Back in the late eighties I think I probably would’ve read a shopping list if Frank Miller had written it. I would’ve paid to read a shopping list if Frank Miller had written it. His work on Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was at that time some of the best comics writing I’d ever read, and they remain amongst my very favourite Batman stories of all time. Seriously, this is work that, if you haven’t read it, you really should go and seek out – it’s awesome. So is his work on Marvel’s Daredevil, the entire run of Sin City and the epic sweep of his Spartan masterpiece 300, which brings us very nearly up to date.
Both his writing and his art excited me – they were like nothing anyone else was doing. Like most trend setters he has been caught up and perhaps even overtaken by people who saw what he was doing and followed his lead. I’m sure that there are many writers and artists who would claim him as an influence,* and his contribution to the medium is unquestionable.
Those of you who know this column well will already be a little suspicious. I am, by nature, a bit of a miserable bastard and it’s unusual for me to be this positive about anyone**. So yeah, I’m telling you all this in case you think I’m just dome kind of anti Miller extremist. However, the tone is likely to be downhill from here. Because as time has gone by I have to say that Miller’s star has been very much in the descendant. In my view 300 was something of a last hurrah. The trend over the last five or ten years has been unrelentingly negative.
I’m not sure what the first sign was. I think it was probably the image of 2000ADs Judge Dredd, commissioned but not used by ‘Tooth to mark a significant anniversary for the character. ‘Tooth declined to use the image, and I understand that there was some acrimony between that august publication and Miller, so I won’t publish it here – but I have seen it, and I suspect that thirty seconds on Google*** will turn it up if you’re really interested.
It’s really bad.
Everything is out of proportion. His feet are massive and the style is scratchy to the point of clumsiness. It looks like he drew it in boxing gloves. Then there was his much anticipated sequel to Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Not only was the art as risible as that ill fated Judge Dredd image, but the plot was pretty ropey too. The man who created two of the most complex and well worked out Batman stories of all time, not to mention what was possibly the definitive version of Daredevil seems to have – literally as well as figuratively – lost the plot completely.
Which brings me to his latest opus – Holy Terror. A landscape format hardcover graphic novel that Miller himself has described on his website as “propaganda” . He doesn’t say what the target of this propaganda is, but from the tenor of everything else he has to say about it, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that he’s targeting Islamic extremists. So far so fine – I have less than no time for any and all religious extremes, and, as I’ve suggested here recently, I’m all for comics being used to take on political agendas. After all, as Miller points out, Captain America punched out Adolf Hitler on the cover of his very first comic – a very political statement indeed in 1940, before the US had entered the war. Comics are brilliant at propaganda and they ought to be used politically more often.
And yet, and yet…
Well, my LCS**** let me flick through a copy the other day, and I’m afraid that this isn’t what I saw. What I saw was something featuring Batman and Catwoman lookie-likey characters snogging a lot, and some vaguely Islamic looking characters in stereotypical turbans waving knives. Oh, and at least two pages of empty panels which I think were intended to symbolise the victims of a terrorist attack.*****
Understand me when I say that I wanted to like this book. I really did. I always do. I still think of myself as a Frank Miller fan and I still look forward to each new release. Of late I’ve been consistently disappointed. Holy Terror is no exception. At least, I think it’s no exception. You see, I flicked through it, but I have not – and almost certainly will never – read it. The mal-proportioned yet strangely derivative art had too great an effect. I could have read it. The truth is, after skimming though the glossy black and white pages, I just couldn’t be bothered. As I skimmed over the – and I’m sorry, but I can’t think of a better description – badly drawn art, I was struck by the overwhelming sense that life was, frankly too short to waste on work this shoddy.
So. I might well be wrong. It’s possible that while I judge the art to be substandard, the plot might well be a work of genius. I’ll never know, because Miller’s work has disappointed me so consistently for so long, I just don’t have the energy to be bothered with it any more. I’m sad about this – it’s that same feeling you get when you go back to a place that was special to you as a child and discover that in fact, from an adult perspective it’s just not very impressive after all.
Except this is worse. Because I can go back to Year One or Dark Knight or Sin City and experience the greatness in all its glory – they are every bit as good now as they were when I first read them. My memories of the stuff I read as a kid are not the result of my childhood naivety or lack of sophistication. They really are as good as I remember. Miller really was a genius. Can that genius really have been lost?
Having read his comments on this latest work it seems to be that Miller was anticipating a negative reaction. On his website he opines that people only complain about propaganda when they don’t agree with it – setting up the defence against criticism that anyone who criticises the book is merely prejudiced by their differing political opinion. Well, I don’t know whether I agree with the position of the book or not, Frank, because I couldn’t bring myself to read it. I guess there’s another reason to complain about propaganda. Yes, people complain about propaganda when they disagree with it. I think we also complain about it when it’s bad.
Please Frank – I speak as a fan. Please, please do better.
*In my own small and inadequate way, I’d be one of them. The inspiration for my own oft spoken of, but thus far never seen comic Sunset was the image from Batman: Year One where the young Bruce Wayne kneels in his parent’s blood after their murder. And yes, I know that Miller didn’t draw that image, but he wrote it.
**Books I’m frequently positive about. I like books. People on the other hand are, by and large, less of a good thing.
***Or other search engine of your choice…
****The very lovely Destination Venus in Harrogate.
*****Actually, as an image, I think that might have worked – it could have been a powerful image.