Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Frank Miller, and the issues are Dark Horse Presents #114 and 300 #5, both of which were published by Dark Horse and are cover dated October 1996 and September 1998, respectively. Enjoy!
During the 1990s, Miller drew a lot of Sin City. It was another development in his artwork, and he used it on other projects, too. One of those is a short story, “Lance Blastoff,” which appeared in Dark Horse Presents #114, along with the second chapter of “Trypto the Acid Dog” by Bill Mumy, Miguel Ferrer, and Steve Leialoha, a Star Slammers yarn by Walt Simonson, and a navel-gazing story by a young writer/artist named Ed Brubaker who promptly disappeared and never did anything of note ever again. One would hope that Miller’s tongue was planted firmly in his cheek when he did “Lance Blastoff,” because it sure is something. Unfortunately, by 1996 or so, it was getting harder and harder to separate the satirical Frank Miller from the earnest Frank Miller. “Lance Blastoff” is so strongly parodic that it seems easy to accept it as such, but who the hell knows, right? Anyway, we’re here to look at the art, not wonder why Miller thanks a “political consultant” on the final page of this story!
This is pretty classic “Sin City Miller” style, with the bold blacks, simple shapes, some lack of holding lines (the terrace in the bottom left), and the female face that looks like every other Miller female, with very few modifications, since the beginning of his career. Miller loves erect nipples, so of course our young lady has them. Miller is really good at using the blacks – we saw a few days ago in Ronin that he used those blobs of black to create the robot, and here he uses them to define the woman’s curves with the sheet wrapped around her, so that we can see the fabric but still she her shapeliness. In Panel 3, he uses the silhouettes to show the dinosaur’s mouth surrounding her, which is nice foreshadowing about her fate (Lance banged her and then flew off, leaving her to get eaten by that thunder lizard there). The dinosaur itself is terrific – again, Miller uses thick blacks to create the roughness of its hide and the folds in its skin. The way Miller uses black lets him create subtle negative space, which is always kind of neat to see.
“Lance Blastoff” is as close to a Wallace Wood tribute as we’re going to see from Miller, as he flies through the cosmos in an intricately designed spaceship called the “Phallica” that runs on internal combustion (because Lance is so very manly) and is staffed by, yes, slut-bots, all of whom love Lance (although if they’re robots, didn’t he program them that way?). But look at that art! The detail that Miller achieves just by using black shapes is amazing, as there are very few thin lines on this page. Miller mainly uses the blacks to create shadows, which suggest pipes and tubes and other such things that make up the spaceship, because he’s not using holding lines. Similarly, the “slut-bots” are all black shapes with white shine on them, which Miller creates by carving out spots in the blackness. His use of the “Comics Code Authority” stamp on the bots’ butts is a fun little touch, and Miller even manages to sneak a vagina in there because he’s using negative space. Maybe Dark Horse would have let a vagina in regardless, but Miller does well to disguise it just in case.
Lance rescues these cute little aliens from their ship, but not before he considers many different uses for them. Miller goes the stereotypical route with the aliens, but that’s kind of the point, and he knows to make their eyes big to elicit sympathy (not that Lance has any, even though they also fall in love with him). What’s really amazing about the intricacy of Lance’s ship and the slut-bots is that Miller is able to cram that much detail into the panels using only black shapes, but it’s never confusing what we’re looking at.
Soon after this story, Miller began arguably his greatest work, and if it’s not that, it’s definitely looking like the last masterpiece he’ll create, considering how far up his own butt he seems to be these days. 300 has a lot of problems, of course, but it’s still a stirring story and it features incredible artwork. It’s a culmination of the styles Miller used in the 1980s and the 1990s, blended together into an amazing stew. Let’s get to it!
Every page of 300 is a double-page spread, so it’s kind of hard to scan. I stole the double-page examples from the Internet, which I’ll link to below. I’m extremely envious of large scanners, I’ll tell you that much! Anyway, here we see a lot of the different kinds of art Miller had done over the years. He’s showing us a large scene, so his figures in the lower quadrants tend to be a bit basic, even though he uses strong lines to make sure all of them are clearly drawn. The elephants are majestic, drawn with some care and with more and rougher lines to indicate their leathery hides. The details also make them, for as brief their appearance is, something more important than the faceless masses who fight the battles. Miller has always seemed to be more militaristic than many comic book creators, but even he understands the meat-grinder aspect of it, and even the Spartans, for all their individual freedoms, are sacrificed to their king’s ego. The elephants are marvelous, enraged creatures, and while they make no difference whatsoever in the battle, their appearance is more noteworthy than the deaths of so many men. Meanwhile, in the middle of the page, Xerxes is unhappy, and Miller uses silhouettes well to show how he expresses his displeasure. The use of blacks with small spots of colorful jewelry is a way to add some details to the chunks of blacks, and it works really well. Back again on colors is Lynn Varley, who uses a lot of earth tones in this comic, as we can see. It tends to make things a bit more brutal and “realistic,” but it also ties the Spartans to the earth a bit, while Xerxes and his jewelry are subtly mocked for being far too aloof.
This kind of panel is common in 300, as Miller takes the silhouette work that’s predominantly from Sin City and the more ragged line work we saw in Ronin and his other mid-1980s work. The silhouettes add a kind of weighty importance to the proceedings, while the minimalist designs of the capes helps remind us that the Greeks are simple farmers fighting for their freedom. Suck it, Persians!!!!
As I noted, Miller tends to stick to basic shapes a lot, especially in his latter-day work. So we get the hard, straight lines of the Persians, which look unnatural when compared to the circular Spartan shields, because we all know that straight lines don’t exist in nature, right? The Spartans look like a cute little hedgehog, while the mean old Persians are all geometric and shit, with their rectangles and triangles. Screw you, Persians! Miller uses the silhouettes really well to make it seem like the Persians are swarming over the cute little hedgehog like insects, even though they’re simply surrounding the Spartans. Miller still does really nice detailed work, as we see in the bottom row, with Leonidas faking a surrender (boo!!! poor form, Leonidas!!!). He uses thin lines to show Ephialtes’s wretched face, with thicker lines for the other characters. Once again, we see the yellow jewelry set against the black, showing the glitz of the Persians, while he roughs up Leonidas’s helmet and puts notches in the shield and spear, which of course shows how tough the Spartans are. The use of small panels is nice, too, as it creates some tension in what is essentially a fairly standard surrender. Of course, we know what’s coming, which is partly where the tension comes from, but Miller still does a nice job with it.
On the next page, the Spartans dishonorably leap to the attack, proving once and for all that you can’t trust any Greeks ever. Not even their yogurt!!!! This is yet another amazing page in a series of amazing pages, as Stelios rams his spear through the Persian ambassador and the rest of the Spartans jump into battle. Miller still isn’t the most fluid artist, but he poses Stelios and the ambassador really well, so that the impalement has tremendous power. I haven’t mentioned Miller’s hands in a few days, but the big hands are pretty evident here – the Persian’s hands are gigantic, while Stelios’s and Leonidas’s are still a bit bigger than they probably should be (the Persian’s feet are pretty big, too). Miller again contrasts the pampered Persians – is he wearing pajamas or something? – with the manly, not homoerotic at all Spartans, as both Stelios and Leonidas are drawn with sharp, hard, tough lines and masculine hair, in contrast to Xerxes’s shaved look. In the second panel, Miller begins to shift the way the art looks – as the Spartans begin their final stand, he uses more ragged blacks on the capes of the Spartans, and Varley begins to use white streaks to indicate faster and faster arrows raining down, turning the field into an abbatoir. It’s interesting to see the shift. Meanwhile, no one is credited as a letterer – I just assume it’s Miller – but whoever it is, they straight up stole that font for Leonidas’s battle cry from John Workman.
Leonidas’s apotheosis is a better example of what we saw above – Miller is much messier, using blacks almost angrily, throwing ink at the page and just trusting it will all work out, it seems. Leonidas’s hands are bigger than ever, his face is trending toward the abstract, and that poor dude next to him is about to get an arrow right through the eye. Varley uses whites like Miller uses blacks, caging the king in a thicket of arrows, splattering red across the panel, and layering thick burnt umber underneath the red to create a furnace of violence. Obviously, Miller and Varley have complete control over this panel, and the fact that it looks frenzied is just a tribute to their talent.
Miller wasn’t done drawing, of course, and I have to finish this series on him with that comic. You know, that one that some people love and some people hate and never the twain shall meet. It must be shown! You know it must! Prep for it by checking out the archives!
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