Thursday, April 29, 2021

Miller & Mazzucchelli: How Were They Allowed To Do That?


During an 18-month stretch in 1986-87, Frank Miller had a number of comic series published that many creators would be pleased to list as their career output, including Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Daredevil: Love & War, and Elektra Assasin. Two of the storylines published in this period were done in collaboration with artist David Mazzucchelli, Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One, both of which could be argued as the best superhero comic story every published. (Dark Knight is in that conversation too, but we're here to discuss Miller/Mazzucchelli). What these two artists achieved is impressive. What they were allowed to do with mainstream characters seems impossible. And the limited track record these two had, prior to 1986, makes it all the more improbable. 

Miller debuted as an artist for Marvel comics, in the late 1970s, doing fill-ins across a number of titles. He landed a regular art assignment on Daredevil, in 1979, and was promoted to full scripting duties, while still penciling the series, toward the end of the following year. Miller wrote 27 issues of Daredevil, garnering critical acclaim along with improved sales, for a title that was nearly cancelled before and during Miller's tenure. After this, Miller drew another half dozen or so comics, including Chris Claremont's Wolverine mini-series, until Ronin, the next project he wrote and drew, a six-issue series published as squarebound, 52-page books by DC Comics. And with that, Miller's writing résumé leading into this year-and-a-half burst of creativity was complete. 

Mazzucchelli, similarly, had a limited résumé leading into these two significant storylines -- Born Again and Year One. Mazzucchelli drew a half dozen individual issues across various Marvel titles like Star Wars, Marvel Fanfare, and X-Factor. Then in 1984, with issue #206, he became the regular artist on . . . Daredevil, roughly five years after Miller had done the same. From there, Mazzucchelli drew through issue #217 (missing #207) and then #220-226 (missing #224), or 15 total issues. At the point the Born Again storyline commenced, Mazzucchelli hadn't drawn the equivalent of two years worth of monthly comics. And yet -- in conjunction with works by the likes of Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman -- he and Miller were about to change the face of comics. 

The most important thing to remember about Born Again and Year One is the fact that these were not part of a more adult publishing arm from these Big 2 publishers, like Epic or Vertigo (still almost a decade away from inception), nor were they even outside mini-series. These two storylines took place within the regular titles of each character, Daredevil and Batman, respectively. One issue, you were reading a story from a different creative team (though Mazz was the regular artist on Daredevil at the time), the next, Miller & Mazzucchelli were bringing a whole new level of storytelling to your standard, monthly, four-color adventures: issues #227-233 of Daredevil and #404-407 of Batman. It had to be jarring for some regular readers. 

The first collaboration between Miller & Mazzucchelli was at Marvel, with Daredevil: Born Again, in 1986. Miller's initial run on the character, a few years previous, had made Daredevil a more edgy character, injecting him into the shadowy crime world of New York City, while also introducing a bit of fantasy in the form of the  ninja clan, The Hand, his blind martial arts mentor, Stick, and Matt Murdock's (Daredevil's civilian identity) former lover, Elektra, who had become a ninja assassin in the intervening years. Born Again expanded on that base in ways that would blow up the title, and mainstream comics, in a profound way. 

The opening scene of the first issue of this storyline -- again, importantly, nestled within the regular monthly series, with issue #227 -- has Karen Page, another of Matt's former lovers, giving up the secret that he is, in fact, Daredevil, for the price of a shot of heroin (unspoken at this juncture, but stated outright later in the story). We also learn that Karen has been involved in either soft or hardcore porn, as the dealer talking with her mentions he recognizes her from her flicks, that she's "big at the stag parties." At this point, in 1986, comics were still considered fodder for children, brightly garbed heroes beating up brightly garbed villains, with a return to the status quo at the end of every issue, only for the pattern to repeat the following month. These comics, particularly superhero comics distributed to newsstands and spinner racks, like Daredevil, were aimed at this demographic; they weren't yet made with adults in mind. So, for this story to begin with a character being described as popular at stag parties and selling our hero's secret for drugs was a big deal. Certainly, drugs had been used as story points before, most notably in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85 and the anti-drug storyline from Amazing Spider-Man #96-98. These were important milestones in the history of comics publishing, but what resulted from Karen Page's revelation would add a whole new dimension to comic book storytelling.

It's the tone of this story, by Miller & Mazzucchelli, that really stands out for me. They don't treat Karen Page's addiction with anything approaching bombast or titillation. It feels like something from a hardboiled pulp novel by the likes of Raymond Chandler or Jim Thompson, authors whom Miller holds in high regard. It is this ground level, almost subdued (when taken in the context of typical superhero comic book fare) approach that elevates the story, as we follow Karen in her flight to New York hoping to find help from Matt. She hitches a ride with a skeevy character -- a pimp who wants to use Karen, to turn her out and make himself some scratch. He keeps his hold over her by offering up the heroin she needs, even as Karen desires to be free of this addiction. But combating a drug addiction is not an easy task. It requires daily vigilance even after you kick it. This truth, along with the shadow of guilt Karen feels and the torture she endures, resonates throughout her arc. 

Along with this new, adult approach to the character of Karen Page, Miller & Mazzucchelli also break down Matt Murdock, bringing him to a point as low as readers had ever seen him. Again, it is the tone of the storytelling that stands out -- no bombast or melodrama dripping with sentimentality, no overt machismo here. This feels real, genuine, a psychotic break we can believe, and it erupts into violence that is unhinged, unsettling, and unnerving. Matt believes everyone, including his former lover and his best friend, are turned against him. He sees devils everywhere he looks. When a collection of youths enter the subway car Matt is riding, intent on divesting the passengers of their valuables, and one of them points a gun in his face, Matt smiles, coldly, calmly . . . and then he reacts, taking out the armed thief, followed by his cronies, leaving them in a bloody mess on the subway car floor. As it stops, a police officer enters, gun drawn, and Matt proceeds to take him out as well. It's a bloody assault the likes of which would have been inconceivable for the lawyer-slash-hero, previously, and it accentuates the depths to which he has fallen. 

There is an even more disturbing scene of violence later in the story. Ben Urich, Daily Bugle reporter and friend of Matt Murdock, is investigating the Kingpin. He goes to the city jail with photographer Glorianna O'Breen, Matt's former, and Foggy's current, girlfriend, to question Nurse Lois, one of the Kingpin's assassins who's agreed to testify. Urich is accompanied by a fellow reporter, Blanders, and officer Hegerfors, who was assigned to Urich for protection. After the prison guard, Coogan, lets them into the cell, he locks the door. Blanders and Coogan reveal themselves to be on the Kingpin's payroll, as Blanders shoots Lois and Coogan fires on Hegerfors. Hegerfors manages to return fire, killing the prison guard, but Blanders isn't done. Everything happens quickly, Urich lunges for Blanders, knocking him down before retrieving Hegerfors's pistol and whipping Blanders with it, blood flying from the grip, even as Glori continues snapping photographs. Mazzucchelli is a beast in this scene. You can feel the tension, the desperation, the fear in Ben. It permeates every panel, with the angles chosen, the body language, the facial expressions. You know this is a life or death situation, and it stops your breath. It's brilliant. And haunting. 

A year later, Miller & Mazzucchelli helped usher in the "new" post-Crisis Batman, with the Year One storyline in Batman issues #404-407. Again, these two creators wanted to shake things up, to infuse more "realism" into what was possible with superheroes, while, in this case, retelling Batman's origin. They also widened their net to include the origin (at least as far as his days in Gotham City) of James Gordon, a detective in this storyline who would one day become Commissioner. And it is Gordon, as well as Selina Kyle, Catwoman, whom Miller & Mazzucchelli target, in order to add to the Bat-mythos, while also dragging the comic book medium forward. 


Gordon is young, but has a history in Chicago. His wife, Barbara, is pregnant with their first child, and he is hoping to restart his police career with this new posting in Gotham City. He soon learns that most of his colleagues are on the take and Commissioner Loeb is certainly corrupt (unsurprising for the cesspool that is Gotham). But Gordon is here to fight the good fight. He believes in what he does and believes he must hold to his principles. He takes out Detective Flass, a former green beret, after Flass and a half-dozen other cops roughed Gordon up to teach him a lesson. This, coupled with the good press Gordon receives for his police work, provides him with a bit of armor against retaliation by the Commissioner and his cronies. But it is still lonely, being one of the very few good cops in Gotham, and a romance blossoms between Gordon and fellow detective, Sarah Essen. Even as his pregnant wife suffers through a stifling summer in Gotham. This is one of the heroes of this story! And yet, it feels genuine, and it imbues Gordon with a humanity (though flawed) and a relatability that he may not have evoked previously. In the end, Essen requests a transfer and Gordon and his wife begin marriage counseling, but just the idea that these heroes can have clay feet feels exhilarating, and it adds a lot to this narrative, as well as to the possibilities for future narratives from these and other creators. 

We also get a new Selina Kyle (Catwoman) in this retelling of Batman's origin. She is a prostitute, a dominatrix, who works in the ugly part of Gotham. Despite this, Selina comes across as a very strong character, one who seems to have chosen her profession rather than one who is being exploited. It's a fine distinction, but certainly one that comes across in this story. When Selina decides that she and Holly, the young girl who lives with her and is starting out as a street walker, are going to leave this life, she takes down the pimp who claims to own them. Then she buys a catsuit to become a burglar, and to make a splash like this new Batman. Yet, her exploits are either mistaken as that of the Batman or she is described as his sidekick. It's frustrating for her, and only makes her more determined to succeed at this new venture. Again, Miller & Mazzucchelli imbue a character with far more humanity than had been typically done in the past (and, sadly, is still too rarely achieved in our new present, 35 years after the publication of Year One). It's a relatively simple approach, but one that wasn't often attempted up to this point, for multiple reasons. 


As with Born Again, Miller & Mazzucchelli also bring a more nuanced, more real approach to the violence in this story. During Bruce Wayne's initial foray into the dark streets of Gotham, even before he's latched onto the idea of becoming a bat, he is seriously injured by a knife wound and has difficulty getting home. Bruce is not the supremely able and deadly combatant he will become; he's a neophyte going on bravado and overconfidence born of youth, and it almost ends in his death. There are more examples of this too throughout the series, of punches or kicks or bullets actually having impact, causing pain, and impairing the beneficiaries of the assault. This is no WWE wrestling match, this is real life (as real as superhero comics can get), and the consequences of violence can be substantial. 

Looking back from the vantage point of 2021, it is still surprising that Born Again and Year One got the green light for publication. These two stories took recognizable, mainstream superheroes and infused a groundedness and complexity of characterization that had rarely been done before. These heroes were being written for children, their battles couldn't be muddied by the grayness of reality. Drugs? Prostitution? Infidelity? Pornography? These weren't the subjects of kids' comics, and certainly weren't character traits one would associate with the good guys. And yet, Miller & Mazzucchelli, despite lacking a breadth of experience within the comic field, were allowed to take these characters and change things significantly. And it worked. Spectacularly. And we all should be thankful that the editorial regimes at these two, large publishers took a chance on these stories, because they are easily two of the very best superhero stories ever told in the comic book medium. 

-- chris

Friday, April 23, 2021

Batman: Year One -- Gordon & Essen

With the continued discussion of the post-Crisis DC Universe I'm having with three of my friends, we followed up Byrne's Man of Steel with Batman: Year One by Miller & Mazzucchelli. I want to look at one, very specific aspect of this series--the relationship between Detective James Gordon and Detective Sarah Essen. 

Miller & Mazzucchelli bring all their creative knowledge to the task of telling Batman's origin story, within the space of only four issues, none of them oversized. To achieve what they want, they heavily layer their storytelling, crafting full, intense scenes that take place over the course of just a couple of pages, or just a handful of panels. There's no fat on these bones, and that is true for one of the major character bits for James Gordon. 

Gordon is new to Gotham, trying to be a good cop in a corrupt agency, pressured by his superiors and his fellow officers, while dealing with the anxiety that comes from the impending birth of his first child, all in a cesspool of a city. He finds solace in the arms and lips of a fellow detective, Sarah Essen. 



Their blossoming relationship occurs over the course of only three scenes where they interact directly with one another. A grand total of maybe five pages, though there are another handful surrounding the personal interactions between the two. It's brief, very brief, and yet, it feels genuine, and it works. Miller & Mazzucchelli manage to infuse these scenes with the weight and the emotion and the humanity that allows us to believe that James Gordon could fall in love with this fellow detective, and that she could do the same, even with the reality of his marriage and his wife's pregnancy. It's masterful. And then, when we land on this page at the end of chapter 3, the devastating reality and the heavy guilt that Gordon is carrying with him just hits us in the gut. 

Miller & Mazzucchelli have a relatively small bibliography, within the mainstream, superhero comics medium. But, in the two stories they created together, this and Daredevil: Born Again, they may have crafted the best superhero stories the medium has ever seen. 


Thursday, April 22, 2021

Post-Crisis DC: MAN OF STEEL by Byrne -- some rambly thoughts

Since January, every week three friends and I have been discussing Crisis on Infinite Earths and its crossovers, over Zoom. Having concluded that monumental task, we plan to move onto a discussion of the follow-up series, Legends, and its crossovers. But first, a palate cleanser with the DC trinity:  Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and the various series that reintroduced these legendary characters to a new (and old) readership. First up, Superman: The Man of Steel by John Byrne, with Dick Giordano, Tom Ziuko, John Costanza, and edited by Andy Helfer. 


At the culmination of Crisis, there was now a single Superman on a single Earth in a single universe. DC Comics had achieved the goal of once again making him unique. Now they needed to ground Superman, make him more relatable, not so much the overpowering hero with little to challenge him. I mean, when you can use super-ventriloquism to speak with other heroes in space, what can't you do? So, DC poached John Byrne, one of the most popular creators working at the time, from Marvel, with the mandate to overhaul the Man of Steel. And that's just what Byrne did. 


The 6-issue series opens on Krypton, its people dying from a Green Death, radiation emanating from the interior of the planet and the destructive forces there that are threatening to destroy the planet, if Jor-El's calculations are to be believed. There is no doubt in Jor-El's mind; he's taken his and Lara's son, in order to send him to Earth, so that their boy might live. This is a sterile Krypton, a technologically advanced world eating itself, which, with the radiation known as the Green Death, also gives us a new, and logical, explanation of why Kryptonite (only green, now; no more red, gold, black, or whatever) would have such a detrimental effect on Superman. And very quickly, within the first few pages, we get the classic image of Kal-el's ship launching from the exploding Krypton, hurled toward Earth and his new life. From here, Byrne adds more familiar pieces to the Superman puzzle. 


We meet Lois Lane, a strong, intelligent, driven reporter. A cautious Batman who utilizes the city of Gotham, and his knowledge of it, to his advantage while having a contingency plan for all eventualities, including the arrival of Superman. Lex Luthor, a ruthless businessman who believes everyone and everything can be bought. A Bizarro formed in an experiment utilizing Superman's stolen DNA. And a Lana Lang who needed to discover who she was in order to deal with the burden--that of his secret identity--Clark laid on her, while still in high school. These are all characters we've most likely seen before, but they are all different in subtle and not so subtle ways. It's impressive the thought that Byrne put into these characters, of how to update them and make them relevant for a 1986 world. And it's the little things that stand out, like when Lois, at Clark's apartment, comments on how little weight he has on his dumbbells (not much more than she uses to workout), which makes sense, considering Superman would have no idea what amount of weight on a dumbbell would be too heavy or too light for a regular human. Or, there's the scene in Gotham City, when Superman first approaches Batman and snags his line, only to find that Batman has disappeared. Superman mutters to himself that he didn't think Batman had the power of invisibility, to which Batman--standing atop a nearby skyscraper--proclaims that invisibility is a relative concept, achieved sometimes through a knowledge of the terrain. It's these details that really shine in this series and help it to hold up today. 


One of the best things about Byrne's approach to Man of Steel, and Superman in general, was to model the character of Clark Kent/Superman after the characterization most people would have been familiar with at the time, Christopher Reeve's portrayal from the 1977 Richard Donner film, Superman. There are references laced throughout these six issues. Our introduction to Clark on Earth is in a football game where he's running for yet another touchdown, almost single-handedly defeating Smallville's opponent. This mirrors the frustration of young Clark Kent in the 1977 film where he is the waterboy/manager of the high school football team even though he knows that with his abilities he could run circles around any of the others on that field. We also get an almost direct homage with a flashback of Clark, as a toddler, lifting the family truck to get his ball from beneath it, mirroring the scene from the movie of young Clark catching and lifting the truck when the carjack shifts and tumbles away while Pa is changing the tire, just after they discovered him. 


But two of my very favorite scenes of Byrne channelling Christopher Reeve come when Superman saves a young woman from a would-be mugger and then turns to her and asks that she turn down her boombox, because "in a city [the] size [of Metropolis], consideration for others is the only thing that keeps life bearable," and when, in the opening of issue four, Lois arrives at Clark's apartment to pick him up for Luthor's gala and she sees the picture of Clark in his high school football uniform and is surprised by his physicality, and Clark tells her he still tries to keep in shape--the look on Clark's face is priceless and feels like it comes directly from Reeve and his characterization. For me, Christopher Reeve epitomized the character of Clark Kent/Superman and always will, so Byrne utilizing him as a template for this revitalized Man of Steel is more than welcome. 

"I still try to keep in shape..."

Ultimately, perhaps the most important aspect of Byrne's approach to Superman may be the fact that he focuses on Clark Kent as the main character, with Superman as the disguise. It's a subtle, but monumental, shift in what I feel was, and often times still is, the approach to the character of Superman. He's an alien, he has superpowers, the title of the comic is Superman, ergo Superman is the primary identity. But, for his formative years, until he turned eighteen, Clark Kent was raised by human parents, lived in a human world, was, for all intents and purposes, human, and his understanding of the world and his approach to life all stem from this, from the values instilled into Clark by Ma and Pa Kent. It is his humanity, his kindness, his desire to do good without expectation of reward that makes Superman the hero he is. There are plenty of other heroes with super strength, invulnerability, the power to fly, like Captain Marvel and J'onn J'onnz, the Martian Manhunter, but none of them are Superman. It's this goodness (and greatness) absent the ego that makes Superman stand out. So, focusing on Clark Kent as the prime identity, with Superman as the disguise, only makes sense, and it gets to the core of this character in a way that makes him far more interesting, in my opinion. 


After reading and discussing Byrne's Man of Steel mini-series, my friends and I agreed that this is a foundational text, as far as the character of Superman is concerned. It introduces this legendary character, known the world over, in a way that allows readers old and new to have a solid understanding of who Superman is and who Clark Kent is, while also revealing the world within which he lives, along with the major cast of characters surrounding him. Lois Lane is here. Perry White. The Daily Planet. Lex Luthor. Metropolis. All the trappings that inform Superman's life. There's also Smallville. Ma & Pa Kent. Lana Lang. His roots in the American midwest that form so much of the ethos of Superman. And there's Krypton. Jor-El. Lara. And Kryptonite. The origins that created a superhuman icon and also spurred a need for him to belong and to be part of a community, while also containing the seeds for his destruction (whether one sees that as the Kryptonite or the stark, soulless reality of his people). And, of course, there's Batman, Superman's counterpart in so many ways, the yin to his yang and the one hero who might be able to contain Superman, if he went rogue. It's all here and all laid out by Byrne in a clear and entertaining way that grounds Superman and lays the foundation for all the adventures to come. It's pretty great.