This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on June 23, 2016.
Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
You ever have trouble reading a creator’s work because you discovered their later, racist stuff?
I see we’re using photographic aids for this segment now. That’s neat; I just wish the very first one wasn’t this aggravating.
For any readers who are curious: That’s a sequence from Daredevil Annual #1 (vol. 3) written and drawn by Alan Davis. It’s a story about Daredevil getting some assistance from the worst jumble of Haitian stereotypes stuffed into a ratty suit and given a terrible phonetic accent.
It’s also disappointing because Davis has produced some pretty fine comics without any baffling and offensive figures in them. If you discovered him working from his older work towards newer things, then you’ll likely recall him from Captain Britain with Alan Moore and Excalibur with Chris Claremont. That’s where I first came across his artwork as I ran through classic X-Men when I was very young.
Both of those series allowed Davis to indulge in creating some very weird and extra-worldly stuff. He helped form the basis of the Captain Britain Corps, many multi-versal monsters, and great new designs for heroes like Meggan. Those are both some really good looking comics and generally enjoyable reads, even today. And as the hosts of “Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men” have pointed out many times, the dude draws some really, really good looking hair. Seriously, Davis’ depiction of hair flows so strong the Hoover Dam couldn’t stop it.
But here’s the thing, if my first encounter with Davis was this issue of Daredevil, then I can’t believe I would be inclined to seek more of his work out. Even with a strong recommendation, I’d be considering either of those books for having Moore or Claremont attached than Davis. And I certainly couldn’t find fault with anyone not checking out any of that work ever given how Davis chooses to depict the only black man in the strip above, especially when you consider it’s a career dominated by telling the stories of white characters.
There’s no arguing that comic is troubling and I’m glad you didn’t ask me to dig too deep into the semiotics of why that is. While I have no problem pointing it out and agreeing, I’m not the best equipped person for discussing exactly how damaging or problematic this particular presentation may be. I feel much more confident discussing my personal relationship with comics work than and you decided to ask me about whether I was ever personally troubled by the discovery of “later, racist stuff” from creators I enjoy.
So it looks like we’re talking about later Frank Miller again.
No offense to Alan Davis, but neither his talents nor his racism rival that of Frank. That’s either the worst compliment or weirdest insult he has ever received. In any case, it’s a true statement. Miller is one of the true legends of modern American comics with a vision and influence that we can’t truly map for many years to come. His work on Daredevil, The Dark Knight Returns, Ronin, Sin City, and so many other comics is revered for good reason. He changed how a generation of readers and artists approach the medium, emphasizing heavy contrasts, stylized inking, and impactful, violent storytelling as staples. For better or worse, artists and writers alike are still aping his style more than 30 years after he really hit the scene.
Miller is also, without a doubt, a man with many demons that have been funnelled into unjustifiable hatred towards some of his fellow human beings. When you read his bibliography in chronological order, it isn’t hard to see strains of misogyny, racism, and Islamophobia creeping into Miller’s comics before becoming the central theme of many.
Since we’re talking about “later stuff”, let’s take a look at some of the latest from Miller, comics like DKIII: The Master Race and Holy Terror. Both are clear reactions to the America’s “War on Terror” fueled by Islamophobia. The antagonists in each series are terrorist cells obsessed with destroying America and a poorly defined set of Western values. In the case of Holy Terror, the terrorists are undoubtedly Muslim. A woman wears a hijab and speaks of her sexual purity before committing a suicide bombing. The hordes of male terrorists are composed of the grossest caricatures of Middle Eastern Muslims imaginable. You cannot find nuance in this story; it’s all as obvious and mean as it appears. To Miller everyone except for The Fixer (a Batman-analog), and his Catwoman and Commissioner Gordon-like sidekicks are the enemy and they are all Muslim.
Miller can call Holy Terror whatever he wants, but labeling something as “propaganda” doesn’t make something any less hateful or damaging.
In DKIII there is the slightest veil of obfuscation between the enemies of the story and Muslim terrorists. Here the bad guys are religious extremists from the Bottle City of Kandor. The speech of their leader is pure demagoguery clearly aping the extended videos sent by leaders like Osama bin Laden. He encourages his followers bombing of cities into rubble in order to spread their truth, and exhibits a variety of other behaviors associated with Islamic-adjacent terrorist groups.
All of this ugliness towards both the religion of Islam and racial heritage found in the Middle East doesn’t even take into account how Miller depicts women visually. In Holy Terror every woman is a sex object, all two of them. One is the suicide bomber obsessed with her own sexuality as she explodes. The other is a cat burglar named Natalie Stack (the last name is no accident) who is made to look as fuckable as possible even when being shredded by nails. Miller lives and dies by the Madonna-Whore dichotomy and skews towards the latter of the two hard.
All of this is to say that Frank Miller has written some pretty gross shit in his later years. We can talk about how the visuals function and the craft and evolution of his artwork, but on a basic moral level it’s some plain, vile stuff.
So how do you square that with his talent and influence as an artist?
Before I answer that question, please let me be clear that I am not here to prescribe a response. Everyone’s relationship with art is personal and their choices regarding what to read and how to respond is entirely up to them. I’m not here to tell others about a “best” or “right” response; I’m just going to talk about my own.
And I repeat, how do you square Miller’s open Islamophobia, racism, and sexism with his immense talent and influence as an artist?
Maybe it’s as simple as, you don’t.
Back in the 1980s Frank Miller changed comics, and I would argue he changed them for the better. He created classic works that pushed the medium forward and helped develop a new generation of creators. Those works are truly great and still represent a wealth of artistic and storytelling knowledge to be studied.
But along the way something changed. Maybe it has to do with drugs or brain chemistry or a nasty divorce or (almost certainly) 9/11 or, quite possibly, a combination of all four things and more. Miller’s perspective on the world changed. A focus on justice and equality in works like Daredevil or a somewhat restrained Randian view of evil in The Dark Knight Returns was altered and bloomed into something ugly and cruel.
Whatever happened, Miller changed and so did his art.
As human beings we are not singular points, but continuums. What I am today is not what I am tomorrow. I may not change much or at all in that brief of time, but over the course of years I can change radically. You can see that in Frank Miller in more ways than one. Just consider his style when drawing Daredevil versus Holy Terror, the two appear as if they were made by entirely different artists. The same could be said of the men filling those stories with meaning.
Whatever terribly misguided beliefs Miller now holds and populates his stories with, they do not retroactively degrade or demean works he created with a different philosophy in mind. If you read Daredevil or “Batman: Year One” as a comic dedicated to ideals of justice for all, then Holy Terror’s focus on providing justice for only some does not undercut that.
While it may be tough reconciling our love for certain comics with the bigotry espoused by their creators later in life, the two are not necessarily one and the same. Our readings, just like our reactions are personal. Our understandings of the work are as important as what a creator would go on to create decades later. As everything else changes, only the original work can stick around and attempt to speak for itself.
No one is Frank Miller in 1986, not me, not you, and not Frank Miller in 2016. That man is gone, but his work remains. I’d like to appreciate that.