Thursday, April 14, 2011

WTF Happened to Frank Miller?

Remember the late 90’s sitcom trend of parents failing to correctly use  the youth lingo? They would hopelessly use words like “hip” and “groovy” when giving their teenage children the low down on the birds and the bees. Kids would roll their eyes, say “oh, Dad” while the laugh track would mock him. From the release of The Dark Knight Strikes Again to present day, Frank Miller has turned himself into the lame dad of the comic book world. He keeps attempting to captivate them with a hardcore Batman, but has lost all touch with what younger generations find interesting.

By now, most people know who he is--writer/artist of Sin City, The Dark Knight Returns and 300.  In the early 80’s he was one of the first to start writing “gritty” comics. He redefined Daredevil, The Punisher, and Batman. From 1991-1998, he was, in my opinion, the best comic book creator alive. His comics mixed heroism with exaggerated action, hard-boiled cynicism, and wit. Characters took equal time thinking of clever ways to conquer goals as they did physically pummeling enemies. With Sin City, Miller created a distinct, high contrast, art style that was unique in comics.  The hard crisp lines separating black from white were nearly devoid of the typical 90’s comic book crosshatching that made Jim Lee famous.

Something changed in 1997 with Sin City: Family Values, or slightly before.   His sense of goofy humor began crawling into inappropriate moments of his testosterone drenched Sin City world. For the first time, humor trumped the noir tone. For some reason, Miller thought it would be a good idea for Miho, an assassin, to roll around on roller blades for the entire comic.  Miller’s previous Dwight storyline, The Big Fat Kill, balanced humor and action more effectively. His art, also, was noticeably diminished from his previous books. Family Values lost most of Miller’s hard black and white compositions and introduced scribbly cross-hatching.  The main character, Dwight, no longer wore the hard outlined trench coat. Miller replaced it with a knee-length fur coat with a loosely scribbled silhouette. Miller began drawing faces with lines that contoured the natural lines of the face, giving his characters the weathered appearance of characters beyond their years. It’s the cardinal rule of shading faces: each line adds a year to character’s life.  Comic book artists usually shade faces with straight lines that cannot be mistaken for wrinkles. The same way Miller did in the 80s.

Miller created several quality comics for the next few years (even with his new, looser style), including the wonderful 300 in ‘98 and, to a lesser extent, Sin City: Hell and Back in ‘99.  That all fell apart in 2001 with the release of The Dark Knight Strikes Again, or as DC marketers pompously called it, DK2.  The goofy title should have been a warning sign. Frank Miller said in an interview that he wanted to make the comic have more of a cartoony feel.  I didn’t like this idea, considering the first Dark Knight book had a forlorn, gloomy tone. Still, I thought, there could be hope. “Cartoony” made me think of Rick Burchett’s clean crisp lines in Batman Adventures or Frank Quitely’s minimalist but precise artwork in All Star Superman. Miller gave us neither. We were exposed to the worst art I’ve ever seen in a professionally made comic book, surpassing the previous champion crap-pile of Mitch Byrd’s pencils in Generation X 23.  Miller must have a different interpretation of “cartoony” than I do, because DK2 looked like a thirteen year old got a box of crayons and tried to draw like Frank Miller. And then got bored. And then started doodling.

I first noticed how inconsistent and sloppy the inks were. Miller didn’t even pretend to make contour outlines of characters.  They had jagged starts and halts with inconsistent thickness.  John Romita Sr. once shared inking tips with Wizard magazine. He demanded that inkers control the thickness of their lines. It could be crucial to the illusion of depth and making the foreground distinguishable from the background. Miller had been able to abide by this for the past thirty years.  All of the sudden, he was either incapable or too lazy to bother.  His lines strayed off characters’ bodies like loose threads. One internet review of the comic generously labeled the art as “hastily drawn.”  I would call it a big pile of shit.

Characters’ limbs and appendages changed size. Their hands would increase or decrease in size depending on how much time Miller took to draw them. Same with feet and heads. For instance, look at the size of Batman’s hands in these panels below.

According to the perspective of his stance in the top panel, his left hand should be smaller than his right.  It is obviously larger. It’s also TWO AND A HALF TIMES the size of his head.  By the way, he’s also punching on Superman there, who’s splotchy and shadowed for no apparent reason.  Frank Miller also seems to have decided that being beaten up makes you look like you spilled an ink well on your face.

What about this?

Wonder Woman’s thighs belong to Kathy Bates and she looks like a transvestite. The laces on her forearms don’t match the angle of her arm. And what is up with her triceps becoming one with her torso?  

He correctly determined that he couldn’t draw hands, so he frequently hides them in this book. Sometimes Miller doesn’t want to draw hands or feet, so he hides them behind truly awful artwork.

Miller doesn’t even bother to make sure he doesn’t accidentally ink the torso over the top of an arm.

Then we have the worst drawing of the Joker ever.

I just don’t know what to say about that one--moving on.

How about the man of steel when he’s not a giant ink blot? Still sucks.

This too, is so bad that it could pass without comment. I’m just not going to let it. Superman looks 80 years old and Japanese, he has a 24 inch waist, once again, an arm becomes a torso at the bicep, and the fingers on his left hand don’t match the angle of his hand.

Look at Robin’s forearms in the first panel.

Hell, look at any panel. The art makes Rob Liefeld look good.

Most cartoony comics have distinct colors to make up for the lack of shading. Lynn Varley’s colors are muted and dull. I feel bad for ragging on her, though. She didn’t have much to work with. Still, I see colorists like Edgar Delgado elevate all the artwork they touch.

This page from DK2 also exemplifies the worst writing in comic books. It’s goofy, like the rest of the story.  Anything that Miller thought would be cool was so obviously awful, I’m surprised DC’s editor didn’t cancel the book at the script’s first draft.
I’ve been holding out hope that my beloved Frank Miller would pull himself out of the creative tailspin he’s been in for the past decade or so.  It hasn’t happened and, worse, he’s degenerating. Frank Miller has stayed afloat by retreading the glory of his 80s and 90s creation, getting royalties from his reprinted comics, selling film rights to his comics, and doing one-shots on characters he perfected decades ago like Daredevil and Batman.  He has since forgotten how to write Batman, as proven in the awful All-Star Batman and Robin, which was cancelled before it was finished. It was supposed to come back this spring after a two year hiatus, but I haven’t heard anything.
All Star Batman and Robin has a moment where Batman cackles with laughter. That’s right, cackles. Once you let that sink in, Robin makes the comment “He may be faking that voice, but his laughter still creeps the crap out of me.” As bad as that line sounds, it’s actually worse.  I don’t need to dwell on how artificial “creeps the crap out of me” sounds, so I’ll move on to the context. What does he mean “still”? It’s not like Robin ever mentions being creeped out beforehand and Batman doesn’t commonly go around cackling like a madman.  And the whole idea of Batman creeping someone out with a laugh was stolen from Batman the Animated Series when he does it to freak out Harley as a stalling tactic. It is not and never should be a character trait as Miller made it.
In an earlier page, when Robin doesn’t know who Batman is, Batman answers: “What are you dense? Are you retarded or something? Who the hell do you think I am? I’m the goddamn Batman.” This is not the tough-love mentor we know in love. He’s a petty, mean-spirited asshole.
Other than the pathetic attempt to overwrite the Batman he helped to create in Batman: Year One, which removed every ounce of camp from the Adam West era and transformed Batman into the Dark Knight we could appreciate, Miller has tried his hand at directing.  Which actually pisses me off more than it should.  For Sin City (2005), Robert Rodriguez kept as close to the comic books as possible while Frank Miller in his “co-director” status, helped actors become his characters. I greatly enjoyed Sin City, but it replaced the tone of the comic with camp. This was the first time in 20 years that Miller had let his work be adapted to another medium.  He said it was because the Hollywood process had destroyed his ideas in the past and he didn’t want to put up with it anymore (Robocop 2 & 3).  Makes sense. However, his next directorial project was to adapt Will Eisner’s The Spirit.  Miller did exactly what he hated about his previous film efforts--he took someone else’s idea and destroyed it, changed it to fit his own style and ignored the creator’s intent.  Eisner is a legend whose image is fiercely defended by rabid comic book fundamentalists. It’s not like we wouldn’t notice how much the movie sucked. I also checked out Frank Miller’s storyboards for The Spirit because it’s the only art he’s done in about five years, not counting a few pin-ups in the backs of his friends’ comics.  The Spirit artwork is awful and it pretty much only consists of guys shooting at the camera with two guns.

From 2001 until this day, I’ve wondered if Frank Miller has a medical condition, because his art has taken a stylistic turn for the worse, much like Picasso’s.  It’s sloppy. It’s inconsistent. It’s lazy--as if he were trying to avoid the most difficult details and distort the human form so much that we wouldn’t realize he could no longer draw it with consistent precision. In the most recent months, his hollowed cheek bones might also indicate an illness.  As a human, I certainly hope he’s just being a lazy artist, because that can be corrected.  But his work has meant so much to me for so long, that a part of me wants it to be beyond his control, just because I’d hate for these last ten years to be the lasting impression he gives a generation of comic readers.