At what point does an artist become a caricature of themselves? I found myself pondering this question recently while re-reading (for the first time in quite a long time) Frank Miller’s classic The Dark Knight Returns.
Uh-oh. Can you see the battle lines being drawn? No, you probably can’t, and that’s because I can’t think of a single person who thinks Miller is still relevant. His older works, such as the aforementioned DKR will always be relevant, but Mr. Miller’s success has created a vortex-like style that sucks in everything he now does (or at least everything we’ve seen in a while) and makes it an imitation of those previous works, like some comic savant green day, wishing to god they could be the Buzzcocks but knowing that all they can do is lampoon that which has succeeded before them. Stylistically for Miller this means he’s stuck in the b&w world of Sin City on film and trying oh so desperately to out-knuckle his previous comic work by boiling everything so hard none of it is digestible as storytelling.
In a sad way this makes sense when you think about it. Sin City came later in Miller’s comics career and it proved to be the most definitive example of his style up to that point; all the hard-boiled goodness we came to expect from his big company work but knew was being held in check, suddenly gushing forth in a glorious torrent of hack-sawed limbs, full-throttle shoot outs and, well tits. It was really only a matter of time before someone as savvy as R. Rodriguez saw the cinematic potential in the Sin City series and the rest, as they say, is history. But history is unfortunate, because that gloriously original Frank Miller style has thus proven to be his undoing. Frozen by the apparent need to regurgitate the same textures, images and one-liners over and over again Miller has been stuck in a ridiculous Moebius Strip – in film he re-made Sin City as a bastardized version of an Eisner Classic and in comics he gave us the unsettlingly lame all star batman and robin. Granted he only gave me two issues of all star, because after watching an overly callous batman rescue a grieving Dick Greyson moments after his parents murder and proceeding to lambast him as a ‘retard’ retired my readership on that one reeeaaal quick.
So when, and how did Miller lose it?
I don’t know. I’m sure Frank himself would call me a retard and tell me to shut the fuck up but that is simply not good enough. It’s an observable fact that on any timeline past, say ten years in today’s entertainment-saturated culture many artistic inspirations one can find will eventually disappoint. In comics this rule of thumb has really only been exacerbated in the last decade and a half – comics are Hollywood’s gene farm for new ideas* and in the age of the pre-branded frenzy if the studio execs think something can be converted to the big screen our creators will be whisked away in limousines with brief cases full of cash offered up for their creations.
This is not in and of itself a bad thing.
The ‘bad’ only enters the equation when folks like Miller become frozen by success, fearing the move into new material, forced by their allegiance to the money-making machine to keep repeating themselves so as not to lose the lowest common denominator. Because really no matter the high water mark something like Iron Man or Dark Knight can set its really the LCD that Hollywood caters to.
Again, see the spirit.
Dark Knight Returns is a thing of dark and malevolent beauty. If you’ve never read it I implore you to do so. And caution: when you saunter into your local comic book store someone will inevitably warn you that it long ago raised the bar so readers new to it today won’t be as affected as those of us who read it in the 80’s were. Bullshit. It is unreservedly fucking awesome. So is Miller’s Batman: Year One. His run on Daredevil in the 80’s is unfathomably magnificent. So is Sin City**. However it seems that the farther from the hard-boiled 80’s culture of Reagan-sponsored paranoia we’ve gotten the more Frank Miller has had trouble acclimating to the idea that he’s already proven himself and doesn’t have to dumb it down for the fans.
Oh well. Bom-bom-bom – another one bites the dust.
* Borrowing this in my own words from Grant Morrison btw.
** And I am not talking shit about the movie either. Loved it and the sequel we’ve been hearing about since about a week after the first one opened is the only thing I can think of Miller has on the horizon that I’m longing to see.