Frank Miller, 9/11 and the heroism question

I’m sitting now in my backyard, thinking about Frank Miller and 9/11. These aren’t things many people would put together, but for graphic novel fans with a strong sense of the genre’s history (or people interested in Marvel’s Daredevil) they’ve intertwined in a way that shows how artists can be deeply affected by catastrophe, and process it in problematic ways.

Over the last 20 years, Miller has gone back and forth from being one of the most lauded, to the most hated figures in the graphic novel world. In the 1970s, he took the Marvel comic Daredevil and transformed the devil from Hell’s Kitchen into one of Marvel’s top properties (and largely created the character we see in Netflix’s series). Ronin, a heady mix of samurai action and cyberpunk post-apocalyptic, followed in 1983-1984, and two years later Miller released The Dark Knight Returns, easily one the most important Batman stories ever written. Later there would be 300 and Sin City, both acclaimed if controversial, and the famous movie versions (Miller would co-direct the Sin City adaptation with Robert Rodriguez).

But then in 2001, a shift happened. The World Trade Center fell when Miller was in the middle of The Dark Knight Strikes Again, shortly after he’d written an issue where Batman crashed a plane into a Metropolis skyscraper.

“I was drawing this story while I was breathing in the World Trade Center in my Manhattan home,” Miller reflected in the documentary Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked, “and I had to acknowledge it, and the only way I could is have Superman in the wreckage of Metropolis, finding a locket of Lois Lane’s, finding out that the love of his live was dead. And then move on.”

Unlike Superman, Miller had a much harder time moving on. His ex-wife Lynn Varley commented to WIRED‘s Sean Howe that the attacks haunted Miller, which Howe suggests is why The Dark Knight Strikes Again morphed into an ugly, garish story in later installments. Shortly afterward, Miller contributed a comic strip to 9-11: Artists Respond, a strip which one reviewer described as “an atom bomb of anger and cynicism dropped into the middle of a book filled with stories about unity and tolerance and sadness.”

More messiness followed. Miller’s Batman prequel All Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder was canceled in midstream for being too bizarrely violent. In 2011, Miller released Holy Terror, which began as a “Batman versus al-Qaeda” story that replaced Batman with a thinly developed hero The Fixer. The project got mixed reviews, and prompted discussions about whether it was moral to do stories about superheroes taking on Islamic extremists the way Captain America took on the Nazis (a comparison that Miller welcomed). The same year Miller wrote a blistering blog rant against the Occupy Wall Street movement, referring to the protestors as “pond scum” ignoring America’s real threat, Islamic extremism.

Slowly, things seem to be turning around. The Dark Knight Returns became the basis for Batman vs. Superman, and Miller co-directed another Sin City film with Robert Rodriguez. 300 sequels came out on film and in graphic novel form, and a (somewhat) more sensible Dark Knight Returns sequel appeared in 2015-2017. When interviewed by The Guardian in 2018, Miller admitted, “I wasn’t thinking clearly” when he wrote his anti-Occupy rant. In 2020, Netflix released Cursed, an adaptation of an Arthurian retelling that Miller illustrated.

While Miller’s struggle to find catharsis after 9/11 is a huge part of this story, the other part had arguably been going on for a while. Miller’s specialty was that he became very good at telling stories about stoic warriors in bleak landscapes where on-the-nose vigilantism is the only option. The Dark Knight Returns imagined Batman as a Clint Eastwood figure, forced into retirement by victim rights advocates and finally deciding to screw it all and take back his city since no one else is going to save it. Ronin played on similar ideas about a warrior who appears in a hopeless wasteland, but the 80s cyberpunk setting made it more palatable.

Sin City took Miller’s hero to its most extreme place, a series of bleak noir stories about a city which combines the worst of Las Vegas, Detroit, Chicago, and cranks it all up to 11. Sin City‘s heroes fought corrupt systems and killed the guilty (often with their bare hands), in a city where there was truly no difference between the police and the sex traffickers, mobsters and other dark forces running things.

300 took the idea in a different direction with its faux history that rides a fine line between bombastic and ridiculous. 300 was also, more than any of Miller’s work, a story about pagan heroism. Miller’s Spartans don’t believe or care whether the gods are on their side, and have no doubt they will die in this battle and dine in hell afterward. Still, they will fight till the last against ridiculous odds, because that is what Spartans do. They fight to the last, they laugh in face of death, weakness must be punished.

From that perspective, the central struggle about Miller’s work is that he’s become very good at describing warriors who have brutal attitudes and go for the brutal response. As C.S. Lewis noted in “The Necessity of Chivalry,” the problem with that kind of warrior is it’s a pagan ideal, creating soldiers who care for no one. For Lewis, the solution is that society needs warriors, but it needs chivalrous warriors – soldiers who can be fierce in battle to the nth degree, but meek in private to the nth degree. That paradox, so hard to live out and which Lewis argues the medieval world failed to pull off, is vital to having a healthy society. Warriors must be the best fighters, but also the best servants.

I’m sitting now in my backyard, thinking about Frank Miller and 9/11. I’m wondering whether the next 20 years, we’ll see stories that grapple with the trauma of attacks and the need for heroism, in pagan or chivalrous ways. Whether we will cultivate great artists who yearn to tell stories about justice, but end up taking Miller’s pagan route. Whether instead we might take C.S. Lewis’s route, and get back to the idea that heroism only becomes the great thing we need to be when it combines prowess with servitude, endurance with meekness.

It’s a messy question, but a deeply important one.

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