Ultimately, there are two types of stories: tragedies and comedies. There are no inherent requirements for tragedies or comedies. In the days of Shakespeare tragedies ended with death and comedies ended with weddings. But in the modern storytelling we have been able to strip the “requirements” and allowed the central themes define the two genres. Comedy is a celebration of life for all its trials and tribulations. Tragedy focuses on the inevitable in life, death, and the unanswerable questions. It has to be stressed that these terms are very broad, and do not necessarily have to be reflect their typical uses. Comedies in the broad sense do not have to be funny, they are optimistic and life affirming. The Star Wars Saga is a comedy as it celebrates the triumph of good over evil, and the redemption of man from past sins. In contrast Dr. Strangelove, while a very funny film is a tragedy as it is a pessimistic outlook on the current world leaders and mankind in general. At their respective cores, comedies are optimistic works, tragedies are pessimistic. In this light, Frank Miller is a great comedic writer of the 20th century and Alan Moore is a great tragedian of our time.
To be clear, these definitions are not at all absolute as there are great exceptions to the general trends in each writer’s respective works. Moore’s finale to Promethea (and the America’s Best Comics Line) is one of the most life affirming and optimistic works of comics. Similarly, Miller’s first major comics work after the dismay of RoboCop 3 was The Hard Goodbye, the first graphic novel in the world of Sin City. The Hard Goodbye is a dark tragedy with the hero framed and executed for his one moment of heroism. The work is a cynical and nigh nihilistic work from Miller. But from the general perspective of these respective works these are noticeable exceptions.
Reading Alan Moore’s work, it is brilliant how he undercuts every supposed “happy” ending. Put simply, Moore does not believe in genuinely happy endings. At most Moore offers endings in some works that are ambiguous as humanity is given a chance to change. The conclusion to both Watchmen and V for Vendetta have mankind freed from fear of nuclear destruction and dictatorship respectively, but there is no great indication that humanity will change for the better. Throughout the aforementioned graphic novels, humanity is shown to be flawed. People are not perfect and providing anyone with power in Moore’s eyes leads to drastic consequences. But at the same time the perplexing paradox is that Moore suggests in works like V for Vendetta that mankind craves safety to the point that it will accept fascists or a constant fear of attack in Watchmen over genuine freedom. V for Vendetta’s central antagonist Finch even rationalizes the wicked status quo as necessary to re-create order. Moore’s works act as brilliant tragedies viewing that society as a whole is corrupt and that mankind has little hope of redeeming itself.
Even in stories where the protagonist is left happy, Moore has a negative outlook on humanity and on any sort of comforting message. Take his revered run on Swamp Thing, where Moore ends the journey of Swamp Thing’s identity. The story arc follows the Swamp Thing changing from a plant that imagined itself to be human into an all-powerful plant-elemental. After a great space odyssey, Swamp Thing returns to Earth and contemplates fixing the environmental struggles of the world. However, the more that Swamp Thing contemplates this, the more he comes to reject implementing change on mankind. Swamp Thing makes direct comparisons to himself to God, as he is for all purposes such. Swamp Thing comes to a deistic state of mind, not just about the creator-of-the-universe but of his own being. His final words state that he must allow humanity to change their ways or die. The conclusion is the most pessimistic appraisal of free will as it notes that if mankind were given the chance at utopia they would not change themselves for the better. Indeed if humanity were to die for its own ignorance and stupidity, it would be the choice of man, not a greatly uplifting message.
Moore even dared to demonstrate this tragic nature of man in his sublime finale to Marvelman, Miracleman: Olympus (renamed Miracleman to avoid lawsuit from Marvel). The central tragedy of the piece remains the story of Marvelman becoming more and more disenchanted with humanity. As the superhero accepts his role as a god he works to establish a utopia for mankind. The finale to the book is one of the most perplexing tragedies ever created. Even Moore has struggled to identify the exact fault of Marvelman’s utopia. Marvelman has eliminated crime, war, money and even death; drugs are all legal and all can become super-powered. But in creating this utopia Marvelman has destroyed all meaning for life. Marvelman’s wife tearfully refuses to accept godhood proclaiming that Marvelman has forgotten all that made him human. Moore provides a scathing indictment to hoping for a savior to mankind’s problems, concluding that if all of our struggles were made moot than life would cease to have any purpose.
In contrast to this, Frank Miller is a genuine optimist in his works. Miller is a great comedic writer in the traditional sense of being a great writer that celebrates life. Some may be critical of such a distinction, but Miller himself once described his work as jolly in an interview. To have optimism is sometimes looked upon as too easy and even too comforting a message for readers. But, the optimism of Miller is far more impactful as he remains optimistic in spite of an acute awareness to the flaws in society.
Miller’s work is just as critical of society as Moore is, yet Miller has a greater optimistic outlook on both mankind and the future and this is impressive considering how quick Miller is to acknowledge the flaws of the contemporary world. The most telling example of Miller’s cautious optimism is in the seminal graphic novel Daredevil: Born Again. In this story more than any other, Miller focuses on the repugnant hypocrisy that Wilson Fisk is a respected figure of society. The Kingpin becomes a true demonic presence that is able to strip Matt Murdock of everything in his life. Yet Miller suggests that the hero was always Matt Murdock, and indeed he proves himself to be greater than what the costume suggested he was. Murdock is able to redeem the fallen Karen Page and is similarly able to destroy the Kingpin’s reputation as a legitimate businessman. Miller’s cynicism about the legal justice system states that Fisk can survive the criminal charges brought against him. Despite all of Murdock’s struggles, his enemy has only been inconvenienced. But Matt Murdock takes this small victory as enough, as he knows he will continue to fight the good fight. Miller has little faith in actually being able to eliminate corruption, but he offers some optimism in that the corrupt can at least be exposed as what they are.
Miller always has a negative outlook on criminal law and politics in general. Because of this his optimism is always subtler and is poignant. Miller’s views every form of authority as either corrupt or incompetent as seen in Elektra: Assassin. In Elektra: Assassin, SHIELD is corrupt and incompetent, Republicans are idiotically-obsessed war-maniacs and Democrats are satanic hypocrites. But still Miller permits optimism in the work as Elektra saves the world and gives America a dangerous but ultimately successful president. Miller’s optimism has a quality of being hopeful despite an awareness of our faults. Most hope in Miller’s work is in people rather than society. In The Dark Knight Returns, Batman and ordinary citizens save Gotham from chaos while the US Military cannot contain anarchy. Even when Miller has seemingly tragic endings he permits an amount of optimism about the future. Though the brave Spartans die at Thermopylae in 300, their deaths inspire the Greeks to eventually obliterate the invading Persians in Plataea. Miller even makes a hero’s sacrifice seem much more of a victory, as John Hartigan commits suicide in That Yellow Bastard, he rationalizes that he has done a good thing: “A young girl lives. An old man dies. Fair Trade. Fair Enough.”
Moore’s work often has a pessimistic outlook on the society we live in. People are beautifully tragic in Moore’s eyes and his works typically have a tragic quality to them. In contrast Miller is strangely optimistic. Despite being heavily critical to our society to the point of cynicism Miller is optimistic about the future. Miller is that rare comedic writer who is hopeful in spite of all evidence to not be.