Frank Miller’s Return To Batman Comics
Frank Miller is one of the most influential writers in comic book history. His influence on the medium began in the 1980’s and is still being felt to this day. Along with other writers of the period such as Denny O’Neil, Paul Dini, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, Miller helped usher in an age of mature storytelling in superhero comics. Miller’s work was crucial in demonstrating super hero comics could be an avenue for more adult stories. He helped to redefine Marvel’s Daredevil and brought gritty noir to life with Sin City stories. His greatest achievement however, was helping to bring back Batman to his dark and gritty roots with the dystopian tale The Dark Knight Returns.
This graphic novel told the narrative of an aging Bruce Wayne who returns to his costumed duties to combat a Gotham with crime on the rise. This story not only set the standard for Batman comics, it paved the way for other adaptions such as Tim Burton’s 1989 film and the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series by Bruce Timm. It helped redefine superheroes much in the same vein as Alan Moore’s Watchmen, with the backdrop of the Cold War to bring these characters further into reality. Frank Miller has obviously had a great deal of influence on popular culture. So why has news of his returning to do another sequel to his classic storyline been met with so much controversy among fans and critics? Here, we shall be taking a look at what we may expect from Miller’s return to Batman.
The Positive Influence
Before we can discuss what we may come to expect from Miller’s return to this character, we must first take a look at how much influence Miller had in more detail. Miller’s distinctive style is heavily entrenched in noir style atmosphere. He established early with Daredevil. One example of this is in how Miller would use actual sketch work based on the detail of New York skyscrapers. This included the gritty details taking place on the roof tops of the city. The reader would view pipes, chimneys and water towers among the backdrop of these costumed battles. Miller’s art style also included a great deal of shading and dark edges reminiscent of German Expressionism. This was also reflective in his writing, which explored religious inner turmoil of the hero and economic class struggles. Not only did this lead Daredevil to become a more fleshed out character, the storylines themselves would prove to be darker and more mature than most super hero comics of the period.
In addition, Miller was able in incorporate other styles into his work. The graphic novel Ronin was heavily influence on manga and would go on to influence such shows as Samurai Jack on Cartoon Network some fifteen years later. His noir based Sin City Stories as well as the ultra- violent epic 300 were later adapted into successful films in the 2000’s. This helped to expand to concept to the public that comics could explore mediums outside of the standard super hero narrative. However, his most important influence overall was with The Dark Knight Returns.
Importance of The Dark Knight Returns
It is essential to understand how dramatic the impact of this graphic novel was on the character as a whole. In The Dark Knight Returns, we see a side to the character that had only been touched on in previous incarnations. Batman at his core is a dark character, but he was only gradually returning to his roots. This futuristic version took the character to a logical conclusion point. Bruce Wayne is portrayed as an aged man who has taken off his mask in an attempt to retire. However, he is restless. We learn that he cannot escape his calling and is shown as a man obsessed and consumed by his mission. It also helped define villains such as Two-Face and the Joker as more complicated individuals.
Harvey Dent was given an interpretation of obsessive compulsive disorder as a driving force for his gimmicks. This would later be expanded on as being rooted in abuse in his early child years. The Joker was shown for the first time as having a distinctive attachment to Batman. Awakened from a lengthy coma only when Batman returned to fight crime, Joker appeared to be connected to the Caped Crusader by a mystical force. This nod to the legendary rivalry has been expanded on in other classics such as The Killing Joke, The Long Halloween and Hush. Much of this can be attributed to Miller’s version of Bruce Wayne. It also helped to recreate the relationship between Batman and Superman.
Previously, the two were very good friends with few ideological differences. Here, Miller chose to focus on the logical differences between them and how their methods may come to bring them into conflict. The graphic novel also tackled political and social commentary of the Cold War Era, proving comics could be used to comment on real life situations. Batman was brought under scrutiny by the media for his vigilante behavior. Contrastingly, Superman was used as a puppet by the United States government to keep the threat of nuclear devastation. Though these two heroes were brought to their logical extremes, it would cause many writers to explore the flaws and attributes of the two in more realistic terms.
The Seeds of Controversy
Despite his influence and popularity earlier in his career, more recent works have been more often received with controversy and a generally percieved lack of quality. Some of the earliest examples of this come from Miller’s experience in screenwriting. He penned the narratives for two sequels to the classic action film Robocop. The second film was heavily criticized for a perceived lack of humanity, such as using a foul mouthed child as a violent criminal. This same child would also be brutally murdered on screen. The third film dialed back the violence but was even less successful at the box office. However, this may be attributed to studio interference. More recent works have been brought under scrutiny as well. Though his Sin City graphic novels have been praised for their noir style, they have experienced some controversy as well. Particularly under scrutiny were the portrayal of most women as being overly sexualized.
Generally, most of these characters were prostitutes of some variety. Miller has also been perceived as being anti-Islamic. Specific examplesEhave been stated in the film version of his historical epic 300. Here, the villains hail from the Persian empire and are portrayed as demonic savages. The film has also been perceived as spouting fascist ideologies such as the extermination of those with disabilities. Such individuals would have tainted the ideal perfection of the Spartan society. Most damning of all perhaps is Miller’s most recent graphic novel, Holy Terror. Originally planned as a Batman story, this narrative follows a man known as the Fixer, who goes on a murderous rampage of Islamic terrorists following an attack on Gotham City. It’s understandable why this was prevented as being associated with Batman, but the portrayal of the villains has been described as pure propaganda meant to offend virtually everyone. This could been seen as proof of Miller’s writing style being somewhat unrestrained. To understand the reservations of fans more clearly, it is necessary to explore Miller’s natural evolution of writing Batman.
Recent Portrayals of Batman
Miller’s most recent attempts to write Batman have been met with much controversy from fans and critics alike. These two graphic novels are All Star Batman and Robin and The Dark Knight Strikes Again. The former retells the origin of Batman recruiting Robin while the latter is a sequel to The Dark Knight Returns. In the former, many disliked the portrayal of Batman as being gleefully sadistic. He seemed to revel in causing pain to both criminals and innocents. This version even verbally and physically abused Dick Grayson as the boy grieves for his parents deaths. This action is radically different than most versions of the character. He would follow this by starving the boy and even scolding his butler Alfred for showing sympathy. Perhaps the most infamous moment within is when Wayne introduced himself as “The God Damn Batman”. The statement has been used to indicate the outrageous portrayal of the character and has even reached meme status on the Internet. A stronger indicator of Miller’s unrestrained take on the character is seen in The Dark Knight Strikes Again.
In his follow up to the influential graphic novel, Miller has extended his gritty view of this dystopia to members of the Justice League and such villains as Lex Luthor and Brainiac. Fans have scrutinized his versions of Superman and Wonder Woman, particularly of their romantic involvment with each other. The exploitative nature of the media and government was updated to include the Bush administration but with less focus than the original. Most notable is the fact that the story is barely even a Batman tale. Bruce Wayne himself is barely present in the narrative. This is attributed to his age and the recruitment of other heroes to battle evil. Still, the natural progression of the story suggests that a follow up to this graphic novel may have even less involvement from the title character. This could be seen as being an even greater crime then upping the violence and insanity of Batman.
While it is possible that Frank Miller may be able to provide his audience with a more balanced take on the character again, recent decades suggest he is too unrestrained to recreate the classic stories of his prime. Where once his darker take on comic book character ushered in a new age of mature storytelling, now he seems to focus more on the exploitative nature of his style rather than big ideas or relevant themes. His work has become noisy without much substance in recent years. In addition, his recent portrayals of Batman seem more designed to incite rage among the fan base than to tell compelling stories. Hopefully, Miller will reclaim his title as an influential writer for Batman and comics in general. For the moment however, fans will just have to wait and see.
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