Friday, January 16, 2015

Frank Miller

“The noir hero is a knight in blood caked armor. He's dirty and he does his best to deny the fact that he's a hero the whole time.” 

When I was a kid I read comic books.  As far as I know, I was the only one of my friends who did.  They were far less interested in fantasy literature than I and would roll their eyes whenever I would mention the latest volume of X-Men or Spider-Man or The Avengers.  It's funny to think that those titles are the ones that, lately translated into movies, now earn more money than any others at the box office.

My favorites of childhood were originally those of the DC Comics company, which featured Superman, The Flash, Aquaman, and Green Arrow among their champions [again, all now familiar through television shows].  The stories in DC Comics were simple and fun; there was little that was complicated in the relationships between the characters as they all represented the value of fair play and emotional maturity.  They lived in fantasy cities like Metropolis, Gotham, Central City, and such.

One of the high school seniors whom my parents was tutoring told me of another collection of titles and thus I discovered the more complicated world of Marvel Comics, where characters didn't always get along, were rarely supported by the police, government, or media, and always carried the wise-cracking attitude of their New York City locale.  While there were those who had a strong preference for one comics company over the other, I enjoyed both.

Then, due to the good tutelage of my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Haven, I discovered in my elementary school library a little used section in the corner that simply carried the title "Mythology".  What a series of wonders that section contained.  I checked out Edith Hamilton's classic book on the subject, read it until it was time to return it, checked it out again, and read from beginning to end practically memorizing each and every tale.  It was then that I noticed something interesting.

The themes that were present in the great myths of the Greeks and Romans were the same themes that common to the comic book stories.  Both groups dealt with heroes who carried tremendous flaws; so much so that it was often those flaws more than the super-villains that they had to overcome.

And, of course, in both myth and comics, there was the powerful theme of redemption.  A hero could fail, could know defeat, could be injured or even killed [after all, this was a comics universe so the rules of mortality were different than in the real world], but then, realizing the strength of their own goodness or will or calling or perseverance, they would reclaim their heroic stature to the confusion of their enemies and save the world.

Thus, I read comics with a new eye, eventually surrendering them to favor mythology and later, mainly due to some good professors in college, seeing the same mythic elements re-worked through the fiction of the 19th and 20th centuries.  It was those skills that eventually were employed in scripture and theology classes in my seminary days.  To the surprise of some, I can trace all of my academic achievement to the reading of comic books.

But myths of any sort have their ups and downs; they can collapse under their own mythic weight or not be well-served by their stewards.  Whether it is in the ancient myths or in more modern fiction, there comes a time when, as with their heroes, the literature itself needs to be redeemed.

Such was the case with the character of Batman.  While originally conceived as a man traumatized by his parents' murder before his eyes while a child and determined to wreak vengeance on the criminal class of his city, his originally dark stories became lighter and lighter to the point, by the 1950's, they were losing their audience.  While a silly and camp TV show in the 1960's stalled the decline of the title for awhile, Batman was all but doomed.

Absurd...and a little flabby.

Then a radically different story writer and artist, Frank Miller, had an idea that he managed to sell to Batman's publisher.  In the mid-1980's, a limited edition storyline was introduced that looked like nothing anyone had ever seen, especially for a venerable character that had been around since 1940.  Entitled "The Dark Knight Returns", over a four month period it told the tale of an upper-middle aged Bruce Wayne [for those who don't know, Batman's secret identity; a billionaire loner] long since retired from his highly individual service to his city, content to drink his way through his vast wine collection, muse on the death of his sidekick, Robin, and sit in the darkness of his mansion watching the evening news as the reporters describe in lurid detail the atrocities befalling his city.  Until, one night, a particularly vicious combination of gang violence and political corruption visits violence on the innocent and sends Wayne into a fugue state of righteousness.  Thus, once again, a mysterious figure begins to be seen in Gotham, striking out at the criminal class.

This particular path towards redemption is not easy, however.  Wayne/Batman is 55 years old and bears the long-term physical damage of his vigilante work.  He has not kept himself in shape and is rusty in the art of subterfuge.  The new class of criminal is younger, stronger, and far more vicious.  However, surrendering his alter ego of Wayne and again fully embracing that which he truly is, the persona of "The Dark Knight", Batman rediscovers the essence which is always that of the hero's.

"This should be agony. I should be a mass of aching muscle — broken, spent, unable to move. And, were I an older man, I surely would... But I'm a man of 30 — of 20 again. The rain on my chest is a baptism. I'm born again."

Miller's reinterpretation of Batman not only revitalized the character and comic, but also the genre, beginning the process by which comic books now came to be known as "graphic novels".  What was once juvenile literature became a vivid and popular place to explore the relationship between darkness and light in character and action.  Through this renaissance, graphic novels began to reach an acme of literary nuance that was not captured in any other contemporary medium.  So much so, that his interpretation of the Batman character lead to at least three cycles of films that chronicled not so much the adventures of a cartoonish character as they did the nature of mortality, duty, responsibility, independence, and, of course, redemption.

These days one may easily buy collections of Miller's graphic novels in chain bookstores or check them out from libraries.  There are college courses that study his literary style and doctoral dissertations about Miller's contemplation of the archetype of hero.  At least one seminary professor has used Miller to illustrate how to tell a resonant story to adolescents.  Mostly, though, Miller's work is now known in cinema as many of his stories and screenplays have been and are in the process of being filmed. 

What's always been of interest to me through Miller's story is that sometimes, whether it is something as simple and common as a comic book or as deep and eternal as a faithful way of life, there is always the need to re-appraise and sometimes restore the relevance of an experience.  As with the comic book/graphic novel becoming a viable and unlikely source for the study of human nature in popular arts, so it is that religion, once it can be divorced from the narrow strictures assigned to it by poor leadership in the late 20th/early 21st centuries, would be able to blaze a newer, clearer path to a refined contemporary consciousness.

All it takes is a new vision, the courage of leadership to trust it, and that grand, welcome moment of epiphany.