Thoughts on Frank Miller’s Creative Evolution

Sin City (Marv torturing)In the original Sin City, Marv is a tired old man. The events of the story turn him into an uncompromising hero, whom you could say is in the ultra-violent, Ayn Rand-inspired mold of some of Miller’s later work. But Sin City undercuts that in remarkably ways.

Marv’s old. He’s not very smart. He’s probably an alcoholic. He hasn’t done much with his life for a long time, if ever.

He longs nostalgically for the bad old days. He’s old, and he’s on his way out. Effectively, his turn towards the heroic in the story is a kind of suicide – a way of dying well, as he imagines it. It’s a last gasp. One final, desperate, dramatic measure.

So yes, he’s a powerful individual who molds the situation to his whims and is willing to make the supreme sacrifice for what he believes in. In a way, Marv creates himself by doing so, much as Ayn Rand heroes are said to do so.

But with Marv, you get the sense that he’s fighting for things that are far more personal than anything. What sets him off is the murder of Goldie, the first woman who’s shown him any kindness in years. There’s a loneliness at the heart of Marv that he doesn’t even try to hide.

Does he really do anything for Goldie? Or does he do what he does because he’s tired of life, and he get his adrenaline up just thinking about going out in a hail of fists and a feeling that he’s making a difference? It’s transparently more the latter than the former.

Most importantly, there’s no indication that these bad old days, to which Marv wants to return, really existed at all. Yes, Marv was once younger. But was this past, for which Marv pines, really a paradise for the rough-and-tumble individual? If Marv is remaking himself, he’s doing so according to an ideal. But that ideal exists in his mind, in his memory of how things used to be, or perhaps how they ought to be. And there’s little indication in the story that this state ever existed, or is really very noble at all.

Miller’s earlier work has a similar sense of remove that adds layers of depth to his tough guys. Bruce Wayne, in The Dark Knight Returns, similarly pines for his glory days. But these glory days aren’t really any Batman comics we’ve ever seen. They’re what Bruce Wayne wishes they had been.

He might ignore the politically correct talking heads and mold Gotham to his will, but this isn’t the actions of an Ayn Rand industrialist, ignoring labor laws and lesser minds. Rather, it’s the action of an old man nostalgically remembering the bad old days, when he imagines he could impose order with his young fists.

Dark Knight ReturnsAnd like Marv, there’s no indication that Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Returns is driven primarily by any noble desire. The story questions his sanity. He doesn’t seem particularly concerned with Alfred, nor with his new Robin, nor with Selina Kyle, nor with anyone but himself and his memory of his martyred parents. Bruce might be more pissed off at the state of Gotham than Marv is at the state of Basin City, but neither seems motivated by anything more than their own desire to feel relevant again – and perhaps to die well.

By the time we get to late Sin City – and certainly to Holy Terror – this irony and distance is gone. It’s one thing to point out that The Dark Knight Returns is satire; that’s true to a point, and it’s notoriously hard to pinpoint that point, which changes depending on the reader as well as on the reading. But beyond this, the whole noble Ayn Rand tough guy to which Bruce and Marv aspire is a myth. It’s a myth they want to believe, perhaps. But it’s at best a previous state of affairs, a Golden Age before civilization slid into corruption and political sensitivity. And given the troubled psyches of both Bruce and Marv, we have every reason to believe that this Golden Age – like all Golden Ages – isn’t exactly being remembered precisely.

Here, it’s worth recalling that Miller previously told the story of 300 on a single page of Sin City: The Big Fat Kill. It’s just a one-page throwaway, and it’s cast in the light of this Golden Age. It’s a past state in which brave men did very manly, violent things that saved civilization. In the present, the characters just gun people down, and there’s no glory in it, even if it’s presented as necessary and visually appealing.

Fast forward a few years, and 300 is set in that Golden Age. Even then, Leonidas struggles with the current state of Greece, which more closely resembles the corrupt, politically sensitive state of late Gotham or Sin City than any Golden Age of Manliness. But Leonidas is a much more purely noble figure than Bruce Wayne or Marv. His sanity isn’t questioned in any real way, nor is the rightness of his sacrifice. The things Miller put into his stories to make us question Bruce Wayne and Marv aren’t here now. You’re supposed to think Leonidas is a hero, not a battered and nostalgic old man looking to feel alive again, or to go out in a dramatic and semi-noble fashion.

By the time we get to Holy Terror, there’s no Golden Age at all. There’s no remove. There’s no satire, at least not of the hero. The Fixer’s sanity isn’t brought into serious question. There’s no death wish. There’s no nostalgia for a simpler era, when men were men, that might never have existed. There’s only the Fixer and his city.

And the unspeakable foreign hordes that have infested it, that seek to destroy it, and that are so evil, so heinous, so insane that they obliterate any such defects on the part of the protagonist.

Miller’s career shows a clear evolution. The violence isn’t new. The possible psychopathology of Miller’s hard-boiled protagonists isn’t new, nor is the discomfort this can create in readers. But where Miller once questioned these protagonists, or made their psychopathology part of the story, this subtlety has slowly disappeared. Marv gives way to Leonidas. The Dark Knight Returns gives way to All Star Batman and Robin (where Gotham’s become Sin City, but at times the Goddamn Batman seems to be posing for Robin and others), which in turn gives way to the Fixer.

Goddamn BatmanIf you wanted to justify this evolution, from the three-dimensional and complicated to the straight-forward, you could see it as the writing equivalent of how Miller’s art evolved. Alex Toth is most celebrated for his minimalism of line. Beginning with Sin City, Miller’s art began to look like Toth on steroids, and I don’t think it’s too much to say that the effect revolutionized comics art. Simplicity is often more effective than needless complexity. But simplify the characters in this way, and you get a hero and a villain who fight with exaggerated brutality, and the villain’s very very evil and insane, and the hero’s very very good because he’s the only line of defense against this very very evil monstrosity.

Everything’s reduced to its essential elements. Including people.

You can evoke a figure with a silhouette and still have the person beneath that splotch of ink feel three-dimensional. Of course, that “person” is only a side effect, produced in the reader’s mind from two-dimensional words and pictures. Reducing this mental image to its barest essentials is an interesting experiment, and concealing elements of a character’s backstory is a long-established literary technique. But take this too far, and character becomes caricature, and persons stereotypes.

Take this too far, and minimalism can give way to a lack a subtlety, then to an apparent hostility towards subtlety, a deliberate closing-off of interpretive possibilities that once helped counterbalance the violent, uncompromising hero.

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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.

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11 Comments

  1. David Mann says:

    I agree with the article as a whole, but I have to question ASBAR as being an effective example. Much as it revels in the machismo, a great deal of the focus–especially by the end of what has been seen (of course, later issues should they ever appear could easily undermine this)–is on how Batman’s dangerously out of control, causing more harm than good in taking in Dick Grayson, losing his grip on sanity and the trust of those around him. It would be, ‘ahem’, charitable to describe the series as a whole as presenting a particularly psychologically nuanced picture of the Batman, but the end of issue 9 is essentially one long moment of Wayne realizing the depth of his folly up to that point. Even if the brutality of his vigilante actions are implicitly approved of, the modern Frank Miller Tough Guy attitude and its affects on those around the main character are deconstructed arguably even more than in DKR.

    Of course, there’s also DKR2, which has him mocking the man he psychologically traumatized as a child for not “cutting the mustard” before decapitating and incinerating him, so maybe I’m just grasping at straws here. But I’d say of his modern Batman work (not counting Holy Terror) Strikes Again is much closer to embracing the “Golden Age” you mentioned above than Batman & Robin, which almost seems more interested in subverting it than anything. Which would suggest he learned his lesson and pulled back for the latter work…except for Holy Terror. That Frank’s an enigma.

    • Thanks for your comment, David!

      I think my reading of All Star might be a little less nuanced than yours, but I think what you’re saying is totally fair.

      I find Strikes Again hard to pinpoint. In some ways, you’re absolutely right that it embraces that idea of trying in vain to return to an absent Golden Age of machismo. But then again, I find the work kind of celebratory and bright in its own regard. But great point, David.

      I think you’re right that it’s not a perfectly linear evolution.

      The idea that Miller pulled back, perhaps after the poor reception of Strikes Again and poorer reception of All Star is a fascinating one. I don’t know that it’s wrong. Some creators do kind of pivot like that, like “well, if I’m gonna get excoriated by the critics, let’s let them have it with both barrels.” It’s totally possible and an intriguing idea.

  2. I think that this quote, if sincere, is very telling. Frank describes the character that replaced Batman in Holy Terror:

    “He’s very different than Batman in that he’s not a tortured soul. He’s a much more well-adjusted creature even though he happens to shoot 100 people in the course of the story.”

    quoted from http://herocomplex.latimes.com/comics/frank-miller-takes-holy-terror-out-of-gotham-ive-taken-batman-as-far-as-he-can-go/

  3. I was just thinking about Frank Miller a few days ago and then I finally got around to reading this article. In something else I wrote not too long ago, I said something to the effect of there being a fine line between an archetype becoming a stereotype: of nuances of meaning becoming simplified or stripped away to the point of becoming a lazy or fixed symbol of assumptions.

    In a way, you could argue that archetypes symbolize, well, symbols and plurality of thought whereas stereotypes arguably have only *one* meaning and represent absolutism. I was going to leave my statement more or less as it stood but then you, Julian, mentioned something else about a Golden Age.

    This is not the first time I’d heard of “violent, uncompromising” superheroes and the idea of a Golden Age in the same sentence. In fact, if you look at the Golden Age of comics this was more or less what superheroes all originated from. Before this you had horror, crime, and swashbuckling comics, along with political satire and humour. And then the superhero gradually evolved.

    In my article on Andrez Bergen’s Who Is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa, I mentioned how the earliest superheroes were violent and powerful and believed, for the most part, that their powers and resources equaled might equaling right. These were the first superheroes and it was only after a while that with the evolution of the comics medium that they gained nuance and subtlety: especially as the history and cultural attitudes around them changed.

    But look at Frank Miller’s work in comparison to that time. In Sin City you had the crime fiction or film noir element and the violent, uncompromising hero solving issues with his fists. In Ronin, you had the violent, uncompromising hero fighting for the ideal of a Golden Age in a corrupt world. In Batman Returns and Batman Year One you had something of the same thing. Perhaps his work in Daredevil (if only in the hero overcomes brutal adversity) might fall into this too? And 300, as you said, *is* the ideal of that Golden Age of violent men creating law against perceived weakness made incarnate.

    I’ve not read any of Miller’s recent works, but I have heard a few things along the lines that you have mentioned. And it seems to me that Miller keeps attempting to go back to that Golden Age as portrayed by not only the earliest of superhero comics, without the distance of irony, but also to a more Classic mindset where heroes were considered heroes in that they had tremendous strength and fortitude: and were willing to do *anything* to win on behalf of their side. Of course, these ancient heroes had their own moralities as well: some of which are different from our more contemporary sensibilities.

    But yes: that line from archetype to stereotype, from irony and self-critiquing to taking an ideal far too seriously and to the nth degree. Minimalism is an excellent tool of archetype in that “less is more,” but it really is the fine line and I can’t help but wonder — without making the autobiographical fallacy — whether this creative shift is endemic of a more personal one on Miller’s part.

    Going “back to the basics” can be seen as a staple of traditionalism and conservatism: even as it has the potential to lead to something new in another’s hands.

    • Good thoughts. I was thinking, based on what you wrote here, about how comics is infatuated with the idea of a Golden Age — heck, we use it to describe our oldest super-hero comics (most of which weren’t that good…). There’s obviously been a major turn towards “back to basics” in super-heroes for a long time now, even if it’s a misperceived Golden Age, a misreading. That this plays into Miller’s work is fascinating.

      Great points, Matthew! Thanks for your comment — and for making me think!

  4. Tom C says:

    Julian,
    I really enjoy reading your continued analysis of Frank Miller’s work and evolution as an artist. I’ve been revisiting Miller’s work recently and I’m in awe of how Miller is able to evoke visceral sensation through his sequential imagery, at least in myself more than any artist I’ve been exposed to. This ability to transmit artistic charisma grows exponentially as he simplifies his ideas and execution over the past 25 years I feel like Miller’s goal has always been to influence the way people think and feel about his ideas and over time he’s doesn’t feel the need to justify the importance of his chosen medium through using outside literary structure he did during the late 80′s. He’s concerned about using the power of comics cartooning to present his work and as a result it’s become more minimalist.

    • Tom, I think Miller’s work is immensely powerful visually. I often think about his Tales to Offend as a key text: screw Wertham, screw censorship, let comics be rough and ugly and brutal. I love this idea. And yet… there’s no denying that some of the consequences, as characters get simplified along with the art, can be troubling.

      Thanks for the comment, Tom!

      • Tom C says:

        Julian, Thanks for writing such thoughtful and thought provoking articles and essays on Frank Miller’s work. I enjoy the work you’re doing here.

        Miller’s characters have become increasingly simplified but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing especially when dealing with characters like batman which have 75 years of publishing history behind them or in the case of Sin City where the genre of hard boiled crime fiction has established archetypes. I think Miller uses characters as empty vessels to express ideas much like a good political cartoonist & because Miller typically works with archetypical characters that are well established in the minds of his readership. I think FM is masterful at picking the right details & allowing the reader to fill in the characters through their own experience with the character archetypes. I think it’s a very valid way of working and has allowed his work to have broad appeal

        That said, I agree with your point of view but in my opinion, Where Miller runs into trouble in recent years is that his public persona has tainted his work. With his OWS essay and online commentary post 9/11 he has forced his work to be viewed through the lenses of right wing authoritarianism essentially negating the power of a impressionistic approach that allowed readers to fill these characters with life and opening up valid criticism in that regard.

      • Thanks for your comment, Tom!

        I do think Miller’s approach is artistically valid. But I also think that something like Holy Terror illustrates that the problem isn’t solely Miller’s public persona. There’s room for archetypal characters, and detective-genre tough guys, but it’s also right for people to point out when this simplification of character reduces women to sex objects, Muslims to terrorists, etc. That’s valid and useful criticism. And it’s based on the text, not on Miller’s public persona.

        Having said that, yes, I still find Miller’s work fascinating and powerful. Even when I’m concerned about what it’s saying and implying. I think there’s room for both acknowledgement of the man’s artistic vision and exploration of its problematic elements. We can do that — and even do that passionately — without Miller having to “go away” or be censored or something.

  5. Tom C says:

    I think you’re spot on about tales to offend being a key text. those short stories were very much the key to my understanding of why Miller’s work has such appeal to me. As you’ve written elsewhere Miller revels in comics are a medium of rebellion.

    • Thanks, Tom! Yeah, I think there’s a certain “offense is its own reward” spirit to Tales to Offend. It’s a spirit that resonates with me, even when I find some of the content troubling! No room for censorship. But I hope there’s also little room for ignoring the troubling nature of what might come out of such an approach, which is very much worth discussing. That’s my stance: vehemently anti-censorship, but vehemently pro-discussion.

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