Frank Miller, Batman: Year One

I had and exchange with the tremendous Matthew Southworth on Twitter.

southworth_exchange

Valuing, as I do, the opinion of creators in a medium–Southworth not only the artist on the brilliant Stumptown comic, but a musician as well–I figured it might be time for me to get over my distaste for Frank Miller. Not even so much for Miller’s work, which I’ve largely avoided, but for Frank Miller.

As this isn’t a comics blog, a word or two about Miller. He is one of two names that’s near-always mentioned as part of the Great Growing-Up of comics as a medium in the mid-1980’s. Alan Moore is the other name, almost always mentioned first despite alphabetical order. Where Moore’s work is cited for literary ambition, Miller’s work, particularly his run with Batman, above all The Dark Night Returns, is tagged with terms like, “gritty realism,” and “adult-oriented.” Batman, in Miller’s world, is intensely violent and sociopathic, but sociopathic against criminals. He is a criminal against criminals. Society, in Miller, consists of helpless, faceless masses, a small number of venal movers and shakers, and a vastly smaller still number of decent people who actively try to improve society.

Not as problematic as Miller's Occupy rant.

Not as problematic as Miller’s Occupy rant.

So, Miller clearly has never been a little-“d” democrat, and he showed it with a now-famous rant against Occupy, in 2011, published, no link provided here but easily enough found, on his own blog:

The “Occupy” movement, whether displaying itself on Wall Street or in the streets of Oakland (which has, with unspeakable cowardice, embraced it) is anything but an exercise of our blessed First Amendment. “Occupy” is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America.

And that was just the first full paragraph. Moore responded:

I’m sure if it had been a bunch of young, sociopathic vigilantes with Batman make-up on their faces, he’d be more in favour of it.

So, when Southworth pointed to Miller’s Batman: Year One as his all-time favorite comic, it’s not so much that I was sceptical of its quality, but I approached it with some concern. I’d tried previously to make it through The Dark Night Returns, but very simply could not stomach Batman’s sociopathy.

Batman: Year One, despite the title, isn’t about Batman, however, but about James Gordon, future Commissioner Gordon. [ADDENDUM: to be clear, it’s Batman who takes the primary focus in the book. What I’d argue, though, is that the real drama takes place with Gordon’s development.] Part of the problem with a world view like Miller’s is that it substitutes contradiction for nuance. Batman is a criminal who fights crime. Contradiction. Miller, despite this, achieves some nuance with Gordon. He has an extramarital affair, but is torn up about it. Not that remorse is an excuse, but it does show some real complexity. I suppose if anything, reading Year One gives me the clear impression that, at his best, Miller can write.

The problem of course is that Miller, like Moore, demands to be read not only for entertainment, but for ideas. And so, while I agree with China Mieville that we need to allow ourselves to enjoy art even when the politics of the work repulse us, part of the enjoyment of a work of art for me is precisely the process of critiquing it on among other things political grounds.

This is not an original observation–Moore himself made it among others–but the thorough reprehensibility of Miller’s social politics is entirely on display throughout Year One. Above all, his famous misogyny. Selina Kyle, Catwoman, is a prostitute. Most of the women we see here are as it happens involved in sex work. The exception to this is the colleague–subordinate, actually–with whom Gordon has an affair, and Gordon’s wife. The partner in Gordon’s affair, in Miller’s imagination, is, despite her professional credentials, really just ready to jump in the sack with her boss. Gordon’s wife is the only woman in the thing who is not, fundamentally, a sexual object, and Gordon is, clearly, turned of by her. In Miller’s world, if a woman isn’t simply and completely sexual, she’s repulsive.

Even in something like this, which from what I gather is leagues away from something as gratuitously brutal as Sin City, Miller’s work drips misanthropy. This is not simply a moral or political failing, but an aesthetic one. People in general, in Miller, are pretty rotten creatures. It begs the question, then, why there is any virtue in fighting crime. Why protect people who are themselves crap–because Miller, fan of Ayn Rand, certainly sees people that way. Heroes tower above sheep. Rand, whatever else you’ll say–and I know this only from others’ reports–had John Galt up pick up his marbles and leave. That made sense, given the point she was making about society. There is no reason to help people if people in general are truly crap.

Revenge motivates Miller’s Batman, not any sense of wanting to improve society. We see how the Wayne parents’ murder scarred their son, Bruce, but there’s no indication–necessary for aesthetic reasons–that Bruce transferred the pain he felt because of the trauma to any kind of appreciation for living people. For Bruce to become Batman, he needs to have said at some point to himself,

Wow. It sucked the my parents were killed in front of me. But look at this living person in front of me. He’s beautiful. She’s beautiful. They’re worth fighting for.

With that thought process, Batman could be Batman and still keep his “darkness.” Without that kind of thought process, you can’t explain why someone would put in the effort into becoming Batman. As it stands, Batman is really just a d**k. But my impression is that Miller understands being a d**k better than he understands anything else.

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