Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Happy 58th Birthday Frank Miller!

If there had to be one face to represent the Copper Age of comics (the 80's) I'd pick Frank Miller to be it. When he came on the comics scene in the late 70's he brought something that was genuinely unique, and the work he did over that decade were some of the greatest moments in comics history.

Frank Miller, who was born on January 27, 1957 and will be 58 this year, is surrounded by some of his greatest works of the 80's; Elektra  and Daredevil, Batman and Robin (Carrie Kelley) from the Dark Knight Returns, and Ronin.
When Frank Miller hit the comics scene in the late 70's, the people at Marvel knew that they had something special and let us know on the splash page of his very first issue on Daredevil (#158, May 1979).

Frank liked Daredevil and asked to work on it. "When I first showed up in New York, I showed up with a bunch of comics, a bunch of samples, of guys in trench coats and old cars and such. And [comics editors] said, 'Where are the guys in tights?' And I had to learn how to do it. But as soon as a title came along, when [Daredevil signature artist] Gene Colan left Daredevil, I realized it was my secret in to do crime comics with a superhero in them. And so I lobbied for the title and got it". 

Despite the great art by Miller and Klaus Janson, Miller's inker and sometimes finisher on Daredevil, it was not a popular title as written under Roger McKenzie and Marvel was thinking about canceling it. This changed when Dennis O'Neil became editor. He saw Frank's writing abilities on a back up story in DD and offered him to be the full time writer of Daredevil. With his first issue writing DD Frank blew everyone away.

The first thing Frank did was turn Daredevil's life upside-down by retroactively giving Matt Murdock a long lost love.

Elektra was the daughter of a Greek diplomat who he met while attending law school.

Frank killed her father sending her off on the dark path of bounty hunter and assassin. The strong dichotomy of being in love with Matt and an assassin for hire created a wonderful contrast and tension to her character, torn between two worlds, not completely bad but not completely good.

This is what Miller does exceedingly well, he creates compelling characters with a rich past and realistic opposing motivations. When you are reading a Miller comic, you are not going to get cardboard cut-out characters taken from a text on superheroes 101, you get realistic people with rich emotional lives. In the late 70's, when most Marvel comics were still aping the campy, antiquated standard that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had created 20 years earlier, this is what set Miller apart from every other writer in the business. It also took another 20 years for the comics community as a whole to assimilate these kind of complex, realistic people into mainstream comics.

He went on to fill out the character of the Winston Fisk, the Kingpin of crime, an old advisory of Spider-Man that had fallen out of favor with contemporary audiences. Miller recreated Kingpin as a devoted husband deeply in love with his wife Vanessa who asked him to give up his criminal empire and life of crime for her.
Frank wrote a stunning 3 part story starting with issue #170 about Winston Fisk's reestablishing himself as the Kingpin.
But before he could completely divest himself of his criminal ties, Vanessa became the victim of his enemies positioning for power and was presumed dead. This brought the Kingpin back into the criminal world with a vengeance, and made him more dangerous than he had ever been before. His passionate love for Vanessa and his sad loss of her also made him incredibly sympathetic to readers giving his character a similar dichotomy to Elektra's and making his rivalry with Daredevil all the more poignant.

And to round out the cast Miller brought in Bullseye, a heartless assassin for hire who has a the uncanny ability to turn any ordinary object into a lethal weapon.

Bullseye was a pragmatic opportunist who would work for anyone who offered him the right amount of money.
Here we get a glimpse at Miller's unique style of sequencing a page. He has created this page of repetitive long narrow panels, accenting the little changes in each panel like the way the pictures transition from Bullseye holding the gun to Kingpin's head to lighting the Kingpin's cigarette, all done with a minimum of captions. It is these subtleties that make Frank Miller the master of the sequential arts that he is
With this strong, varied cast Miller set up a rivalry between Bullseye and Elektra for the position of chief assassin for the Kingpin. This story line would eventually culminate into one of the most memorable and explosive sequences of the whole of the 80's, maybe even the whole of comics history -
The Death of Elektra! from Daredevil #181.

Here Frank doesn't use any captions and hardly any dialog, letting the stark, powerful images do all of the story telling. This style of story telling is directly opposed to Stan Lee's style of heavy captions explaining every little action, but one has to remember that Stan's primary contribution to most of his comics was the dialog, as the artists usually did the story telling and page breakdowns. Miller, being an artist, he could do away with words and let the pictures do the talking.
Miller wrote Daredevil for 2 years before he left in 1983 to work on other projects. His next project would be an independent project which he wrote, drew, inked and even edited. The only really big contributor to the book besides Miller is Lynn Varley the colorist. DC Comics gave Miller a blank check, allowing him and Varley to even visit the printing plant and explore different kinds of high end paper and printing techniques that they could use to make the best book possible. That project would become Ronin!

Ronin originally came out as a 6 issue mini series between July 1983 and Aug 1984 from DC Comics.

In Ronin Miller would combine his love of Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's Japanese samurai epic, Lone Wolf and Cub...

Miller would imitate the samurai aspects of Lone Wolf and Cub as well as the way they use motion lines as seen here. 

And his love for the European work he saw in Heavy Metal Magazine like that of French, Jean "Moebius" Giraud. 

From Moebius Miller would take the cool otherworldly aspects of Ronin as well as the unusual coloring. 
Though he borrowed from other sources, his page designs and sequences are all his own. Ronin has some of his most beautiful innovative work of his whole career in it.

Miller rarely uses the grid arrangement in Ronin preferring a horizontal panel arrangement and when he does use a grid, he does interesting things with it like he did in the upper and lower left corners, using it to show the passing of time. 
Miller's panel usage is so dynamic and innovative as seen here where he uses a vertical panel layout. 
When Miller does use a grid layout he uses it in a completely new an original way as he did here showing the slow progression of a transformation from man to demon. 
Miller can even give meaning to empty color panels as he does here as he illustrates the passing of time with them. That is a true mastery of the comics medium.
Miller would go on to create his most prestigious work with Batman, the Dark Knight Returns where he would apply all that he created with his earlier work into the Batman mythos.

He would also go on to work with some of the biggest names in comics on some of the greatest comics ever made like David Mazzucchelli on Daredevil Born Again and Batman Year One...

And with the idiosyncratic Bill Sienkiewicz on the 8 part maxi series Elektra Assassin and the graphic novel Daredevil, Love and War.

Miller's work was so revolutionary that he actually helped the whole medium grow. At the time the biggest artists were Byrne and Perez. Kirby, Ditko and Adams were still very much revered by the comics community and most of the artwork being produced was in the vain of Kirby. For Miller to look to Moebius and Kojima, he was expanding the American comics lexicon as well as adding his own unique way of working with comics. He was popular enough to get people to sit up and look at the unique stuff that he was producing, influencing the whole industry from the 80's on. He is THE 80's artist more than anyone else, representing all that was special about the 80's so much so that even today we are seeing comics like the modern Bendis' Daredevil and Brubaker and Rucka's Gotham Central working from his influence and even Hollywood is producing movies made of his work like the blockbuster Batman Begins and Batman Year One the animated movie. Miller's influence on the industry can't be overstated enough. He is one of the greatest creators who helped the medium to expand and grow at a really pivotal time in the history of comics, when comics audiences where growing up and wanted a comic that grew up with them, and Miller gave them that comic.

Happy Birthday
Frank Miller!
And Many more!

Frank Miller talks about his 80's work in a 1987 interview in the Masters of Comic Book Art.

No comments:

Post a Comment