Frank Miller has had an enormous impact on creative control and the suppression of the creative community in comics. Here is an outline of one of his greatest achievements:
The Darker Dark Knight
by Lucas Nickerson
A familiar scene unfolds as Batman runs through a funhouse filled with mirrors after his long-time enemy, the maniacal Joker. As the chase ensues, Batman spins a handful of small bat-shaped darts at his foe. The darts strike their target in multiple locations, including one in the eye socket of the Joker. The chase turns into close combat as Batman and the Joker struggle. As the Joker savagely thrusts a knife repeatedly into the Dark Knight’s side, Batman makes a brutal, hasty decision. “His neck…Will have to do…” The Joker slumps over, paralyzed. “They’ll kill you for this…And they’ll never know…That you didn’t have the nerve…I’ll…See you…In Hell.” The Joker twists “with a Devil’s strength (pp.47),” and for the next three panels he laughs while twisting his body until his neck is completely broken. Batman says his goodbye by spitting into the dead Joker’s good eye. To make good his escape, Batman sets one of the responding police officers on fire then uses a gun to detonate a packet of C4 that promptly brings the roof down on the rest of the police. This is not the campy, TV friendly Batman made popular by Adam West in the 1960s. This is definitely not your parent’s Batman. This Batman is bolder, meaner, and is strikingly more mythic in comparison. This is Frank Miller’s Batman.
The work that Frank Miller had done on the 1986 comic series The Dark Knight Returns revolutionized the mainstream comics industry and brought it into a realm that was long thought to be unattainable by the medium. No longer did comic books have to be considered juvenile literature, characterized by circus-like bright costumes and dumb- downed good vs. evil content. Batman had finally matured. As Alan Moore writes in the graphic novel’s introduction, “He has taken a character whose every trivial and incidental detail is graven in stone on the hearts and minds of the comic fans that make up his audience and managed to dramatically redefine that character without contradicting one jolt of the character’s mythology.” How was such a violent work published into a medium that held itself to the strictest of censoring codes? It was simply published without the approval of the Comics Code Authority.
For the latter half of the 20th century, the comic book industry had suffered from a self-imposed, creatively stifling, and rarely challenged type of censorship: The Comics Code Authority. The code came about after suffering years of post-WWII anti-communist hysterias, in which many creative fields were regulated at the expense of expression. In the mid 1950s the comic book industry was roiling with fear over a Senate investigation into the influence and effect of the violence contained in comic books. Dr. Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist at the forefront of the assault on comic books declared that comic books had been “in intent and effect, demoralizing the morals of youth. (Hadju pp.101)” His book, The Seduction of the Innocent was a rallying cry to concerned parents to enact measures to gain control of the violent content in comics. In his book, Wertham uses the most terrifying and out of context examples in order to paint comic books as the ultimate destructive influence on the morals of youth. He argues that the content of popular comic books had led children down a path of juvenile delinquency and violent criminal behavior. One example portrays comics not only as violent, but as homoerotic. He states in his book that the Batman comic “is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” And he asserts that “only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoerotism which pervades the adventures of the mature ‘Batman’ and his young friend ‘Robin.’ (Terril pp.1)” While Wertham’s thin bigoted theory may not seem today to be of much consequence, but in the less-than-tolerant era of 1950s America it was definitely considered an abhorable offense to the decency of society.
After years of suppression under the Comics Code Authority, Batman was finally able to ‘come out’, but not as a homosexual man living in a fantasy. Batman came out as a sociopath vigilante who enjoyed hurting his prey and lived in a violent, cruel world haunted by a sometimes misguided empathetic media. Miller is aware that his Batman is outside of the law. “Everything Batman does is, in fact, illegal. One of the fun things I do is explore the consequences of that. That is, there’s a warrant issued for his arrest, and I follow that to its logical conclusion. (Comic’s Journal pp.35)” Much like Clint Eastwood’s popular film character Dirt Harry, Miller thinks that “Eastwood is more in touch with what we should do with superheroes than virtually anybody in comics. Dirty Harry is clearly larger than life; and his behavior would certainly land him in jail. (CJ pp.35)” Batman is violent and often cruel in Miller’s world. On page twelve of the 2nd chapter, The Dark Knight hoists a captive criminal to the top a building and suspends him upside down as a form of torture. Batman states menacingly that “The scream alone was worth it. (pp.12)”
Miller’s use of the media in The Dark Knight Returns is also a novel approach in comics. The media is ever-present, often taking up a page at a time of talking head characters. The media is shown discussing viewpoints on the reemergence of Gotham city’s Batman. The effect perfectly illustrates the blazing discourse that takes place in the media. One media character declares of the Batman’s resurrection “That Batman flaptrap, well… It’s noisy, all right. That big cape and pointy ears—It’s great showbiz.” He goes on to say “I think the whole thing‘s just likely a hoax. Networks have done worse. (pp.10)” Using the media to illustrate the sides that public discourse can take illustrates Miller’s true intent:
What I’m trying to demonstrate in the Dark Knight series is that superheroes do come from a good idea, by portraying the city in somewhat more realistic terms and showing much more than I ever have of the way I think things actually happen in society and why they happen. I want to show that the good idea is strong and valuable. (CJ pp.34)
Miller’s early career in comics was a mix of frustration and discontent with the way the industry waned in the face of censorship. Miller saw the potential that was crushed out of comics during Wertham’s ‘witch hunt’ of the 50s. “As far as I know, the comic’s industry has never done a fucking thing for the First Amendment. (CJ pp.51)” He believed that the industry and creators had begun to view themselves “as worthless and impotent.” He urged other artists to take a stand against creative suppression by recognizing the cultural power of comics. “We are an active participant in what’s going on in the media. (CJ pp.51)” His writing content and style was often suppressed by editors who feared a new national backlash. His stories pushed content into more mature realms, but often he had to haggle to even get the word “god” into a nun’s prayer. With The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller was finally offered his uninhibited shot at remaking an iconic character in his own vision. The resulting work was triumphant in terms of complex content and critical success, but was also a blunt critique of censorship itself.
Possibly taking aim at Dr. Wertham himself, Miller uses a character named Dr. Wolper in The Dark Knight Returns to be the empathizer and advocate of the “economically disadvantaged and socially misaligned” criminals that Batman has waged war on. Dr. Wolper believes that criminals like the Joker and Two-Face are byproducts of Batman’s use of violence. He states that “Batman is himself responsible for the crimes he fights” and that “Every anti-social act can be traced to irresponsible media input. Given this, the presence of such an aberrant, violent force in the media can only lead to anti-social programming. (pp. 10)” Just as Dr. Wertham’s conclusion that comic books were the ultimate cause of delinquent behavior, Dr. Wolper’s conclusions were thin at best.
Sanitizing a character with such a rich and complex psyche is the true crime in Miller’s eyes. He would like to see comics as a story-telling medium grow and change with society, much like his transformation of Batman. After the completion and subsequent popularity of the The Dark Knight Returns, Miller hoped that others would be influenced by the mold that he had broken. Rather than let the culture consume “most insidious, value-destroying entertainment (CJ pp.39)” such as Saturday morning cartoons, which he argues were “teaching an entire generation that nothing means anything, that there’s nothing to fight for, no pain and no joy in life. (CJ pp.39)” Instead, he wanted to see new comics come out “that would make the normal pulp superhero comics look like Archie comics.” Miller wanted “to see stuff that’s genuinely using the form to tell stories (CJ pp.38)” that he wants to read. The following year, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s The Watchmen was published and eventually rose to comic and literary fame. Comics had reached the branches of high art. The subsequent success of The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen led to the decline of use and, ultimately, the dissolution of the Comics Code Authority. This year, 2011, marks the first year that no comic book or graphic novel will be published under the code. Instead, many publishers have opted to publish under their own ratings system designed to fit appropriate age groups, much like the ratings systems used by film and music. Miller still contests the idea of any form of censorship, or suppression as he prefers to call it. Comics must not be seen as the low art of the pop culture landscape. They do not have to be part of the empty “residual category (Storey pp.6)” of culture. Instead, the medium should progress as a form of true story-telling literature much like your average book; no suppression and no warnings, but plenty of complex content and ideas.
- Miller, Janson, et. al., Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, New York: DC Comics/Warner Books Inc., 1986.
- Hadju, David, The Ten-Cent Plague, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008.
- Brownstein, Charles, Eisner/Miller, Milwaukie: Dark Horse Books, 2005.
- Salisbury, Mark, Artists on Comic Art, London: Titan Books, 2000.
- The Comics Journal Library, Frank Miller: The Interviews: 1981-2003, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2003.
- McCloud, Scott, Reinventing Comics, New York: Paradox Press, 2000.
- Storey, John, John Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, New York: Longman, 2009.
- Terrill, Robert E., Spectacular Repression: Sanitizing the Batman, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 17: 4, 493 — 509, 2000. Downloaded February 19, 2011.