Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Miller Dialogue (with Sheldon Gleisser)

Today I'm going to take a look at another controversy that caused a bit of a kerfluffle on the Wild, Wild Web during the past couple of months while I was taking a break from blogging.  This time its not just a case of coming late to the party, but of getting there after everybody's left, the lights have been turned off, the doors locked and a police cordon thrown up around the building.  Sadly, Occupy Wall Street and the issues the movement championed seem well on their way to being forgotten, let alone comics legend Frank Miller's over the top condemnation of them.   Still, for a while Miller's rant was topic number one in all corners of cyber-land, including the message boards of Columbus, Ohio cartoonists group Sunday Comix.
It began with Michael Neno posting a link to a post at Bleeding Cool featuring an image of a page of David Mazzuchelli's art from "Batman: Year One" with the text of Miller's screed substituted for the original dialogue.  It soon turned into a discussion between myself and fellow Sunday Comix member, writer and independent filmmaker Sheldon Gleisser about the influence of Miller's political views on his most famous work.
After reading Miller's polemic, Sheldon reacted thusly:
"Wow.  After seeing The Spirit I thought Frank Miller was someone who could really write comics but should be kept away from movie studios at all costs, I mean circulate his picture on big posters so everyone inside the gates of Paramount, 20th Century Fox, etc. knows who he is and it becomes a crime to let him in or to give him or anyone near him a movie camera.  After reading this 'Occupy' rant, I now just think he's your typical right wing lunatic.  I suppose the "occupy" movement might be accused of a certain amount of excess, not any more than the Tea Baggers, and anyway, rape?  Where's he getting that?  And this attitude of 'don't protest because Al Quaida will see it and this will encourage them?'  This is 2011, not 1952!  The Russians didn't just get the bomb!  Eisenhower ain't in the White House!  Where has Miller been?  He just gave us the typical argument of the right wing demagogue, they've been spouting that line of crap for years.  Substitute "Communism" for "Islamicism" in his rant, and it could have been written by Joe McCarthy.  His argument is, 'Even if you see something you don't like, keep quiet and keep your head down because FILL IN THE BLANK (be it Communism, Islamicism, or whatever boogeyman  they come up with) will use your protest as an excuse to bring down the country.  Well, if Miller is so concerned about Al Quaida, where was he when Ann Coulter accused the 9/11 widows of "reveling in publicity" and "enjoying their husband's deaths" because they wanted an independent commission to investigate 9/11?  We didn't get a rant from him then.  I suppose Batman is a kind of right-wing fantasy (Rich guy saves us from street criminals) and maybe that's why he wrote such great Batman comics, but he should really invest in a crowbar so he can one day get his head out of his ass.  He comes across like some rich, sheltered, adolescent Tea bagger who just discovered there are people who think differently than he does.  The Occupy protesters, for whatever their faults, are out there because of the 2008 economic crash, which was nothing more than the result of massive white collar fraud.  It was a crime perpetrated because we had so relaxed our banking laws to let "the Market" decide everything that the Free Market freed us of our jobs and investments, and that's why these street protests happened.  The people who gave us Subprime lending and the Commodities Futures Modernization Act and Credit Default Swaps are still out there, and did more (and are doing more) damage to us than 100 Joe Chills.  If Bruce Wayne were real, I hope he'd be with the occupiers (but in disguise, and without Alfred standing by in a limo with hot chocolate) but who can say?  Maybe it depends on who's writing the script.  I know Superman and Spider-man would be behind them.   People like Miller are probably rich enough that the economic crash didn't affect him over much, but he should have some pity on the rest of us.  Maybe  Will Eisner, God rest his soul, will rise up, EC comics living dead style, and strangle Miller for what he did to The Spirit.  A guy can dream."
 After Michael replied that  "Frank Miller's been a right-wing ideologue since before he began working for Marvel in the '70s. He's just gotten more strident in his old age.", Sheldon responded:
"I didn't know that.  God, I hate finding out about people I admire.  I'd rather just experience their work and never know anything about them.  It's one thing to be a nut.  It's another thing to be a NUT, and Miller is a NUT."
 At this point, I jumped in with this gem, "Sheldon, did you really not know Miller was a right wing nut job? Have you actually read The Dark Knight Returns?"
I was just being a wise-ass, but then Sheldon came back with this thoughtful response:
"Yes, I've read it, but didn't feel it was any more fascistic than any other Batman story I'd ever read.  I love Batman as  much as the next guy, but the entire Batman mythos says society is corrupt and can't be cleaned up except by this exceptional person who has the money and wherewithall to become this outrageously efficient vigilante.  Any author writing about Batman is writing about the appeal of simple solutions to complex problems, an inherently right-wing concept, and so, no, I didn't particularly see Miller's political bent based on reading that book.

It would be easy to watch any of the Death Wish movies and think that Brian Garfield is a fascistic right wing nut job, but if you read the original novel and knew anything about him, you'd see he's anything but that.  So particularly in this type of genre fiction, I don't think  it's possible to look at the work and get a clue as to what the author actually thinks about something. Unless they flat out tell you what they actually think about something, which our boy Frank just did.  Obviously I'm late to the party on Mr. Miller, but really Ray, can you read The Once and Future King and come to the conclusion that T.H. White likes Kings who rule by divine right and longs to be rid of democracy?  I have no idea if he thought that, and frankly, I'm not sure I would want to know.  He might have thought those things, or he might have just been an overgrown twelve year old who loved stories about knights and quests."
Now I felt compelled to defend my snarky comment.  Of course, even though I'd made the remark in jest, I  truly do believe that Dark Knight Returns reflects Miller's ideology.  I was, as Al Franken would say, "kidding on the square."  Therefore, I posted the following reply to Sheldon's argument:
"Though not as stridently put forth as in "Anarchy" (the blog post that started this discussion) Miller's right wing leanings are on display in The Dark Knight Returns.  Notice how he  takes the opportunity to skewer  a variety of liberal archetypes from the soft on crime Mayor of Gotham and Dr. Wolper, the quintessential bleeding heart liberal psychiatrist to  Carrie Kelly's out of touch hippie/liberal parents.
Clearly, Miller's Batman is more right wing than, say, Dennis O'Neil's. Speaking of O'Neil, can you tell me that you can read his Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories with Neal Adams and not come away with the conclusion that the author is a big fat flaming full blown liberal? After all, the liberal loudmouth Green Arrow gets all the best lines and Green Lantern, as stand-in for the "establishment", is reduced to a naive simpleton.
By the  way, it seems to me that not just Batman, but the entire super-hero genre is about "the appeal of simple solutions to complex problems", which is, as you say, Sheldon, inherently right wing. Perhaps  this is  why attempts to  convey liberal ideology through the genre, such as GL/GA, never quite succeed.
As to your Death  Wish example, it would certainly be a mistake to attempt to infer anything about a novelist's views from a movie that he may have had little or no input into.  Any ideology in the movie is much more likely that  of the filmmaker. To use the most extreme example I can think of, you definitely can't infer anything about Gary
K. Wolf (I hope I've got the name right, I haven't taken the time to look it up) from the movie ostensibly based on his novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, which threw out almost everything from the so-called source material, including the title, except for the names of the three main characters. The book is an allegory of racism in Hollywood, while the movie is an exercise in special effects wizardry.
When I read The Once and Future King, by the  way, I didn't get the impression that White was advocating the  divine right of kings. Even if I did, it wouldn't have detracted from the beauty of the novel.
The same goes for Miller.  Even though I personally disagree with the author's politics, The Dark Knight Returns remains one of the best Batman stories ever published."
Finally, Sheldon countered with:
" I see your point to a point.  It's been a while since I read Dark Knight Returns,  and particularly in light of his recent rant, it would be a different experience to read it now.  I personally didn't see the mayor as being a liberal (however one defines that) stereotype, but as being a device; he had to be an idiot in order for everybody to need Batman to come in and save the day.  As to Dr. Wolper, Miller seems to have a problem with psychiatry in general (but I'd hardly call Dr. Fax in Robocop 2 a liberal stereotype, she's the bloodthirsty, power-mad opposite) And while we're on the subject, in Robocop 2 and 3, Miller has story and co-screenplay credit.  Now, whatever criticisms  one may have of those films (I kinda like 2 and hated 3) their point of view is generally left of center.  The Military Industrial complex takes a bad beating in both movies, with rich corporate types the focus of EVIL.  Someone who did not know Miller's work and was introduced  to  him as a writer through those movies would probably think that he was a pretty left-leaning guy.  Granted, Miller does not have sole writing credit on either film, but I  figured anyone who had anything to do with the writing of Robo 2 and 3 was someone they had found leading the May Day parade.  I never read an interview with Miller where he said "they took my (Robo2) script and made it too liberal" (although he might have said that, I don't know) but since he came back for 3, I can only assume he found the experience of writing Robo 2 to his liking.

Yes, Dark Knight is great.  There is no denying Miller's talent.  But just as Michael Crichton being a Climate change denier makes me ask, "how can the guy who wrote Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain deny climate change, when climate change is a Michael Crichton style law of unintended consequences scenario? The Occupy movement is people banding together to fight bad things against just about impossible odds.  That seems a Frank Miller scenario, which he basically co-writes in Robo 3."
And that's where it ended, as I'd always intended to post my final reply to Sheldon here on this blog.
When I first read Dark Knight Returns, I knew nothing of Miller or his ideology, except that he was the guy who wrote the best damn Daredevil story I'd ever read.  At the time, I don't believe I saw any particular ideological bent to the story, though comparisons to Dirty Harry, another right wing wet dream, did spring to mind.  It was only later, after learning more about Miller's political views, that I began to see how much they informed DKR.
As to the question of whether an author's political leanings can be determined from a reading of their fiction, that really depends in part on the  particular author.  There are writers who can present all sides of an issue with equal conviction, making it impossible to determine where they personally stand on the issue, while there are others who wear their hearts, and their politics, on their sleeves.    
It also depends on the specific work in question.  In Miller's case, as many times as I've read "Born Again," I can see no trace of any ideology being expressed.  With DKR, while it certainly does reflect its writer's conservatism, that really doesn't seem to be the main purpose of the story.  It seems to me that what Miller was really trying to do there was to tell a kick-ass Batman story, and he succeeded admirably. With Holy Terror, his most recent work, Miller himself unashamedly admits that it is "naked propaganda".
Finally, the only Robocop film I've seen is, unfortunately, Robocop 3, and it was pretty bad.  However, I suspect that what Miller found to his liking about writing Robocop 2 is the pile of cash he most likely got paid for it. 
Your turn, Sheldon. 
And if anybody else has any thoughts on the subject, I'd love to hear those, too.

1 comment:

  1. Damn, Ray, somebody's gonna have to sit you down and show you the original RoboCop. (Chances are good that somebody is gonna be me.) The movie runs thick with 80's political ideology, so you can enjoy that aspect of it, and it's also a kick-ass action flick.