I'm finding it hard to separate Frank Miller's recent splenetic rant of a blog-entry from the vox pop talking heads of his The Dark Knight Returns. For the absurdities of Miller's Anarchy read as though they've been lifted directly from the panels of that book, which makes it hard not to believe that the whole distasteful harangue isn't actually the product of one of the smartest satirists currently writing. After all, how could a man given to the broadest of political sideswipes fail to notice that Anarchy was both absurd and incoherent? To catch so perfectly the tone and content of a belligerently confused and heartless old reactionary would, I'll concede, require the genius of a Swift matched with that of a Hicks, but who's to say what Miller's spent much of his time studying in the long years since he stopped producing smart and even on occasion compassionate comic books? A couple of feature films, a handful of "graphic novels"; there's been plenty of time for Miller to master rather than merely dabble in the dark arts of satire.
And I wish that I could believe that Anarchy was an example of smart-minded lampoonery, for, as Ty Templeton has his cartoon rabbit declare in his latest, and laugh-out-loud wonderful, Bun Toon, "I used to love you, Frank." But even if the cumulatively toxic effect of his last few decades of work could be ignored, and we comics fans do try, 2011 has brought us not just Anarchy, but the execrable Holy Terror, all bile and bigotry, ethnocentricism and ignorance. Frank Miller, it seems, isn't joking at all. Frank Miller is absolutely serious.
|""Occupy" is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America."|
It's interesting to note how Miller seems to have changed the way he thinks about the "pond-scum" of American society in the quarter of a century since The Dark Knight Returns was first published Given Mr Miller's sense of himself as a political artist, as he argues in his forward to the Absolute Dark Knight, we're obliged to credit him with the skill and the intention of producing work designed to be read dialectically. For what kind of political artist would he be if his work wasn't rigorously and purposefully controlled? As such, it's notable that there are significant differences between the politics of The Dark Knight Returns and those presented in Holy Terror and Anarchy. For example, those involved in 2011's OWS protests are defined by Miller as a ".... a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America." This marks a considerable decline in Miller's faith where the redeemability of what he regards as the very worst of American society is concerned.
For in The Dark Knight Falls, the gangsters of the "Sons Of Batman" are turned from their nun-slaying, cat-stapling, family-torturing activities simply through the good example, and the strong right and left arms, of Bruce Wayne. How odd, that a criminal organisation composed of hundreds of murderers, drug-dealers and, yes, terrorists should be so easily, so swiftly, transformed into a modern-day version of Washington's Continental Army, whereas, according to Miller's blog, there's only a hope that America's current "military" might succeed in whipping "some" of the folks associated with the OWS into "shape". It can't be the fact that Miller apparently believes that today's activists are all "louts, thieves, and rapists" which means he believes they're so unsalvagaeble as citizens of the new embattled American order. It can't even be that they're all apparently without gainful employment. After all, the "Mutants" who became the "Sons Of Batman" were all of those things, although they were at least free of the apparently emasculating markers of iPhones and Lords of Warcraft.
Instead, it seems that something more appalling than the blowing up of innocent women by placing bombs in their handbags marks out the "clowns" of today's Republic. (*1) It's not hard to conclude that the OWS's sin is the heresy of unAmericanism, of the poisoning of both the nation's moral good health and its physical wellbeing in the face of the apocalyptic menace of "Islamicism". The act of challenging the economic status quo of America today is, it appears, the mark of a traitor, as well as a "lout" and a "thief" and a "rapist", because it seems that the USA's capacity to defend itself against the deadly threat of "Islamicism" would be fatally weakened if the very richest of the nation's super-rich were asked to pay just a little bit more in taxes.
*1:- Evidence that Mr Miller wasn't quite thinking as clearly as he might have been in "Anarchy" abounds. My favourite example is his ability to label a group composed of "louts, thieves, and rapists" as "clowns". He must either have been somewhat confused as he typed away or he carries a particularly low opinion of clowns.
There is, of course, a particular irony in this, for The Dark Knight Returns is solely concerned with the heroic responsibility of the people, under the leadership of an outstandingly moral individual, to revolt against its government even during a time of war against a more powerfully armed enemy. Nothing so marks the apparent evolution of Miller's thought as this, that the arch-conservative of 2011 was once a comic-book advocate of an authoritarian revolution against a Washington reeling from a nuclear attack from Soviet Russia. (Miller, being a political artist, has to be respected as setting out the grounds in TDKR under which the overthrow of the state is justified. Otherwise, he's just playing around with the tropes of authoritarianism, if not fascism, as a jape, and no serious political artist would do that, surely?) If the citizens of Wayne's revolutionary army in TDKR had followed Miller's current credo of do-what-the-powers-that-be-demand, then they'd all have returned obediently home at the story's end, and shopped the Batman and Green Arrow to Reagan's authorities too. America was at war, so, according to Anarchy, obedience was mandatory regardless of the health of the Republic and the welfare of its citizens.
|Miller used to mock the powers-that-be. Now he mocks those who'd question them. Times change.|
To today's Miller, a threat to the Republic is, we must assume, the point at which legitimate protest becomes entirely illegitimate. Who defines what constitutes such a threat is, of course, a problem which Miller's not defined in anything but the broadest of terms, but he does seem convinced that America is so fiercely challenged and so fundamentally weak that the OWS events are in some way a danger to the nation. After all, if the movement poses no threat at all, then why would Miller be venting so about it? Why bother to tackle the "garbage - both politically and physically", why mention the war, why emphasise the virtue of the army, why raise the spectre of "Islamicism", if not to draw a line between utter depravity and absolute virtue? Obviously, a comic book which presented a heroic rebellion against the American state was perfectly acceptable to Miller in 1986/7, and yet today's situation is so bleak that even a discussion of the reform of the tax system constitutes an unspeakably dangerous heresy. Yet given that the America of The Dark Knight Returns was most certainly at war, the sins of the OWS today can't be that they've argued for social change while America's armies are engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq. That's obviously a terrible thing for them to do in Miller's opinion, but it can't be the tipping point that triggered the fury and contempt of his Moses-coming-down-the-mountain moment.
Instead, it's hard to suppress the suspicion that Miller must be aware of some appalling danger to the USA which threatens not just its citizens in the context of potential terrorist attacks, but the survival of very country itself. Assuming that there's any sort of continuity between the political meaning of The Dark Knight Returns and those values expressed in Anarchy and Holy Terror, we seem to have passed from a time when a state-destroying Batman can be presented as a laudable individual into an age when even a public debate about the obviously inequitable distribution of wealth will threaten the state. Things must be far worse for America than most of us ever thought possible! Or can it be that Miller would now look back at The Dark Knight Returns and be appalled by how naively he presented the argument for a rebellion against the very political system which is today so precious to him?
For surely it can't be that the serious political artist that is Frank Miller would invest his precious time insulting a group of people which he regards as being both powerless and worthless?
|"This is no popular uprising. This is garbage. And goodness knows they're spewing their garbage - both politically and physically - every which way they can find. Wake up, pond scum. America is at war with a ruthless enemy."|
Or perhaps it's just that Miller's has become more conservatively-minded where the state is concerned in the years since TDKR. (*2) Yet in the mid-eighties, Miller presented his readers with a future America sending its soldiers overseas on Imperialist adventures based on nothing but self-interest, and in doing so, he made his position as regards Reagan's various unconstitutional South American adventures in the real-world absolutely clear. He had his President Ronnie catch himself in a televised address to the American people while owning up to having threatened the sovereignty of "Corto Maltese" for nothing but the most self-interested of motives, and then showed the Great Communicator masking that slip by exhorting his people to "stand up for the cause of freedom -- and those cute little Corto Maltese people". That those "cute little .... people" didn't want America controlling their affairs was clear in TDKR, while Reagan's incompetence in creating unjust wars which might catastrophically backfire on America's national security is a major theme in the book.
*2:- Or is it only Miller and his fellow heroic individuals who are qualified to criticise America? Surely not.
Already uncaringly presiding over an economic crisis at home, Miller's Reagan matches his disinterest in the wellbeing of the American citizenry with an imperialistic zeal when it comes to over-seas adventuring. Having picked a fight with the U.S.S.R. over Corto Maltese for no defensible ethical or practical reason, and believing that Superman can counter any Soviet military threat, Reagan finds, as Miller's Batman declares, that "the USSR has taken the lead in the arms race". As a consequence, much of America's technology is fried by a Soviet super-nuke, and the world condemned to nuclear winter. In short, TDKR presents us with a President pursuing what appear to be at best laissez-faire economic policies at home while recklessly pursuing dubious foreign misadventures which cause endless disasters for the homeland The first matter triggers unbelievable economic hardship for the vast majority of the folks in The Dark Knight Returns, while the latter results in nuclear winter. The Miller of the mid-Eighties didn't just portray rebellion against such a state as a good idea; he presented it as a moral necessity, and, again, we have to credit that such a 'political' writer intended his work to carry such a revolutionary meaning.
|"Maybe, between bouts of self-pity and all the other tasty titbits of narcissism you've been served up in your seltered, comfy little worlds, you've heard terms like al-Qaeda and Islamicism."|
In the light of that, Bruce Wayne's cartoon rebellion against the American state as it struggles to survive after the Soviet assault, and with its troops still in the field, would surely be abhorrent to today's Frank Miller, who can't even stand to see the state's politics being peacefully challenged anymore. A matter too serious for political protest must surely be too serious for comic-book political satire too. (*2 - see above.) From proposing the case for what seems to be nothing so much as a rich man's uprising during a time of national peril to deploring even the right of free speech during relatively benign times today; that's a dramatic arc of political development for an artist to travel in two and a half decades. To have managed to ignore the parallels between his own take on a future President Reagan, who he clearly despised in TDKR, and the regime of President Dudya, whose policies he's seemed to vigorously embrace, illustrates how far Miller's come. Once he presented comics which, for all their thoroughly unpleasant far right politics, expressed a horror at the capitalist system's fleecing of the people and against the expansionist sabre-slashing of the state which many of the rest of us could emphasise with; now he seems appalled by anyone who'd speak up against either situation. (*2 - see above.) The anti-racism of several scenes of The Dark Knight Returns, for example, meant that the book could come across in places as almost a liberal text, which may explain how the toxic politics of the work as a whole failed to alienate far more of its readership. (Rand's disdain for racism is often ignored both by those who'd claim her as an inspiration and by those who loathe her work, but Miller obviously listened to his self-proclaimed inspiration.) Of course, that progressive stance on race didn't extend to Miller presenting a leading character in TDKR who was actually Black themselves, but he did show - bless him - a passing measure of concern.
|Miller's moment of political sensitivity on the matter of race in TDKR.|
Today's Miller would rather have his Dark Knight fall into line behind those who think America is engaged in a state-threatening war against the "Islamicists". As Miller wrote in Anarchy, "America is at war against a ruthless enemy". Given that the threat from al-Qaeda is barely the tiniest fraction of that posed by the USSR of the mid-Eighties, in fact or even in the pages of TDKR, we have to assume that there's something particularly threatening about bin Laden's organisation to Miller. For Miller's thoughts about obedience and the unchallengability of the State have certainly changed over the years. Where once Miller presented a Batman justified in trying to overthrow the state while American soldiers were engaged in "Corto Maltese", now he argues for the moral obligation to shut up and do what you're told, while in Holy Terror, his Batman surrogate "The Fixer" is set on murdering as many members of al-Qaeda as he possibly can. Indeed, the politics of Holy Terror are concerned only with the glorification of revenge, torture and murder in the name of the American state. Whatever "our" side chooses to do is by its very nature necessary and correct, it appears, and so why would a Batman choose to overthrown such a virtuous system?
|The Occupy Wall Street Protestors: Man Upped Division. (Surely some mistake here: editor)|
Where once Miller appeared to worship at a sub-Randian alter exalting the heroic individual in his battle against the "little people" and their hero-crushing institutions, now Miller presents us with the concept of the holy state of America, whose continued existence in exactly its current form marks the only possible social good. (Rand certainly believed that the very existence of a government was justified in terms of its capacity to protect the people from physical harm, but Miller seems to be granting the post-9/11 state his blanket approval where economic and social policies are concerned too.) Such an obsessively, irrationally focused concept of civic virtue means that Miller's work has ceased to carry any great weight of values which might be seen as sympathetic to liberal humanism at all. In short, the balancing act which TDKR achieved, in that it could appear to be socially progressive here and there while presenting the most extreme range of values in general, is now replaced by the one-note drone of My County Right Or Wrong, And It's Always Right, Pond Scum!!!!!. And where once Miller fully accepted, in his self-proclaimed "political" The Dark Knight Returns, that the American government could be both entirely callous to its own people and a dangerously predatory world power too, now it's shoulders back, watch your mouth, salute stiffly, and pray that the military really does "whip you into shape".
Of course, that would be the military which has been so let down by American capitalism in The Dark Knight Returns that its Generals, having been refused health insurance for their dying spouses, are driven into selling top-secret weapons to criminals before committing noble, tragic suicide. And the Miller of 1986/7 was apparently as concerned with the abuses practised by the Health Insurance industry as OWS is today.. In that, we might expect Miller to express a great deal of sympathy for the protesters associated with OWS, given that health insurance has been a major concern of theirs too. Yet the folks of "Occupy" are nothing but "spoilt brats" to Miller , who ought to "find jobs for themselves" rather than getting in "the way of working people". (Does Miller expect his readers to accept the monied elites of Wall Street into their definition of the hard-working proletariat? It does seem absurdly so.) At what point, it's hard not to wonder, did the Miller of 1985-7, who seemed absolutely determined to paint a picture of largely unregulated capitalism as a wholly corrupt system, decide that the system as exists is beyond criticism? For in The Dark Knight Returns, practically every mention of both government and business reflects a belief in their absolute corruption.
That the News media is presented in TDKR as "stupid" and full of "little people" who "so poorly chronicled the gigantic conflicts of the time", as Miller's 2006 forward to the Absolute Dark Knight states, is just one part of Miller's assault on almost-monopoly capitalism. Accordingly, the Health Insurance industry is attacked with all the sentimentality that Miller can muster; poor Margaret Corcoran can't afford to pay for her varicose veins to be dealt with, her insurance having been refused, while General Brigg's wife has died of Hodgkin's disease because the industry won't "sponsor a rare treatment". Hand in hand with Miller's portrait of Reagan's deliberate policy of ignoring America's economic collapse, therefore, is a picture of a system of soulless, soul-crushing economic oppression, the cumulative effects of which appear to justify the Dark Knight's campaign against the Nation. In The Dark Knight Returns, the state's inattention to the rights of citizens of America and Corto Maltese stands as yet another marker of the nation which requires a "powerful, demanding, unrepentant hero" to save it. Today, any such awareness of any such a problem appears to have entirely disappeared from Miller's work or pronouncements, and those who protest against the "1%" are doing nothing but "spewing their garbage". Either America has fundamentally changed, or Miller has.
The question of whose nation it is, and in whose interest it governs, is now, it seems, entirely off the table. From a comicbook argument presenting the individual hero's right to rule nations to a blog-rant effectively supporting an economic elite's duty to do the same thing; in the strange world of far-right politics, it's not such an inexplicable transformation at all. But beyond the boundaries of the faith-based community, it all seems rather hard to make sense of in rational terms.
|The environmental catastrophe caused by modern warfare "even" in nations characterised by a great deal of desert, as seen in TDKR.|
Yet it's remarkable how much of The Dark Knight Returns is concerned with issues which might appeal to a great many of those involved with "Occupy". It's not just that the Government is concerned only with the perpetuation of its own power, from Washington all the way down the chain to Gotham City, or that the economy is permitted to act in such a way as folks great and small can't even attain minimum standards of health care, let alone face the next energy bill with anything other than trembling. At the heart of TDKR is the situationalist argument that it's circumstances which create criminality rather than individual choice, which would be a profoundly disturbing argument, we must presume, to a great many of the Republic's less liberal citizens. Place the Sons of The Batman under the good example of Bruce Wayne, as we're shown, and they become more than good citizens; they become the very guardians of civil society. Society, Miller seems to have been saying, doesn't have to be so heartless and exploitative, but it's been corrupted by the very institutions which typical citizens look to represent them.
Remove the pernicious influences and even the most depraved of individuals can be nobly transformed. Rather than needing to be punished, or even contained, the example of an untypically just, if mentally disordered, man can turn the worst of criminals into noble little Founders. (It's notable that Wayne is seen as a waster, at best a victim, until he puts his wealth and power into protecting his fellow citizens. Wealth as the just reward of the genetically-superior, economically productive wealthy isn't a principle in The Dark Knight Returns, anymore than unquestioning obedience to power is.) Even those in favour of gun control can warm to Batman's speech in which he declares that such weapons are verboten in his new order. Similarly, the environment and the horrors of its degradation by modern science appears as a prominent issue in The Dark Knight Falls. As Superman struggles to survive after the Russian nuke explodes, Miller has him say;
"You cannot touch my planet without destroying something precious. Even her deserts are abundant. There were birds here, who she blessed with chest feathers absorbent enough to carry water for miles to their children ... bullfrogs who slept for years in dried out riverbeds ... they dug their way to the surface when the rains come .."
It's hard to believe that the Miller of today is at all concerned with the likes of the depleted uranium which the Allied armies have deposited across the so-called wildernesses of Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Miller of TDKR seemed well aware of the ecological disasters posed by modern weaponry. For a creator who's seemed to always pride himself on being the most independent of men, Miller appears to have ended up as nothing other than an apologist for the least edifying aspects of the status quo. From impossibly dumb to even improbably dumber, there's something almost poignant about how Miller's thought has matched the decline of so much of America's public discourse over the period from the mid-Eighties to the present day.
Or could it be that, for a "political" writer, Miller doesn't know what he's talking about in any recognisably disciplined sense? Is it possible that Miller's own opinion of himself as a 'political' artist is contradicted by the evidence of his work?. Was he just making a joke about the rights of the heroic man in The Dark Knight Returns, and if so, how can we ever know when this political artist is ever being serious at all? Is it even certain that he's capable of producing a coherent satire that's anything other than the broadest of kneejerk libertarianism? This is a man, after all, who recently admitted that he knew little at all about the Muslim religion, and who yet began Holy Terror with a single supposed quote from "Mohammed" - "If you meet the infidel, kill the infidel" - chosen to present The Prophet as nothing but the most rabid of religious terrorists. (There's no attribution for the quote either. Should the word "chosen" in the previous sentence be replaced by "invented"? Either way, why not reduce all of Christianity to Matthew 10:34 too? "I come not to bring peace but to bring a sword?") That's either an act of impossible insensitivity or a deliberate attempt to brand an entire religion as a profound and irredeemable menace to America's security. The most overwhelming ignorance or a deliberate expression of unqualified bigotry? Who can say, but it's certainly one or the other, if not both, and neither is anything other than a despicable business in times such as these.
Perhaps we'll soon find Miller revealing that Anarchy and Holy Terror are nothing but grand political deceits, designed to mock the real bigots and fools who view the expression of liberal political opinion as tantamount to unAmericanism. What a wonderful satire that would have proven to be!
Hail Frank Miller, the people's - political - artist!
|He does. He needs help.|