We need superheroes now more than ever - 2015 has been another year riddled with headlines about terrorism, most recently with the events in Paris and Mali, among other locations. In January, the popular culture world was rocked by the slaughter of satirists at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters, leaving behind a blunt reminder of the dangers of cultural provocation. The looming global threat of terrorism is one reason the superhero genre continues to flourish. This week, one of comic’s most fearless writers returns to continue his hard-hitting Dark Knight series.
Each medium of popular culture has a few artists who not only make good entertainment, but also wield their medium like a weapon. In the world of comics and graphic novels, the most influential and daring artist to weaponize a narrative is Frank Miller. (Though not always to widespread applause). In April, Miller tweeted a cover of his upcoming Batman graphic novel after being absent from the web since 2011. Miller wrote, “I hope my silence has been deafening.” The Dark Knight III: The Master Race began its run on November 25th, 2015. This series is the long-awaiting third installment to what began in 1986 as The Dark Knight Returns. Miller’s always-provocative and never sugarcoated nature should have all Dark Knight fans excited.
While Miller’s more recent work has come under much criticism, his history with the medium shows us why we should still remain excited for his next project. As early as 1987, after the release of The Dark Knight Returns, a frustrated Miller said of the comics industry, “we’ve got to stop looking at ourselves as worthless and impotent. We are active participants in what’s going on in the media.” Miller was speaking during an era that saw the comics industry with a self-censoring body. Miller’s consistently vocal battles against censorship early in his career created more freedom for the comic industry. Of course, how Miller used this freedom would cause a love-hate relationship with many of his fans.
Always conscious of the world around him, Miller’s criticism packs a punch and gets people talking. The Dark Knight Returns was just as much about Batman as it was about fascism, violence, sissy politicians, and the media needlessly stirring the pot. The New York City of the 1980s was a cesspool of crime and Miller’s Batman acted as a response to that answering the question; how do we fight crime when city officials run out of options? Miller’s answer is in the form of a masked vigilante that battles criminals the police are unable to stop. A prime example is Miller’s version of The Joker, depicted as a psychopath, who can only be stopped by the power of Batman’s fist. Drawing on films like Dirty Harry (1971), Miller’s stories are often focused on vigilante justice.
Many of Miller’s following projects would come through independent labels, such as Dark Horse, where authors have more freedom with content. Such liberty is essential to artists that use their platform for social and cultural criticism. Miller isn’t afraid of offending anyone, which is why he pursued publishers that that embrace such an attitude. According to Miller, “It’s a hell of a scary leap to make, when you’re trained to be worrying about whether you’re going to piss off everybody because you dented the Batmobile rather than coming up with something out of whole cloth. It’s a leap of faith.” Similar to the Gotham City of his Batman stories, the setting of Sin City (1991) and its numerous sequels is a large metropolitan area where crime has turned it into a world of shady activity. Once again, like Miller’s Gotham City, the inmates are running the asylum and characters like Marv take out the trash.
New controversy began following Miller after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The Dark Knight Strikes Again (2002) and All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder (2005-2008), Miller’s next entries in the Batman world, both received mixed to bad reviews. Talk of Miller’s decline became commonplace. Miller’s 300 (1998) was also made into a popular Hollywood film directed by Zack Snyder in 2006, however, the film was accused of having a fascist slant. Negativity also surrounded Miller’s solo directorial debut with The Spirit (2008). The first Sin City (2005) film is highly regarded by fans, though the New York Times argued the story lacks humanity.
It may be more important to ask why Miller created a narrative world where crime without guilt is a way of life. During a 2003 interview, Miller said, “for at least the foreseeable future, September 11th is the whole point of my work, I’m going to play around with doing some propagandizing.” When Miller released the long-awaited Holy Terror in 2011, it was quickly branded as “Islamophobic.” Holy Terror started out as a Batman storyline catered to post 9/11 audiences, but Miller eventually left the Gotham city setting and opted for general characters that could be widely interpreted amidst the United States’ battle against Islamic terrorism. Miller hoped Holy Terror would “shake people up.”
To fully understand Miller’s post-9/11 work, it’s important put ourselves in the shoes of an artist who was in New York City on 9/11 and found the courage to channel his not-always-popular frustrations into art. After all, comics have long been a platform for cultural criticism. Sounding off like Batman in The Dark Knight Returns, Miller discussed how 9/11 impacted him:
People attacked my city. They killed my neighbors. I despise them. And I want them destroyed. If people think that's somehow reactionary or overly conservative, that's their problem. Let them have their neighbors murdered and see what it feels like.
These are not the words of someone randomly spouting anger for attention but instead instead deep feelings of justified irritation. It is Miller’s fearlessness that gained him much praise in the 1980s and 1990s. However, in the 2000s some became skeptical as political correctness starting looming large and Miller’s bold stance on the world around him was no longer socially acceptable in some political circles. While others have argued that the last fifteen years of Miller’s career have been in part a “public downfall,” it should be argued that all of Miller’s work – both new and old – displays the artist’s vision of life in a difficult reality.
Love him or hate him: Frank Miller always speaks his mind. Anticipating Miller’s upcoming Dark Knight series, we should expect nothing less than another Batman narrative that needles many reactions. On November 20th, Miller promised a new twist in his series will “Piss people off.” Artists like Miller, who was recently awarded the prestigious Eisner award, push the boundaries and make us reflect on our surroundings. Miller’s work always provokes us to think, which is the highest call any art can answer.