Friday, September 15, 2006

Annoyingly Apt

Nota Apologia: This post was originally written on 09/11/2006 but I felt really stupid publishing it on that date. Seriously, would it have been commensurate with the gravity of the day to say "On this somber occasion, I come before you to say that Frank Miller is an over-rated hack!"? No. But it's the weekend now, so maybe its frivolity is a little more tolerable. If you want some 9/11 reflections, please look at our archives from last year at this time. Those statements still stand. Otherwise, enjoy.
That's how SteveG described the whole Hitchens giving the Mencken Day lecture thing. It's also a term I'd use to describe NPR's decision to have Frank Miller deliver today's "This I Believe" essay. It seems somehow fitting that a comic book artist (who's currently engaged in a painful 12 year decline *) would be chosen to commemorate the 5 year anniversary of the first American tragedy of the 21st century and explain again how "9/11 changed everything." These days most of what we get from our current leaders and commentators is comic book sentiment anyway - especially today. It's nice that 9/11 awakened Miller (and many others like him) from his masturbatory fantasies of naked girls, big cars, rugged individualism and violent retribution. It's also somehow fitting that an artist who's speciality is violent retribution manages to come to the conclusion that what's necessary today is more fantasy retribution. And it's sad that he had to breathe in the ashes of his burning city (ain't that just so Milleresque?) in order to appreciate that there's such a thing as collective concerns. But seriously, if you needed exlposions in your streets to alert you to the fact that there's a world out there and a country in here, and that both might need some of your attention or they'll both go to hell, you'll excuse me if I don't take your exhortations to solidarity, patriotism and recognition of an "existential menace" particularly seriously. It's just a tad too much the reaction of a wanna-be tough guy who's just wet the bed.

* While some of my favorite Sin City work did appear after 1994 (That Yellow Bastard, in 1996), 1994 is the year he published his comic adaptation of Atlas Shrugged: Martha Washington Goes To War. Enchantment with Ayn Rand is always the death-knell of artistic sensibility and intellectual engagment. It takes a particular sort of talent (and it helps if your name is John Lydon) to phrase "I got mine so eff you!" in an aesthetically interesting manner. Yet somehow, year after year, people of adolescent temperment (if not actually adolescent themselves) mistake 500 pages of stentorian meandering for artistic expression, and then mistake pretentious justifications of said worldview for a philosophy. I guess no one likes to be considered just plain crass.

For Miller's work, not counting That Yellow Bastard, it just gets worse and worse. Hell and Back is just The Hard Goodbye with a different ending, the less said about Dark Knight Strikes Again the better, and All-Star Batman and Robin is plain hackwork. I think the problem is that Miller really only has one good idea (and it isn't really his): The (mostly) regular guy with a unique sense of honor is placed in a corrupt and threatening urban nightmare (Daredevil's New York, Batman's Gotham, everyone in Sin City). Once placed in this situation, the regular guy constantly finds his unique sense of honor offended and is thus inspired to avenge whatever slights to his honor occur. This avenging is achieved by the regular guy heightening his physical abilities and then beating the shit out of - or shooting - everyone involved in the slights to his honor, and since he's the honorable guy, everything he does is beyond reproach. Yeah, it's the old Noir Schtick and I gotta say I love it. The tension produced between the honorable guy and the world-gone-crazy has endless potential and Miller should be applauded for bringing it successfully to comics.

But it also has downsides. First, if the challenges presented to our regular guy don't tax him mentally as well as physically, then the stories get stuck in an infinite regress of increasing carnage to over-come the readers's increasing carnage tolerance (this is the largest problem with later Sin City). Second, if the challenges posed to our regular guy aren't convincing challenges, then the only story being told is violent revenge and we're back to the infinite regress (this started setting in durring Dark Knight Returns). Third, if the stories don't have any humor, they end up dull (in Miller's case this is another mark of creeping Randroidness; for some reason they always end up totally humorless). Compare anything in Miller's run on Daredevil 25 years ago with late period Sin City or the Martha Washington series and you'll notice that where there was a natural sense of humor at work in Daredevil you'll only find "J O K E S I AM TELLING YOU, THE READER" in the later work. Finally, as in all pop-genres, when the creator starts taking themselves seriously as A Serious Artist the work goes to pot; there's something about becoming ASA that makes you forget you have to work for your audience and instead makes you think the audience is supposed to appreciate Your Seriousness As An Artist, and Miller has been Seriously Artistic for too long.

It's not Miller's fault that he's burnt-out on his chosen genre; it happens to everyone, even the most brilliant (and given how much adulation he got early on, it was probably way too easy to just start coasting on his rep). It's also not his fault that other writers have lately picked up where he left off and done far superior work (Bendis with Daredevil, Rucka and Loeb with various interpretations of Batman, or the 100 Bullets team who also had a great recent run on Batman). Miller was the first, and the innovator deserves props, whatever his future output. And of course, none of this griping should detract from Miller's real enduring contribution to popular culture: Half-naked, death-dealing chicks in spandex.


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