Every fan of a genre has their gateway drug – the writer that showed them everything that genre could be. My gateway wasn’t even a prose writer. Instead, it was the work of famed comic book artist and writer Frank Miller. Now, Miller’s been around for a long time and written tons and tons of great comics. He’s one of the pillars of the medium and – along with Alan Moore – is credited with adding a dose of maturity to comic books in the 1980s, which is largely responsible for the way things are now. With all that credit, his Noir style sometimes gets lost in the shuffle, and he has written a lot of crazy comics that couldn’t be described as Noir at all. However, I think Miller is a Noir writer at heart and he’s certainly the reason why I became of the fan of the genre.
Miller came onto the comic book scene in the early 80s and started unleashing hit after hit. He worked for Marvel in a seminal run on Daredevil and then moved to DC where he pretty much created the modern Batman. Two of his Batman works, Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, are comic book classics that have truly stood the test of time. There’s a lot of reasons for their greatness. The artwork, usually by Miller himself or David Mazzuchelli in the case of Batman: Year One, took inspiration from magna like Lone Wolf and Cub to create a unique rhythm with continuous action building into a climax. These comics were also noteworthy for a great deal of social satire, done in a style as bold as the heroes they portrayed. The Dark Knight Returns skewers Hippies and Ronald Reagan with equal measure, taking particular delight in insulting pop psychologists and their ‘feel good’ philosophy. But the other vein running through Miller’s work is Noir.
This comes out mostly in the prose accompanying the pictures. When I started reading Mickey Spillane, I was entranced by how similar it was to Miller’s writing. They have the same breathless quality, the same intensity and anger in their characters’ monologue – and the same delight in the hardboiled metaphor. Miller’s narratives, even his superhero ones, pack on the Noir style as well. The protagonists are ostracized by society, usually gruff and violent – but like Raymond Chandler’s detective, they walk down the mean streets without being mean themselves. They do the right thing, even if they’re anti-heroes, and it usually ends badly. In the 1990s, Miller put his love of Noir front and center with the Sin City series. This black-and-white Noir fantasy depicted a hyperbolic, super-stylized Noir World where everything was over the top: the tough guy hero could take insane amounts of damage, the ruthless big shot pulling the strings was pure evil, and the colorful goon was a bizarre caricature. Sin City got a faithful film adaptation in 2005, and the high school age Panusher loved it. I sought out the comics and loved them too. It made me want to seek out more Noir. The first Sin City story is called The Hard Goodbye as a reference to The Long Goodbye, so that pointed me to Chandler which became my place to start.
Like Spillane, Miller’s politics (and the politics of some of his stories) are unfortunate. After reading Spillane’s The Goliath Bone, I wonder if 9/11 didn’t irrevocably damage Spillane in some way – a great catastrophe that spurred his meaner instincts. Maybe it did the same thing with Miller, whose most recent work is a superheroes vs. Al-Qaida tale called Holy Terror, which has been criticized as being extremely racist and insensitive. His female characters, often prostitutes, also appear fairly dated. Even his modern superhero works like All-Star Batman and Robin and The Dark Knight Strikes Again, were poorly received. Still, despite all the problems with his work, I’ve got to give Miller credit for creating an enticing vision of Noir that got me hooked for good.
Recommended Reading: Miller’s got so many classics that it’s hard to know where to start. His superhero output is massive and features many amazing works. Elektra: Assassin is one that’s the most overlooked, and that’s one great – with gorgeous painted art by Bill Sienkiewicz and a great look at nuclear paranoia in the later ages of the Cold War, besides a lot of Reagan Era ninja action. For non-superhero stuff, there’s the cyberpunk Samurai epic Ronin, and numerous other works. But I gotta go with Sin City, a series of seven volumes of hardboiled tales taking place in the same city. Which Sin City is the best is another tough question. The Hard Goodbye has the ultimate dumb but honorable lug in the form of the massive Marv, Family Values has more ninja action and a very progressive ending, The Big Fat Kill has some of the best action scenes ever put on paper – but I think That Yellow Bastard is my pick for the best place to start. It’s a hardboiled cop story, the final Dirty Harry tale, about a contest of wills between a true hero and a vile villain. Their battle is operatic, and Miller does stuff with the format, like a series of double-page spreads at the ends which slow the action to a crawl, that most comics would never dream about.
Recommended Viewing: I could just go ahead and say the Sin City adaptation – but I haven’t seen it in nearly a decade and don’t know how it holds up. There’s some other adaptations floating around, like the hilariously overwrought 300 and the supposedly bizarre The Spirit, but I don’t want to recommend those either. Instead, I urge you to track down Robocop 2. Miller wrote the script, though it was changed by rewrites, and Miller even has a cameo in the movie. Unlike it’s predecessor, Robocop 2 is not a masterwork of satire, over-the-top violence, and poignant character moments. Instead, it’s the unrestrained id of Eighties Era Miller, thrown up on the silver screen. There’s a kooky cult, evil yuppie businessmen, stop-motion robot battles, and every child character is ridiculously evil. It’s not a good movie, but it’s definitely an entertaining one.