In the Beginning… #2

It’s Miller Time

In the last few years, Hollywood has been comic book crazy. You can’t visit your local multiplex without coming across a comic book flick or two, as well as posters and trailers for more of the same ‘coming soon’. You could also bet that there are several more in production. With Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Hellboy, Constantine, Batman Begins and much more, the list seems endless. The success of many of these movies has been a real boost to the comics industry. The general, non-comic-buying public is probably better versed in superhero characters and their histories than it ever has been.

But while the characters and the industry have enjoyed renewed interest, there aren’t many creators whose reputation has really been enhanced by the movies. Alan Moore, for example, has disowned a series of disappointing movies, and most people are as likely to associate Bryan Singer with X-Men as they are Stan Lee, however much of a god Stan is to comic book fans. However, mention Sin City and one name springs to mind, Frank Miller. Famous co-director of the Sin City movie and endorsed by cinema icon Quentin Tarentino, his reputation as a great comics creator has gone beyond specialist shops and made him almost a household name.

So if you’ve been enjoying the movies, and they’ve roused your interest in comic books, why not check out the books that inspired the Sin City film? There are a few of them, but you can pick up any one and dive right in without worrying about continuity. Like in the film, Frank Miller creates an atmospheric noir world drawing mostly in black and white with only very occasional colour. Miller is a master of movement and shadow and presents startling images like a guy crashing feet first through a car windscreen. The movie captured the atmosphere of the comics, but you can’t compare with Miller’s stylised, energised lines.

You might have read or heard Frank Miller’s name bandied about along with Alan Moore amongst the names who took comics in a more ‘adult’ direction in the 80s. I’ll warn you now, don’t pick up a Sin City book expecting emotional sophistication or a ‘grown up’ style of storytelling. ‘Adult’ in this case means graphic violence and sex references. Sin City inhabits a world straight out of adolescent fantasy. Tough, gritty antiheroes killing bent cops and sexy prostitutes who take the law into their own hands. This isn’t a criticism; adolescent fantasy can be fun, and Miller injects his stories with enough humour to raise the violence above banality. That Yellow Bastard is particularly amusing.

However, Miller’s real tour de force is his Batman miniseries (now easily available in trade paperback) The Dark Knight Returns. It is considered by many to be one of the definitive Batman books and tells a tightly plotted and explosive story of an aging Batman coming out of retirement to once again clean up the streets of Gotham City. Batman is forced to confront his nemesis, the Joker, as well as Two-face, a gang of mutants and also Superman in a climactic final battle. He also picks up a new sidekick — a Robin similar but very different from those who came before.

Miller takes the classic Batman character and updates it, makes it grittier. The Batmobile becomes something akin to a tank, and while Batman still doesn’t go so far as killing people, Miller is unflinching in his depiction of Batman’s sometimes cruel violence. When Batman himself takes a beating, we get to read his thoughts, reminding us that his fights are painful and gruelling, not the fun “Biff, Bang, Pow” battles shown in the 60s TV series.

Written in the 80s, this is very much a product of its time. It may be set in the future, but the President looks suspiciously like Ronald Reagan, and Soviet forces are threatening a nuclear attack. However, these minor details are easily overlooked. The great thing about setting it in the future is that it avoids a whole mess of continuity. Perfect for the new comics fan, I found it very easy to follow despite a very limited knowledge of the character’s history.

One of the most interesting features of the book is the plague of mutants threatening the safety of Gotham’s inhabitants and looking to take over. It can be no coincidence that Miller gives his mutants eyewear that brings to mind Cyclops, one of the prominent members of Marvel Comics own band of mutants the X-Men. In fact, Gotham’s mutant terror can be read as a metaphor for the rise of Marvel in the 70s and the way they challenged DC’s dominance of the comics market. Superman and Batman were suddenly competing with a very different, very fresh breed of superhero. DC was faced, as Batman puts it, with ‘a kind of evil that we never dreamt of’. You don’t have to know the history of the DC/Marvel rivalry to follow Miller’s book, but it was a nice extra touch when I re-read the book a bit later on.

Miller’s next Batman title was Batman: Year One, a four-part Batman story which retold Batman’s first year in action but put the focus on Batman’s trusted police friend Gordon. The book showed Gordon as a newly transferred cop dealing with corrupt colleagues, and it is a great read. The book features neat and compelling art by David Mazzuchelli and is, by its very nature, ideal for newcomers. This book was a key inspiration for the recent Batman Begins movie along with The Dark Knight Returns which was the template for Christian Bale’s brooding performance.

It wasn’t until 2001 that Miller wrote and published The Dark Knight Strikes Again, a sequel to The Dark Knight Returns. By now, Miller’s vision of the future had become a broad satire of our own media-savvy age. We see, for example, a homeless guy with a mobile phone and a sign that reads ‘Will Network for Food’. Nothing, it seems, has truly happened in this world until someone has commented about it on TV and a range of ‘experts’ are always on hand to offer opinions. He lampoons shows like MTV News with their hip young presenters and exaggerates slick, trendy media presentation. The scary thing is that one of his inventions, news with a naked presenter, actually exists now. Type it into Google, check it out for yourself.

Things have changed dramatically for DC’s heroes as well. Wonder Woman and Superman have a love-child — what Lois Lane makes of this isn’t explored — and many heroes, from Captain Marvel to Plastic Man to The Question, have been captured, imprisoned or otherwise controlled by Brainiac and Lex Luthor who control America via a computer generated President. One by one, these characters are freed to help in Batman’s vigilante fight to free America. Seeing all these characters together and observing how time has affected them may be exciting for long term DC readers, but it was very confusing to me as a newcomer.

The drawings are, if anything, even better than in The Dark Knight Returns,and Lynne Varley’s colours lend a garish hyper-reality to the action which only makes The Dark Knight Strikes Again‘s failings all the more disappointing. Unfortunately, for all its action and excitement, the book is just plain difficult to follow. For example, at one point we see Wonder Woman riding triumphantly in the sky having told her daughter, “Let me show you what your dear old Momma can do…with a little help from Zeus”. The next minute, Superman is looking on as, “My lover…falls to Earth”. There is no clear explanation of just how Wonder Woman has been knocked from the sky.

Some of the relationships between characters are a little odd as well. In The Dark Knight Returns Superman and Batman have different ideologies but display a grudging respect for each other. In The Dark Knight Strikes Again, there is little beyond open contempt and animosity. Superman is actually dismissive of Batman. The line that sticks out is, “No powers except your paltry human skills and your bottomless egotism”. This line seems not only out of character but also unlikely given that Batman nearly killed Superman only three years previous.

Batman has no respect for Superman either. Much is made of Superman’s stupidity in the book, but while Batman may be the smarter of the two, Superman is never normally portrayed as a dunce. Also, Dick Grayson, so fondly remembered in The Dark Knight Returns becomes a grotesque pantomime villain in the sequel, an object of ridicule and disgust. I have spoken to long-time Batman fans who are still perplexed by this particular development.

Given that Batman has probably the finest rogues gallery of any superhero, you also have to question the wisdom of making Brainiac and Lex Luthor the villians of this tale. It’s almost as if Miller wasn’t very interested in writing another Batman book, which would explain why Batman doesn’t appear until the final page of Book One and why Miller drags in so many other superheroes. It might also explain why DC’s All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder is such a letdown.

Written by Miller and drawn by Jim Lee, the All-Star book is, at first glance, a perfect start for newcomers. It sits outside of regular Batman continuity and presents Miller’s take on an old story: the origins of Dick Grayson, the first Robin. Sadly, four issues in, it has disappointed. It is tediously slow, with Batman and Dick spending the best part of three issues sitting in the Batmobile. Secondly, while Gotham City has always had a seamy underbelly, in issue 3, Miller seems to have confused Gotham with Sin City’s Old Town as Black Canary beats up a whole bar full of drinkers whose worst crime is being drunk and idiotic. Then she follows up by doing the same to her boss. All of this behaviour is apparently ‘inspired’ by Batman. Rubbish.

So, to recap, Sin City is dumb, fun and bloody while The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One are both perfect inroads into Batman’s world for newcomers, but you might want to think twice before checking out the rest of Miller’s Batman work. Meanwhile he is working on another new Batman book. An anti-terrorist story entitled Holy Terror Batman. It might be terrible, but when Miller is good he’s very, very good, and I can’t help but keep hoping.

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