Frank Miller Week: "Lance Blastoff" Panel-By-Panel

Here's the thing about Frank Miller's politics. If my rambling, non-commital piece from Monday didn't already say it without saying it, the dude's worldview is pretty nuanced and complicated. And really, the best way to parse it out is through um you know, actually reading the work. This "Lance Blastoff" story from the very strange Dark Horse-released one-shot Tales To Offend is a good place to start figuring out what the deal is with Frank Miller.

Thankfully, The 4th Letter did the scanning for me and did some of their own reading of the story already. Author of the piece, David Brothers notes that "Lance Blastoff" is "one of the relatively few times he’s done an out and out humor book," and indeed, it's basically broad satire, but it's appropriately Miller-like in that it's multi-directional in its satirical targets. It's not quite the sledgehammer-subtle parody of the American action hero that it may at first seem. I mean, it is that, but it's also an attack on P.C sensitivity and liberal hypocrisy...or something? Let's take a look at this twisty turny, brilliant, retarded comics short...

While this title-sequence-like panel is a parody of Golden-Age superhero comics, it isn't that far from Miller's usual stylistics. That's to say, this is ironic but it isn't a total corrective or anything. Miller loves this style and next to Richard Corben, I can't think of another comics artist as in love with basic, visceral comics grammar. But yes, this still introduces "Lance Blastoff" as something absurd. Even the dialogue, "Here's a beefy little yarn--with an important message for you kids!" reads a bit like yeah, a parody of old comics, but a parody of Miller's stunted, noir-tinged writing style too.

So this panel is just beautiful. What's with Miller and dinosaurs? He has some weird ability to draw them as kinda awe-inspiring but also massive and horrifying. And that's the tension going through this panel and the source of its satire. We have the female character talking about the dinosaurs from an "enlightened" environmentalist perspective: "My friends witness nature in perfect balance." The joke of the panel is they're neither scary as expected (yet) or all that elegant. They're more like overgrown cows or something, just munching on grass. Already here though, Miller's satire is shifting its focus or at the least, kinda corralling in an opposite point of view to also take a big shit on. This female character is an idiot too.

Here, we're closer to revealing that this character is indeed, a woman. And you know, she's in good company in terms of strong, wise female characters in Miller's work: Elektra, Martha Washington, many of the females in Sin City. Really though, the main point here is the ratcheting-up of the female character's rhetoric. Her all-too-common liberal condescension: "Unsullied by fast-food restaurants spewing forth burnt animal flesh to fill the bloated bellies of sweaty, obese people." Sounds like a lot of people I know after they read Fast-Food Nation.

The female character's revealed. Giving a weird, didactic tour to a bunch of like Cro-Magnon alien freaks or something. Now, Miller's really got her going though. Lots of "nature's perfect and peaceful", dime-store Rousseau going on here. This kind of idealized, loving sense of the world isn't just a point of contention with pseudo-tough guys like Miller though, it's precisely the kind of self-important, self-deluded, vanity that all your classic satire's based upon. Just this silly, satisfied sense that the world would or could be a better place if not for us awful humans and our damned civilization.

Lolz! What the comic's so clearly setting-up: The ideal, gentle, untainted dinosaur goes for the humans. This is the punchline panel. Since it's pretty obvious, let's focus on Miller's world-building here. So, we've got a future where we can visit the dinosaurs somehow, and spaceships look like bad-ass fifties cars. Going along with what I said about the first panel of this story, this is Miller mocking the signs and signifiers of old-timey comics and being totally in-love with him. The strange combination here (dinosaurs, nice cars, post-feminist space tour-guide) is exactly the kind of weirdness you'd see in some cheapo 1950's space pirate tale.

The unfortunate realism after the punchline. Bodies are flailing, limbs are floating through the air. That "CHOMP" will be important later.

Miller gives you a close-up of the horror. The female character is kinda making eye-contact with the reader here, like she's realized how goofy and just plain wrong her idealized view of the dinosaurs is and she's reaching out to someone, anyone, to give her some comfort in what'll obviously be here final moments of life. More "CHOMP"s.

Some artful, McCloud Understanding Comics type time-between-the-panels shit. Now, the female character has landed on the ground, having escaped the T-rex's "CHOMP"s. She's also totally shifted her view on the creature at a very convenient time. Faced with death, she respects and is seemingly taken by the raw brute desires of the dinosaur. It's a comment on the shifting values of the liberal idealist.

Notice Miller's visual economy here. Lance Blastoff shows up, but because everything in this story's cut to the bare essentials, he doesn't get a build-up or an extended introduction or anything, he's just there all of a sudden. The byproduct of this is perhaps something a bit mock-heroic or anti-climactic about his arrival. He's also delivering a kind of mealy-mouthed action hero "one-liner" that's stretched into two panels because it's so complex and rambling, which is pretty funny.

The satire shifts here to Lance. The female character is speaking reason or perhaps I should say, "reason". She's basically pointing out that a basic trope of comics heroes is pretty silly: That it isn't enough to simply save the person, the villain or aggressor must be decimated. Miller mocks Lance Blastoff's excess.

Lance is just an unaware, macho douche here. His reasons for killing the T-rex are to eat it apparently. Perhaps something of a joke on the justification many hunters make for killing animals ("I'm going to eat it"), which is respectable but also pretty dopey because like dude, it isn't the caveman days, you're just feeding your ego playing hunter/gatherer. The really funny stuff in this panel though is the bizarro sound effect ("Spam"?!) and the fact that Lance is like, shooting a mini-WMD into the dinosaur's mouth. The female character's attitude is once again shifting to hystericism: "You fiend! You monster! Stop!"

The T-rex exploding in a very awesome comic book way. But again, there's a sense of reality to it, as the T-rex is contorting in pain. Miller's playing the classic comics grammar game but he's twisting it subtly, hedging the ra-ra blow-em-up stuff a bit.

Miller as Douglas Sirk here. Look at those expressionistic colors and crazy shadows as she cries into her arm. Then, there's Lance, off of the page, unfazed by the woman's emotional outburst or really anything, telling her once she tastes dinosaur meat, she'll change her mood. Lance is the obnoxious dad at the 4th of July BBQ mocking his newly-vegetarian goth girl daughter.

Notice that Miller's economy stops when it comes to more sensory type stuff. The dinosaur biting the car, the dinosaur blowing up, and now, the woman smelling the cooking dinosaur meat takes up multiple panels.

More Sirk. She perks up, her tears and worry and supposed values are slowly floating away and the smell of fresh meat takes over.

The red and black color scheme, the attention to her breasts, her hands near her crotch, it seems like Miller's adding some like, weirdo sexual attraction to this bizarre turn of events. This is basically confirmed in the story's climax, with groan-inducing references to "real meat."

With that "CHOMP" a parallel's drawn between the dinosaur's base desires and the female character's here. This is the conceit of the comic really, that the female character's denying the universe's immutable thirst for violence and will-to-power.

More "CHOMP"s. Lance standing proudly as the female character's is head inside of the T-rex's leg (which is like a chicken leg) and she lets out some orgasmic moans of "yes...Yes!" Despite Miller creating a fairly complex or atypical female character here, he's shifting into pretty basic, painfully obvious parodies of feminism and feminists: That they deny their desires, that they've asexualized themselves, that they just need a good man to change them. Miller's aware he's doing this and parodying that attitude, but he's not exactly deconstructing it. I think Miller knows why that's problematic, but think it's true or closer to true than the wimpy counter perspective.

Look at how Miller changes her whole look in this panel. She's kinda stoned-looking and evil. She's turned into a femme-fatale (Miller's favorite image of a woman it seems) and she's rejecting all the ideals she spouted in the previous panels. It's at this point that Miller's satire sorta goes off-the-rails or rather, it enters pure Frank Miller territory where it stops making sense or loses all of its nuance and is just sorta malicious and dumb. The strength I think of the story is the satire of the female character's blindness towards reality (seeing the dinosaurs and nature as pure and untainted, even when it attacks her), but Miller turns it into like, worldview-confirming, dream-fulfilling weirdness by having the female character not only be dead wrong about how the world works, but ultimately, on the same page as Lance. She isn't just incorrect, her core being is in-tune with Lance Blastoff.

More kinda sexual imagery. The romance comics-esque embrace, the red and black, the anti-feminist declaration, "a real man."

Miller kinda saves himself with this final panel because it's just so goofy and hilarious and once more, shifts the satire to Lance Blastoff's moronic moralizing and over-simplication. This was hardly a comic about why kids should eat lots of meat, right? It's kinda tacked on which is really funny. Also, it did nothing to confirm the benefits of meat or whatever, it just takes them as a given and spends most of its time mocking a wimpy, tree-hugging-ass bitch who eventually comes to her sense and loves um, "real meat". Miller's aware of this and he's kinda having it both ways, mocking Lance's sloganeering and over-the-top macho, but finding just as much, and maybe a bit more wrong with the character that's the antithesis of Lance.


david e. ford, jr said...

this is a great post. in some ways, i think that the panel in which the woman is shown up-close, with her audience in the foreground, is the most brilliant of the lot. this one really captures the really ironically paternalistic nature of her program, as she assumes the role of benevolent pedagogue for these intergalactic under-species

brandon said...

Thanks! It seems a way to represent the unwashed, salt of the earth American masses without it being condescending or aggressive, which would kinda fuck-up Miller's already wonky thesis.