Monday, September 22, 2008

Frank Miller, Incubus of Depression-Era Comic Book Heroes

Funny how Frank Miller somehow manages to keep generating controversy with his irreverent treatment of DC characters. After I finished DK2 I sincerely hoped DC was finished with Miller -- DK2 read like a joyless exercise, was obvious in its execution, and worst of all looked, by Miller's standards, lazily penciled. But such trivialities didn't affect Miller's Midas touch, apparently. DC made money on the book, so he's back with a "script" for All-Star Batman & Robin. The controversy? Potty-mouth schoolyard trash talking, insufficiently blacked out by the publisher's censors -- some pages are here, for the morbidly curious.

Hard to say just what I think of the whole thing, really. This latest exercise strikes me as being about as controversial and subversive and entertaining as Paul Krassner's Disneyland Memorial Orgy -- which, to my eyes, fails on all three counts. But if that floats your boat, lay down your plastic and chortle to your bitter heart's content. Miller got the last laugh when he cashed yet another paycheque from DC for typing up a dreary retread of Marshal Law.

I think the more pertinent question now is, was Miller the right guy to write and direct The Spirit? The movie is still being referred to in some quarters as "Will Eisner's The Spirit" but that's about as accurate as calling DK2 "Bob Kane's 'The Batman.'" The movie is Miller's, and the keepers of Eisner's creative flame should probably brace themselves: as with Batman, it could well be Miller who takes complete ownership of The Spirit's identity.

Speaking of retreads: here is my public fan-letter (with reservations) to Miller; here is what I thought of the Sin City movie. My chief kvetch? "The flick was too talky. Always with the voice-over narrator, that let-me-Spillane-it-to-you prose, yak yak yak. Which can be Miller's weakness, as well -- though I usually credit him with a sense of humour he may or may not have toward his own material." Hm. Anyone want to take me to the movies this Christmas?

Finally, a tip o' the hat to Occasional Superheroine, whose post on the ASBAR controversy provoked 82 comments, and counting.


paul bowman said...

I'd never read your Sin City review. Very interesting discussion about a subject, or set of subjects, I feel like I ought to be interested in -- for a variety of reasons -- but so far haven't been.

When I've picked up Miller's books in past, they've never pulled me in much. A drawing or spread here or there will appeal to me, but it won't compel me. (With graphic fiction, I do usually have to feel compelled. Vittorio Giardino does this to me without fail, for example. Also much of Hergé, some Jean Giraud. -- Oops, and there's a pattern here, isn't there? -- Otherwise I'm shortly just glancing for interesting artwork, losing the story -- and getting tired of the effort.)

I have a feeling I'd feel about as you do, regarding the Miller stuff, if I let myself slide into it a bit. But I have doubts about getting around to this, unless a very convenient opportunity presents itself. (Maybe a chance $0.99 iTunes rental someday.)

At any rate, I've certainly felt, from very first reports about Gibson's project, just about exactly as you represent your take on the Passion movie (and on Jesus flicks in general), there in that 2005 discussion. I never have had any inclination to see it. As you say, the Gospels themselves are plenty vivid & unnerving, quite on their own.

Whisky Prajer said...

What do you think of Eisner's work? He's someone I've always wanted to like more than I do. It seems as if almost everyone who loves comic books loves Eisner. There were irreverent aspects to The Spirit that I enjoyed: The Spirit leaning against a panel frame, which would bend against his weight, etc. But the stories were usually a little too mawkish to pull me in.

Again, Comics & Sequential Art has the status of Holy Scripture among artists in the field, and "discerning" viewers. Certainly Eisner's insights can be revelatory. But when he puts them into practice -- illustrating Hamlet's opening soliloquy via a young hip-cat on a Hell's Kitchen roof -- I once again grow cool. The Contract With God trilogy and The Plot are probably my favorite Eisner works, because his lurid mannerisms are married to the perfect subject matter.

Strangely frustrating, really. In interviews he comes across as a nice guy who isn't just an artist of intelligence and acuity, but who also happens to be a genuine mensch. And how many of those ever populated the hallways of the comic book industry? Does any living comic artist even qualify?

paul bowman said...

I don't know. Don't know the comics world as well as someone with my inclinations should, truthfully. Maybe, though, there's some incompatibility between being a mensch & being the kind of person who can be devoted to truly great work in an art form that's at its best when not taken seriously in its own place & time.

When I'm home this weekend I'm going to try to pull Sequential Art out & look through it again, since you mention it. It's been some years since I've devoted much thought to these things, I'm afraid. Making me a little wistful for the pleasure of that searching thinking.

I'm with you on Eisner, too, though. His work strikes me as some sort of apotheosis of comic-book & radio-drama storytelling of the '40s, really stuck in that overwrought Depression/post-Depression, mid-century brashness & sentimentality somehow. It, too, just doesn't pull me in. Haven't read Contract with God or The Plot, though, beyond excerpts.

This is the kind of problem that kept me from getting into the graphic fiction thing when I was most receptive to the notion. (Besides, that is, lacking the art schooling or irreverent society that would have gotten me off the blocks with any real prospects for the effort ahead.) There were fascinating, new-to-me ideas -- Adams' Understanding Comics just published at the time, for instance -- and there was an occasional inspiring piece of work that would fall into my hands (e.g., Kent Williams's masterful little story for the Sandman series). But the gap between the potential the ideas held for me at the time, on one hand, and what the appeal lay in in the published material that actually seemed to have the attention of this graphic-lit subculture and to find its way onto shelves of sellers I knew, on the other, was too great for my insufficiently obsessional creative ambition to effectively close. Eventually (and ever since), priority locked to other kinds of imaginative projection & other kinds of reading. Maybe when I have money again I'll try to re-ignite at least the reading interest, though.

Thinking about going to the upcoming Small Press Expo here in the D.C. area, by the way. (Heroic genius cartoonist Richard Thompson is supposed to be there signing his first volume of Cul de Sac strips.) Maybe the environment will stir me up a bit, if I can make it over there.

Whisky Prajer said...

Richard Thompson? Now I want to go!

A good comic book store is hard to find. Toronto still has The Beguiling (hm - "Canada's finest" by their own reckoning). And that's about it. The Silver Snail has been overrun by toys. I'm really not sure where a serious purveyor of the art form would turn to look for the leading edge in the field. The art gallery? I know Art Spiegelman certainly has mixed feelings on the matter.