Almost twenty years ago, two comics cast a long shadow over the comic's world. One was WATCHMEN, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's deconstructionist take on superheroes, the other was BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, written and drawn by Frank Miller.
Featuring a dark brooding hero fighting in an even darker world, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS shaped both an entire generation's view of the caped crusader and helped usher in the grim, gritty era of modern comics, where it seemed like every hero was retrofitted to the model Miller and Moore had established.
Frank Miller was born in Maryland in 1957, but grew up farther north in Montplier, Vermont. A voracious reader and comic book fan from an early age, he created his first hand-drawn comic books used hand stapled pages of typing paper when he was six years old. He left comics briefly in his early teens for movies and thrillers, a period that would lay the groundwork for Miller's popular SIN CITY series of graphic novels.
By his late teens, Miller's love of comics had returned in full, and he left his home in Vermont for New York City. Miller spent several years working menial jobs, showing up at Neal Adam's studio and doing occasional fill in work on various comic until a job on SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN helped land him his first major gig.
1979 - Miller's first regular work in comics was as the artist for Marvel's DAREDEVIL. Miller's evolving style, alternately realistic and stylized, was a hit with fans, and Miller rapidly moved into writing the series in addition to performing his art duties.
His long initial run radically changed the status of what had until then been a second rate hero in Marvel's stable. Miller added new dimensions to the origins, giving Daredevil a harder, more street-level feel.
Miller would create a number of popular characters on the book, including all time fan favourite Elektra. Elektra, a ninja-trained assassin and sometime romantic interest for Daredevil, would die later in the run. At the time, it was something of a radical move.
Elektra's death served to illustrate the high stakes and moral ambiguity of the world Miller was building around Daredevil, a theme he would address again when he returned to the character in 1985.
1982 - Miller teamed up with writer Chris Claremont to flesh out the character of X-Man Wolverine in his own mini series. Recasting Wolverine as a modern day ronin, a masterless samurai, the mini series offered a unique and popular look into the history of the mysterious Canuck without actually providing him with an origin.
1983 - Miller moved to DC and returned to the fertile grounds of Japanese history and culture with RONIN, a tale of a samurai from ancient Japan shifted forward to a cyberpunk future to fight a demonic foe.
Although not a masterpiece, RONIN was a milestone because Miller was allowed an almost unprecedented level of creative control over the series. An increased emphasis on the role of the creator has come to be a defining feature of Miller's career, even when he has written for corporate-owned characters. He has been both an outspoken proponent of creator rights and an exemplar of its virtues for much of his career.
1985 - Miller returned to the character that kick started his career when he again took over the writing duties on DAREDEVIL, this time with David Mazzuchelli on art. Their work together produced BORN AGAIN, an arc that redefined the character and pushed the boundaries of what was possible in an ongoing monthly serial.
Miller tore apart the life of hero Matt Murdock, revealing his secret identity to his nemesis and taking away the character's profession, his home, and even his sanity to reveal the roots of what made the character a hero. Miller would produce a similar ground level reappraisal of a character the following year when he took on Batman.
1986 - Miller took on the DC icon twice this year, with BATMAN: YEAR ONE and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, showing readers both the beginning and the end of the Dark Knight's crime fighting life.
In THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Miller presented the audience with a darker, more complex Batman, an aging vigilante who has spent fifteen years in retirement before his demons drive him to put on the cowl again in a Gotham City gone insane in his absence. A chance encounter with two random criminals resurrects the Batman in a dystopian Gotham, when both man and city are well past their prime, but more dangerous than ever before.
YEAR ONE, reuniting Miller with his DAREDEVIL partner Mazzuchelli, retold the origins of Batman, including his training and his initial disastrous foray as a vigilante, and a fresh look at the childhood event that would eventually create the Batman. It also showed a different Gotham City, where costumed freaks had yet to become force, and a corrupt police bedded down with gangsters to control the city.
These two views of the same character, pushing the character back to his origins as a grim obsessed vigilante and showing the darkness and psychological damage that would drive Bruce Wayne to an unending, unrelenting war on crime, are widely regarded as the defining version of the Batman to this day.
1990 - After the success of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Hollywood came calling. Miller accepted a job scripting a sequel to the sci fi picture Robocop. Miller turned in an initial script that included numerous plotlines and big, wild ideas. There were far too many to fit into one movie, as it turned out. By the time that the script made it to the screen, most of what Miller had written had been stripped away, and the finished product bore little resemblance to Miller's intial ideas. Some of the ideas discarded from the script for ROBOCOP 2 were recycled for the third movie in the series.
Working in the movie industry may have been lucrative, but it offered Miller little of the creative control he had fought for in his comics career. Burned out by the Hollywood game, Miller only started work on what would become SIN CITY after a two-year period in which he didn't put pencil to paper.
1991 - Miller wrote and illustrated a black and white story called SIN CITY. Printed in the pages of DARK HORSE PRESENTS, SIN CITY was an ultraviolent hyper-noir story of a hulking hard luck case named Marv, who cuts a wide and bloody swathe through the titular city after being framed for the murder of beautiful hooker named Goldie.
The creator-owned story, drawing from Miller's love of thrillers and mysteries, sprawled over a hundred pages and was the first of seven large volumes of SIN CITY tales. The series allowed Miller to flex artistic muscles in a way he'd never been able to before, with experiments in negative space, decompression, and fractured narratives, all wrapped around violent, engrossing stories about heartbroken heroes and tough dames.
Miller would continue to produce mostly creator owned work through the rest of the 90s, most often through Dark Horse, with works that ranged from futuristic tales of revolution in the Martha Washington series, to a story set in the distant past, the tale of damned Spartans at the Gates of Fire in '300'.
2001 - Fifteen years after his initial foray into the dark future of the dark knight, Miller returned to the story of the aging hero to create a new future for the rest of DC's big guns in THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN.
Initially announced to great fanfare, the series was plagued by delays and production difficulties and was radically different in tone and content from the original series. Although considered by many to be an artistic success, the sequel failed to emulate either the sales or the cultural relevance of the original.
Miller was eventually lured back to Hollywood - or at least to Austin Texas - by DESPERADO director Robert Rodriguez. Miller had resisted bringing SIN CITY, his most personal work, to the big screen for nearly a decade, because he didn't want to see it fall prey to the same kind of creative interference that had plagued the ROBOCOP movies.
Rodriguez, unwilling to take no for an answer, filmed one of the short stories in the BOOZE, BROADS AND BULLETS collection and sent it to Miller, offering to bring him on as a co-director with the same level of control that he'd enjoyed when creating the books. This turned out to be an offer Miller couldn't refuse, and so work on the SIN CITY movie began.
The film arrived in cinemas to rave reviews in 2005, and provides a near exact translation of three SIN CITY graphic novels onto the big screen. Two sequels based on the other SIN CITY books are already in the works.
Miller will again return to the hero he's most associated with when ALL STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN is released later this year. Written by Miller and drawn by fan favourite artist Jim Lee, the highly anticipated title will feature out-of-continuity iconic versions of the classic characters.
NINTH ART RECOMMENDS
BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS: A complex, iconic take on the classic hero, this remains the most celebrated and popular work of Miller's career, and is a must read for anyone who loves the form.
SIN CITY: THE HARD GOODBYE: The first SIN CITY story, recently re-released with this new title, it remains the most straightforward and accessible of them all, and serves as a perfect introduction to what the series is about.
For more on Frank Miller's works, visit Ninth Art's reviews of BATMAN: YEAR ONE, DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN, and ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN.
MILLER ON MILLER
"Occasionally, I'll try a perfect hero, but it's a real stretch for me. I like 'em warts and all, and obsessive and weird. No wonder the superhero I'm most associated with dresses up like a bat." - Frank Miller, The Onion AV Club, December 5, 2001.
Justin Jordan is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.
This article is Ideological Freeware. The author grants permission for its reproduction and redistribution by private individuals on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.
(Article originally appeared at Ninth Art)