WHAT DOES THE highly educated, left-leaning, middle-aged, lifelong comic book fan do about Frank Miller? We know, of course, that Miller’s depictions of women — particularly in recent years — are sexist and exploitative. We know that since September 11, 2001, some of his work has traded in stereotypes of Muslims only slightly more egregious than those of your average Breitbart commenter’s. And although he has quieted down in recent years, many of us can still remember the vicious anger he expressed toward young leftists involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. I’ve talked to more than one comic book reader around my age about Miller, and we always agree, “Oh, he’s such an ass.” But then, inevitably, we’ll sigh, “But I loved The Dark Knight Returns so much when I was a kid …”
Many of us grew up certain that Miller was not only an artistic genius who changed the way people thought about Batman in the 1980s, but also a champion of artistic freedom and creators’ rights in an industry that had a history of not only censoring itself needlessly but also screwing over creators like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Jack Kirby, and Steve Gerber. Later we were forced to ask ourselves: Had he changed in some way? Had we been wrong about him? Did the problem with his later work and attitudes cast a shadow on the earlier work that we had enjoyed so much?
These are the types of questions that Paul Young wrestles with in Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism, which focuses on Miller’s groundbreaking 1979–1983 run on the Marvel Comics title. Young is about eight years older than I am, so he recalls Miller’s initial Daredevil stories as an important event of his youth. I, on the other hand, first encountered Miller’s Daredevil work with his follow-up Daredevil story line Born Again, released in 1986, and to be honest, his Batman work for DC (The Dark Knight Returns and Year One) probably had more of an impact on me — although I now think his Daredevil work is stronger and more interesting.
But despite those slight differences in our experiences of Miller’s work, I find myself largely in agreement with Young’s reflections in his hybrid work of scholarship and memoir. Like Young, I am angered by the “wretched” gender politics of much of Miller’s recent work and the bigotry on display in his widely (though appropriately) reviled “propaganda gore-fest” Holy Terror. And like Young, I also wonder if perhaps there might be hope that this artistic hero of my youth could redeem himself. “I worry about him,” Young writes. “I want my Frank Miller back.” Of course, Young knows there was never a “Paul Young’s Frank Miller” as surely as I know — deep down — that there was never a “William Bradley’s Frank Miller.” But I can understand and empathize with the aging fanboy delusion just the same.
A lot changed in the United States after 9/11, including the fact that pop culture figures with the last name Miller seemed to have embraced hateful, authoritarian politics. Comedian Dennis Miller abandoned his smirky, left-leaning hipster libertarian act in order to embrace the excitement of the War on Terror and the policies of President George W. Bush. Miller eventually accepted a slot as a commentator on The O’Reilly Factor, and those of us who first watched Saturday Night Live growing up in the late 1980s were stunned to find that the answer to the question, “What can I tell ya?” had apparently become, “What’s wrong in Iraq, quite frankly, is that we’re not brutal enough to the insurgents.” As for Frank Miller, his 2011 Holy Terror was called “one of the most appalling, offensive and vindictive comics of all time” in a Wired review that described it as “a screed against Islam, completely uninterested in any nuance or empathy toward 1.2 billion people he conflates with a few murderous conspiracy theorists.”
At around the same time Holy Terror was released, Miller also wrote a now-infamous blog post slamming the United States’s youth culture in general and Occupy Wall Street protesters in particular, writing:
Wake up, pond scum. America is at war against a ruthless enemy. Maybe, between bouts of self-pity and all the other tasty tidbits of narcissism you’ve been served up in your sheltered, comfy little worlds, you’ve heard terms like al-Qaeda and Islamicism.
And this enemy of mine — not of yours, apparently — must be getting a dark chuckle, if not an outright horselaugh — out of your vain, childish, self-destructive spectacle. In the name of decency, go home to your parents, you losers. Go back to your mommas’ basements and play with your Lords Of Warcraft [sic].
It is tempting, given this track record, to dismiss Frank Miller completely. Looking back at some of his earlier work in recent years, I’ve become at least partially convinced that some of his wrongheaded political convictions may have been subtly on display even during my youth. For instance, at the end of The Dark Knight Returns, Batman seems to “go Galt,” heading underground with an army of violent teenagers that he can train to force his own ideas about justice on the American citizenry.
Young acknowledges this temptation to write off Miller early in his book. Explaining his project, he presents the reaction of a critical, imaginary reader:
Frank Miller? Frank Miller?! There’s nothing redeemable about his work anymore, if there ever was. His Batman stories justify taking the law into one’s own hands as violently as possible. Sin City is openly misogynistic, and considering the castrating monster he made of Daredevil’s soul mate/archvillain Elektra, there’s little cause to wonder whether that misogyny drives even his early work. 300, his account of the Spartans’ heroic defeat at Thermopylae, is as xenophobic regarding their Persian enemies as the Spartans were themselves. What’s to be gained from an analysis of his early Daredevil run besides confirmation of what we already know?
Having raised these issues, however, Young insists — effectively, I think — that now is exactly the right time to think about young Miller’s work, if for no other reason than that many of us who find his recent attitudes offensive but grew up with these early career comics find that “those Daredevil panels have proven impossible to ditch.” To suggest that Miller should never have been respected is to reinvent the medium’s past in order to support the current distaste many of us hold for the man.
Miller was celebrated for Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns not because people were just stupider in the 1980s (or because only unsophisticated children read his stuff), but because he produced genuinely interesting, often groundbreaking work. It might be more convenient for many of us if we could prove it wasn’t so, but deep down, I think a lot of us realize that we simply can’t. Whether you were a young fan discovering comics for the first time, or a lifelong collector with an encyclopedic knowledge of the form and its history, Frank Miller’s superhero comics showed you an approach to the genre that you’d never seen before. This remains true no matter how many times he now expresses his hatred of Muslims or calls people on the left “pond scum.”
For those unfamiliar with the character — or familiar with him only from the Netflix series — Daredevil is a superhero created by writer Stan Lee and artist Bill Everett in 1964. Without his mask on, he is Matt Murdock, a lawyer blinded as a child by some of the radiation that was ubiquitous in Lee’s scripts of the 1960s. Though Murdock has lost his sight, the radiation has enhanced his other senses, making him able to hear and touch and smell the world far more acutely than an ordinary man. Murdock had previously promised his father — a boxer killed by the mobster appropriately named the Fixer after failing to throw a fight — that he would renounce violence and become a respectable middle-class citizen. He does go to law school and become a successful lawyer. But he also discovers a loophole in his promise, donning the Daredevil’s mask to fight crime in Hell’s Kitchen.
Many of the pre-Miller Daredevil comics were forgettable, although they were written by Marvel’s stable of reliable journeyman scripters such as Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway, and Jim Shooter. The most notable artwork prior to Miller’s run was provided by Wally Wood, who designed the all-red costume the character is most often associated with (and which, I think we can all agree, suggests “devil” more than the garish red and bright yellow the character originally wore). I think most readers at the time would probably say that this character was fine, if a bit bland. It seemed like writers were always trying to figure out what do with him, mostly construing him as a sort of blind Spider-Man who swung around the city fighting evil in reaction to a male authority figure’s death. But Daredevil lacked Spider-Man’s charm, and his villains such as Stilt-Man and The Owl were nowhere near as compelling as Dr. Octopus or the Green Goblin. I imagine kids shrugging at their convenience store’s spinning rack and thinking, “Meh. He’ll do,” if they couldn’t find a new issue of Fantastic Four or Captain America. But by all accounts, the character was nobody’s favorite, and his sales began to slump significantly in the 1970s. The series shifted from monthly to bimonthly status, often a prelude to outright cancellation.
This all changed when Miller arrived on the scene. Miller started out penciling writer Roger McKenzie’s scripts, and his unconventional, expressive style began to attract more readers’ attention. Frustrated with the series’s low sales but recognizing Miller’s potential, Marvel eventually turned the writing duties over to Miller as well. From there, the series — while still featuring characters in costumes — shifted its focus from superhero adventure to crime drama with the occasional moments of black comedy. Rather than fighting robots or standard bank-robbing supervillains, Daredevil’s rogues gallery narrowed to three characters: a vicious, mentally unstable version of his old nemesis Bullseye; his former lover-turned-assassin Elektra; and the massive, deadly Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime.
Miller’s run as writer and artist (with growing assistance from inker and eventually penciller Klaus Janson) caught readers’ attention, and demand rose high enough that the series was reestablished as a monthly. While the book still met the restrictive expectations of the Comics Code Authority, Miller offered a comic book that was darker, more intense, and more “adult” than fans had been used to. Years later, Alan Moore would earn fame and comic industry awards for taking over the low-selling series Swamp Thing for Marvel’s rival DC Comics, and turning the story of a slimy monster protagonist into a vehicle for Lovecraftian horror and existential speculation. But Miller beat him to the punch, turning Daredevil into a running crime narrative invoking Mickey Spillane and Don Pendleton. Fans loved it.
Although Miller revisited Daredevil and his supporting characters a few times in the 1980s and once in the ’90s, Young focuses primarily on Miller’s initial run. This makes sense for a variety of reasons. These early works were, after all, the works that most affected Young during his childhood — by the time Born Again (1986) or The Man Without Fear (1993) were released, Young was older, perhaps a bit more sophisticated, and not quite as overwhelmed with awe and obsession as he had once been. Furthermore, while Miller’s writing on the later work was frequently more polished than that in the earlier run, he did not provide the art for those later stories. Born Again featured the polished line work of David Mazzucchelli (who subsequently went on to write and draw the critically acclaimed 2009 graphic novel Asterios Polyp), and The Man Without Fear was drawn by Marvel legacy artist John Romita Jr. Neither artist indulged in the weird, experimental, fascinating approach to visual storytelling that Miller himself demonstrated during his initial run. (Of all Miller’s collaborators, perhaps only Bill Sienkiewicz, whose surrealistically inflected art accompanies Miller’s writing on the 1986–’87 miniseries Elektra: Assassin, approaches his bold strangeness.)
Miller’s initial run on Daredevil constitutes his purest vision for Marvel. If this early run shows him still cutting his teeth as a writer, it also shows him as an artist beginning to develop a style that would become extremely influential in superhero comics. Aside from The Dark Knight Returns and perhaps his limited series Ronin, there really isn’t any work from the 1980s that shows us unadulterated Miller quite so clearly.
Young divides his book into four sections: an introduction; four analytical chapters; a segment called “Interlude” in which Young imagines a discussion with his younger self, who is obsessed with Miller’s Daredevil; and a conclusion in which he discusses Miller’s larger body of work, his public comments, and his increasingly alienating work and ideas.
Of these sections, I found the analytical chapters most intriguing, though that could be because the information discussed in the introduction and conclusion weren’t really new to me — though I did appreciate Young’s personal reflections in these chapters, as he considers what Miller’s work meant and continues to mean to him. There is nothing exactly wrong with the “Interlude” section, except I frequently had trouble remembering if it was the highly intelligent boy or the nostalgic man talking in certain sections, and I found myself wishing we could go back to hearing Young’s adult voice talking about his youthful self rather than to it. As someone who has taught a number of undergraduate creative nonfiction classes, I have frequently read the work of students trying to write in their childhood voices, and such an approach has always seemed a little forced to me, less natural or real than the author’s actual, current language and perceptions — even when she is explaining what she now thinks about her youth.
That’s not to say that Young’s “Interlude” section lacks interesting, authentic writing. I was particularly struck by his reflection on his young self and the Man Without Fear’s Christian faith. (The section is subtitled “Daredevil vs. The Catechism.”) This is largely based on some personal connections, no doubt: Matt Murdock was raised Catholic, just as I was, whereas Young is the child of a Midwestern Lutheran pastor, just as my wife is. While the two faiths are not quite the same (I defy any hot-dish-eating Lutheran to fully understand the guilt that both Matt Murdock and I were steeped in), both faiths are liturgical. Their weekly services center around communion. Both have congregations that study a history not just of their savior, but of the faith itself. Different as they might be, I was comfortable enough with their similarities — and frustrated enough with Joseph Ratzinger — that I was willing to convert from one to the other when I married my wife. So Young’s decision to associate his own religious experience with the experience of Miller’s protagonist makes sense to me.
Perhaps more important in this context, neither faith would lend its support to a vigilante, particularly one as violent as Daredevil, who fights ninjas and organized crime lords on their own terms and eventually paralyzes his foe Bullseye in a gruesome, merciless battle. Yet it’s hard to say that pacifism and turning the other cheek are necessarily the right choices either. As young Young asks his older self, “So who’s guiltier here: the mass murderer or the guy who mangles him for life on purpose?” Young goes on to enquire,
What does it even mean to be a Christian when you’re in a situation like that? Does it mean saving this guy, the same guy you saved before who then went on to kill what seems like hundreds of innocent people and probably even more who weren’t so innocent? Or does it mean saving all the people he would kill if he had another chance? I don’t know if either one counts as a Christian decision.
As thoughtful as these reflections are, though, I found Young’s analytic chapters more interesting, with numerous insights into comic book writing and art. Too often, it seems to me that people who write about comics — and, honestly, Frank Miller’s comics in particular — tend to focus on the writing and gloss over the art, throwing in a reference or two from Scott McCloud to establish their visual bona fides. This is understandable: literature scholars still dominate the study of comics. Young, though, is a scholar of film and media studies: he knows the value of imagery and, more importantly, he knows the value of Miller’s imagery. He is able to recognize and explain exactly what made Miller’s work so intense and groundbreaking. It wasn’t, he convincingly argues, the ninjas or the romantic intrigue or the hardboiled dialogue, which can be as flat and clichéd as Spillane’s. As guest-starring antihero the Punisher observes about drug dealers at one point, “Those men are filth — peddling their poison to the weak, the lost, the innocent. Their kind have much to pay for. Much.” Young notes, however, that when the Punisher speaks those lines in Daredevil 182, he is smiling, and that that visual choice makes the moment much more powerful than it might have been.
Even more important than Miller’s finished visuals, Young argues, are his choices in terms of layout — the placement of elements in (and sometimes outside of) panels. Marvel artists had made bold stylistic decisions before Miller, of course: both Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko created groundbreaking and dynamic panels. But most other superhero comic book artists were content to indulge in fairly simplistic layout choices, or at best to ape Kirby and Steranko’s innovations. Miller’s work, by contrast, displayed less loyalty to Kirby or other superhero artists, and more interest in exploring how other artistic choices might work in a story about a costumed crime fighter.
Perhaps most impressive, in this regard, is Miller’s homage to Bernard Krigstein’s famous story “Master Race,” which appeared in EC Comics’s 1955 series Impact. As Young demonstrates, Miller, in an issue of the series devoted to the fairly well-trod ground of retelling the hero’s origin, eschewed the superhero genre’s traditional larger-than-life, fast-action-oriented layouts in order to slow things down and explore the sort of tense, frightening pace that Krigstein had constructed 30 years earlier. The result is a superhero origin story like most readers had probably never seen.
I confess that I was familiar with both “Master Race” and “Exposé,” Miller’s Daredevil origin story, but I had never connected them to each other. After reading Young’s analysis, I wound up grabbing my copies of both stories, rereading them, and then wondering how I had never noticed the similarities before. I suspect it has something to do with my own attention to language rather than image — an attention that is, as I have said, common among even (or perhaps especially) the most educated of comic book fans. For its commitment to looking at and explaining artistic choices and their significance alone, Young’s book is worthwhile. Young makes it clear that no matter what we think of Miller now, we have to acknowledge that the man made some extremely bold, genre-bending choices. His early work, Young successfully proves, changed the game.
Of course, that brings us to the question that began this review essay — what are we to make of Miller now? Young gives his own decision in his final chapter. It may seem odd to want to avoid a spoiler for a book of scholarship, but I’m inclined not to share it. I for one found myself growing curious, reading the book, about where Young would wind up on the issue. This is central to the value of the book: part of what makes Young’s book so readable and compelling is the knowledge that, underneath all of the analysis, there is a highly intelligent man who knows the boy he was, struggling to figure out what to make of this creator whose early work meant — and continues to mean — so much to him. So I’m not giving away the ending. I will tell you, though, that the final sentence in the final chapter made me think, “Huh!”
Frank Miller’s Daredevil has also inspired me to look at more of Miller’s recent work, which may or may not have been one of Young’s intentions. To prepare for this review, I revisited Miller’s Daredevil work — all of it — and it is indeed good, for the reasons Young explores and more. I could write a totally different essay explaining why I think all comic book fans — and not just superhero fans — should read Miller’s Daredevil stories, including the ones he didn’t draw himself. I didn’t expect to get this excited about Miller’s early work, which he started releasing before I started preschool and which I had read a long time ago, but I did. And now I want to look at more of his work. Not the Batman stuff I’ve already read plenty of times, but the stuff I read once and tossed aside, or the stuff that I decided I wanted to avoid. The later Sin City work. 300. Even, God (or Allah) help me, Holy Terror. Miller has also co-written — but not drawn — another series in his Dark Knight saga. Maybe I’ll start there.
I am not optimistic about any of these things. But my recent consideration, with Young’s help, of Miller’s early work has the delusional fanboy inside me once again hoping for the return of “his” Frank Miller, unreasonable and unrealistic as that hope may be.