With Ronin on the Way from SyFy, Can We at Least Discuss Frank Miller?

Frank Miller's RoninWith SyFy having announced that work has begun on Ronin mini-series, can we at least discuss Frank Miller’s views?

Miller’s Holy Terror was deeply Islamophobic. He plead ignorance of not only the history of Islamophobia but of Islam almost entirely. Colin Smith has demonstrated that the text itself belies Miller’s “I know nothing” self-presentation. Miller also went on an online rant against Occupy that seemed to condemn not only the Occupy movement but the idea of focusing on anything but the threat of “Islamicism.” In the final months of 2011, this one-two punch sent shockwaves through the comics community, and it seemed like everyone felt compelled to address the issue. I think it’s an understatement to say that Miller’s reputation took a serious hit, and no discussion of Miller since can really avoid these issues.

At the time, cinematic sequels to Sin City and 300 were already underway, but they were far enough in the future — and the subject of repeated delays. Perhaps because the focus was on Holy Terror (a comic) and on people’s shock at discovering this huge name in comics harbored such views, discussion didn’t focus on these two sequel movies, which were sort of in the dim future.

Now it’s a two and a half years later. In this intervening time, there’s been something of a social awakening in the comics community. At the very least, these issues have become part of the mainstream discussion in a way I’ve never before seen. For me, the huge spike in such discussion came with criticisms of representations — especially of women — in DC’s 2011 relaunch. This continued through the Frank Miller controversy, protests of Orson Scott Card’s homophobia, and discussion of both Mark Millar and Alan Moore’s representations. Throughout, there’s been continual discussion of representation of women in mainstream comics and the need for more female creators.

While this may be a sign of comics starting to mature as a medium, and forming a critical community that takes such issues seriously the way criticism of other media often do, this rise in attention to social issues in comics has paralleled some wider discussions. Most recently, the owner of the L.A. Clippers was sanctioned after racist comments he made became public. He had a long history of such comments, which had been ignored. While the NBA may indeed have acted out of moral outrage, there’s a growing awareness that it’s bad for business to be associated with people who have become toxic.

If it really needs to be said, I hope we all believe in freedom of thought and speech (even racist thought and speech). But private businesses have every right to disassociate themselves from those spouting such speech, and citizens have every right to organize boycotts or protests to express their disdain for the same and encourage businesses to act in a way those citizens believe to be ethical.

So here we are, two and a half years after the Miller controversy. The 300 sequel’s come out, and while comics critics often discussed it and its predecessor’s very troubling themes with reference to Miller’s overall history of the same, there was no big controversy to force the studio to address the matter, the way there was with Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. The same can be said about the Sin City sequel scheduled for later this year.

Maybe that’s because comics people have already made up their mind about Miller, one way or the other. Maybe these movies got grandfathered in, because we all knew they were coming out, and a consensus has long formed that 300 is a deeply troubling and that Sin City‘s an exercise in stylish machismo. Sometimes, we just accept that certain works have troubling themes and stop focusing on them, assuming the lines have already been defined. This can sometimes seem odd when we move on to focus on less troubling works, but it’s possible that everyone’s already come to their conclusions about Frank Miller and these particular works.

Still, I find it surprising that coverage of the announcement of a new Frank Miller TV property hasn’t been accompanied by much discussion of whether it makes sense for a big-name venue like SyFy to ally themselves with someone who’s espoused these views.

Would this be the case, had Miller focused on a group other than Muslims?

Let me be clear here: I’m not calling for a boycott, although of course there’s nothing wrong with people taking this action. Nor am I saying Frank Miller should go away; in fact, I wish he’d be more public about what exactly he was thinking and participate in a discussion about his work’s themes and messages.

Also, I think it’s important to state for the record that I happen to like most of Miller’s work very much, at least from aesthetic and historical points of view. I think Sin City‘s great, but of course it’s sexist — it’s an exaggeration of hard-boiled noir, ramping up the sex and the violence and the machismo and even the noir, chiaroscuro style. I even think Holy Terror‘s fascinating and at times visually beautiful. But of course it’s Islamophobic, and I doubt I’d be able to dispassionately separate artistic qualities from the work’s messages were I their target.

Seriously, we really have to get over this insecure notion that we need to endlessly defend the comics we like from discussion of their racism or sexism or homophobia, as if the second we admit these are legitimate critiques we’ll somehow be forced to confine our favorite comics to some dystopian bonfire. I can be disgusted by Miller’s statements and disturbed by strains in his work, and encourage discussion and exploration of the same, without feeling like I have to hide my enjoyment of the very same works I also find disturbing. You can like things and admit they’re troubling too. We routinely do this with virtually media other than comics, and it encourages discussion of these serious matters without the kind of reactionary backlashes (including — it’s hard to type this – rape threats against women who dare express opinions about gender issues) that are common in comics.

It’s just surprising to me that Miller’s history isn’t a part of the discussion, when a company makes a big announcement about optioning one of his works. It’s surprising to me that SyFy thinks it can announce a Ronin mini-series without so much as addressing these issues. Maybe doing so isn’t in SyFy’s short-term interest, but I’d certainly expect it to be a part of the story when we in comics discuss the new. It’s just such an elephant in the room.

Maybe SyFy’s adopting the strategy of crossing its fingers and hoping no one notices. Lionsgate took the same tactic, before outcry over Orson Scott Card’s homophobia forced the studio to make a statement distancing itself from Card’s homophobia, while defending their adaptation of this specific work by Card. That might not be a sufficient response. Such statements certainly can’t be a panacea, giving corporations a free pass to associate with bigots. I can certainly see the argument that Miller should be toxic, someone you wouldn’t want listed next to your corporate logo, at least until Miller addresses the situation a little more apologetically and a little less defiantly. We can all debate how SyFy should act in this particular case. The one thing I don’t find acceptable is its silence on the matter — which is facilitated, of course, by our own silence.

I’m afraid that simply ignoring the matter suggests that it’s okay to perpetuate Islamophobia, and that we don’t even expect corporations to feign that they have scruples.

With thanks to Colin Smith.

Tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Julian Darius:

This Lightning, This Madness: Understanding Alan Moore\'s Miracleman, Book One

author

executive producer

Classics on Infinite Earths: The Justice League and DC Crossover Canon

author

producer

New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics

contributor

executive producer

When Manga Came to America: Super-Hero Revisionism in Mai, the Psychic Girl

author

a short documentary on Chris Claremont's historic run and its influence

executive producer

Warren Ellis: The Captured Ghosts Interviews

introduction

Voyage in Noise: Warren Ellis and the Demise of Western Civilization

co-author

Shot in the Face: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitan

contributor

The Weirdest Sci-Fi Comic Ever Made: Understanding Jack Kirby\'s 2001: A Space Odyssey

author

The Devil is in the Details: Examining Matt Murdock and Daredevil

contributor

Everything and a Mini-Series for the Kitchen Sink: Understanding Infinite Crisis

author

Revisionism, Radical Experimentation, and Dystopia in Keith Giffen\'s Legion of Super-Heroes

author

And the Universe so Big: Understanding Batman: The Killing Joke

author

a feature-length documentary film on celebrated comics writer Warren Ellis

executive producer

Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide

contributor

Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen

contributor

a documentary on the life and work of celebrated comics writer Grant Morrison

executive producer

Improving the Foundations: Batman Begins from Comics to Screen

author

Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes

contributor

4 Comments

  1. David Mann says:

    I confess, Ronin is a blind spot (one of several) in my knowledge of Miller’s oeuvre, as he’s a creator whose work I intermittently enjoy but rarely actively seek out. Did Ronin contain many of the elements that he would come to be derided for later on, even to the relatively low-key extent of DKR’s politics? If not, perhaps SyFy hopes to dodge any public wrangling with the nature of Miller’s ‘idiosyncrasies’ altogether.

    • I think you’re right, David. Ronin‘s very male-focused, but I don’t think it’s as as troubling as the post-DKR stuff. But Ender’s Game wasn’t homophobic. I do think you’re right about what SyFy may be thinking, but I also think there should be a discussion when a name associated with these kinds of statements is enriched and seen to be legitimized by a high-profile deal. It’s something I think at least deserves discussion, and I think we have to communicate that we take the depiction of Muslims as seriously as those of other groups.

  2. (Sorry for returning, Julian. Love ya.)

    One thing that bothers me here: SyFy sucks! I respect Miller more than I respect SyFy and I believe he’s the one who has something to lose by associating himself with that ridiculous channel. A bad version of Ronin will probably be the best thing they’ll produce all year, even if they cast Tara Reid as Casey (which is always a possibility). Even DC and Marvel are more interesting companies (SyFy is probably owned by Disney or TimeWarner, anyway).

    A crappy network will make a crappy version of a comic. Let them suffocate in trash. We shouldn’t bow to it. What amazes me is that us, fans of the medium, get so excited everytime someone decides to adapt a comic book. Every bad superhero movie instantly becomes more important than 50, 75 years of publishing history, just because it is a movie. Quality is not an issue. All that seems to matter is that it’s not a comic anymore.

    Anyway, going to your point. Yeah, I agree that things would be different had Miller ejaculated against other group, for reasons that probably don’t matter here. However, Ronin is not Holy Terror (which I chose not to read, by the way). I would expect a great reaction against anyone wanting to adapt Holy Terror. But, if memory serves, there was nothing offensive in Ronin, except Miller’s name on it. And that’s the thing, had Miller died in August 2001, it would be okay for SyFy to adapt Ronin. We would look at his work, acknowledge the problematic parts (and they are there), but he wouldn’t seem so repulsive.

    But I don’t know, I still think Frank Miller is too good for the SyFy channel.

    Oh, and about Ronin being very male-focused, I’m sure you’re right (it’s been years since I last read it), but Miller’s strong women (particularly Elektra and Casey) were really new and interesting back in the eighties. No one (or almost no one) had dared to write or draw women like that in superhero comics. Sure, they were his fantasies, but I will always support people to put their sexual fantasies in their work. They probably don’t look so hot now when every female character seems to be a cheaper version of his fantasy, regardless of who’s writing or drawing. But, back then, Miller’s women was one of the things that set him apart.

Leave a Reply