Wednesday, April 22, 2009

This is... Frank Miller

Frank Miller, born January 27th, 1957, is one of the most respected and influential comic book and graphic novel artists, on par with Alan Moore or Art Speigelman. While he has dabbled in a number of roles, including writer, movie director and screenwriter, I will focus on his pencil and ink works. Frank Miller, as so many of the artists involved in the graphic novel medium, grew up reading and appreciating comic books; however, he moved away from the medium during his teenage years and focused on other fictional forms, including detective novels and Hitchcock's films. Throughout his formative years, Frank Miller maintained a sharp interest in fantasy, regardless of the medium, though his melding of fantastic and realistic elements is often rather toned-down. Miller made his professional splash when he took over Daredevil in 1979, quickly turning the fading, obscure warrior into a fan favorite.

Artistically, Frank Miller's expressive, rather loose drawing style sets him apart from the vast majority of other mainstream comic book artists. Not a fan of the photorealism to which many of his colleagues strive for, such as Alex Ross, he considers sequential art to be more of an abstract, mannerist medium in which sharp visual dichotomies, such as black ink on white paper, are used to convey a story. This renders his visual style rather dynamic; his sketchy, almost cartoony characters seem to convey their emotional, internal states more directly through their silhouettes. In a way, this slight exaggeration of the human form to enhance the internal transparency of its subject is an interesting compromise between the naked expressiveness of free-form cartoons and the restrained depictions of realist drawings.

While Frank Miller has been the contributor in some fashion to a number of efforts during the past thirty years, I will focus on his three most famous works: Batman: The Dark Knight, Sin City and 300. The first of these is the oldest, having been released in a four part run in 1986. In it, Miller redefines the Batman mythos, breaking away from the gradual softening of the character and highlighting the complex inner turmoil that necessarily accompanies an individual willing to don a mask and take on the grittiest segments of society. Gone is the kid-friendly sunshine of traditional Superman comics, as well as the ever-expanding constellations of superheroes that have little human left in them. Instead, Miller explores a scary world that can only be tamed by a scarier man. Batman, then, becomes both more human, through his internal turmoil, and more superhuman, by our greater understanding of the gulf between the psychology of this man and the common folk. This work was fundamental, along with Alan Moore's Watchmen, for legitimizing the superhero comic book as an art form.

In Sin City, which, like 300, has recently made new inroads into popular culture due to the successful movie version, Miller combines two loves: comic books and hard-boiled detective novels. Steering completely away from men in tights, the series is an homage to the seedy city underbelly often explored in film noir, where prostitution, mafias, drug deals and other illicit activities serve as the harsh background for the even harsher protagonists. Artistically, the series, first published in 1992 and ongoing, is renowned for its stark black and white style. At times, the panels become positive space/negative space optical illusions, utilizing characters as both foreground and background. Not shying away from brutality or experimentation, both visually and narratively, this series has stretched the boundaries of the possible in the graphic novel medium.

Finally, we turn to 300, a limited edition oversized graphic novel released in 1998 which is now a firm element of mainstream attention after the very successful 2007 film. In the graphic novel, Miller set out to depict the battle of Thermopylae, in which a small band of Spartan warriors hold off the massive Persian army, at the cost of their lives. Strongly influenced by the 1962 film The 300 Spartans, the book has a cinematographic ambiance, with larger-than-life depictions of battles, army movements and the rugged Greek landscape. While obviously restricted by the historical nature of the conflict, Miller still manages to infuse the yarn with his trademark elements of intense emotions and extreme, almost disjointed depictions of violence. The Spartan warriors, in particular, come to life in a way that transcends their historical origins, in a way becoming more legendary through their more human, flawed depictions. Another important stylistic effect is the near minimal dialog, particularly in the action sequences, which highlights the film-like quality of the work.

Milo, George (ed). "The Comics Journal Library, Volume Two, Frank Miller: The Interviews 1981-2003". Fantagraphics Books, Seattle, WA, 2003.
Miller, Frank. "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns". DC Comics, New York, NY, 1986.

Images taken from:
"Frank Miller". Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. .

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