Frank Miller is slipping from his high seat in comics. His vexatious behavior in cyber-land led many Comic fans to voice their disapproval. Islamophobic content in his graphic novel Holy Terror (2011) his literal cancellation from last year’s Thought Bubble festival. Now, there is a call for his figurative cancellation from popular culture.
Taking inventory of Frank Miller’s work to find out where it all went wrong ends in two incongruous revelations: without a doubt, Miller moved the medium of sequential art forward. He also, conversely, set back a progressive turn in comics creating plots preoccupied with toxic masculinity, America-first-machismo and general bigotry.
Miller is a legendary comic writer, artist, and film director. His debut in comics came in 1978 when he worked on the twilight zone comics, based on the 1960s television series. Miller eventually moved to DC Comics, first contributing to Weird War Tales and memorably casting a Batman who throws a mini-Christmas tree at Santa Claus in DC Super-Star Holiday Special (1980).
Well known for his dark knight mythos for DC, he also resuscitated a lifeless Daredevil character for Marvel. His hugely popular original work by him: Sin City was adapted for television in 2005. He also created new characters Elektra and Ronin. Miller helped make comics popular for serious reading by adults with his artistic and canonical innovations.
He broke the hold Adam West’s campy Batman had on the populace, replacing him with a beefy brute who thrashes Superman in The Dark Knight Returns (1986). Then he made The Dark Knight humbler than ever in Batman: Year One (1987), a tale building on Batman’s flaws as a fledgling vigilante. Fans easily get absorbed in his coarse (often times scratch-board-like) ink drawings of these characters that set a tone entirely different from their Silver Age origins.
Frank Miller made it in comics by perverting already established characters, often in fascinating ways. He opened an aesthetic-Pandora’s box with his crude renderings of rugged and gawky heroes. His shtick of him is to make things meaner; his Batman uses guns for instance.
There are, however, different critics and comic readers today. There is a new crowd with clout enough to criticize Miller and be validated. Miller cannot survive today’s fan-galleries as a white Cisgendered man portraying black and brown people, women, and lesbians in whatever style and fashion he chooses.
Things really started changing for Frank Miller when he descended into a period of uncultivated political commentary during the beginning of the new millennium. He dished out his own demons of xenophobia in the graphic novel Holy Terror. Many took a “Miller works in mysterious ways” angle arguing for more understanding of his nuanced political satire from him.
Miller, after all, made popular female and culturally diverse characters like Martha Washington, the African-American freedom fighter from the projects, in Give Me Liberty (1990). Still, Fans mostly agree Miller did a political about-face when he gripped online about Occupy Wall Street. Calling protestors worthless and lazy, he certainly turned away from the power-to-the-people stance expressed in his early books by him.
Miller, however, has always written in bigots whether they be racist, homophobic, and/or sexist. He created a female Robin, a seemingly progressive bend, only to showcase a creepy hug between her and a completely naked Batman in The Dark Knight Returns. The scene is reminiscent of an old habit in Silver Age comics to include scenes of superheroes hugging their youthful and scantily clad female cousins.
Unfortunately, moments like these are Miller reinventing the wheelhouse of the comics patriarchs who once reigned. Miller is hopelessly transparent about the fascist-fanaticism in his work. Sometimes this sets up the progressive camp, that is, if fans do not side with the villains. For instance, in Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child (2019), the Joker and Darkseid endorse Donald Trump as a trustworthy option for POTUS.
Miller is brilliant at creating captivating “baddies.” When he does include a virtuous character like policeman John Hartigan, he puts them through hell. Robert Crumb’s art is chaste compared to Miller’s. Like Crumb, he freely and often intensely fetishizes his non-white, non-Cisgender characters from him.
His gratuitous use of coarse language, and derogative psychosexual imagery (think Bruno, the Joker’s swastika-pastie clad sweetheart in The Dark Knight Returns) has nevertheless captivated fans for decades. Nazism, in fact, has repeatedly been a fodder for comic writers; what separates Frank Miller’s use of the trope resides in his choice of him to remain a lot more ambiguous about it.
Here lies an issue worth debating: was Frank Miller’s art ever sufficiently audited for its precarious themes? Can he not exist as perhaps the Rob Zombie of comics? Is Sin City a Sodom deserving its obliteration from comic creation for its sins of misogyny and homophobia?
Like Atlantic Records recording artist Lizzo says: “why are men great until they got to be great?” Miller’s work once seemed to possess a spirit of progressiveness. I have invested in characters of diverse backgrounds. True diversity in comics, however, requires much more than dropping tokens. Culturally diverse fans must want to consume the stories. And some do, but maybe not enough to keep Frank Miller king of comics.
Julia Halperin of Artnet News thinks consumers of art sometimes have to reconcile “two seemingly incompatible truths.” She responds to comedian Hannah Gadsby’s stand up bit about hating Picasso because he was a misogynist. Halperin argues loathsome flaws of great artists do not always warrant their cancellation.
She says this is something the consumer must decide for themselves, advising the choice to discount artists should be based on who suffers when the work is erased versus who gets hurt when it remains. Many Harry Potter fans facing a similar dilemma decided art is a gift given to an audience and once it is shared it no longer belongs to the artist. It is up to the fans to decide if the gift is worth keeping.
Frank Miller slipped further off his throne when he revealed his new publishing company: Frank Miller Presents. It disappointed many fans to hear he would run the place with Dan DiDio. Being another man accused of chauvinism, DiDio is also sinking in a quicksand of cultural criticism.
The vitriol Miller is receiving signals a new era in comics where characters mirror the folks developing them. popular comics like I Am Batmanand America Chavez, for instance, star characters of color and queer heroes developed by black and LGBTQ+ creators. There is nothing wrong with moving forward and being better.
There is nothing new about some of us feeding our guilty pleasures by devouring stories starring creeps and miscreants. Examples of Halperin’s incompatible truths abound. People are corrupt and this is the marrow of Frank Miller’s kingdom. Still, superheroes are made to be challenged, and it is high time for usurpation of Frank Miller’s throne.
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