By Darryl Ayo
The only way for me to comprehend what exactly it is that I get out of Frank Miller’s work is to describe it as “fearlessly physical.” After a long period of being far too sophisticated and mature to read those quaintly violent comics of my teenage years, I read Miller’s Holy Terror. What immediately springs forth is that this is comics.
This is comics.
This is cartooning.
Miller shows with several jagged brushstrokes what is missing from most contemporary (and let’s face it–classical as well) cartooning. He shows a complete fearlessness of the human form, directional propulsion, weight and gravity. He draws like jumping off of a building ain’t no thang. Which shocks the reader into recognizing that it ain’t no thang and nobody can get hurt, but suddenly every other physical/body-cartoonist save maybe Frank Quitely seems like a coward because they’re too scared to jump upside-down and backwards off of a building, even when it’s just ink on a white page.
What makes Frank Miller special isn’t that he’s a great writer (he’s not) or that he’s an expert draftsman (he is, though)…what makes Miller special is that he can make things look heavy and light at the same time. That he can have “Batman” vault through the great expanse of the hazy, scratchy page and land roughly, awkwardly and gracefully at the same time.
I set my copy of Holy Terror down but I couldn’t get it out of my head. Something was echoing in the back of my mind. David Brothers mentioned offhand that “Frank Miller doesn’t have a subtle bone in his body.” And I think that’s the key.
While it varies from day to day and from cartoonist to cartoonist, a large point that seems to bother me about modern cartooning is the way in which contemporary cartoonists tend to emulate contemporary adult prose and cinema. “Subtlety.” There’s nothing wrong with understated tones and values, absolutely nothing wrong. What bothers me is that in many cases, the tones of The New Yorker, The New York Times, Criterion and other cultural influences deemed respectable have had such a powerful influence on the art of cartooning that comics practitioners have seemed to surrender the most uniquely “comics” tools in their arsenals.
Consider caricature. In Holy Terror, Frank Miller lays down some of the most exciting and on-the-mark caricatures of contemporary political figures from Dick Cheney to Barack Obama with the same apparent ease that he catapults his heroes across rooftops.
And take another look at the previously-cited physicality of the human bodies in Miller’s book, particularly as they collide with each other. Human objects read on the page as being graceful, and…beautifully ugly. Densely textured and warped in shape, the human forms nonetheless shift their weight across the pages, pulled by their heavy black shadows through the overlapping white rain textures, fuzzy lines and solid white of their world.
I’d like to see Daniel Clowes do that.
Miller shifts the weight balance of his pages and his figures and his characters (and plot) move like pinballs, more at the mercy of gravity than of “literary” writing’s notion of inhibition. Stripping his characters of story-contrived inhibitions, Miller invites the reader to also abandon caution and to bound recklessly forward until the final page turn stops all momentum cold.
There are different schools of comics and Miller belongs to a school that asks us to do away with timidity, inhibition, self-doubt, and yes, self-reflection as well. To make assumptions and then assume those are right. To reflexively react, rather than dilute the purity of intention with rationalization or cerebral analysis. Or compassion.
Holy Terror is a mean book, make no mistake about it. It’s an angry and unfair accusation and cry for revenge against a vague shadow of a notion. However, the same qualities that make Miller an intellectually incurious xenophobe are the qualities that make him a graphic artist capable of such emotionally-driven forward-momentum markmaking.