Monday, July 29, 2013

Three by Frank Miller

Ronin (Frank Miller) - This was a massive early breakthrough for Miller, a Prestige-format miniseries in which the writer/artist broke lose, experimented wildly, and pointed the way forward to the industry-changing work he'd do later in the 80s. Ronin boldly combines a number of disparate influences, taking bits and pieces from Moebius' sci-fi comics, manga (especially Lone Wolf and Cub), 2001: A Space Odyssey, samurai films, and horror. But it's more than just a sum of its influences; it's the raw work of a young artist, but an artist already starting to develop his own brash, unique voice.

There's so much raw energy here, with Miller developing a style that's at once iconic and lushly detailed; there are hints of the stark minimalism he'd eventually hone in Sin City, but here the edges are scratchier, and there's a great deal of variety in terms of artistic approaches, from the dark silhouettes of the horrific underground sequences to the Moebius-inspired fine detailing of the sequences set in a futuristic living city to the explosive staging of the many action scenes.

The story is pure pulp insanity, starting from a tale of samurais and demons and then leaping forward into a near-apocalyptic future in which high-tech inventions seem poised to either save the world or finally push it off the precipice into oblivion. The storytelling is elliptical and somewhat uneven, alternating between long, nearly silent sequences in which the mood set by Miller's art dominates and bursts of wordy exposition and explanation. The writing isn't always as precise as it might be, so it's left to the art to carry the story, a task it's more than capable of fulfilling — this is visually stunning work, and Miller's experiments with layout and panels completely dictate the flow of the story.

Hard Boiled (Frank Miller & Geof Darrow) - Ridiculous, over-the-top, ultraviolent, and simultaneously a send-up and satire of a mass culture dominated by violence. Three issues of nearly context-free extreme gore, as the protagonist (who can't quite remember which name is his real one) hurtles into one excessive rampage of violence after another. He's an insurance adjuster or a tax collector, some kind of mundane paper-pushing occupation that's totally at odds with the bizarre violence that seems to result from every one of his routine assignments, and that's because actually he's a cyborg, created for murder and mayhem but programmed to think he's an ordinary man.

Miller and Darrow revel in the details of the mayhem. Darrow's hyper-detailed art allows the reader to pore over these massive double-page spreads of inventive violence: impalings, beheadings, bullet-riddled corpses, multi-car pileups complete with bodies flying through windshields, broken bones, gaping wounds, fingers bent back, and at one point the protagonist himself, stretched across two pages in gruesome closeup, his flesh mangled, his hands deformed, barbed wire wrapped around him and digging into his skin. The total lack of meaning is the point: it's a vicious satire of the kinds of thoughtless action movies and dumb violent spectacles proliferating on screens big and small, a critique of the desensitization that results from such gory sensory gratification.

Miller and Darrow also mash up violence with its partner, sex. In one key scene, the protagonist is deluged with memories of murder while his sexy pinup wife undresses to seduce him, trying to distract him but actually just thrusting her body into the fantasies, conflating violence and release. Later, once the protagonist accepts his cyborg state, he's seduced by a female robot counterpart across multiple pages where she contorts her body into pinup postures that had obviously been programmed into her right out of centerfold spreads. It's a crazy book, oddly fun and yet with an undercurrent of critique aimed at making the reader feel guilty for enjoying this so much.

The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot (Frank Miller & Geof Darrow) - Miller's second collaboration with Darrow is an odd one indeed. It's a tribute to Japanese monster movies like Godzilla, as well as the famed manga Astro Boy, with Rusty the Boy Robot being an obvious doppelganger for Astro. In the first issue, scientists unwittingly unleash a monstrous lizard who starts stomping the city with flame breath and turning ordinary people into similar, smaller monsters by spitting digestive juices at them. Nothing can stop the monster, even when the Japanese send their new prototype robot, Rusty, at the creature.

In the next issue, Big Guy arrives: unlike Rusty, he's not a robot but a man (never seen) in a mechanical suit, an American military man piloting American military hardware. As he faces off against the monster, Miller details his wholesome, all-American line of thought, a constant stream of patriotic, God-loving decency as a contrast against the monster's nihilist destructiveness and hatred of human beings. Big Guy even goes out of his way to ensure that there are no civilian casualties, taking care to subdue and pacify the transformed humans so they can be cured, rather than taking the much easier route of simply killing them. When Big Guy inevitably wins at the end of the issue, the Japanese government officials comment on his greatness by pointing out how surprisingly mild were the casualties from such a massive battle.

It's hard not to see some kind of political commentary here, though it's honestly hard to tell if Miller is celebrating or satirizing America's status as an international power that fights other countries' battles for them. In a way, it almost seems like a fantasy of how Miller thinks the USA should be viewed around the world, as an almost superhuman but benign power that helps out everyone else in the international community. At the end of the issue, Rusty — who had been totally ineffective despite his own supposed great power — is tagging along after Big Guy promising to be his "kid sidekick." An interesting, very weird comic, though regardless of what Miller is up to, Darrow's art is as exceptionally crisp and detailed as ever.

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