It’s never good to watch your heroes fail. When you base your art and your writing style on the work of a man that you worship and respect, only to find that he is only human, and the sort of person you’d go out of your way to avoid at a party, then the hit is even harder. Somehow, his mistakes rebound on you. All of a sudden, people pop out of the woodwork, saying how they’d known that the guy was a jerk for years, how his work was a clear indicator of his inner malaise. All of a sudden, you look like a fanboy and an idiot.
That’s what I’m going through at the moment, Readership. Because my all-time comic hero Frank Miller has apparently just outed himself as a close-minded, ill-informed rightwing jagoff.
It’s been a two-pronged assault on my delicate sensibilities. His latest release, Holy Terror, is a simplistic piece of propaganda that pits a Batman-like figure and a Catwoman analogue in a battle for a place that’s not too far from Gotham City against “Al-Queda”–a bunch of terrorist cliches in turbans that could have come out of a forties flag-waver. It was originally going to be a BatBook, but I guess DC had the smarts to turn it down, wisely seeing the damage that the story could do to the brand.
Meanwhile, following the release, Miller released a rant on his blog against Occupy Wall Street, in which he called them a bunch of rich kids who needed to get a job or join the army in the fight against the Islamist menace that was threatening America. It was a shocking diatribe, and set everything I’d held to be true about Frank on it’s ear. This was not the writer of some of my favourite comics of all time. This was Staff Sergeant R. Lee Ermey. This was Newt Gingrich. This was Tea Party polemic. What the hell had happened to my hero?
Well, the signs had always been there. Miller’s Give Me Liberty books had a strong libertarian streak, and demonised the American government as a bunch of soulless robots–quite literally by the point of Martha Washington Saves The World, where an android Surgeon General decides the best way to save America is to cleanse it of life. It’s down to a bunch of rebels led by the saintly Martha to save the day, take down the old guard and start a new world order. In his standout Batman and Daredevil books, his heroes stand alone against a corrupt and collapsing system. His cops are always taking pay from the wrong pockets. His public services are frequently disinterested jobsworths. Sin City, the series for which he’s best known these days, has been dogged by accusations of sexism since the start. As figures like SF author David Brin and my other comic hero Alan Moore suddenly weigh in with criticism of Frank’s body of work following the Occupy statement*, you can see the queue forming up behind them to put the boot in.
Yeah, hang on. Charges of sexism on Frank’s part conveniently ignore the fact that he’s created some of the strongest female characters in comics. Martha Washington and Elektra are tough, world-saving figures. Martha had a rough start in the slums of Cabrini Green in Chicago before going on to become a feared warrior and leader. Elektra Natchios regularly runs rings round everyone in the Marvel Universe. And they both pass the Bechdel Test.
We shouldn’t forget either that Frank’s main influences have always been rooted in the world of noir. He’s on record for his admiration of Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane, and noir in general has always been a morally dubious arena. Sin City is a clear homage to that murky universe. Sure, it ain’t subtle. But no-one ever claimed it was supposed to be. He called one of his collections Booze, Broads and Bullets, ferchrissakes. What the heck did you expect?
None of this is any defence of Holy Terror, which is by a country mile the worst thing he’s ever done. It’s an ugly, clunky mess of a book (quite literally, there’s thumbprints and ink splotches all over the shop) with a story that has no sense of space or time and characters that are broad caricatures with deeply suspect anatomy, posing in ways that the human body was never designed to accommodate. It feels like a badly-made parody. It feels like a Jack Chick tract for the Tea Party.
Again, I’m not defending the book. But Frank always said that he wanted to write a book that cited and celebrated the propaganda books of the forties. The sort of thing where Superman would fly across the Atlantic to punch out Hitler. His plan, and the origin of the title, was to make a goofy book where Batman socked Osama Bin Laden in the jaw.
And that is exactly what we have. OK, OBL scuppered the plans a bit by inconveniently running into a hail of bullets, and DC wisely decided to pass on Bruce Wayne putting a smackdown on radical Islam. But the berserk, hysterical tone of Holy Terror exactly mirrors the worst excesses of the comics National Comics was running in the war years. The book is old-fashioned blatantly racist, cringe-worthy tub-thumping. You could, if you really wanted to stretch the point, claim that Frank intended this all along, and that Holy Terror is a kind of twisted parody, the sort of absurd fantasy that a certain segment of the American public would happily endorse. I’m not convinced, but the thought gives me a certain comfort.
Even his anti-Occupy statement has precedent. After all, how many times has an artist issued a controversial statement just as a new book or film comes out? All publicity is good publicity. Jeremy Clarkson did exactly the same thing on British TV, and saw the sales of the new DVD he was there to promote go through the roof. You can call Clarkson a lot of things, but he’s not stupid. And neither is Frank Miller. If his statement is a marketing ploy, it’s worked. He’s all over the comics sites and blogs again.
If we are seeing a public meltdown, Frank’s in good company. Dave Sim and Steve Ditko both turned their core audiences against them with bizarre pronouncements and characters that were nothing more than platforms for their creator’s agendas. I prefer to think that Holy Terror is an aberration, a badly-timed and targeted piece of polemic or, at best, a satire on the right-wing view of terrorism that people just aren’t getting.
At least, that’s what I hope.