Recently got into a discussion about Frank Miller with a friend of mine who is majoring in comic book illustration, in a roundabout way. Because Indigo liked the "Sin City" movie, I had sent her a news article about a fan biting the nose of somebody else who had seen it, when they couldn't agree on the movie's merits.
My friend noted that while Miller is held in high esteem in comic book circles, his work suffers from one significant problem: All his protagonists are tough guys with mental issues.
She's right. Miller does specialize in Macho Men with Mental Problems, doesn't he? Batman and Daredevil were relatively clean-cut, respectable heroes until Miller took the reins and started exploring what would possess a millionaire playboy and otherwise happy lawyer to dress up as a bat or in red leather, and go out and start beating people up.
Before "The Dark Knight Returns," Batman was about as dark as Bozo the Clown. The Caped Crusader gig was, at best, something millionaire Bruce Wayne did to hide his double identity as a detective. It also was often a pretty campy thing, not too far removed from the Joel Schumacher movies or the Adam West series. Take a look at the odd villains in the Batman lineup: the Mad Hatter, a character taken right out of Alice in Wonderland; Solomon Grundy, taken from a nursery rhyme; the Penguin, an odd little man with a waterfowl fetish and not so different in appearance from his namesake; the guy, whatshisname, the ventriloquist with the dolls that came to life and control him; the Joker, a criminal prankster based on a playing card; King Tut, and so on.
Jim Starlin, I think, was writing Batman at the time of "The Dark Knight Returns," and his hero is decent enough, but not particularly intense. He's just Bruce Wayne in a suit, and he just keeps going because he's a hero. Miller turned Batman on his ear, and gave the character an edge never seen before. In Miller's treatment, Batman was the real identity; Bruce Wayne was his cover. He wasn't a hero in the classic sense -- he was a man driven by anger and guilt over his parents' deaths, and trying to save them by proxy, by stopping crime in Gotham. Miller gave Batman a disdain for Superman and his simple-minded moral code of salute the flag, follow orders and eat lots of vegetables -- a disdain that would have been unthinkable before -- and completely redefined Batman for all time. Even the villains who appear in "The Dark Knight Returns" -- Two-Face, and the Joker for example -- come out as actual menaces, not as, well, comic book chatacters. Everyone who's written Batman since has been writing -- or trying to write -- Miller's Batman, not Bob Kane's.
Up until last week, the only Miller Daredevil I had read with any great interest was the "Born Again" story arc, now available as a Daredevil Visionaries volume. He's definitely a tough guy with mental issues, but it's an interesting work because it's a story where Miller gives Daredevil's secret identity to the Kingpin, and invests Daredevil with a lot of Christ imagery. "Dark Knight" showed Batman getting back into the swing in middle age; "Born Again" shows Daredevil falling out of the swing and getting run over by a truck. (It also has the single best Avengers cameo I have ever read.) Both treat their heroes as superheroes.
Still, while he might stick with one essential theme, Miller's seminal work on "The Dark Knight Returns" was groundbreaking, for the simple reason that no one up to that point had seriously explored the psyche of a superhero. Miller acknowledged right off the bat that to be a superhero, you had to be obsessive and have some serious unresolved issues. Miller's "Dark Knight" and Alan Moore's "Watchmen" changed the direction of superhero comics for an entire decade, and everyone started to deconstruct superheroes and explore their dark sides, and churn out more and stupider antiheroes. (For this reason alone, most 1990s superhero comics are shit, and worth even less.)
Even "Ronin" continues with the tough guy with mental problems, since the Ronin is essentially the escapist fantasy of what the reader assumes is a minor, unimportant character -- and "Ronin" is also a groundbreaking work. Although Miller uses it to explore a couple ideas he had used earlier in "Daredevil" about a homeless community living in the sewers of New York, "Ronin" represented a completely new artistic style in American comic books, infused with cool greens and other soft colors. It's nowhere near as garishly bright as most superhero comics, and even his pencils are different, though as someone who's a writer and not an artist, I'm not sure I can do it credit in trying to explain. It's, I don't know, softer yet dirtier somehow? He doesn't use as many straight lines, particularly with the people out on the streets of New York and under it, to create the effect of a world in decline and rapidly approaching ruin.
The story itself also is unlike anything previously seen in American comics, and reflects the influence of manga and Japanese storytelling in general, at least a decade before manga started to have as large a presence in American comics as it does today. It's set around a samurai who failed to save his master from death -- thus earning him the disgraced title of ronin -- who is reincarnated into a futuristic New York, where he is battling the demon who slew his master, amid a science fiction backdrop. There's nothing superheroic or Western heroic about the battle at all; it's a private grudge match, and when your average schlob gets involved, he's as likely to get killed as not. (Those average schlobs really add a lot to the story, by the way. They add a lot of color, characterwise.)
When you get down to it, Frank Miller has been one of the most formative voices in American comics in the past 20 or more years. He may have had one principal character whom he kept playing with in different settings, but he's done a tremendous job in the process.