Thursday, June 17, 2010

Frank Miller, Part I

I'm not sure I could possibly over-emphasize the importance of the work of Frank Miller in my life. I've been a fan of comic book characters since I was probably around 3 or 4 years old, first coming across Spider-Man on the show The Electirc Company on PBS, and re-runs of the campy Batman TV show from the 1960's at about the same time. I didn't start buying comics on my own until I was 12. Amazing Spider-Man #255 was my first, cover dated August 1984, so I would have gotten it off the newstand in May of that year. At the time, I just bought it because it was Spider-Man, and I wanted to see what the character was up to. It took me a little while to start to realize that certain issues were better than others, and certain titles were better than others, because of who was writing and/or drawing them.

I also have a very specific memory of having a couple of extra dollars one day as a young teen, and deciding to experiment and buy a few titles I'd never tried before, in an attempt to see if there was anything out there really worth looking at. It was April, 1986, and on the spinner rack in one of the local convenience stores were things like Fantastic Four #292, New Mutants #41, and Daredevil #232, amongst other things that didn't strike me as being as interesting as those. So I plunked down $2.25 for all three (yup, this is nearly a quarter-century ago kids...), and pedaled my 14 year old self home to check out my new purchases. While I liked the other two books, and eventually would go on to fully discover the joys of things such as John Byrne, Chris Claremont, Barry Windsor-Smith, and other things related to those books, there was something about that issue of Daredevil that was on a completely different plain of existence.

Miller had started out in the late 70's penciling issues here and there on various titles, until getting the regular penciling assingment on Daredevil in early 1979. Less than 2 years later, he'd taken over the writing chores as well, and took the book to heights undreamed of, by writing and drawing stories unparalled in the art form. Both his writing and drawing showed influence from the film noir world, crime novels, Japanese film & comics, and other sources that hadn't been incorporated into the comic book world previously. He was in his very early 20's, and didn't know, or didn't care, that things like this hadn't been done before. The exuberance of youth, unpolished, unrefined, and most importantly, unrestrained, can produce the most remarkable results. By comparison, when Metallica's magnum opus, Master Of Puppets, was being written and recorded thru 1985, James Hetfield was a young pup who had his 22nd birthday along the way. Amazing what those who don't know what they're not supposed to be able to do can do.

While working on Daredevil, Miller brought The Punisher into a storyline on the drug Angel Dust, which was delayed from publication for over a year as it was deemed too graphic and controversial for Marvel to publish at the time. The Punisher, a character created in response to the popularity of the first Death Wish film starring Charles Bronson, had been underused, mishandled, and forgotten about at the time Miller revived him. In the right hands, it was realized the character could be something worthwhile. The Punisher: Circle Of Blood mini-series by Steven Grant, Mike Zeck and John Beatty that exploded the character's potential came out within four years of Miller's take, with a definite nod to his version.

Also while still working on the Daredevil regular series as both writer and artist, Miller took on the penciling chores for a mini-series starring the most popular character in the X-Men, Wolverine. In collarobation with longtime X-Men writer Chris Claremont, Miller helped add dimension to the character, giving him more depth as a person. The entire point of the series was Wolverine going on an unintentional journey of self-discovery. Miller layed out panels beautifully so as to flow smoothly from one page to the next. The symmetry on many consecutive pages shows a real eye for artistry beyond just drawing pretty pictures. The samurai influence that Miller had felt from his reading of Japanese comics and watching of Japanese film also made its way into the character of Wolverine in a much more prominent way, with lasting effects.

Miller had left Daredevil in late 1982 to go out and do different work, from a creative, financial, and production standpoint. He always felt comics unnecessarily limited themselves by restricting the form to being printed the cheapest way possible. He also felt that the creative talent was being exploited by the publishers, and he obviously felt the art and stories were limiting themselves to just being about guys in tights running around beating people up. So upon his departure from Daredevil, he went and produced Ronin, a wonderfully bizarre work of greatness that was a true turning point for him and comics. It was a radical departure in terms of story and art style, but perhaps more importantly, in terms of production values. The entire six issue series was printed on high quality paper, not cheap newsprint. The coloring therefore played a major role in the look of the book, as opposed to being just an afterthought of which primary colors to place against others. Subtle tones and hues now enhanced the story to set moods and create visual effects that complemented the narrative. In addition, the series was a creator owned work, meaning the publisher didn't have full rights over the artists, it was actually the artist who called the shots. A truly major turning point that opened the doors for a revolution in publishing that is still going on today.

Over the course of working on the Daredevil series, Miller came up with his greatest character creation, Elektra. An enemy of Daredevil with a past as his lover, Miller once stated in an interview that he ripped her off from Will Eisner's character Sand Saref, who was an enemy/former lover of The Spirit. She became the basis for most of the Daredevil stories that Miller wrote on the regular series, and the focal point of a brilliant limited series a few years later that he wrote called Elektra: Assassin. The series was beautifully painted by artist Bill Sienkiewicz in a manner that pushed the envelope of what comic art could produce. Miller also wrote and drew his concluding chapter on the saga of Elektra and Daredevil in a graphic novel that, although started in the mid-1980's, wasn't published until 1990.

The comic book work that Miller will be best known for will always be Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Published beginning in early 1986, this was a series that turned the comic book world on it's ear, and brought it out into the mainstream world, for better or worse. The series received massive media attention due to it's radical treatment of Batman, a character that the non-comic book fan only knew from the goofy 1960's TV show. Here was the character, now in his mid 50's, living in an incredibly violent world on the brink of nuclear destruction. The blatant cynicism and violence are the fuel for the story, and was very much a product of the environment and time that Miller was living in when working on this. America in the mid 1980's was a scary place to be, as there was a very real threat of nuclear devastation. However, much of the media attention the book received was shock that something like this could be done to such a beloved pop icon. Much of middle America wasn't quite ready for this portrayal of Batman. Many were worried that children would be negatively influenced by this, for comics were just for them, not adults. Which in a way was a good thing, because it forced a discussion which made people realize that comics were an art form combining words and pictures, much like film, and that isn't limited to children, so why should this be?

Again, I have a very specific memory of seeing this on the shelves of a local comic book store in early 1986, but because of it's $2.95 cover price, I had to pass on it. It looked really interesting, and it seemed like something I might really enjoy, but my entire weekly allowance was $3, and I wouldn't have been able to buy any of the other books I was into at the time. And at this point in time, I hadn't yet discovered the genius that was Frank Miller. But that was to change very shortly.

As it turns out, although I didn't know it at the time, Daredevil #232 was part six of a seven part story that was exceptional due to it being the return of Frank Miller to the series that launched him into comic book super-stardom. It also became exceptional in the sense that it may be the best book he ever did, and in a career filled with books better than 99% of the rest of the material produced in the form, that's saying something. This time around, Miller served as writer only, with the art being handled immensely well by David Mazzucchelli. The full saga, known as Born Again, tells the story of an old girlfriend of Daredevil's selling his secret identity to satisfy her drug addiction. That information makes its way to the leader of organized crime in New York, who then goes about making like miserable for Matt Murdock, the man who is Daredevil. The real jist of the story is the suffering that several characters go thru, and the redemption they go thru in their trial by fire.

The manner in which the story is presented is where the real power lies. Miller's scripts had become more evocative over the years, becoming prose on a world-class literary level. Mazzucchelli's art immersed the reader in a seedy, gritty Hell's Kitchen, the Manhattan neighborhood that serves as the location for the story. The combination of Miller's words and Mazzucchelli's pictures made for a visceral, palpable setting that makes the story all the more powerful. Miller is in full stride here utilizing one of the techniques that seems obvious, but escapes many. He has always talked about making sure that the words one reads in a comic book not merely repeat what the pictures are expressing. Both forms should play off one another, each advancing the story in their own way, both providing vital information, without repeating one another. There are many comics one can read that contain words that are an exact description of what the panel is. It almost seems like the artist read the script and drew exactly what the words said, not bothering to think of the redundancy of such an act. Miller's script perfectly complements Mazzucchelli's art, and vice versa, each adding their own nuances and providing you with information as well as emotion. You care deeply about each of the characters in the book, from Murdock and Karen Page down to the owners of a diner in Hell's Kitchen that gets destroyed due to events unfolding in the story.

And then, just to show it wasn't a fluke, Miller and Mazzucchelli moved over to do a four issue story in Batman telling his origin, which is probably the best Batman story Miller ever did. And by virute of him being better than anyone else who has ever worked in this medium, that pretty much makes it the best Batman story ever. Batman: Year One tells the story of James Gordon coming to Gotham City as a young Lieutenant at the same time as Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham City as a young playboy, and both are looking to make things better in that town, just in radically different ways which maybe aren't so different after all. Miller and Mazzucchelli didn't skip a beat from Daredevil: Born Again, still working in lockstep to advance the art form to new heights. I still prefer Born Again to Year One, but that's not to say Year One isn't a master class in how to produce great comics. Unfortunately, Miller's influence was so great by this point that dozens of characters suddenly had Year One stories about their beginnings, and every one of them missed the point. You need a good story with good art, not just a catchy title for an origin tale.

There's still much more to be discussed, so Part II will be posted soon...

Thanks to The Comic Book Database for all the images, and confirmation of dates and things

Blog Post Soundtrack; The Doors (live), Soulfly (live), Litle Richard, Sepultura, Rollins Band, Henny Youngman, Eagles Of Death Metal (live), Bill Hicks, John Connelly Theory, KoRn, David Lee Roth, Bo Diddley, Huevos Rancheros, John Lee Hooker, The Dandy Warhols, Santana, Ike & Tina Turner, The Slits, Foo Fighters, Pink Floyd, Joy Division, Danzig, Anthrax, P.J. Harvey (live), Deep Purple, The Fratellis, Stevie Ray Vaughan (live), Fu Manchu, Pearl Jam (live), George Carlin, Simon & Garfunkel (live), Fugazi, Prong, Republica, Skeleton Key, Down, Iron Maiden, Probot, The Prodigy, Elvis Costello, Brant Bjork

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Air Conditioning

I live in the desert. The American Southwest, to be more precise. The desert is hot. No great revelation there. But it isn't until you live in it that you can really appreciate just how hot that is. I've been out here for over 10 years now, and while I still enjoy it, that first week when summer REALLY starts to hit is always a bit of a shock. Sort of like being in a nice REM sleep when that alarm comes crashing in with it's loud annoying noise to jar you out of the state of comfort you're in, and the realization sets in that, yes, THIS is what it's really like.

This has been the first week of the year when I've actually had to use the air conditioning in my house. Air conditioning in the desert is like water for fish. It is completely necessary for survival. To be able to get to June without having to really turn the thing on is amazing out here. For instance, I have very vivid memories of May 1, 2007. We hit a high of over 100 degrees that day for the first time all year...and we didn't have a day with a high of UNDER 100 degrees until sometime in October, quite possibly November. I only WISH I was exaggerating. So the fact that this is now the 3rd consecutive year that we've been able to get this far with really nice weather is wonderful, amazing, fantastic, and all sorts of other positive adjectives. I really do try to enjoy and appreciate the wonderful weather as often as I can, especially seeing as I spend much of my day outdoors, being a mailman and all.

You know that old joke, "Oh, but it's a DRY heat"? Well, there actually is something to that. I lived in New York for nearly 30 years, and I'd much rather take the desert heat. New York summers could be brutal. An average July day would see the temperature go to the upper 80, maybe low 90's, but combine that with humidity of nearly the same numbers, and you would just turn to a puddle without doing anything. There was almost no point in showering, as all you had to do was open the door, and go stand outside. Without doing anything to physically exert yourself, you would start dripping in sweat in less than a New York minute.

In contrast, the American Southwest, while getting hot, is incredibly dry. An average day in the winter sees the humidity at 10% or less, which can actually cause some problems in the other direction (lotsa skin lotion around the house...). In the summer, those numbers rise, but even a really bad day sees the humidity under 50%. There are a few weeks in late July and early August where it gets a little higher, and combined with an average high temperature over 110 degrees, yeah, it gets a little rough. I find myself taking some headache medicine at least once a week during that period.

The only thing the heat does to me is make me sleepy. If I sit still for too long, even on a normal day, I start to doze. Once you start factoring in excessive temperatures, sitting still for "too long" becomes something resembling that New York minute again. I've had dreams at traffic lights. Some of the lights are kinda long out here (they stay red for up to 2 full minutes at a time), so I've gotten to the point where I just put my vehicle in park at them now. And more than once I've snapped to, with the same vehicles around me, and I realize I've just had a dream, meaning for some brief period, I was unconscious.

What sparked this whole piece was while sitting and watching "Like, Totally" by Dylan Moran (for a future write-up on Unseen Films), I was enjoying the air conditioning unit cycling on and off, blowing nice cool air thru the house. And it sparked very vivid memories of growing up in Whitestone, New York. We weren't rich by any stretch, and we were frugal. A little went a long way. We didn't have central air, or a roof unit, or anything like that. We had one little window unit air conditioner for the whole house, and we rarely used it. Frankly, I'm not sure how we survived some of those New York summertimes without using it more.

Anyway, it was a real treat on the days when it got to be too unbearable that it was decided that we would turn the little unit on. In an effort to make it work more efficiently, we would close the doors to the bedrooms and the bathroom, so that only the living room and dining room areas would receive the joys of cool air. It seemed like heaven. I didn't even have to do anything. I would just lie on the floor in the living room and enjoy the feeling of...comfort. I used to love New York summers. I'd play outside for hours, probably losing many pounds a day in body weight strictly in fluid that I'd sweat out. But on those rare air conditioning days, I would revel in the strange feeling

And that memory just hit me like a ton of bricks a while ago, so much so that all of this just got written in under 45 minutes. And all the while I've been enjoying the air conditioning.

Blog Post Soundtrack; Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rollins Band, MC5, Corrosion Of Conformity, Fu Manchu, Clutch, Prong, Fatso Jetson, The Blues Brothers, The White Stripes, The 5, 6, 7, 8's (covering The Ikettes), Joy Division, White Zombie