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 Fanboy #5 and The Dark Knight Strikes Again #3, both of which were published by DC and are cover dated July 1999 and [February] 2002, respectively. Enjoy!
You probably couldn’t pay me to read Holy Terror, so I have to finish up with Miller’s extremely oddball sequel to his most famous work. But not before I show one page from Fanboy, in which he and Mark Evanier mock his most famous work!
The funny thing about this is that Miller is also drawing a bit in Sergio Aragonés’s style, as we see in the first row of television talking heads. Aragonés drew most of the mini-series, so Miller draws Jeremiah Kreed and even Finster (Robin) a bit like Aragonés would, even as he parodies his style from 1986. This also foreshadows the talking heads in DKSA, which are often very cartoonish.
But we must move on and check out The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Sigh. It’s unavoidable, people!
As we’ll see in these scans, the problem with DKSA is not necessarily Miller’s line work. It’s wonkier and sloppier than his earlier work, but it’s not awful. The problem with DKSA is the writing (which I’m not getting into) and Lynn Varley’s colors. Varley does this digitally, and it just doesn’t work with Miller’s increasingly cartoonish art. I know I’ve harped on it a lot this year, but some artists simply don’t work with digital colors, and Miller seems to be one of those. Varley’s work is unlike modern digital coloring, with its rendering and texturing – this looks almost deliberately old-fashioned, as if she were coloring Shatter on a 1980s computer or something. Miller’s thick lines are enough to create the rock under which Captain Marvel labors (so many mythological layers!!!), and Varley simply uses static to fill in the blanks. Miller’s outline of Cap is fine, although his hands and feet have become gigantic, as if Miller is taking everything to extremes, while the line work on his body is somewhat haphazard and does nothing to define his face. Wonder Woman is almost completely obscured by the “snow” in the small inset panel, which is too bad. This is the first of many examples of the coloring just not working with the artwork.
Readers saw in 300 that Miller was moving this way, away from the crispness of Sin City toward a more brutal style, so the fact that people seemed a bit upset by this was puzzling, unless they were reacting against the coloring and couldn’t separate it from the line work. This is a fairly typical example of what Miller does a lot in this comic – really thick lines on Superman’s cape, while Lara’s hair (which looks like a cape) is just an amorphous shape. There’s really no middle ground anymore with regard to Miller’s work. He’s becoming more and more abstract, as we can see with Lara in the background – she looks a bit half-assed, but Miller does this enough in the book that it’s clear it’s a stylistic choice. You might not like it, but it’s something he’s doing on purpose. He’s going more abstract and more exaggerated – look at Superman’s hand! – and that’s his prerogative. I should note that in the foreground of Panels 1 and 2, Varley uses paint sloppily but well to show the mess Metropolis has become. It’s a small detail, but it’s much nicer than that background in Panel 1. Blech.
If you want to make a case that Miller’s art is sloppy in this comic, you could point to Panel 1 and say he didn’t finish drawing it, but of course, that’s part of the point – the Joker (or Dick Grayson, I guess) is burning, so Miller deliberately uses fewer lines to show him disintegrating. Yes, it’s ugly art, but it’s not because Miller didn’t finish it. It’s the same thing on the rest of the page – he still takes great care to make the Joker loathsome in Panel 3, and while Carrie is not very detailed, that’s just the way Miller is drawing at this time. He still uses silhouettes skillfully, and using on in Panel 6 is deliberate, as it shows Carrie’s state of mind when she considers whether Dick is actually dead or not. As usual, the big problem with the page is the coloring. The yellows and reds in Panel 1 are sloppy and don’t look like they’re part of the drawing, while Varley’s attempts to show a moving shadow in Panel 4 just makes the drawing hard to look at and makes no sense anyway, as why would Carrie’s shadow obscure part of her face when the light source is off-panel to the lower right? I agree that Miller’s style might be taking things a bit too far, but the coloring really highlights the worst aspects of it.
An odd thing about DKSA is that Miller doesn’t always use loose lines and thick blacks to distract from sloppy anatomy, as occasionally he wants to draw attention to the sloppy anatomy, like when he goes nuts with Plastic Man. I tend to disagree with people who think DKSA is great because it’s a satire, as it’s not a very good satire, but when I see pages like this, I think Miller should have done a straight-up comedy starring all of these characters. His new-ish, exaggerated style is perfect for Plastic Man, and it seems like he’s being more conscientious of how he draws Plas, even more than when he’s drawing some of the more important characters. His use of silhouettes is terrific on this page, too, as it turns the police into faceless fascists that we enjoy seeing trashed by Plas. The cartoonishness of this page and several others in the comic make me wonder why Miller kept trying to make boring and obvious points with Batman and Superman. A comic like this page would have been much more interesting.
Ugh, this panel. Miller draws a few shapes, Varley colors it with that sweeping, digital palette, and then throws a 1980s PC wallpaper background over it. I mean, talk about phoning it in. This is emblematic of a lot of this book, unfortunately.
On the other hand, this page is pretty good, although why Lex is so fuzzy I’m not really sure. Hawkdude’s wings are majestic, and Miller gives him that unusual visual style with the black stippling on his arms, torso, and face, creating a mask where none exists. The poses are nice, as he moves in for the kill, and Miller turns Lex into the creepy villain everyone knows he is. The fuzziness really bothers me, though. The line work is a bit sloppy, but Varley’s coloring is off-register, which makes no sense when you’re “painting” digitally. The wings in Panel 2 are a good reason why I don’t like this kind of coloring – it appears that Varley simply threw up a colored pattern and then Miller drew lines over it, so there’s absolutely no rhyme or reason to the coloring. Even in Panel 1, where the coloring isn’t great, there’s a bit of nuance with the hues, but in Panel 2, there’s no attempt at that whatsoever. Why is it off-register???? It really bugs me.
This is a bit more old-school, as Miller returns to the rigidity of a grid, which helps build the tension as Bruce races to save Carrie from the crazed Dick Grayson even though he doesn’t think he’ll make it. The discipline of the grid means he has to focus on small details, and we get some nice, horrific drawings of Bruce, who’s been tortured by Lex, and some nice, tragic drawings of Carrie, who’s being tortured at that moment. Miller’s spidery lines have been a feature of his art for years, and here he uses them to good effect to show the cracked and sliced skin of both Bruce and Carrie (and Dick in the one panel in the bottom row). In the final panel, you see Carrie’s “Frank Miller face,” with the wide eyes and fat lips, which have gotten wider and fatter even than during his Sin City years. Varley doesn’t have many opportunities to screw things up, although she does make Dick’s face a bit too soft in the penultimate panel. She sticks to flatter colors to show Bruce, uses some not-bad texturing on Carrie, and only defaults to swirly Photoshop stuff in the panels where Miller shows the Bat-plane flying through the sky. When Miller shows discipline in this book and sticks to a grid, the colors seem to be a bit more disciplined and fit the art better. It’s just too bad Miller does it so rarely.
Since 2002, Miller has done very little interior art, and from what I’ve seen of Holy Terror, I’m not missing much, as he goes even more abstract in that than he does here. Obviously, Miller is a polarizing figure in comics and even in the real world these days (thanks to his directing efforts), and I don’t know what it would take for me to be interested in his comics again. Maybe if he ever finished Xerxes, I’ll take a look, but who knows.
Tomorrow I’m going to check out a wildly influential artist who has hardly drawn any comics. How does that work? Well, when what you draw is so stunning, you can draw very little and still be influential! This guy is so famous he’s like Cher or Madonna or Prince – one name is all you need! You know who it is! See more influential work in the archives!
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