When Miller took over Daredevil the comic was pretty close to cancellation. Readers didn’t care about the character anymore and apparently neither did the editorial team so they didn’t mind giving over the reins to the very young Miller. He was able to work in pretty much isolation and in this serenity he created a depth to the Murdock story that drew in ninjas, the Hand, Elektra, and he brought the title back. Daredevil became popular once more and Miller crafted an epic tale. But this is not his seminal work, nor do I believe Daredevil: Born Again is either. You’ll get a good understanding of Miller through Born Again but I feel that there’s better.
Miller also managed to revolutionize the Batman origin story in his masterful Year One story. He went back to the roots of Bruce Wayne and strangely enough focused strongly on Commissioner Jim Gordon, and though this might just be his best work it’s not my pick for his calling card. The only other work that I think would come close would be the Sin City spectacle that he created for Dark Horse. A world of violence and intensity by way of the cartoon id of Miller. It’s certainly quite an achievement but to truly understand where Miller comes from as a creator there can really only be one choice.
Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns
The Dark Knight Returns is a tour de force in someone taking a character they love and then dialing that up to 11. As much as Miller dominated on Daredevil, you can’t help but walk away from DKR and know that Miller was meant to be with his man in the cowl. The story shows us a future where Bruce Wayne thought he could stop being the Batman. The world has taken a turn for the worse and eventually he comes out of retirement to stamp down some authority in Gotham. It’s most likely not a perfect comic, and it is of its time, but you can’t deny the pure energy of it. I like that people say Miller made this tale canon by pure force of will. He wrote the Batman he wanted, the one he knew deep inside him, and he made everyone else believe. That’s the power of Miller’s work when he’s firing just right. That’s his presence on the page, and behind it.
There’s a raw brutality to this comic that is so often not found in superhero tales. It’s massive, Batman fights Superman, but it’s also got a sharp tooth to the intellect behind the set up. Miller brings character into each fight, each move, and that’s what far too many writers forget. They think we’ll be happy with the fight but we really want it to actually mean something. Miller’s vision is complete world building brilliance and he adds a darkness to his tale that helped create a new genre in comics, and whether you like it or not it’s still amazing to note that the entire medium was swayed by the vision of one man.
DKR brings up so many iconic and classic moments and there are certain concepts and elements that stick with you to this day. You can go off and read a stack of other Batman tales but DKR is almost guaranteed to stick with you, there’ll be parts you just won’t forget, and certainly wouldn’t want to.
If you read this trade you’ll see Frank Miller’s storytelling style at its most pure. He’s harsh and dark and he was both before it was cool to be so. He propels the story well and his voices are great. From here you’ll know that Miller is a violent writer, and a visceral one, and he’s damn entertaining.
I enjoyed DKR and I think that if someone needs to understand Miller they don’t need to jump straight into his more overtly ostentatious works, things like 300 or Sin City, but they need to know that he’ll take their world and shake it like a snow globe if he needs a different view. And as you stand with everything you know littering down around you, you’ll see the art. And you’ll love it.