Frank Miller Week: Miller's Gummy Politics

Kinda bouncing off what David said about Miller and Moore--or even, Miller vs. Moore--one of the most baffling aspects of comics fandom and comics criticism (which are more of less, one in the same) is the unquestioned love of both Frank Miller and Alan Moore, often by the same people. If you're actually reading these works, there's really no way to be "a fan" of both of them.

Sure, one can appreciate both artists and enjoy reading their stuff, but I've met too many people that list both of these guys as their favorites and don't really seem to grasp the themes, ideas, and politics behind the work. Moore is your kinda classic bohemian liberal, tinged with the nihilism and knowingness that many aging left-leaning idealists have. Miller's essentially a hard-line Libertarian and in recent years, especially post-9-11 (which is something that's really infected his rhetoric in pretty much every interview) perhaps something of a nutty, FOX News-style Neo-Con. The only thing they have in common is a very fashionable cynicism.

Last year, Sean T. Collins over at Robot6 "Frank Miller, conservative comment-thread commentator" pointed out Miller's comments on a Conservative message board. This was interesting not only because it was a quasi-private discussion in public from a comics legend, but because it's a tangible confirmation of where Miller "stands". If you read them, he's sometimes nutty, sometimes smart, usually conflicted--and that's great.

Now no one's surprised that Miller's something of a conservative, but that point is often ignored or used as part of the comics nerd in-joke that Frank Miller's essentially, over time, lost his fucking mind. To contrast with his supposed right-wing turn, we're reminded of Superman as Reaganite goon in The Dark Knight, Miller's work with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, or black feminist superheroine Martha Washington. And his conservatism's used to explain why All-Star Batman is retarded. And to parse-out the roots of the movie 300's propagandistic qualities. And to mock the apparently no-longer having much to do with Batman, "superhero vs. Al Quaeda" comic Holy Terror!.

The thing is, these two supposed "sides" of Miller say more about the way many perceive the right, than anything about Miller. Like Christopher Hitchens, who took a supposed "right turn" after 9-11, it's more the result of readers reading what they wanted to read in the guy's work and assuming a grand, over-arching political understanding because of some key issues in common. Indeed, Miller's work has always been informed by a rarefied mix of Nationalism and Libertarianism. Miller's a smart guy, he's hardly a knee-jerk like most actively liberal comics artists, and he's well aware of the full extent of his politics, and is comfortable taking them to their logical, complex, sometimes not-so-pretty end. With superhero comics, that's pretty much always the uneasy attraction and repulsion we have towards vigiliante-ism. This is something I'm going to work out in some longer pieces later on, but I'd encourage everyone who's been so skeptical of Miller's recent work, to go back and look at his older work and finds the connections.


Adrian Johnson said...

Recently, I just parted with almost all my Miller comics.

The funny thing is that this is not the first time I've done so. I've had near complete collections of Miller's books about 3 to 4 times in my collecting. And every time, I've found it extremely easy to sell them away without remorse.
I remember coming home so disappointed and angry after seeing '300' in the theater that tossed all my Millers on eBay that night.

Before I'm accused of being a cum-lately Miller basher, I enjoyed Miller's work. But the reason that I found it easy to part with his books is that upon some realization after this final time, Miller writes and draws the same story of redemption over and over.
And they don't speak strongly to that 14 year old inside me anymore.

But I will always adore Batman: Year One, Born Again and Elektra Assassin. Great dense scripts coupled with artists as dedicated as Miller was. Miller has always seemed to me a writer that taught himself to draw. I seem to enjoy him most when he writes for other artists, although his work with Jim Lee on All Star Batman is an strong exception to my rule.


Gene Ha said...

'If you're actually reading these works, there's really no way to be "a fan" of both of them.'

That's a crazy concept. I enjoy Frank Miller because he writes and draws great action. I disagree with 90% of the politics peeking through his themes, but 300 is still a great action story.

It's like great rock and roll. I never want to do hard drugs and sub/dom leather bondage, but I Iggy Pop is still one of my favorite musicians.

brandon said...

You named my 3 fave Miller works (Born Again, Elektra, Year One) and yeah, I love the guy but think he's an idiot too. None of his work is like my favorite shit ever, but some of it I do come back to.

Well, Miller does action and narrative really well and you can indeed appreciate it (obviously you can do whatever you want, ha) but he's doing much more than that and nearly all his works have this politicizied themes poking out of them. It rules to ignore them or look over to them, but they're central to the work. Really though, none of its ever bugged you or gotten to you?

I can say this for a lot of comics dudes though. Ware's precious nihilism makes his work pretty unenjoyable to me, while Morrison's sense of wonder and barrier-breaking moves me even when the story makes no fucking sense.

Gene Ha said...

If I rejected every story where I can discern the political agenda, I'd have precious few stories I could enjoy. The distinction is whether the author sacrificed storytelling for propaganda.

LoTR: Tolkien's militant Catholicism.

Grapes of Wrath: anti-religious Socialism.

The Apostle (movie with Robert Duvall): idealized Fundamentalist Protestantism.

Dune: A lot of really odd ideas which kept changing throughout the series, and almost all of which were bad.

If the characters make sense, are engaging (tho not nec. likeable), the suspense is good, etc., I appreciate the story. If the characters form a clear allegory and break character to make political points I don't enjoy it. 300 had horrible politics (and hilariously wrong history: famously gay Spartans mocking the slave girl buying Athenians for homosexuality?) but it was well told.

brandon said...

I think we could discuss this forever and not get anywhere, so yeah, obviously you're allowed to like '300' and hate its politics. My point was more rhetorical...namely connected to this undeniable sense I get that most comics readers and even comics critics don't think so much about what's entering their eye holes. You certainly don't fall into that category though. Extra points for those 'Dune' comments!

The gay insults in '300' are especially hilarious and aren't something I've read too many people comment on. Is that Miller being provocative or just being a dolt? I don't know!