Dark knight of vengeance and children’s parties (top photo)
Frank Miller is one of the most influential artists of our time – and the most curious thing about this, is that he retains great underground ‘cred’ – even while his refined aesthetic has become mainstream to the point where (like Hendrix, decades before) it’s now very hard to trace the threads, because it is a nearly universal part of style in several popular genres.
Within the field of comics, he remains a standing deity – and indeed his talent emerged at exactly the right moment for him to have key influence on the modern graphic novel form. His art is striking and visceral (especially when inked by Klaus Janson – who many argue deserves more credit).
But it’s his special approach to writing which has spread through all media, and is thus worth examining. I’ve heard many criticisms of individual works, which avoid the crucial general point which underlies most of it.
His approach to narrative is much like Conrad – built out of multiple first-person witness, with a huge range of emotional turbulence and conflicted motivations, just below the surface of almost everyone portrayed. Feels “Deep” that way – though, as so often with reductionists, we’ve already thrown away most of our positive emotional content, just by deciding on a ‘gritty’ narrative world. Pain rules – joy is fleeting. Tres noir.
Of course – the aesthetics of violence (and horror, its cousin) are another complex issue unto themselves – seeking Catharsis through drama is at least as old as our historical records of drama. Probably much older still. But Miller manages, again and again, to bring a character to a point where they are extreme, unhinged, beyond all moral restraint – and yet still the good guy.
Batman, some may remember, had a profound aversion to firearms from his earliest days (1939) and for four decades afterward. In Miller’s (still dazzlingly brilliant) Batman Dark Knight series (which set the hard-core tone for eighties comics, and many of the modern new century hero movies) he uses a machine gun in the very first issue – and quips as he kills!
Instead of getting lost on questions of disapproval and impact (which get especially silly, when people talk about art that they don’t understand) what I keep asking myself is – why is this extreme style so incredibly popular?
Remember this guy?
One of the easiest ways for humans to get a tribal feeling of being good, is for a bunch of them to get together and talk about how bad or wrong some other bunch of people are. The shared disapproval feels like a positive – as if they are reinforcing their own merits, by improving their contempt.
But when we are foolish enough to start believing that our contempt is itself a force for good (as is now true of most leftist and rightist partisans I know) we lend energy to hatred itself – and to politicians who gather and use it.
Did the hippies stop the Vietnam war? – No, they absolutely did not do that – and anyone who looks into the economic reality of the time, can prove this for themselves. They were protesting the war for years (and to be very clear, I’m glad of that, because Vietnam was NEVER going to attack the US), but the point at which it ended really was when the money ran out and the domestic economy was imperilled – not one moment before.
What they definitely did accomplish, was to give Richard Nixon a second term in office. They sure as hell don’t want credit for this – but again, any objective observer looking back, can see how the dynamic played out.
Faced with the option of upheval in the form of a chaotic angry and disorganized youth-revolution, the middle class said “Bring out the army” and the so-called revolutionaries ran and scattered, without ever realizing that they had officially challenged the state to a gunfight, in fact given it adequate cause to arm itself against it’s civilian populace – then deserted the field, leaving every force of state control far stronger.
Just to review – the early revolutionary days of the union movement were not important because the workers ran home and wrote poetry, tended gardens, and thought capitalism icky – but because they showed up and blocked the gates, risked their lives for the sake of everyone – and STAYED FOR THE WIN.
But by the time of the ‘great desertion’ in the early seventies, the tone was retreat with contempt – don’t learn a lesson from this failed moment, don’t mature, don’t get any smarter – just harden-up and hate ‘them’ more so you can feel even more justified – entirely arbitrarily.
Undermine the edifice
As the boomers were domesticated by a ratio of richer rewards and lower relative costs than those offered to any other human generation before or since, the vast majority became pension investors in search of high returns – and in the eighties, left and right both developed the idea that they all “deserved” to be much richer still. Things at the bottom would have to be tightened!
Every generation before them emphasized the success of their children, but freshly armed with unprecedented narcissism they broke this tradition, set their own pooled interests in competition against those to follow, and then by weight of numbers, ego and resources, very largely defeated them.
Decades of unhinged capitalism have followed – destroying labour dignity, living wages, job-stability, respect (including a whole lot of self-respect) and many aspects of civil society itself, that were once assumed eternal.
All of this based on the ‘revolutionary rebel’ idea that our only duty was to be infinitely demanding and contemptuous consumers, rather than the older model of responsible self-limiting adult citizens. We are tasked to express our needs and our angers – and it is for others (our betters?) to see to those needs, and salve those rages (often, with half-satisfying illusion).
Will someone please tell me how this infantile position (on both sides of the culture war) could ever NOT lead to increasing stupidity hurt and madness? We have emotionally opted-out of the fundamental position of democracy – I dislike your view, but prize your right to express it, and will address my arguments to your best – rather than an emotionalist caricature, powered by spite and ignorance.
We can’t even be bothered to defend fair discussion itself. Way creepy. Again and again we have variations of “Can’t I just get angry enough at someone vulnerable, that it will force someone else to properly fix the things that bother me?”
The answer is almost always no – you have to have a credible plan to build, and the energy will and organization to do the proof-work yourself – only then are you in with a (perhaps slim, but at least real) chance. But from a consumerist mindset, we don’t even see that path (and duty).
Instead we just go all Miller on the world, pick our most-hated abstract target, and then savour our rich and sumptuous hatred, as if it really is a helpful force to add to this already blindly-furious world.
Left and right and starving middle
It’s now got so completely stupid that people honestly think that feeling, “I hate liberals,” or “I hate conservatives” is a virtuous state and or act – even while they take full advantage of the wild range of options offered in our society, by our highly chaotic mixture of everything produced by both.
I’ve lost count of how many people I know, who object to the way other people live their lives, but then change their minds about their principles, when they find that the formerly abhorrent is suddenly advantageous.
Terribly inconvenient, really – were they fully honest, they might even have to go and find a new bunch of people to hate with! More often, they all lie about their own weaknesses, or make mutual allowances as their lifestyles change – and enjoy their hate for the other all the more, even as the once despised sin, gradually becomes intimately familiar.
Gee – why would Frank Miller – and all those angry characters, left and right, be so darned popular? Why do we celebrate the bloody hero?
Well – can you imagine how painful it would be to even ask the question – what if we’ve all been wrong this whole time – and our duty was to actually think about our greater duty, and not just our lethally over-consuming and still never satisfied egos, and ways to feel individually heroic, without genuine principled sacrifice?
Anything but that. Far better to remake reality itself as a frightening hostile demon out to get us, and give us an imaginary sword to work with, than reveal the world as a precious hope-filled newborn babe, and us, it’s only protection from the gathering storm – and many vicious predators.
All the more reason for spats
Finally – I’d like to riff a bit on the derivation of the lovely old phrase (drowning the miller) itself. Here is the best definition and explanation (by far) that I was able to find. And the fact that I’m a single malt guy, bears upon this judgement not at all (I think). ;o)
Definition from the Scottish Galovidian Encyclopedia
by John Mctaggart
Drowning the Miller – we are said to be drowning the miller when we are pouring in too large a quantity of water among the whiskey to be mixed into grog; and when we overdo the thing thus–we have drowned the miller; the phrase is very ancient, and comes from a just cause; if too much water be let run on a mill, the wheel becomes drowned as it were, and will not move the machinery; now, if the big or outer wheel be drowned, the miller may be said to be also drowned, for he is flung idle, and useless, when his mill will not work. “Dinna drown the miller then” ye who take grog by a time, fir it will render the machinery of your frames no good; swallow little water, and then the miller, which is in this case the heart, will not be drowned, but beat away quite active.
No perfect isomorphism there – but I do see a strong suggestion, all the same. Anger can be argued to be motivational, certainly for recruiting people into a movement (few things better, all through history). But too much of it stops the wheel, the work, and the crucial nourishment, soon after.
Ain’t no sign of serious adult rebels here at all, even after all this time – not left, right, statist or libertarian – just dangerously big appetites, psychotic self-absorption and atrociously bad manners.
It isn’t just that we can do better folks – we know better, too.
There is no one here but us, to do the work that’s needed.