#323 Frank Miller’s “Daredevil”: A Scholarly Analysis Begins

DaredevilMore than 30 years ago, Frank Miller set the comics world on fire by turning Marvel’s swashbuckling Daredevil title into a noir series with ninjas. More importantly, he took a serious look at some issues of crime and punishment, and his conclusions tended to veer left politically. Fast forward to his later career, and the views he expresses would be right at home on Fox News. What happened?

Tim’s brother Paul isn’t sure he can answer that question, but he finds that early Daredevil run to still be very worthy of notice today, so much so that he’s writing a book, for an academic publisher, about it. He fills Tim and Mulele in on his thoughts as he prepares to write…

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Resident of Japan since 1989, creator of "The Crazing Spider-Hag"

4 thoughts on “#323 Frank Miller’s “Daredevil”: A Scholarly Analysis Begins”

  1. Hey guys,

    This is probably going to be a long comment. Maybe you can pass it along to Paul, since most of what prompted it was a desire on my part to give him some ideas for his study.

    Not that I want my comment to be taken antagonistically, but I don’t entirely agree with some things that were said on the show. Let me first make something clear, however: We all know that those who take issue with Miller’s stance on Islamic terrorists aren’t supportive of actual Islamic terrorists. In much the same way, however, just because I take issue some typical statements based upon the thesis that “Miller is a conservative; Miller is crazy; Miller is wrong and bad; conservatives are crazy and wrong and bad” — that doesn’t mean that I myself am a conservative (I’m not) or that I’m defending or supporting them or Miller.

    Just wanted to get that out of the way.

    Regarding Miller and politics, the first thing I would say was that he was never as liberal as some left-leaning readers tend to assume he was. The classic example of this flawed thinking — which is something I’ve heard on various podcasts — is to suggest that just because Miller lampooned and somewhat denigrated a Reagan parody in Dark Knight Returns, therefore he must have been a liberal. What these readers fail to notice is that DKR also lampoons and caricatures “druggie liberals who should have grown up already” (Robin’s parents) and “liberal psychologists who suggest that criminals are not to blame but rather ‘it’s society’s fault they turned out that way'”. That’s not to say that I think the writer of DKR was an extremist conservative — because certainly jingoistic Reaganisms were mocked — but, really, I think Reagan’s (never named) character in the work was simply included, first and foremost, because he happened to be the president at the time.

    As for the evidence of Early-’80s Miller’s alleged liberalism that Paul presented on the podcast, I have to say I find this pretty weak. Miller is a liberal simply because he has his hero urge a rape victim to go to the authorities, and because he feels sympathy for the victim? I agree that liberals do tend to be a bit more “on the side of the woman” in many cases, but, really, to say that Miller gets a “liberal” checkmark simply because he cares about rape victims is quite a stretch, as it suggests that conservatives wouldn’t care. There is, maybe, something to what you’re saying; but it’s an awfully minute “liberal” checkmark, if it’s one at all.

    Perhaps I’ve put the cart in front of the horse here, though. My own opinion of Miller in the ’80s is that he simply was, refreshingly, non-partisan if not outright anti-political. He was more of an iconoclast and an individualist who still had some sympathy for other people unlike himself.

    In 1986’s “Elekta: Assassin” (often an overlooked masterpiece) Miller does an excellent job of skewering both a liberal politician and a conservative politician. Of course there are various disclaimers that could be raised (“Well, it’s just fiction; doesn’t mean he really feels that way. And one of the politicians was possessed by a demon, so maybe the attacks on ideology are unfounded…”), but reading it one really gets the sense that Miller at the time was one of those rare writers who really could attack both political parties while still remaining smart and free from crackpot “outsider” ideologies.

    That said, I do think that the seed of the current “Extremist Miller” was always in him. Like many other extremely talented people, Miller always seemed a bit crazy to me. He had that in him. That it eventually turned into a more or less “conservative” form of insanity is, perhaps, predictable in his earlier work. In one of the older DD letters pages one reader did point out how there were so many stereotypical “stupid black thugs” in Miller’s work. I also thought one of the black characters in Sin City was a borderline racist depiction. And I’m unsurprised that, as mentioned on the podcast, there was apparently a racist depiction in the Spirit movie (which I’ve not seen). That said, I have to emphasize that these seeds of “Extremist Miller” had not yet “bloomed” in the ’80s; and my opinion of ’80s Miller is that he was neither liberal nor conservative.

    That leads us to another point of contention, though: Is Miller really “conservative”? Or does he just bear certain extremist ideas that a large amount of Republicans support milder forms of? To put it bluntly, I definitely don’t think that current “Extremist Miller” would be “right at home on Fox News”. That statement seems like a typical kneejerk reaction from someone trained to label any vaguely right-wing craziness as “Fox News stuff”. Personally, I don’t like Fox News; I don’t agree with much of it but watch it out of a morbid curiosity. Still, there is no one on Fox News who is branding all of Occupy Wall Street as a bunch of rapists; they’ll MENTION that rapes have occurred at OWS events, but the extreme overgeneralization of Miller’s would not be “at home” on the channel. And Miller’s contention that the current economic downturn is somehow due to 9/11 is just bat-crap crazy. I listen to a fair amount of right-wring media, again mostly out of a morbid curiosity, and I’ve never heard that idea. I strongly feel Miller that is crazy first, and “conservative” only because that’s the best way many people have of trying to understand something that is irrational and illogical.

    So, just as many left-leaning comics readers tend to think that Miller MUST have been “liberal” in the ’80s, I think they tend to think that he must be “conservative” now — simply because they disagree with him now, and people they disagree with get branded with “conservative” along with the entire stereotypical assortment of implications (“would be at home on Fox News”, “hates women and wouldn’t be likely to tell a raped woman to get help”, etc.).

    I think what we’re dealing with in many senses, on many levels of this discussion, is the extreme SIMPLIFICATION and GENERALIZATION that has occurred on almost every level of Western culture and discourse over the last 30+ years. This of course plays nicely into Miller’s own descent into extremism; but the point is that Miller’s descent was aided and abetted by a media landscape which trended towards simpler, blunter, increasingly glib expressions and stories. (Though I’m going to talk about comics now, this trend of “dumbing down” would help explain not only readers’ simplified reactions to Miller, as well as Miller’s own simplified reactions to the world, but it would also shed light on related matters, such as why Samuel L. Jackson would take a racist role in The Spirit — simply because many people don’t even perceive racism when they’re used to things getting so dumbed-down anyway.)

    I see this in all comics, not just Miller’s. The superheroes of the 2000s (typified by the airhead Avengers as written by Brian Bendis) are far less thoughtful and nuanced than the mainstream Big Two characters of past decades. Even in the DC Vertigo line, there is still some good work being done, but nothing even approaches the depth of something like Preacher, let alone the depth of Sandman or Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing.

    Relatedly, your discussion of Miller’s leaning on movie tropes corresponds quite will with the post-2000 trend in most all comics towards “decompression” and “cinematic” storytelling. Again, Miller did not succumb to the overwhelming influence movies in the same way that other comics writers did, but the overall cultural movement was towards comics that in some sense “felt like movies”, just as it was towards comics that tended to be “less nuanced and thoughtful”, and Miller in his own way followed along and contributed to those movements.

    Maybe it sounds like I’m disagreeing with you guys a lot and thus I must hate you. But that’s not the case. The study sounds very worthwhile and interesting to me; I wouldn’t’ve written this much if I thought “Oh these guys are just coming at it from a typical left-leaning perspective”. As a non-partisan who believes that there are almost as many negatives to liberalism as there are to conservativism, perhaps I’m just too sensitive to this or whatever. I can’t help but notice (usually unintentional) political prejudice all over the place: Fox News will almost happily mention a handful of rapes that occur at OWS events, but the rest of the media is loathe to do so (as if rape was no big deal); and on the other hand many media outlets loved painting the Tea Party as “all a bunch of racists” by showing a handful of racist signs, but Fox News is loathe to mention this (as if racism was no big deal).

    So, when Mulele said that he thought Marv from Sin City was a representation of Big Dumb U.S., I had to roll my eyes; I think that is such an extreme reach based on literally NOTHING that is in the actual text of Sin City itself. It’s an interpretation that only someone with Mulele’s (“Un-American!” ;)) professed political leanings would even think of, because it says far more about him than it does about Sin City. Who knows, though; many academics lean left and are totally out of touch with reality, so they might like the idea.

    But, all that said, regardless of what you do, the study should be an interesting one. Please make sure you have your facts straight, though. At one point Paul suggested that the direct market made it so that comic shops could return unsold copies, and I’m pretty sure that this wasn’t the case. Usually shops have to keep the comics they order from Diamond, but historically there have been some relatively rare “returnable” exceptions. And at one point it sounded like you guys (or maybe just Mulele) thought that Sin City was a single book that came out in the early ’90s.

    Actually, I do think that some of the Sin City volumes do say something about the inherent guilt of America or whatever. But… not in the way Mulele was saying. (BTW, what he said wasn’t offensive to me — it’s not like I’ve ever supported a war or that I am patriotic — I just think that what he said was simply wrong.)

    Sorry for rambling on for so long. Hopefully you find this at least somewhat interesting. Good luck on the book.

  2. Thanks, Ron, for the long and thoughtful comment. I will have more to say when I’ve gotten a few hours of sleep, but I do want to get this out of the way: Ron is right about the direct sales arrangement. In fact, newsstands had the right to send back unsold copies while direct sales dealers did not. This distinction made direct sales more risky for dealers comparatively, but the conditions of that risk were also different for direct sales dealers because they were able to cater to a “specialty” market wiliing to pay more for individual issues (like the upscale RONIN and DKR) and interested in more “adult” content (First’s AMERICAN FLAGG! being a good example, as are RONIN and DKR, of course). I had meant to make the point that Miller’s DAREDEVIL was one of several big wedges that proved there was a sizable market for more violent, “mature”-content comics, but then I ventured into territory I hadn’t researched (I was working from memory–never an excuse, but there it is) and made a faulty assertion that a few seconds spent on the web could’ve put to rest. Thanks for the correction.

  3. Wow! After listening to that podcast I feel like that guy who shows up at a black tie dinner where a tuxedo Tee Shirt! And I thought I knew my comics. You guys are definitely going to make me step up my game!

    Any way, thanks for playing the PSA for Becoming Less of a Man for your Heroes! (http://alt3redegos.com/?page_id=3617) I would say hope to see you guys there, but airfare from Nashville to New York is bad enough!!!

  4. LOL Thanks! Actually, one of us is planning to be at NYCC… more on that coming soon!

    By the way, to Ron’s post, I just want to address the “right at home on Fox News” comment I made in the blog post. It may have been a bit offhand, something I came up with as I was trying to get the post finished. Still, while the “rapist” part might even be beyond Hannity and O’Reilly, it’s hard for me to imagine they’d avoid having someone on their shows who said that the OWS protesters were babies and should get jobs…

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