned to the reality that she is a machine, and reads alone a stack of serialized manuals and magazine catalogs from Sears, Ford, and WD-40. In the stack are Vogue and Elle as well, which is most likely an insight into her desire to become beautiful, a human expression of autonomy and self-awareness. This draws a stark comparison against Nixon, who after discovering that something is wrong when an altercation in the Behemoth Market (a futuristic analogue to Costco and Walmart) compromises his cosmetic appearance, revealing that he isn’t actually human, he is bereft of his intrinsic meaning and significance. This is confirmed by the following splash panel where Darrow draws probably the most simple, uncluttered frame in the entire piece: Nixon alone with no one in sight, and a sign overhead pointing away labeled “Way Out.” Without the constructs that veil the modern American from suffering and the raw reality of the world, he is left hopeless and alone, aware that his life is a sham.
The crux of Miller and Darrow’s proposed solution comes at this moment of clarity on Nixon’s part. Throughout the comic Nixon is painted as a multifaceted messiah. To the Willeford corporation, Nixon is the means by which corporate competition is sabotaged, allowing for a gained foothold in the market. To Barbara, Nixon is the one by which the battered robotic servant populous can gain autonomy and freedom. The reader is set up, I believe, with the intention that Nixon will go all the way and save his own kind from oblivion, but when he doesn’t, and opts to live in the false reality that was made for him, it paints him as a failed messiah, and possibly even a villain. Barbara, who cannot live in a world where she cannot be valued beyond just a piece of property, commits suicide which, arguably, is the purest act of self-awareness: the autonomy to end one’s existence. Here is where the story ends, but what do we do with this? What hope can be gleaned from this macabre tale? If we view Nixon as an anti-hero, the story fails, immortalized as a papier-mâché Mephistopheles. However if Barbara is the hero, the story ends as a tragedy, which is what Hard Boiled truly amounts to.
I don’t think it was entirely coincidence that only a month after Hard Boiled‘s final release, that the LA Riots occurred. Miller and Darrow were tapping into a powder keg that foresaw much of the wanton destruction and sectarian violence that would occur in a very prophetic way, and that deserves some recognition. In February of ’93, Falling Down was released, where Michael Douglas plays the tragic hero William Foster, a man abandoned by his country and family. It’s a very bold film that taps into a vein of anger and betrayal, and in many ways gave me insight into what Barbara probably felt when Nixon unknowingly betrayed her by submitting to Willeford in the final act. Either way, both the LA Riots and Falling Down were speaking to much of the ingrained societal corruption of Los Angeles, each depicting a rapidly militarizing police force, ruling by intimidation and threats. It is telling that Hard Boiled foresaw much of these social trends, even offering a solution, that is, confronting our beastly natures and reclaiming our humanity and dignity. Even more so, it is tragic that no one cared to listen and simply submitted to the inhumanity of wanton consumerism and dehumanizing brands for the sake of progress in a decaying world. Hard Boiled still has so much left to teach us, and I pray that it does so for our sake, and that of our children.