“There’s Batman before Frank Miller and there’s Batman after,” Robert Kirkman, creator of “The Walking Dead” (2003–19) said in a recent Zoom interview with Miller, hosted on the “Collider Interviews” YouTube channel. Was it a bold statement? Surely, but not wholly without substance.
Cutting his teeth as a fill-in and cover artist in the late ’70s, Miller’s big break came in the form of a monthly art gig on the floundering “Daredevil” (1964–2015) title, and just 10 issues after he began drawing (starting in Issue #158), he began to pull double duty as writer and artist. Miller’s run on the titular character was nothing short of revolutionary, so much so that in his first issue as the book’s auteur, he created Daredevil’s recurring love interest (and now a hugely popular character in her own right), the deadly assassin, Elektra. One issue that sticks out is #191, “Roulette.” After the attempted resurrection of one of his allies, Daredevil plays a deadly game of Russian roulette with a .38 caliber revolver, while examining the importance of his ongoing war on crime and the factors that led him to become “The Man Without Fear.”
“The first thing I thought was ‘I’m going to turn this into a crime comic,’” Miller said when reflecting on his “Daredevil” work. He later joked, “I just stole from Will Eisner,” a revolutionary comic artist in his own right and a friend of Miller’s before his death in 2005.
Miller followed his work on “Daredevil” with an art gig alongside prolific “X-Men” writer Chris Claremont in their 1982 miniseries, “Wolverine,” and a miniseries about cyborg samurai in a dystopian cyberpunk future titled “Ronin” (1983–84), published by DC Comics.
This collaboration with DC would eventually bloom into “The Dark Knight Returns” in 1986, with Miller once again returning to his role as writer and artist. The story is a dour reinvention of Batman as a stoic 50-something-year-old man, 10 years retired from crime-fighting and seeking a “good death” as he grapples with his place in a world that’s past him. To say the book is revolutionary would be to undersell it, and yet in the interview, Miller explains his inspiration as though he’s recounting a vacation. “People had been bugging me to do something with Batman, and I woke up one day and realized I was 29, which meant that I was about to turn older than Batman,” he said.
As impressive as his body of work on two of the most popular vigilantes in comic books is, Miller’s recent work has been the subject of great scrutiny and necessary critique. In 2011, Miller published “Holy Terror,” an attempt at a modern propaganda comic dealing with the war on terror. What followed was a mess that “Wired” comic reviewer Spencer Ackerman described as a “screed against Islam, completely uninterested in any nuance or empathy toward 1.2 billion people he conflates with a few murderous conspiracy theorists.” From the portrayal of Muslims as a unified villainous organization to the abhorrent misquoting of the Quran, “Holy Terror” is a stain on Miller’s career, though one he’s not keen on erasing.
“I don’t want to wipe out chapters of my own biography,” Miller said in a 2018 interview with The Guardian. “When I look at ‘Holy Terror,’ which I really don’t do all that often, I can really feel the anger ripple out of the pages. There are places where it is bloodthirsty beyond belief.” The answer is as complex as his work, not quite an apology but nonetheless taking responsibility for his mistakes and attempting to illustrate his moving forward.
Frank Miller will undoubtedly be a fixture of the comic book world for a long time, and hopefully, his recent posts in support of the Stop Asian Hate movement are emblematic of movement in the right direction.