Frank Miller. Frank Miller. Frank. Miller. Roll it around in your brain. Really think about what that name means to you because depending on when you started reading comics, or at the very least how well you know your comics history, the name probably means very different things to very different people. Frank Miller, for those who only have a passing knowledge, has been in the business of comics since the 70s but it wouldn’t be until the mid-80s that he would deliver what many believe to be his magnum opus: The Dark Knight Returns.
Considered by many to be THE absolute best Batman story ever written, it propelled Frank Miller to the top of stardom. But as a writer in his mid-20s who had already ascended to the peak of where most don’t reach until their 40s, where was he to go from there?
I don’t use the term “peak” lightly either, he did more than just write an amazing story, he was credited with revitalizing a flagging character (this was post-campy Adam West Batman and no one really knew what to do with the character) and in addition to that he perfected what Alan Moore would call the “pacing” of a comic book when talking about Miller in his “On Writing” book. When Frank Miller wrote and drew a book, he very fastidiously controlled how quickly the reader’s eye moved across the page. He was one of the first to have little to no dialog in fight panels so that you, as the reader, read those panels faster, thus giving the fight a brisk, realistic pace (compare that to many writers even today who clog what’s supposed to be a single punch or sword swing with line after line of text that the person couldn’t possibly be saying that quickly).
Take, for example, a book he drew: Wolverine’s first mini-series, which Chris Claremont wrote. Claremont is nothing if not verbose, and you can tell that he really wrote that dialog because almost every fight scene has a block of text narrating what’s going on in the fight. Until the end. The final fight in that book contains no dialog and only single-syllable sound effects. It’s only about three pages long, but contrast how much more powerful and effective it is when your eyes just pass over the page, seeing the action unfold in mere seconds, to when you have to stop and read during what’s supposed to be a pitched, heated battle. So a writer in his late twenties who people credit with not only revitalizing a character, but with perfecting an entire writing technique, I ask again: what was he to do?
Lest you begin to think this is going to be one long love-letter, I’ll tell you what he did: he wrote Sin City. But, as some have pointed out before me, he’d always been writing Sin City. Go back and read Dark Knight Returns after having read Sin City and see how Batman speaks exactly like a more in-control Marv. Read 300 or Ronin (both of which illustrate his expertise at pacing beautifully) and how the characters in that universe all talk like they’re in 1940s New York. Watch The Spirit and see how little it has in common with Will Eisner’s comic, but how much it has in common with Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Miller’s work. Sin City was, in my humble opinion, his true magnum opus, the book he’d always wanted to write, but it didn’t get as much attention as Dark Knight Returns because it wasn’t part of one of the Big Two Publishers. That has to grate on an artist’s nerves, so with the controversial All-Star Batman and Robin he seems to be writing it in “his style” of noire-inspired dialog as much as possible.
When Sin City came out, he’d resurrected a flagging franchise, AND written his magnum opus, which won him even more acclaim, and was still in his thirties. Again, dwell on that for a moment: Frank Miller had achieved the pinnacle of his chosen field and wasn't even forty yet. Writing is a job where most, even the best, don’t even get their break until they’re in their 30s or 40s. What should he have done? More importantly: what would you have him do?
Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t really enjoyed much work of his post-Sin City, but I can’t be terribly angry with him professionally for two very simple reasons. 1) I’m not even close to his equal in the industry and 2) I don’t really know what I want him to do from here. He still needs to make money, but art is, in general, driven by pathos.
Look at your favorite artist or writer or musician and look how much more driven they were when they were young, hungry and filled with unspeakable rage. Now look at what happened after they got famous. Some people use the phrase “sell-out,” but that’s not quite right, is it? It’s not that they’re end goal was to get lazy, people don’t wrack their brains and write for days on end because they don’t enjoy what they’re still doing, it’s just that they don’t NEED it anymore, and I think that may be what happened to Frank Miller. He got full, and that’s wonderful, but now what CAN he do that we, as a community, would be happy with? Could he EVER top The Dark Knight or Sin City? And would you want him to? Would it make his creations better or more readable? I don’t have the answers, I’m not trying to tell you how to feel, I just want you to think about it.