(This post is presented in conjunction with 4thletter's "Booze, Broads & Bullets" week. Although this is intended to present a more critical eye on Miller's work and his contributions to the medium, it is nevertheless an honest attempt to come to a better understanding of the man's significance and appeal. Although I certainly comprehend the former I've never entirely satisfied myself as to the latter, and therefore I offer this essay in the spirit - to borrow a phrase from another prominent blogger - of polite dissent. Later in the week, time permitting, I will move from these general remarks to a closer examination of those works which I believe best reward closer scrutiny: late 80s milestones Born Again, Year One and Elektra: Assassin.)
Frank Miller is inevitable: you can't talk about contemporary superhero comics without grappling with Miller's central importance to the field. The only other figure in this corner of the medium who comes close to matching the same degree of influence these last thirty years is Alan Moore, but Moore's most significant works produced after the 80s have by and large been too recondite and cerebral for easy digestion. By which I mean, if it was easy for the industry to absorb a few facile surface tricks from the narrative structure and moral casuistry of Watchmen, it's another thing entirely to imagine From Hell or the aborted Big Numbers or even Promethea having much of an influence on the day-to-day functioning of superhero comics as a popular medium or phenomena (JH Williams III's enduring popularity notwithstanding - he would have easily found success without Moore's imprimatur). This is, of course, exactly as Moore wishes. Not so with Miller: for better or for worse, he's never abandoned the mainstream. Even in the 90s when it seemed as if he had given up on "mainstream" comics in favor of independents, it was only ever a feint. Sin City and 300 were, as it turned out, even more mainstream than Superman - it just took a few years for the rest of the industry to catch up to this realization. A better comparison might be Mike Mignola, but I think it's easier to make the case for the limited nature of Mignola's contributions: he's influential but by no means dominant. As base a denominator as it may seem, it is informative to examine just how easily Miller's properties have found success in the world of mainstream films. Sin City and especially 300 were massively popular, whereas Hellboy, despite its fervent cult and two semi-successful films, has never been able to break out of the basement of b-level, left-of-mainstream pop culture artifacts.
Miller's box-office clout is telling. (We'll sidestep any discussion of The Spirit on the grounds that the disparity between Miller's eccentric conception of the Spirit and the character's actual genesis were probably disparate enough to account for the bewilderment with which the film was received.) His stories and the ways in which he tells his stories are instantly adaptable to film. The argument could certainly be made that this is because Miller's stories are themselves already instantly identifiable. His stories, in any event, are hardly original - in fact, most of his stories are so familiar as to barely count as stories, more like archetypal templates. His technique, such as it is, is simply shameless: he knows how to tell these stories in the most directly effective way possible. That is to say, he lays out his ingredients and proceeds to give his audience exactly what they want, over and over again, in such a blatant fashion that it overleaps base pandering to become the central theme around which his entire oeuvre revolves.
After decades of reading Miller, I do not believe that the man possesses so much as a single grain of insight into human character, more than a thumbnail understanding of politics or society, or even a base theoretical comprehension of women and their interior lives. His worldview is customarily infantile, occasionally rising to the level of juvenile. His preoccupations are, therefore, those of infants and juveniles: I am tempted to say violence, sex and masculinity, but those neutral words imply far too much in the way of gravitas in reference to what are mostly merely stories about guns, babes and tough guys. But his limitations - which are many - in themselves say little as to why exactly his work has struck such a long and sustained tone in popular culture. It's easy to dismiss a polarizing figure like Miller, harder to grapple with why exactly his work remains perennially popular and enduringly influential.
Miller's great formal innovation can be found in his attitude to genre: he possesses an instinctual understanding of how genre operates. Genre in popular culture is defined as a series of expectations. Every genre carries its expectations on its sleeve: the wider the genre, the fewer the expectations and the looser the observations; the smaller the genre, the more copious the catalog of required elements, and the more stringent their observance. Sin City is less a crime story than a story about crime stories, predicated on the audience's intimate familiarity with crime tropes and noir customs. I bristle at calling Sin City noir - more like faux noir - because, ultimately, it is far too cynical a work in concept and execution. Noir is almost romantic in its adherence to a vision of the naive man in direct conflict with nature / fate / the cruel caprices of a deterministic universe*. Miller's noir carries a sense of unreality which is continually reemphasized by its over-the-top, fantastical elements. (For all the work's pretense of being crime stories, the characters in Sin City nevertheless have the improbable abilities and exaggerated grotesqueness of superhero characters.) There's nothing naturalistic at all in Miller's noir, rather, the deliberate cobbling together or so many familiar and familiarized elements cannot but create an intensely, deliberately synthetic atmosphere. It's meant to seem familiar, because the stories' appeal comes not from novelty but the conscious recitation of the known. Sin City would be meaningless without prior familiarity with the genre markers on display. That the tropes of noir and crime fiction have become so well-known and popularly disseminated during the previous half-century works to Miller's favor: a very broad audience was able to understand Sin City as pastiche, even if younger audience members had never read Raymond Chandler or even heard the name. But pastiche without implicit critique or comment is empty and cynical, blank parody trading on the audience's prior familiarity to impart meaning to what is essentially meaninglessness.
The Dark Knight Returns, for all its acclaim, has always seemed strangely flat and affectless for me, and it's taken me years to figure out exactly why. Because Dark Knight is presented as (a version of) the "ultimate" Batman story, it follows a very conservative structure and unfolds its elements with tactical precision. Miller understands the expectations readers bring into Batman stories - at this date a fairly large genre unto themselves - and he sets about fulfilling these expectations. This translates into a shopping list stacked with every possible cool Batman "moment" conceivable, all stapled to the old workhorse of the "Old Man's Last Ride" plotline, which you may recognize from such popular entertainments as Unforgiven (The Dark Clint Returns), Old Man Logan (The Dark Logan Returns), The Shootist, (The Dark Duke Returns), etc etc. It's one of the oldest tricks in the book (seriously, check out Tennyson's "Ulysses" if you don't believe me), and the reason it always gets recycled is that it almost always works, even in the hands of the most ham-fisted practitioner. (Well, there was that Reign thing which didn't work out to well.)
Miller, for all that, is a pretty good hand, so he hits all his marks. He gives people the best Batman bits they always wanted, and even a few they never knew they wanted: sure, you've got Batman almost finally killing the Joker, but you've also got Batman kicking Superman's ass; Batman laying waste to hordes of faceless street gangs (the ultimate personification of dread in Reagan's 80s); Batman riding a horse through the streets of a post-apocalyptic Gotham city as the ultimate personification of order. The reason Dark Knight falters in the final estimation - despite it's impressive critical pedigree - is that despite Miller's considerable formal acumen (no flies on his technique!), it's really quite a hollow book. What's it about? It's about Batman, it's a Batman story about Batman stories, dependent on an understanding of how Batman stories work in order to achieve its effect of inverting or amplifying all the customary Batman beats. Everyone who grew up on 1960s Batman and picked up Dark Knight cold probably had their "minds blown" because they never imagined Adam West going buck wild and tearing into a gang of muddy street punks with a Sherman tank. He sure knew how to make those "moments" count.
But you can't take Dark Knight seriously, certainly not in comparison to a genuinely thought-provoking work such as Watchmen (to which it is invariably compared), or even lesser achievements such as Squadron Supreme or Marshal Law. it doesn't "say" anything about anything other than the subject of Batman, and Batman is just too limited a palette with which to paint any kind of convincing critique of society that doesn't ultimately devolve back onto an acceptance of radical libertarianism as the final arbiter of personal responsibility in a faltering civic society. Otherwise, we are left with a story that tells us with a straight face that in the face of a societal breakdown in which law and order have dissolved, the true leader is the violent vigilante who purports to mete out justice from a position of absolute moral clarity. If a vigilante can lay tenable claim a position of moral authority, then he is naturally suited to usurp the role of government in the moment of crisis. It is, prima facia, an absurd position for any but the most strident reactionary to adopt, and yet this is the position in which Miller finds himself tied in trying to make coherent "sense" of Batman. By constructing such a consciously teleological view of Batman, he succeeds only too well: he constructs an "ultimate" Batman that pulls the character to his natural terminus and beyond, to the point where he simply doesn't work anymore without raising too many problematic questions. It's no coincidence that Dark Knight's success has birthed generations of poor-to-bad Batman comics**, as successive creators working with the character have taken Miller's formula and applied it wholesale to ongoing continuity. Which doesn't work, because you can only have one "ultimate" Batman story before the immensity of all the portent and thematic sturm und drang crushes the franchise entirely.
More to come.
* "Here we must observe that this harmony which is so eagerly contemplated by modern man, in fact, this oneness with nature, to express which Schiller introduced the technical term 'naive,' is by no means such a simple, naturally resulting and, as it were, inevitable condition, which must be found at the gate of every culture leading to the paradise of man." Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
** This should not be taken to imply that pre-Miller Batman comics were some sort of antedeluvian paradise, but I'll take Bob Haney over Chuck Dixon any day.