Monday, December 29, 2008

Frank Miller: Writer

There's a point, it may be in Eisner/Miller or The Comics Journal Library: Frank Miller, in which Frank Miller rather casually dismisses Jack Kirby's belief in himself as a writer.

Look, I know that Kirby's work as a writer is difficult and will never be for everyone, but for another creator to casually dismiss it seemed to me to only show a lack of comprehension of some kind on his part. It was a chink in his armor for me.

Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus: Vol. 3 by Van Jensen, quotes from the introduction by Glen David Gold, in which he compares Kirby to Henry James, and ultimately concludes, "As I’ve written before, Kirby’s biggest mistake when jumping to DC was hiring himself as an editor. Even the greatest writers and artists need the aid of others to help organize their visions."

There is truth in this, but I'm less than convinced there was an editor in comics at that time who was up to the task of bringing out the best in Kirby's writing without taking something essential out. That's not to say such a person doesn't or hasn't existed in the world, just that I suspect with those comics, we may have gotten the best of the reasonable possibilities with what we got.

So here we come to Miller's rather notorious new movie, The Spirit, which I may have to see, if only to have an informed opinion when I leap to write posts like this.

In The Spirit - (Insert Quotes Around Spirit), Fatboy Roberts wrote, "Frank Miller is creatively bankrupt and artistically empty. This is a work so bad it calls all his previous good work into question. That’s not an overstatement, or fanboy overreaction."

I'm not sure I buy that, but honestly I think there's something there.

Frank Miller is a great artist.

Frank Miller is a great comic book creator.

Is Frank Miller a great writer?

He wrote Batman: Year One with art by David Mazzucchelli and it's definitely great.

He wrote a couple of runs on Daredevil that were certainly leaps forward of some kind. He did the Martha Washington series with Dave Gibbons that has moments of greatness.

Are those flashes of greatness, especially in collaboration with other great artists, enough to qualify him as a great writer?

I know, here's where I need to Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City, 300, etc.

Or do I? Those are indeed great works of comic book creation. They are complete works of graphic storytelling, but take the writing and separate it from the art. Are they brilliantly written? I'm not sure they are. As it goes, I think Watchmen would have still been brilliant with a merely competent artist interpreting the words and story, but I'm not sure the same is true of "The Dark Knight Returns".

Miller and fans have long complained that Robocop 2 and Robocop 3 were failures of Hollywood's treatment, and Sin City, on some level, seemed to prove the point...

(I haven't read Frank Miller's Robocop yet, but the word on the street has that it fails to fully prove it.)

... but then it had Robert Rodriguez to work with the challenges of the medium. How much of the translation of the brilliant works of comic book creation into a successful cinematic creation was because of Rodriguez's skill as a cinema creator? The buzz coming from The Spirit would suggest the majority. Possibly the vast majority.

"... We expect our comic books to believe in their own integrity, now that we’re all agreed that comics are our modern mythology. But The Spirit does not believe in itself. It thinks comics are a joke -- and it appears to thinks that movies are a joke, too", says The Spirit (review) by MaryAnn Johanson.

"The screenplay [is] disjointed and awkward, this is a story that has several threads going on, but they aren't woven together in a way to create a story worth watching", wrote Bill Cunningham in The Spirit of Christmas is Dead.

I'm not necessarily convinced that anyone should have their entire moviemaking potential judged off what amounts to their first time directing, and perhaps Miller has surprises in store for everyone who is seeing this with disappointment. However I don't think this speaks well to writing being Miller's strength.

UPDATE: Maybe I'm wrong and the growing number of posts, such as My Box Office Sucks by Marty Langford, are right and Miller "just doesn't seem to matter anymore, at the comic book store or at the cineplex." I certainly hope not, though. I know he'll have some work to do to prove otherwise for a while, though.


r_sail said...

If you ask me, you forgot Elektra Assassin. That's one of the best thing Miller ever wrote, but, without Seinkeiwicz on art... I don't know how I'd feel about it. Bill quite certainly elevated that work to the genius level at which it sits. I think it's a great story, but it's impossible for me to divorce the art from my opinion of it.

Much as I love Dark Knight Returns, I'm not sure it's a high point in art. I mean, it's a wonderful combination of Miller and Janson's styles. Both fully on display and working in tandem like a true TEAM should. And that's not to mention Varley's colors... but I don't think it's a book that's ridden on the strength of the art, like say, a Jim Lee book... like All Star Batman.

I think it falls apart a bit in the fourth book, but even that's still pretty good. Yeah, I'd say it's a wonderfully written book.

As are the Sin City books. At least up till That Yellow Bastard... but you have to take them for what they are. They're brilliant for taking Noir and amping it up to 11. For taking noir and making it tongue in cheek sillyness a la The Big Fat Kill. Or just being classic Noir like A Dame To Kill For.

I think Miller reached a point where... and this is where everyone says he lost his mind or became so wrapped up in the idea of how great he is... but I think he just got bored and wanted to do something else.

He was quoted once for saying he wanted to see Superman fly, not sweat. But then years later said he wanted to see him sweat, not fly. Or maybe it was the other way around. I dunno... but clearly at some point his work changed for whatever reasons.

I haven't seen The Spirit yet. i think, from what I've seen, it's visually a very gorgeous film. But I'm not convinced Miller knows how to write a film. Which is very different in structure than a comic. But it seems to me that he knew what he was trying to do. It's everyone else who isn't in on the joke... and they'll blame Miller for that.

While it's plain for me to see that this is done like a live action cartoon, and it's sillyness is intended, most people seem to either miss that, or can't get past whatever failings it's truly guilty of to allow it its success where it did, in fact, succeed.

But that's just an assumption based on the tiny bits I've seen and not the movie itself.

Mob said...

I honestly don't know if I'll bother with The Spirit in the theater, because God knows I don't see a thing in the trailer that makes me think it has a chance of doing anything besides make me wince.

It's as if Miller is fully doing a parody of his own earlier work, none of which bears any resemblance to the small handful of Spirit comics I've read.

The heavy handed dialog of something like Sin City was easier to accept, as the visuals capturing the source material were what I really enjoyed about that film, while this looks like someone doing a send-up of that film with a new assortment of characters.

Ed Howard said...

I don't think I'm going to see The Spirit. The original Eisner series is not one of my favorite comics or anything, but it is a fun, clever, lightly enjoyable pastiche of noir and the then-fledgling superhero genre. It's a classic work as well as the first sustained demonstration of Eisner's graphic genius, and everything I've seen of Miller's interpretation of it only suggests that either Miller does not understand the basics of what made Eisner's comic good in the first place, or he just doesn't care. Bathing the film in a retread of the Rodriguez/Miller Sin City's aesthetics just does not fit with Eisner's bright, emotionally dynamic aesthetic. I also think Miller -- and whoever put up the money for this obvious dud -- is more than a little foolish to believe that his time spent on the Sin City set really qualified him to be a director himself, even if he did get half the credit for Sin City.

Anyway, Miller's comics, at least his older ones, are always interesting, though I think you're right that he doesn't stand up as a writer in the same way that Alan Moore or Grant Morrison do, to name the two most obvious comic scribes who are in the same pantheon of mainstream writers. Moore sometimes goes too far up his own ass, but when he's on he's fantastic, and his prose, purplish and lurid as it can be, usually stands up regardless of who's doing his art; he's even written a great novel, Voice of the Fire. Morrison is similarly strong. There's a reason those two are pretty much the only comics writers I can think of who can stand up on the same level with the best writer/artists in comics. Normally, I'm someone who believes that the best comics are produced when the writing and the art are coming from the same mind and the same hand.

Miller, on the other hand, has done some good work as a writer with other people handling the art -- Year One and Elektra Assassin, for sure -- but I don't think he'd have much of a rep if he had to rely only on his writing, which is just not as distinctive or as intrinsically literary as Moore's or Morrison's. Basically, he takes noir and pulp cliches and pumps them up, and he gets a surprising amount of mileage out of this territory, but it's not like I'd want to read a Miller novel or anything. I think he has limited gifts as a writer and has succeeded to the extent he has by producing a body of work tailored towards his strengths. I still love his Batman stories -- including even the much-maligned but sublimely overblown Dark Knight Strikes Again -- and parts of Sin City and his Elektra books, though.

Neil Sarver said...

I'm going to start by adding Frank Miller by King Joe the Wicked to the discussion as well.

I will also add that regardless of the quality, the fact that Frank Miller, who was so protective of the adaptation of his own work, whose Sin City movie was praised almost entirely for how it succeeded in replicating the comics, who promised a true adaptation of Will Eisner's comics, absolutely deserves the public ass-kicking he's getting right now, for making a movie that didn't show the same respect for his friend and mentor that he demanded to be shown to him and he promised to show himself.

So, I do hope this isn't something the defeats him, but I do hope he absorbs these blows on some level, because he absolutely does have them coming.

Anyway, what a lot of thoughtful commenting. Thanks, everyone.

So, Sail, yes, I spaced Elektra: Assassin. I don't recall liking it as well as you, but it has been a while, so I may need to give it another look one of these days.

"The Dark Knight Returns" isn't specifically high on my list of Miller favorites, but I think the art is a terribly important part of how it works. With, as you say, Jim Lee art, it would have been exactly the kind of self-conscious humorless work as its many imitators. The art is where the energy and the humor that sets it apart are expressed.

All of this is, as I am saying, that Miller has a tremendous understanding of comic books and the synergy between art and story that makes them so wonderful. I remain unconvinced that his storytelling ability holds up without that. I don't mean that as an insult. Nor am I saying he's not a great storyteller, but I suspect his storytelling brilliance largely lives within that one domain. If Eric Clapton came out with an album of saxophone performances and they didn't work out, I wouldn't suggest it meant that I should hold his guitar playing in contempt.

As to the movie, I'm not convinced I buy the notion that people are missing the humor. Nearly all of the reviews I've read have specifically referenced the humor, many of which even pointed to it as the only thing that worked at all.

But then I'm not sure the kind of anarchic Looney Toons style humor I've heard described is entirely appropriate to the material that Miller made such a explicit point that he was intending to pay tribute to.

Mob, I agree. In fact, until it became a subject of such grandiose controversy, it hadn't occurred to me to make any effort to see. I was, and am, annoyed that Miller promised something that would hold true to Eisner and then delivered something that not only fails to deliver that, but honestly shows not the slightest effort to deliver that.

But, yes, even if done in the old-fashioned style of classic Spirit comics, it should have a much different style than the extremely heavy-handed sound of the Sin City books and movie.

Neil Sarver said...

Ed, yes, I didn't miss you. I just needed to take a breath in writing on this.

I'm never sure I buy the same mind/same pen theory, although I've seen it expressed and see where it comes from. Certainly where the story and the art and the way they're expressed grow out of one-another, it's always helpful, in many cases, if they're coming out of one mind.

But then I think that underplays, and our modern American society that rather deifies the individual tends to underplay the potential value of collaboration and teamwork. Certainly some visions should be individual, but oftentimes bringing multiple people into something can bring out ideas and spark people to accomplishments that neither could have or would have achieved as separate individuals. I'm willing to suggest neither as having intrinsic value above the other.

That's not to say I think work in any medium is benefitted from committee thinking and an excess of lowest-common-denominator finding and pushing against commercial risk thinking. I can even go on about why ultimately even that thinking is anti-productive... the greatest commercial rewards almost always a borne from some risk. Not to mention the fact that works of art that transcend that are infinitely more likely to stand the test of time and be continuing sources of commercial reward...

... but then that's complicated, and I've long past the point where it held any particular relevance...

For the record, I'm also terribly unfamiliar with Grant Morrison. I've never found the "I wanna start here!" book, so I've avoided many, partly because they always seem to be leaping into a gigantic lake right in the middle.

Alan Moore does definitely go "too far up his own ass", and I'd hardly be the person to stand up and say that nothing he's not doesn't work for me, but certainly the things I don't like remain clearly the work of someone of immense talent, even genius.

But again, I think that kind of brilliance is an exception regardless of methodology.

Ed Howard said...

Neil, re: the individual writer/artist versus the team: I wouldn't say one is inherently superior to the other, and there are of course many examples of great collaborations in comics. However, the mainstream American comics industry is generally not geared towards bringing together interesting collaborations of writers and artists. It's more about getting out a comic book as efficiently and regularly as possible. The assembly-line method of production, which not only splits art from writing but even divvies up the responsibility for the art to 3 or 4 different people, is a strictly commercial expediency, and causes much of the bland, dull style in mainstream comics. It's a good business model but a poor way of making art. Even when a great artist like Jack Kirby gets a spot in the assembly-line, he is often subjected to the vagaries of the other artists; disinterested or incompatible inkers often smothered Kirby's idiosyncratic style, and for much of his career he had little choice over who inked his pencils. It's for this reason that the vast majority of great American comics have been produced when a single individual is at the helm. Grant Morrison is actually a good case in point: many of his works, even his best ones, have been marred by inconsistent art teams.

Re: Alan Moore, I'm totally agreed that even when he exceeds the bounds of his own tremendous ambition, he's never less than worth reading. And his best work is among the best the medium has to offer.

Re: Grant Morrison, jump on in! I wouldn't recommend my favorites The Invisibles or The Filth as a starting point, simply because they're so incredibly dense and difficult, but there are plenty of other ways to dip your toes into Morrison's work. We3 and Seaguy are both slim single-volume works, and both provide a great introduction to Morrison's work: his surrealist humor, sci-fi philosophy, and existential absurdities. From there, I'd move on to obvious touchpoints like Doom Patrol and Animal Man before finally moving on to the dense, complex later books I mentioned already.

Neil Sarver said...

I'll follow the bouncing re:s.

Re: the individual writer/artist versus the team: Yes, I completely agree with you here. Obviously within the current way of mainstream comics, a single writer/artist is going to most often mean that either the person involved is working outside of that mainstream and, as such, has some potential to be breaking forth from that or they are someone with proven talent.

And, yes, the combination of great writing and great art is always the best. I said above that "Watchmen" would hold up with a merely competent artist, and I'll stand by that. I suspect Dave Gibbons would also concur that the writing is indeed that good. To all of our benefit, Mr. Gibbons is not merely competent and did, in fact, elevate it beyond to a level that it is, and shall long be, one of the great examples of the medium.

All of this is the same as with any collaborative or potentially collaborative medium. A TV series writing staff should be able to all benefit each other and write something bigger and better than any of them would have alone. But obviously lots are just pieced together for convenience, money and existing contracts and then hampered by production companies, censors, networks, etc., and produce things that are below what most or all of the writers were capable of.

Business mindedness is a complicated issue in artistic ventures. Some kind of balance is ideal. The pure corporate, lowest-common-denominator, copycat thinking rarely results in anything that anyone is anywhere close to as interested in as they could be. And pure art for art's sake, I'm doing what I want with no consideration for what anyone likes rarely does either.

See, this is what I meant to stop yammering about!

Re: Morrison. I'll keep that list and ordering in mind next time I'm at the comic store. Thanks!

Neil Sarver said...

Just adding Please, Frank Miller, Don't Hurt 'Em because it needs to be part of the record, and it made me laugh.

Neil Sarver said...

For the record, if someone else had written the original post here and I came across it, I'd almost undoubtedly get into a big ol' snit about Frank Miller and Alan Moore both being storytellers and that storytelling is the skill, etc.

I don't specifically disagree with either version of myself in this. In fact, I'm quite ambivilant over the whole notion. Is the question of whether Frank Miller is a great storyteller with occasionally questionable judgment about some elements - choosing to write a version of his style Batman for Jim Lee to draw or re-inventing The Spirit in a most unique and untrue way after claiming he was going to remain true, y'know, to the spirit (or The Spirit), etc. - or a writer whose work varies wildly but whose skills as an artist and storyteller sometimes make up the difference and more even relevant? Or what is the question?

In the end, I'm not sure. Except that I'm sure that all of it means that, to me, Miller has still not achieved irrelevance by any standard.

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