Focus on the Artist: Frank Miller’s Groundbreaking Daredevil.

NOTE: I want to remind the faithful reader that this segment is not supposed to be a detail bibliography or an encyclopedic entry on the life and works of the artists highlighted. It is to expose the artist to audiences that may not be aware of the work.

I just recently got my greedy hands on a collection of 3 TBP’s that I’ve been yearning for a long time. At the beginning of 2000 Marvel released the Trade Paperback collection of DAREDEVIL VISIONARIES: Frank Miller.

 

If memory serves me correctly (and that’s because I’m too lazy to get up and actually open the books that are right here on my shelf, and my first Google Search didn’t return the results I wanted) these TPB compile the issues of Daredevil starting at number 158 and move through issue 190 or 191 (I’ll Google it later, or you can Google it yourself).

As of the time of this blog entry, in 2011, we may know Miller from his foray into movies, with the breathtaking 300 and Sin City, and if you are reading this blog, you are likely to be familiar with his Comics-works The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City, and maybe even Ronin.

But where Miller cut his teeth and established himself as a name to reckon with was working for Marvel, and experimenting with the title Daredevil. If I recall correctly the first issues of the series were co-written with other writers. Roger McKenzie comes to mind but a few issues into the collection, Miller takes over not only as penciler but as writer.

As a writer Miller usually doesn’t get enough credit as an innovator. He gave gravitas to the Marvel universe, gave density & reality in a world of fantasy. He paired Elektra with Bullseye and later Mr. Miller killed his own creation. That was something rarely done in Marvel comics at least in the early 80’s. And that’s what I mean for Gravitas.

You can appreciate how Miller excels as a story-plotter in his early issues of the run, when he is penciling the scripts that other come up with. Here Frank Miller reminds me of the creative and imaginative kid that is sitting by the chimney listening to his grandfather telling his fantastic stories, and while it is normal for all the kids in the room imagine something different about the tale being told, Frank Miller is the one with most details, with more colors, with more vivid characterizations and more attention to detail out of all the kids in the room.

Slowly Marvel acquiesce with him and lets him start writing and Frank wants to tell noir stories. And Frank wants to tell crime stories; he wants to focus on the gangs, on the rackets, on the thugs and the purse snatchers.

But this is Marvel, one of The Big Two, and if your character doesn’t wear pajamas, he has to wear a towel around his neck, (sorry, I meant a cape) so has to focus on Daredevil and pair him with lots of baddies. But note that instead, he takes it in a direction that focuses the story on the Kingping, a man with strength but mostly a strategist, who is busy building a crime empire. And here lies the underrated genius of Frank Miller: He beats Marvel at his own game, getting away with still telling the stories he wants to tell: Stories about normal people affected by extraordinary events. And crime.

He makes Matt Murdock (In case there are some sacrilegious people not knowing what I’m talking about, that is the other identity of Daredevil) rekindle his  college love, and creates conflict by making her a professional killer. Talk about mixing romance with action. Stan Lee would be proud of him, agreeing he could’ve thought of that for Millie (A character Stan created for Marvel and the Romance Line of comics they once published).

Frank also humanizes the villains to a different degree. The Kingpin gets also a love interest, and we get to witness his pathos when he loses her, and loses much of his humanity in the process. When Marvel complains that there are not enough costumed super villains, he brings in Bullseye, and makes him a perfect psychopath who instead of having some flashy power, he has the interesting trait of being able to treat everything as a weapon. But just in case, he also humanizes him making him the victim of a brain tumor.

Good stuff, for the 80’s!

Now, where Frank Miller made a difference for me was in his visual-storytelling.

At the time that I had his work in my hands, he actually inspired me (a starry-eyed teen dreaming of comics and fame) to focus on movement, and dynamic page-composition, instead of illustration and fidelity-based techniques that had preoccupied me so much until then.

Frank Miller brought the grandeur of the movie screen to the comics. He was making you read a page like a camera was panning on a big budget Hollywood production, now focusing on the skyscrapers, now panning from the ground up, now doing a close up for dramatic effect, now doing a flashy splash page.

I remember doing the transition from issue 158 to 159 and immediately noticing the differences. Allow me to explain. Issue 158 has talking anthropomorphic animals, an intangible foe with a creepy cape and hat, and a final showdown in a cemetery.

Standard stuff. Very bleh!

Enter issue 159.

The panels in the first pages are organized in a way that they set the slow-paced tempo of the intro he wants to convey. That’s in the first 3 pages, where Frank Miller follows the Movie-making convention of using the beginning of the film to set your story and establish your motives. His creative genius comes up with the idea drawing a splash page that directly portrays people watching a movie… of Daredevil.

Wow, talk about hinting at where his style is headed, don’t you think?

DAREDEVIL159.page1 Sans Color, found on a website that auctions art.

And here there are no super villains in pajamas (except, of course, the title-character, who was wearing his pajamas on his outings long before Frank Miller came to the scene). Only gangsters on an empty dock in the harbor, and a great old style fist-to-cuffs scrap!

But look at the panel where Daredevil uses his senses to tell the positions of the bad guys waiting for him. It has film greatness written all over it, except that in this case, the comic is greater than any film.

And moving on to the actual battle against the gangsters, we discover that the panels are laid out in such a way that the readers feels tired (in a good way) from so much action in a cramped space!

Great fight ensues, and at the end someone escapes with a… film camera?? And how does Frank Miller end the comic? In an elegant circular-way with another page showing a movie projector in the background.

This issue is seminal at more levels. We rediscover Daredevil as the graceful acrobat, and we are introduced to Turk, a comedic-relief bad-guy that will make recurring appearances when we need explanations. Bullseye makes a villainous appearance behind the courtains, and the nightlife in New York City is shown to us a populated by thugs and a dangerous place (as it actually was in the 80’s before the mayor Guliani converted Times Square in Disney Park).

Now one thing was clear in these early issues: Miller was not a perfectionist in search of photo-realistic style, nor was he a good inker. He did great pencils and Marvel was smart enough to pair him with the incomparable Klaus Janson, and other times the amazing Terry Austin, and others Joe Rubinstein, all long lasting vets in the inking department at Marvel. All of them greatly increased and improved the quality of the already marvelous layouts that Miller is such a master at.

This opens the door for me to make the following “controversial” statement (and please, don’t be too quick casting rocks at me. Extend me the courtesy of finish reading my statement):

Frank Miller HAS NOT made another contribution to visual-story telling as important as the one he did with the Daredevil work he did for Marvel.

And now, before you close the browser and delete my blog from your bookmarks, let me qualify that statement a bit further:

He DID important strives and changes in the comic book industry since Marvel’s Daredevil.

He DID amazing progress to the rights and compensation of artists in comics.

He DID groundbreaking experimentations on comics since.

I agree to all of that and more:

I agree that Sin City is at times stunning. I also recognize that Miller made Sin City his little (and beautiful) technique-experimentation lab, where he took risks and experimented in ways that were innovative and aesthetically pleasant.

I agree that The Dark Knight Returns is a landmark as important in American Graphic Storytelling as it was Will Eisner’s Contract with God.

I also agree that in Dark Knight, he took risks and succeeded as a social commentarist and raised the comic to a realm that stands only with Watchmen and V for Vendetta, shoulder to shoulder.

He dared to expose governments as the source of corruption that they could be (and often are), and created a war where Heroes HAVE to takes sides. And he doesn’t do it with new characters, such as V or the cast of Watchmen. To his credit, he did it brilliantly with readily recognizable icons, such as Batman and Superman, and to do that well… that takes skill and guts!!

And I concede that 300 is an amazing piece of graphical storytelling. Both the Dark Knight returns and 300 are in my collection in hardcover edition.

But the reason why I stand behind my initial statement is as follows:

Frank Miller was still an up-and-comer in the early 80’s, he dared to do what he did with Daredevil and thanks to the constraints that Marvel imposed on him (Yes I put “constrains” and “Marvel” together with the word “THANKS” in the same phrase! Where is my trophy??) he was forced to do two things he hasn’t done TOGETHER SINCE:

1)     He hasn’t revised and revitalized an existing character like he did in Daredevil. Yes, the Batman in the Dark Knight is an amazing re-work and so is the Superman character, but in this Graphic Novel we are lacking my second point with the same strength.

and….(very important, not an “or”)

2)     He hasn’t revolutionized the Comic Story-board the way he did it back in Daredevil. Yes, 300 was a progressive step, doing the book in landscape format, and taking advantage of the better layout. But he wasn’t revisiting existing characters (like I explain in point 1). Yes, Sin City experimented brilliantly with Black and White and the use of a monochrome tonality, (Red for the girl’s dress or yellow for the bastard, etc) and other technical effects, (Marvin’s walk in the rain) but here he is also creating his own mythos and constructing his own pantheon of memorable characters.

I am glad and grateful of the direction that Frank Miller has taken after Marvel.

His foray into the world of graphic novels, and the success that brought the Dark Knight opened the field for artists to cross between working for The Big Two without the reprimands and black-listing that was standard practice up till the time.

He also introduced the negotiation of new forms of contracts where residuals were more common, and he is also an avid contributor to great causes such as the Hero Initiative and the Liberty Foundation against censorship in comics.

Frank Miller is now enjoying his fame, and producing comics at his pace and with the fair remuneration that artist and creations should be getting. I cringe when I hear disenchanted colleagues in the field bitch that people like Frank Miller or John Byrne make too much money and are not worth it! I always reply that the problem was that the previous generations of artists were not able (for many different reasons, some very justified, some not so much) to get paid what they were worth, since the market conditions were very much skewed in favor of the publishing companies.

So, just to be clear, I totally admire and still purchase the works that Mr. Miller produces (some more than others, of course).

But I stand by my statement that he hasn’t contributed and innovated into the field of comics as much as he did since the Daredevil for Marvel, for the TWO equally important reasons I state above, who happen in equal measure at the same time.

I still refer young artists who need help working on their storyboards to Frank Miller. And they bring up Sin City or 300 and I shake my head and steer them towards Daredevil, and the amazing fight in issue 159. Or the fight with Bullseye in a later issue. The homage to Will Eisner he paid in the splash pages, where he uses the New York City props as staging areas for the credits; the techniques of the floating papers with the credits that had been used in The Spirit before and the Frank Miller had graciously acknowledged admiring and imitating.

Frank Miller was a cartoonist working within artificial constraints (the ones imposed by Marvel, like “Don’t change the character too much!” and “Stay faithful to the previous history!” or the one that goes “Do action the Marvel Way!” etc) and what makes him worthy of total praise (and me dedicating him a blog entry) is that he emerged from that experience brilliantly! He not only overcame the challenge, but also took the opportunity to excel and innovate, bringing cinematic story-boards to the comic world. What better way to convey dynamism and movement than having your public relate to what is more familiar to them? Moving Images!

And those AMAZING layouts still serve countless up and coming artists to figure how to lay out a page, how to set up and follow through a fight scene (he kicks with his left, he CAN”T land also on his left leg! C’mon!!).

For this, I still recommend that you search your nearest comic book store and buy this collection.

So, on my Critics rating, DAREDEVIL VISIONARIES: Frank Miller gets

9 1/2 STARS

QUICK BIO NOTES: Frank Miller

Born: January 27, 1957  Olney, Maryland, U.S.

SOME OTHER WORKS BY FRANK MILLER WORTH CHECKING OUT:


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