Wednesday, March 9, 2016

 

Frank Miller's Versions of Batman and Daredevil Tap Into the Essence of What it Means to be Human in a World Filled with Evil

Frank Miller is one of my favorite comic book writers of all-time because his well-crafted stories are powerful on both an intellectual and emotional level. He explores complex issues without delivering pat, oversimplified answers, because in life there often are no answers but merely a choice: keep fighting or surrender.

The March 18, 2016 issue of The Hollywood Reporter includes an interview with Miller, whose 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns revolutionized the comic book business and inspired the upcoming movie Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Miller explains that The Dark Knight Returns was inspired by a series of muggings and the feeling of utter powerlessness that overwhelms a victim who knows "you're completely at somebody's mercy. And they can take your life. There's something so humiliating about that. And to me that made me realize that Batman is the most potent symbol DC (Comics Company) had in its hands." Miller says that Batman is "a perfect myth" because "Batman turns me back into that guy who is scared and at the same time the guy who can come and save him."

Miller adds that Batman is interesting not because of his car or his gadgets but "because he straightens the world out. And he brings order to a very chaotic world. Especially when you're a child. You need somebody, even if it's a fictional character, to tell you that the world makes sense and that the good guys can win. That's what these heroes are for."

In the mythic conflict between man (Batman) and god (Superman) described in Miller's work, my sympathies lie with man all day every day. What does Superman understand of human existence? He cannot die or feel pain unless he is exposed to Kryptonite. Because Superman is for all practical purposes invincible he cannot understand fear, either.

In contrast, Batman knows what fear is. Batman knows what it means to stand powerlessly in an alley as a child and watch a criminal murder his parents--and Batman knows what it means when he emerges from the shadows of an alley to rescue an innocent victim from a merciless predator. Batman's heroism emanates from his humanity and every heroic act he undertakes carries with it the risk of injury or death; Superman's heroism emanates--literally--from the sky and is rooted in theoretical concepts of justice but carries with it no real risk unless Superman is confronted with fictional, supernatural forces. Batman faces down the kinds of muggers you and I could see just around the corner and he risks his life by doing so; Superman versus a mugger is like me versus a mosquito, while Superman versus a supervillain can be entertaining fiction but is not something you can feel viscerally.

Superman means well and he does good but he cannot really understand human concerns and human pain. Miller spoke of Batman being a hero who can comfort children and I understand what he means but I would add that Superman is a child's fantasy of what a hero looks like. He is an idealized myth. I loved Superman comic books as a kid and I still appreciate the genius of his creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (who could have used help from a Batman-like figure to bring to justice the people who ripped them off and prevented them from fully profiting from creating an American icon) but I can identify with Batman.

I can also identify with another character who will always be associated with Frank Miller: Daredevil, the Man Without Fear.

Perhaps the most memorable Frank Miller Daredevil story is a standalone issue that can be read and appreciated by someone who knows absolutely nothing about costumed hero Daredevil and his alter ago, blind lawyer Matt Murdock. One author provides this summary of Daredevil issue #219:

"You may have noticed that, not only does Matt Murdock not appear in his Daredevil suit at any point in this issue (other than on the cover), but that he also doesn’t speak a word. It's an interesting choice by Miller, but one that really works. It strips Matt Murdock down to basics. He's a good man who doesn't like to see criminals get away with it. He's more like a force of nature in this issue, moving through the town, either giving bad people serious beat downs, or inspiring others to stand up to them."

Here is another take on Daredevil issue #219 (John Buscema did the artwork, while Miller wrote the story):

"Good guys have a tough time in Miller's (and Buscema’s) world. To save their home from itself, superheroes and other morally upright men and women tend to lose almost everything dear when Miller gets his hand on their lives. Until Miller grabbed control of the title, Daredevil couldn't attain the level of success--almost to the verge of cancellation, being seen as just another costumed vigilante not as cool as Spider-Man or the X-Men.  Daredevil retains his A-list Marvel status today because of Miller back in the 1980s, but oh my goodness did Miller wreck Murdock's life.  In a weird way, Miller saved Daredevil's life by destroying it."

Daredevil is not who he is because of a costume or because of the billy club he carries. Daredevil is a symbol that only has meaning and power because of Matt Murdock's courage and strength of character.

Miller did some of his best work when he wrote the "Born Again" series of Daredevil issues (#s 227-233). The "Born Again" series intimately incorporates Christian themes and images but its message is universal. Don't be fooled because the story is told in comic book format; the "Born Again" series is as  powerful and meaningful as anything that can be found in "conventional" literature.

"Born Again" addresses many timeless themes but one has stuck with me the most. What does a good, upright man do when the woman he loves betrays him and sets in motion a series of events that could have destroyed a lesser man? If you're Matt Murdock, you hug Karen Page, tell her that you lost "Nothing" (even though you lost everything) and you nurse her back to spiritual, psychological and physical health. The image of Miller's words and Mazzuchelli's art is forever burned into my mind and with each passing year it resonates more profoundly with me as my life experience deepens:



Miller's fictional worlds are often dark but this particular storyline concluded on a cautiously upbeat note:


Murdock and Page are together again. Murdock notes that he lives in Hell's Kitchen and does his best to "keep it clean," adding, "That's all you need to know." If you've read enough of Miller's work--or lived a long enough life--you know that Hell's Kitchen will never be completely clean and Murdock and Page will not always be together, but you also know that Murdock is a good man who can be beaten but never broken. He is not Superman but he is the ultimate hero, a lawyer/warrior who protects the innocent and brings the guilty to justice.

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