Tuesday, July 1, 2008

10 Reasons Why Frank Miller Shouldn't Write DC Comics

Okay, that's a bit harsh, but it might have been a better title for this article (linked via Comics Should Be Good).

I’m no fan of Frank Miller’s writing or his art, and for all of the usual reasons. He seems to be trapped in a state of suspended adolescence, cranking out stories full of ridiculous over-the-top violence, mind-numbing amounts of T&A, and dialogue right out of a high school freshman’s creative writing project.

But that wide topic is a subject for another post. Reading the article, I can’t help but notice that nearly all of Miller’s views on what a superhero is go directly against the ideals and attributes generally possessed by DC’s lineup of heroes. In his own words, he demonstrates why his work for that company is often laughable. Let’s take a look at some of Miller’s “10 Superhero Commandments” and see how they compare with the typical DC hero.

1. The hero sacrifices everything.
Miller’s origin story goes like this: Born in 1957, he grows up in Maryland and Vermont with three brothers and three sisters as a self-described “maladjusted child,” obsessed with comics. At age six he meets his destiny. Instead of being bitten by a radioactive spider, he goes to the movies and gets bitten by the old B-film The 300 Spartans. “It changed the way I looked at heroes entirely,” remembers Miller, who decided then and there to pursue a life in ink. “It stopped being the fresh-faced guys who get medals on their chests at the end of Star Wars. It became people who were willing to sacrifice everything for the greater good.” The lesson stuck with him: “One of the most heroic movies I ever saw was Rocky, a guy who lasts 15 rounds before he loses a fight.”

This one sounds okay at first. In the DC universe, heroes are always willing to sacrifice everything, including their own lives. Hal Jordan, Barry Allen, Oliver Queen, Conner Kent, and dozens of others have died to, as Miller says, serve the greater good. However, the last quote shows Miller’s idea of a noble sacrifice – Rocky Balboa, who *loses*. I won’t argue that Rocky should end differently than it does, but Rocky isn’t a superhero. There’s nothing at stake in his fight against Apollo Creed. To me, this reads like Miller feels that heroes should sacrifice everything they have to accomplish nothing. He actively wants to see a downbeat ending. I’m not saying that all superheroes need happy endings every time, but if a hero sacrifices himself in the DC Universe, it will always be for a reason.

3. The hero does nothing small.
Miller grew up in small towns dreaming of Gotham, Metropolis, and planet-hopping superheroes. “It’s all got to happen on a grand scale,” explains Miller, who first became famous for his crime-fiction influences and later his wild style of slashing lines, abstract action, and Jackson Pollock–like splatter. “C’mon, Superman is ridiculous—he has blue hair, he can fly. It can’t just be, ‘This guy’s having a bad day.’ If Daredevil has a nervous breakdown, people are going to get hit.”

In the DC Universe, superheroes can and *do* do things small. The Flash might help save the world from a CRISIS every couple of months, but he’s just as likely to save a woman falling out of an airplane even though he can’t fly. Superman is frequently seen helping citizens with miniscule problems that he could just as easily ignore. In the DC Universe, no job is too big or small for a superhero.

Also, why does Frank Miller think Superman has blue hair?

4. The hero loves women of all kinds: Blondes, brunettes, redheads, dominatrices, strippers, hookers…
From his earliest strips to the strippers of Sin City, Miller’s heroes have been surrounded by beautiful, often nude, women. Why? Because, like many school-age outcasts, Miller has always loved to draw hot girls. “When you have a brush in your hand, inking a beautiful woman is a lot like running your hands over her,” Miller says. “It turns me on, OK?”

One thing is clear just from reading this passage: Frank Miller is a creepy, creepy dude. The portrayal of women in comics has enough problems without him. He certainly has no business writing Wonder Woman or Black Canary when Greg Rucka or Gail Simone could be doing so instead.

5. The hero fights dirty and looks ugly.
A Frank Miller man is nasty when he needs to be: He fights dirty, uses his fists, and knows how to take a beating. He’s not the clean-cut Captain America type. He’s almost always some nasty-looking, hulking freak who’s half-human, half-rhino. Miller’s Batman is a pink-fleshed Hulk. Sin City’s brutish Marv is Miller’s take on a modern-day barbarian. “If I go for a strong guy” he says, “I want him to be ugly.”

Miller likes the rough image for himself too. He’s earned a reputation within the industry for being ferociously demanding, a quality mirrored in his heroes. “Frank talks about his characters as if they won’t let him go until they’ve told him their stories,” says 300 director Zack Snyder. “The only characters that survive are the ones who are tough enough to fight back. Maybe that’s why he ends up with the hardest and scariest.”

Once again, “Frank Miller’s Batman is a pink-fleshed Hulk.” He in no way resembles the Batman of other writers. He’s a soldier, not a detective. He uses his fists, but rarely uses his brain. DC heroes are marked by their ability to solve problems using their wits. This isn’t just true of Batman, but also of Superman (in the Silver Age, he thought his way out of more than one red sun situation, I can tell you) and scores of others. Frank Miller has no use for brain power, so his “heroes” never use it.

6. The hero has a reason, but he doesn’t need therapy.
“When I first got going on what became The Dark Knight, I just thought about him a lot, what kind of guy would do this stuff,” he says of his endlessly influential 1986 reinvention of Batman. That said, Miller says he’s sick of “therapy culture” and hand-wringing heroes like Spider-Man who go around whining all the time about the burden of great power. In 300 Sparta’s King Leonidas didn’t have to ponder the Persian Empire’s diplomacy—he kicked Xerxes’ diplomat down a well.

Miller’s right that heroes shouldn’t whine. That’s certainly something I dislike about Spider-Man. But that doesn’t mean superheroes shouldn’t be able to talk like human beings or show feelings. One of the most memorable issues of the last fifteen years – Hitman #34 – consists of Superman and Tommy Monahan sitting around talking. Miller’s characters are unfeeling Dirty Harrys who couldn’t care less about the people around them. In fact, I’d say most of Miller’s characters would do very well indeed to seek therapy.

9. The hero is hated and misunderstood.
Miller has always been a controversial figure. The more popular he becomes, the more he seems to piss off colleagues, infuriate fans, and confound expectations–because he’s always restlessly pursuing some new direction. In Miller’s universe, superheroes are outlawed and ostracized—there are no trophies. “Community approval isn’t the motive for a hero anyway,” he says. “It’s the motive for a politician. A hero does the right thing because it’s the right thing.”

At Marvel, this is true – newspapers slander Spider-Man, the X-Men get garbage thrown at them in the streets, Silver Surfer gets driven out of town for stopping crimes – but at DC it is patently false. At DC, the heroes are beloved, for acting like heroes. They are pillars of their communities. All of Metropolis offers Superman a friendly wave as he passes by. Central City builds a museum for the Flash. The Opal City police department gives Starman all of the powers of an officer. Even Batman, who is perhaps more feared than loved, is without a doubt Gotham City’s protector, and people respect him for it.

10. The hero believes in good and evil.
Miller’s 300 became a lightning rod for criticism since many read it as an endorsement of the war on terror, the West versus the Middle East. “I did this comic in the 1990s, so I never could have expected that it would get this reaction from hawks,” says Miller, laughing. “I did 300 years before 9/11, but you don’t have to read much between the lines to see that I believe there is good and there is evil. As the great cartoonist Wallace Wood said, it’s the job of the good guys to kill the bad guys.”

DC Superheroes do not kill. That’s what separates them from the villains. Superman will never kill Lex Luthor. Batman will never kill the Joker. If Frank Miller doesn’t understand that, he has no business trying to write DC comic books.

And yet they keep letting him.


Spasticus Autisticus said...

I think a lot of Miller does is basically "Cartmaning." That is: remember that kid in elementary school who had one superhero he was really into and he'd spend all his time trashing all the others to "prove" how cool his favorite was? Well, I just got done reading DKR and... that was exactly my reaction.
I mean, I love Batman, too, but the only way he could seriously beat Superman (even if he's really off his game) is if Kal is totally humoring him... which is how I'm choosing to read that book.
(As far as his statements about women, well... he's already said more than I think anyone needed to, and I think we can just let it slide.)

Anonymous said...

I agree with each of your points and I found the examples used in the Maxim article to articulate Miller's points were often inconsistent (like the Rocky comment).

Anthony Strand said...

Spasticus Autisticus - I agree completely. One of the things that bugs me so much about DKR is that "Superman" there is entirely not Superman.

Andrew - Yeah, it's a weird article. That's almost another post in itself. Especially when the reason is "The Hero is Fearless" and the entire paragraph is about Frank Miller reinventing Daredevil and then "slaughtering" other "sacred cows".

Thanks for the comments.

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