Continuing the look at Frank Miller for David Brothers’ Booze, Broads, & Bullets week. Go check out the index, it’s all pretty good.
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Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Daredevil: Love And War has been relegated to “interesting exercise” territory, which sells it extremely short. There are probably a few reasons for this – one is being overshadowed by the unquestionably better collaboration between the two, Elektra Assassin which came out in the same year. The other being its a pain in the ass to find a copy, unless you want to go diving for back issues or buy an expensive hardcover. For years before I read Love and War, I had an Ecko long sleeve teeshirt with Sienkiewicz’s cover on it, its the kind of book that hides in plain sight. When I eventually did get around to reading it, I thought it was a forgotten masterpiece. It isn’t, but I do think it’s more interesting than it gets noted for.
I love it whenever Frank Miller writes for other artists. Partially because he’s usually worked with people either at or above his skill level – Sienkiewicz, Darrow, Gibbons, Mazzuchelli – or artists he can use for a specific effect – Todd McFarlane never looked better than he did when Frank Miller made fun of him, and Jim Lee finally hit a hyper-Neal Adams sweet spot somewhere around issue 5 of All-Star. Miller is as much as writer as he is a cartoonist, and there’s a real good argument to be made that Millers greatest contributions have all been as a writer (also interesting – Miller as artist on other people’s scripts, which from what I understand he had considerable stake in plotting and rewriting). Martha Washington is perfection of Miller’s Dark Knight Returns style, for example. Born Again and Man Without Fear are refinements of Miller’s own aesthetic, but work in ways that he didn’t or couldn’t. John Romita Jr’s figures breathe, they have real weight. Simple things like coats flapping in the breeze or glasses slipping down Elektra’s face as she plays the piano, details that are filmic in a Scorsese way not a bombastic big screen way. David Mazzuchelli’s Born Again figurework slides into abstraction without ever calling attention to itself, recalling both John Carpenter’s framed simmering tension and stained glass windows. Geof Darrow – well I’ll be talking a lot more about Geof Darrow later. And of course, Bill Sienkiewicz who we’re talking about today. Sienkiewicz, at this period between New Mutants and Big Numbers, was an artist at the peak of his skills. For five year, Billy the Sink was the standard bearer for what could be done, in mainstream comics, in surrealist personal works, in realism, in adaptations of classical fiction. Sienkiewicz could go cartoony or photorealistic or expressive, could use multimedia collage or sketchy black and white, could take the layouts and gridwork Miller used and incorporate it into his own stlye, who could make you care about talking heads and not cheat on the action scenes. Unlike many of his peers, the comics artist as painter wasn’t an easy slot for Sienkiewicz to slide into and he proved himself as an innovator on the comics page rather than just an innovative stylist.
On top of that, Sienkiewicz is the one of the few things that link Frank Miller and Alan Moore (the others – Dave Gibbons, Batman, Spawn).
If you want to simplify the creative conversation of the 80s was between Frank Miller and Alan Moore, Love and War and Killing is a great example of the “oh, yeah can you do this?” competitive nature of the two artists (The biggest problem with that? Alan Moore doesn’t draw). It’s interesting to compare because Moore’s work is very sophisticated and complex, but Miller has done leagues more for the language of comics. Of course, some of Moore’s earliest work was a parody of Miller’s original Daredevil run, so the antagonism is there. Miller and Moore are so interesting to compare because what they have in common is that they were both young guys in their early 20s who started off on soon-to-be-canceled superhero books and announced themselves as immensely talented and willing to throw away anything they couldn’t use. Of course, Moore got onto Swamp Thing just as Miller was finishing up his Daredevil run, and you wonder if he felt the need to do what Miller had done in making something old and immature into something current and personal. There is a competitive tone between the two creators, partially because of mutual respect clearly. But you get the feeling that it was because despite the almost completely disparate approaches, Miller and Moore were the only two people who could say was the other’s peer at the time (for the sake of this piece, lets forget that Howard Chaykin and Eddie Campbell exist). No one else was doing this kind of significant work at this large a scale, and examining form AND content while they did it. There was an interview a few years back where Moore spoke about enjoying Millers work but felt that his tone got ahead of him a lot of the time. Miller has described the difference between the Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen (and therefore their approaches) that DKR was a eulogy and Watchmen was an autopsy.
Alan Moore is famous for his novelistic, meticulous scripts. Frank Miller, when writing for other artists is hard to nail down. He’s spoken of working with Sienkiewicz and Darrow as “riding a bucking bronco”, and playing to their strengths. “Bill’s facility overwhelms me. It does seem to flow right out of his fingers, and sometimes he makes so many of the rest of us look like we’re slowly nailing two by fours together, while he’s just throwing things in the air and they’re landing all in the right place. Now, I know theres a lot of discipline behind that. He makes it look deceptively easy. But even when he’s drawing, he makes it look deceptively easy. He’s a pretty scary guy that way.”
Love and War, now that we’ve have a substantial preamble, seems to prefigure several of Moore’s later writing. Actually it seems like a strange transitional piece, showing some influence of Moore’s psychological approach to narration from his Swamp Thing. So here is the rare piece of work between the two where we feel the artistic conversation in action. It’s not just “these two guys were both in Rolling Stone magazine at the same time”, it’s a call and response. There aren’t many of those, possibly the only other one being Killing Joke as a response to DKR.
For a story ostensibly about Daredevil, he has very little to do. His absence is even pointed out several time (by Turk, who is the key element to every good DD story), that he’s not there on the page.You wonder if that was in the script (and the way the scenes are laid out with Turk just talking to nothing, its a question), or if the dialog was rewritten to make the pages read better. When he does show up his body is elongated and grotesque, with huge arms as he climbs his way up a skyscraper. He’s a bit of a bystander in his own book, which uses him as a plothammer. Its nice to see Miller, who had defined Matt Murdock as a whole character years before, deflate him a little bit. The Kingpin is written in the formidable wrath-of-a-thousand-devils style he has in the Miller/Janson DDs, Born Again, and Man Without Fear, but Sienkiewicz’s depiction of him as massive and infantile. Equal parts intimidating and ridiculous. The Kingpin’s voice is quiet and deep in the reader’s mind, simply because Sienkiewicz draws him without a mouth. It’s details like that, or of the block patterns and screen frames used in the Kingpin’s scenes, that show Wilson Fisk’s state of mind. His need to see everything from a distance, to cover up problems with unnecessary ornamentation.
Love and War’s best element is Victor, the schizophrenic hired by the Kingpin to kidnap a psychiatrist’s wife. There’s nothing special about Victor as a character. He is a crazy guy who kidnaps a lady, fixates on her, takes lots of drugs, kills some people. He is boring, the kind of minor psychopath that began popping up in every superhero comic six months after Miracleman hit. Superheros fighting random guys with knives, like Zsasz. Victor isn’t like that, though, because you get the feeling that Miller and Sienkiewicz had actually researched schizophrenia before they did this book. Love and War is okay as a Daredevil/Kingpin story, but its amazing as a portrait of Victor. The narration starts off stilted and repetitive, fixating on obsessive, specific details and repeating lines already on his first page – “Not monday. Mondat.” over and over. Victor is already massively damaged when he first shows up, but seeing a beautiful woman helpless in front of him makes something snap. He goes from managing his insanity with drugs to complete lack of control, spurred on by not being able to act on his sexual feelings “For no reason at all the shakes start”. Then his narration starts competing with itself, equally in the moment ranting and heroic, completely detatched fantasy of Victor as a knight in shining armor. Victor gets on the subway, bleeding, starts narrating about “those black people” who are so terrified of the bleeding psychopath with a knife they stop feeling each other up. Victor then goes see his sister, who is a nurse who hooks him up with pills. Sienkiewicz shows Victor’s eyeline going straight for a knife. Then we see Victor sitting in a closet, in pitch black, speaking to nothing, screaming at nothing. The shakes start again, and Sienkiewicz shows him shuddering so bad he barely get the words out, a horrific image of blured mouths and eyes. Victor is smart, and while his mind is clearly diseased, he figures out the Nelson/Murdock=Daredevil connection, even if he’s a step or two off. The cycling between lucidity and gibberish is pretty fantastic too – even keeping with the night/day divide that those cycles often stick to. After killing his sister, Victor is as close to fine as it gets, and its in broad daylight. Cut to Victor popping pills at dusk, wandering into traffic, his narration slipping back into Miller-ian caption boxes “And/Right/Out/Of/NOWHERE/COMES/THIS TAXI”. The staccatto halting narrative voice is as close to real madness that I’ve read in a comic like this (later he uses the same technique to show Matt Murdock’s faltering mental state in Born Again). The details, the names, the times, egg salad, Cheryl. Towards the end it’s so chaotic some of the boxes are just sounds, fragments of thought haphazardly falling around the panels instead being a part of them. It’s not perfect, it’s not even particularly fun to read, but it feels true in a way no other crazy-guy-with-a-knife comic I’ve ever read does. Thats the thing about Frank Miller as a writer, probably more than him as a writer-artist, it’s that he can put you inside a characters head. Sometimes it is terrifying. Sometimes Alan Moore has to sit down and say, damn that Frank Miller guy.