The Super-Heroics of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, Part 6

The Tragic Villains of Miller and Moore

Moore and Miller’s approach to writing is always comparable and yet vastly different. Miller is hard-boiled crime writer and Moore delves deep into culture and vast concepts with a humanist touch. The writers rarely write in the same genre, but there are two respective works that parallel one another: Daredevil: Love & War and Batman: The Killing Joke. These works both are written from the point of view of a super-villain. Both are either labelled “graphic novels,” or more properly “graphic novellas,” despite only one having genuine novelistic elements. Both works add complexity and depth to seemingly simple characters that had been created years before. These two works are perhaps one of the best examples of the similarities and differences in Moore and Miller’s writing. Both works though very brief have made indelible impressions on their respective protagonists. Both Miller and Moore respectively created a great tragedy following a wicked person and their loss of humanity.

Batman: The Killing Joke was written during the time Moore was writing Swamp Thing, Miracleman, and V for Vendetta. In a rare case, it was the artist who approached the writer about a collaboration. Brian Bolland was told by DC that he could do whatever he wanted with whomever and he chose to collaborate with. Bolland asked Alan Moore to help create a special “original graphic novel” about Batman and the Joker. Moore complied, and the work was colored by John Higgins. Bolland later was given the opportunity to re-color the book for its deluxe re-release and down-played the garish coloring in favor of a subdued palette which helped emphasize the nihilistic and ultra-realistic approach Bolland and Moore were attempting.

While Moore has stated misgivings to the book, and indeed it is the most genuinely oblique work by Moore, it is a compelling tragedy. The story follows the Joker’s attempt to drive Jim Gordon insane by the most sadistic methods possible. Moore includes in his narrative a subplot that details a supposed origin of the Joker. In the story the Joker imagines himself a failed comedian, whose only half-hearted entry to crime leads to madness. Moore provides a strong dichotomy in the narrative that is rarely seen in any work of the superhero genre. Not only is the Joker the protagonist of his narrative, but he is also shown to be at his most grotesque and his most sympathetic.

By the end of the story, the Joker dismisses his own origin explained in the narrative, which is consistent with his own choice to ignore grim reality. The Joker admits that regardless of the exact manner he was driven mad not by the bleaching of his skin but by the revelation that life was utterly meaningless and that the only logic and justice in the world is an illusion. The Joker infers that this nihilistic outlook on life is shared with Batman. Despite Batman frustrated by a lack of knowing the literal facts about the Joker, the Clown Prince of Crime has a greater understanding of his nemesis and acknowledges their haunting similarity. Moore concludes that both the Joker and Batman were driven mad from one bad day. They both experience the awful revelation that the world lacks any justice or meaning, but the Joker chooses to see this as a joke and wants to prove everyone is as awful as he is. Batman even admits that the Joker is right in his nihilism, but coldly replies, “[I]t wasn’t funny the first time.” Batman chose to impose order and justice regardless of there being none in the world, and went mad with a crusade to cleanse the world. Despite Moore’s own misgivings with the notion that Batman and the Joker are licensed characters, the two do indeed represent something. Batman and the Joker are personifications of order and chaos, yet Moore boldly suggests that both extremes are madness and both lead to a hopeless unending struggle.

When The Killing Joke was first published it was labelled a “graphic novel” and this annoyed Moore to the point that he dismissed the label as a marketing term. The term graphic novel or graphic novella was indeed inappropriate for The Killing Joke, not because of the length of the piece or the mature themes but because of the conclusion of the narrative. Anthony Burgess stated in his introduction to A Clockwork Orange, that the omission of his 21st chapter in both the American Edition and the film adaptation ultimately changed his work from a novel into a book.[1] Burgess’ identified that the key aspect of novel’s are that they are a single narrative in which the character ultimately changes. The novel’s form of storytelling can certainly be applied to comic books, but The Killing Joke intentionally avoids the option for change. The story opens with Batman attempting to end his conflict with the Joker peacefully and, even though extremely angry at the Joker, Batman still wants to help the Joker. While the Joker finds the offer tempting he rejects the chance for reformation instead dooming Batman and himself to a meaningless fight that shall one day end in either’s death. The conclusion to the narrative prevents any genuine character change, and is the most oblique ending in all of Moore’s work. In Moore’s dark masterpiece From Hell, he offered the single glimmer of light that Marie Kelly lived and told Dr. Gull, “Go back to Hell from where you came from!” But in The Killing Joke the tragedy is that neither the Joker nor Batman can change, but simply laugh at the madness of their unending struggle. The conclusion of the narrative is a self-aware black laugh at the unending struggle, revealing a dark and almost pitiful tragedy in Batman and the Joker.

In contrast to Moore’s villain-centered narrative ending with no change in his characters, Frank Miller crafted a graphic novella with Daredevil: Love & War, which has its protagonist grow from complex to two-dimensional. The work was the re-teaming of Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz from their masterful work in Elektra: Assassin. The story takes place between Miller’s run on Daredevil, and his masterpiece storyline Born Again. Daredevil: Love & War, much like The Killing Joke, is centered on the tragedy of a supervillain, the Kingpin. Miller took the forgotten Spider-Man villain and turned him into a complex and brilliant Machiavellian mob leader. But Miller in his run on Daredevil, saw the Kingpin as a figure that could be empathized with, as his beloved wife Vanessa restrained Wilson Fisk and made him wish to abandon his criminal ways. But Vanessa was taken away from Fisk driving him to return to his sociopathic criminal ways. Vanessa would be returned to Fisk as a broken woman that he gracefully cared for. But in Miller’s sequel to his run, the Kingpin was no longer a complex-man, simply a cold sociopath with a mad vendetta against Daredevil. This change was attributed in the storyline to Fisk losing his wife in the intermittent years, Love & War provides this vital lost narrative.

Sienkiewicz’s art helps to emphasize the madness and delusions of the characters in the narrative, all of whom believe themselves to be heroic. The Kingpin begins the narrative with a cold reflection on his criminal empire, but says the words with such disaffection as he clearly does not care for this but instead wishes for the happiness and comfort provided by his wife. Fisk’s description of Vanessa is possessive but well-meaning, and his road to damnation is paved with good intentions. Trying to desperately save his wife Fisk utilizes the very criminal methods that his wife abhorred to begin with. The Kingpin comes across as cold but so hopelessly fragile, and his love for Vanessa is simply too great to handle any sort of betrayal. But Vanessa tearfully desires freedom from the madness, and views her marriage to the Kingpin as a prison. Fisk is so crushed by this that he does not even bother to engage Daredevil in the meaningless dance of villain and heroes. Instead he willingly gives Vanessa and the psychiatrist he kidnapped to Daredevil. The loss of Vanessa demonstrates Fisk’s loss of humanity as he is left solely with being the Kingpin and his criminal empire. Miller just as Moore identifies that the loss of love and humanity will drive men into becoming sociopathic monsters. Fisk genuinely changes as he is left a broken and angry man that Daredevil cannot help but pity, even admitting that he shall pray for his enemy. The graphic novella is a poignant tragedy of loss, as the Kingpin did his “heroic” deed of saving Vanessa, but the price was losing the woman he loved. It is strange to have a character change from three-dimensional to two-dimensional, but Miller’s tragedy is believable and an effective graphic novel telling the transformation of the Kingpin to an unstoppable force of wickedness.

Miller and Moore both crafted a narrative that is taken from the perspective of the villain, but Moore nihilistically concludes that the villain of his piece cannot change. In contrast Miller saw humanity in his villain but viewed that eventually the love that made Wilson Fisk human would forsake him leaving him to be nothing but a cold criminal mastermind.

[1] In the 21st Chapter of A Clockwork Orange, Alex willingly gives up his violent ways and expresses a desire to become a father.

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James Kelly has been obsessed with comics and superheroes since he saw Batman: The Animated Series on TV. His father also got him hooked on Star Wars when he took him to the 1997 re-release of the magnificent Saga. Kelly graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in English Literature, and a concentration in Fiction Writing. He hopes to be able to one day produce his many comics and other writing projects to mass audiences.

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