If there’s anything I’ve learned from my time in and around “geek culture” (an awful phrase, but bear with me), it’s to be wary of the scene’s conventional wisdom. This doesn’t mean to doubt people’s intelligence or shoot down enthusiasm, but the dogma of fandom is often built on dubious estimations of art. The flavor of the month is probably not the best one, while a popular contrarian attitude is also worth interrogating.
My latest encounter with fandom’s oversights has come in recently reading a number of comics by Frank Miller. Undeniably one of the most prominent creators of the 1980s along with folks like Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman, Frank Miller was a writer-artist before that was cool in America (and in superhero comics to boot, where that’s still not so kosher). Miller’s dystopian Batman miniseries The Dark Knight Returns was massively influential and his original noir series Sin City remains popular in a way most creator-owned comics just aren’t. However, in the comics scene, pretty much everyone from art snobs to ComicCon types look at Miller’s work with scorn – I know I used to – for his crassness and recent xenophobia (which, to be fair, is pretty irredeemable – his last graphic novel, Holy Terror, features a Batman knock-off heroically murdering and torturing muslim stereotypes). And besides, weren’t all his innovations in mark making and cinematic pacing on loan from Japanese and French comics anyway? Why read a Wolverine comic influenced by Lone Wolf and Cub when I can just read that now instead?
But here’s the thing: ravaged by hate as Miller’s mind has come to be, his comics are pretty darn incredible. Miller’s work is idiosyncratic and literate to comics art history while remaining constantly distinctive. His stories navigate the vigilantism and paranoia hinted at by genre fiction with all the subtlety of a steamroller, hilarious and captivating in their intensity. Particularly strong are his collaborations with his former spouse, the colorist Lynn Varley, whose expressionist washes of color gradients form some of the best comics compositions ever. For better or for worse, few commercial cartoonists get to be this uninhibited.
Recently some in the scene have remembered that Frank Miller’s actually pretty great, in particular holding up an often-mocked, generally forgotten work as a cause-celebre: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Miller and Varley’s 2002 follow-up to The Dark Knight Returns. The original book, in which an aging Bruce Wayne comes out of retirement to take one last stand against crime, was a major work in the “grim and gritty” turn of superhero comics, contextualized as such in an introduction by Alan Moore. When he began Strikes Again, Miller had a rep as a Serious Guy despite most of his work being quite funny. Strikes Again is anything but serious, a defiantly goofy clash of the titans whose plot essentially amounts to Batman and a ragtag group of rebels convincing Superman to loosen up and bash the fash. As you can imagine, those seeking “realism” in a comic about a geriatric guy in a bat costume hitting people hated it.
If The Dark Knight Returns took the idea of Batman to its logical conclusion, The Dark Knight Strikes Again takes the very concept of superhero comics to the absolute extreme. Every major DC hero is burlesqued, and good triumphs over evil as an inevitability. New gods replace corporate masters – the president is a hologram and an aged Lex Luthor is a bloated old toad only a butt-whuppin away from history. Superman turns on his masters and the premise of colorful masked defenders becomes a global reckoning. The Steve Ditko version of The Question even shows up to spout some Fountainhead politics in case you forgot what Watchmen’s Rorschach was based on. Much of the comic centers around fashion, the iconography of superheroism digitally smeared on the bodies of “SuperChix™”, gaudy celebs in capes and tights. The original heroes wield this passing fad to galvanize their rebellion, a brilliant and relevant satire of commodified counterculture iconography – what if your Che Guevara T-Shirt from Target incited an actual revolution?
If weirdness of the story bothered people, the artistry of the work was even more alienating. Miller’s art at this point is minimal, dynamic and iconic, using negative space and thick brushwork in a way that’s very striking and expressive but not “correct” in the way most superhero readers expect a comic to look. And then there’s Varley’s colors, ditching the paints for bold digital experimentation, eye popping kaleidoscopes of neon that somehow strobes off the page, easy to read as a mistake under the narrow expectations for digital color expressed in basically every other comic at the time.
But, man, those images. Those searing blobs of ink and color. I adore one sequence in particular in the second chapter. Superman, a weather-beaten mass of inky smears and massive sad hands of exploited labor, evoking the hardbitten heroes of Jack Kirby and Goseki Kojima, maybe even a hint of Kathe Kollwitz’s haunting portraits of the working class. Before him emerges Wonder Woman, more like a Greek goddess than a star-spangled heroine. The two embrace, her arms clawing at his blood-red cape. They crash through ice, soar into space, plunge underwater where there’s a g*ddamn shark. But everything is still. Finally they emerge, Superman his chipper silver age self. It’s just one of many moments in Strikes Again that feel transcendent and beautiful in spite – or maybe because of – their ham-fisted context. And, if that’s not a great comic I don’t know what is.
Nathan Chazan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.