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Stream-of-Consciousness Noir Narration
The first thing to remember about Frank Miller is that he is the man behind a few of the greatest stories in the history of the comic book medium. Daredevil's ''Born Again,'' the double-Bat-punch of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, early Sin City: These are furious acid-pulp masterpieces. And what unifies all of them is Miller's authorial voice, which often mixes together first-person narration with a more omniscient second- or third-person perspective, creating a dreamlike closeness to the story's characters. ''Born Again'' floats freely through the perspectives of the malevolent Kingpin and downward-spiraling Matt Murdock. Dark Knight Returns gave the older Bruce Wayne a running inner monologue that's half chiseled-pulp and half ambient koans, like a mixture of Phillip Marlowe and Terrence Malick. And in the most memorable Sin City story, the psychotically heroic Marv sets out to avenge a dead woman?and, in his semi-deluded head, seems to be talking to said dead woman the entire time.
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The second thing to remember about Frank Miller is that much of his finest work as an artist stands at the nexus point between sequential-art classicism and the hip splash-page hyperbolism of the post-'90s comic-book period. Miller's incredible run on Daredevil mixed together the snazzy proto-Pop Art panel layouts of Will Eisner with a more muscular Manga-influenced style. Although some of Miller's work in Dark Knight Returns and Sin City is composed of gigantic T-shirt-ready images, he's always been intrigued in pushing the limits of the classic grid-pattern layout. He specifically designed 300 as a rectangular graphic novel, a visual style that's both modern-day cinematic and a throwback to the gigantic comic-strip panels of the Flash Gordon era. The Dark Knight Strikes Again takes the grid to an absurd extreme, imagining the future as a split-screened infotopia.
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So now that we've established that Frank Miller is a creative mind capable of tremendous narrative depth and daring boundary-breaking visuals, we also need to address the fact that he's got a thing for hottie hookers with guns. His run on Daredevil turned milquetoast-bland love interest Karen Page into a porn actress willing to sell herself (and her former super-boyfriend) for a hit of heroin. Batman: Year One turned a proto-Catwoman Selina Kyle into a prostitute from the bad side of town. And Sin City is positively overflowing with women engaged in the world's oldest profession. Gail and the Girls of Old Town are their own bosses, which—in Miller's work—counts as ''liberation.''
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Miller also likes cool ninja women with swords. Worth pointing out that, when he created Elektra, the whole ''ninja'' thing was still relatively new to American culture. Indeed, you could argue that Miller was partially responsible for the ninja/samurai vogue of the '80s—he also worked on the Wolverine miniseries that made the goofy-wonderful decision that the scruffy Canadian fuzzball moonlighted as a ninja-slicing modern samurai in his free time.
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Also, Dudes Getting Beaten Up
Miller is often credited with/accused of turning mainstream American comics ''darker,'' a charge that mostly hails from The Dark Knight Returns' bleak take on the Caped Crusader. In the echo chamber of history, these accusations might make you think that Miller was the first comic-book artist to have violence in his work—an unfair accusation, especially when you look at what was considered mainstream in the days before the Comics Code. Still, there's no denying that Miller really enjoys beating up on his leading men.
A common Miller visual is that of a superhero beaten and bloodied, his costume half torn off from what appears to be several hundred gashes. Early on in Dark Knight Returns, Batman is beaten to within an inch of his life, and in Miller's grotesque depiction, one of the greatest heroes in DC history appears to be a barely-cognizant meatbag. It's a visual aesthetic that permeates the genre to this day: Just look at Iron Man 3, which was sold to moviegoers with images of a beaten and broken Tony Stark. The extreme version of all of this is Sin City's Marv, whose face is bandaged until he resembles a Boris Karloff creature.
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The deeper you get into Miller's work, the more outré the violence becomes. The muddy brawl in Dark Knight Returns looks positively low-key compared to the grotesqueries displayed throughout Sin City and 300. This Calvin & Hobbes strip is a pretty solid parody of the last 20 years of Frank Miller's creative output.
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Miller also really, really, really loves to show what happens when superheroes do the nasty. Spoiler alert: It's weird.
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Gorgeous, Gritty Cityscapes
Superheroes have always been metropolitan. One of them literally lives in a city called Metropolis; practically all of Marvel's heroes spend most of their time in New York City. But most depictions of ''the city'' in comic bookdom trend towards the iconic: City spires, battles across bridges, newspapers that decorate their rooftops with elaborate statuary. Miller's run on Daredevil changed all that. It was set firmly in the city outside the window of a poor writer's apartment: Pipes and outcroppings, neon signs and fire escapes. Just look at how often a water tower pops up in Miller's work. (Two of Miller's great works were collaborations with David Mazzuchelli, another metropol-artist with a tendency to add a water tower into the corner of a panel.) Miller's work on Sin City has become so influential that it looks like (and often is) self-parody, but it's worth pointing out that its gutter-noir aesthetic was completely out of place in the fabulist early-'90s.
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Sin City was wildly influential for its high-impact monochrome, but even though the franchise's color palette might be limited to grayscale, it's actually very much in keeping with Miller's tendency to push his visuals to garish extremes of the color wheel. The images of Marv in the white-dagger rain has become famous, but you also have to account for works like 300, which is composed out of a a few choice, bold colors (the red Spartan capes, the red blood on the battlefield). Again, look to Miller's Dark Knight Strikes Again, an underrated gonzo superhero-opera, which takes the monochrome world of Dark Knight Returns and blasts it full of computer-perfect hues. For a long time, most of Miller's work was colored by his former wife Lynn Varley, and together they helped to create some of the most dynamic images in comics history.
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Miller the Anti-Government Rebel
Frank Miller is a fierce individualist who is skeptical of government overreach. Just look at Dark Knight Returns, which imagines Superman as an agent of a dystopian-propagandist American government headed up by a President who is rather clearly Ronald Reagan. In Returns, Batman winds up leading a revolution of the underclass. You might also think that you're looking at Occupy Wall Street 20 years early?
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Miller the Anti-Anti Government Apologist
But, also, Frank Miller is a fierce neocon who openly disdained the Occupy Wall Street movement and spent most of the 2000s trying to make a comic book about Batman hunting Bin Laden, a comic which ultimately became the Batless horror Holy Terror. There seems to be a serious divide between Early Miller and Late Miller—between the guy who fomented a youth rebellion and the guy who openly seems to despise the youth of today.
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Many of the fascinating paradoxes of Miller's work—and the often radical shift in narrative and ethical values between his early work and his more recent output—are microcosmed in his Batman stories. In the late '80s, Miller produced Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, which presented a Batman that was muscular and tough but also cerebral and even melancholy—a Batman who was less interested in fighting super villains than in trying to save society from the decadence of '80s culture.
Flash forward two decades, and you find The Dark Knight Strikes Again, which sees Batman leading a full-blown revolution against an elaborate global police dictatorship: It's like Returns' politics got shot through a megaphone. (The violence is more extreme, too: The first issue features Batman punching Superman half to death with kryptonite gloves.) You can read Holy Terror as an extension of Miller's Bat-mythology—though it's unclear if anyone would ever want to read Holy Terror, which would be offensive if it weren't so ridiculous. (It depicts Islamic terrorism as a kind of mash-up cabal of comic-book secret society, Evil Empire, and silent-movie gangster squad.) But most ridiculous of all was Miller's work as a writer on All-Star Batman and Robin, a self-consciously ''badass'' take on the Caped Crusader which featured the immortal line: ''I'm the goddamn Batman.'' Miller's early Batman work walked the walk; by All-Star, he can't even talk the talk.
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And Also Just, Like, a Generally Questionable Perspective on People Who Aren't Cool White Dudes
So, in summation: It's complicated.