Frank Miller. People love him. People hate him. But even if you think (as I do) that his best comic book work is long behind him, only an ignoramus could discount his importance to the revolution of the 1980s that moved comic books away from cheap, pulpy newsprint stories for kids and teens into adult-oriented, glossy works of art.
Today’s his birthday, so I’m counting down my top 10 favorite Miller stories. Before I go any further: I know 300 and Sin City have their fans. I’m not one of them. I don’t have anything against them, but they just didn’t move me. Both of them, but especially Sin City, are stylized beyond the possibility of being relatable. That’s just my opinion.
10. HOLY TERROR (Legendary, 2011)
Go ahead, say it. This is really just Batman vs. Bin Laden. This isn’t his most imaginative work. Blah blah blah. The fact is, it’s a balls-out blast, with wonderful art. Yeah, it’s just a long action sequence, but when this came out it had been so long that anything Miller did looked like…fun…that I have to include it here. And yes, that means Martha Washington didn’t make my list. While I enjoyed that series, especially the first award-winning volume, it just doesn’t hold up for me on re-reads. It’s a little too didactic.
9. ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN (Epic, 1986) and ELEKTRA LIVES AGAIN (Marvel, 1991)
The series illustrated by the great Bill Sienkiewicz was an over-the-top satirization of the comic book medium and the 1991 Eisner-winning graphic novel by Miller and Lynne Varley are two examples of how far Miller can stretch a character. Many complain that the former is ridiculous and non-canonical, while others see it as brilliant. Many see the latter as somewhat staid and dissociated from the “real” Elektra, while other, again, see it as brilliant. These two works show how controversial Miller could be. But he created Elektra, so it’s hard to say that his vision was faulty. Personally, I love these books.
8. MARVEL TEAM-UP #100 (Marvel, 1980)
Co-created with Chris Claremont, this was the book that introduced Karma—Miller’s second greatest female character. Here’s my post on this great comic.
7. BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (DC, 1986)
I’ve written about this extensively as part of my look at all of Frank Miller’s Batman work, and I’m sure everyone’s heard of it. It was a hugely influential book, and although it does stand the test of time, it does so with a little wear on it.
6. DAREDEVIL #185-186: Guts and Stilts (Marvel, 1982)
I grouped these two issues together because Wikipedia did, so I thought it was fair. Also, it’s so hard to cut up Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil, but these two issues showcase the man’s talent for noir-ish art and pitch perfect internal dialog. The first issue focuses on Foggy Nelson, with the words telling the story from Nelson’s perspective but the art showing the reader the truth about what was going on behind Foggy’s back. It’s a brilliant use of the medium: Comics are the one art form where words and pictures can tell a completely different narrative, allowing for multiple points of view that are impossible in film and usually too confusing and layered in a novel. Then Stilts takes a very silly, but iconic, villain, in what may have been the first comic book comedy noir. Reading these books now, you’ll think to yourself that Ed Brubaker, Garth Ennis, Matt Fraction, and countless others have told the same kinds of stories only better. But Miller did it first. He created the blueprint.
5. RONIN (DC, 1983)
Before creator-owned comics were a thing, Miller created Ronin, the first oversized glossy comic to break kids’ wallets and blow their minds. It also proved that people would spend money—lots of money—on a book that didn’t involve pre-established characters. Sure, indie comics existed in 1987, but they weren’t anything as grand and important as Ronin.
4. DAREDEVIL #181-182, 191 (1982-1983)
Everyone knows about Daredevil #181. It’s the one where Bullseye kills Elektra. The sorrowful, sorrow-filled follow-up issue is one of a handful of comics from the 1980s that tried to make death “matter.” Never mind that Miller brought Elektra back just 8 issues later, her death was real to Murdock.
I lumped #191, “Roulette,” in here because it’s the issue where Daredevil essentially tortures Bullseye in retribution. It shows why Daredevil is a different cat than the other supers: He’s got a damaged human side. He’s darkly violent. It’s also what makes a good DD story stand out from other comics.
#191 was the last Miller issue for several years; he’d return to the character once more to write Born Again, the single greatest DD story ever told. (See below.)
3. WOLVERINE #1-4 (Marvel, 1982)
Miller is credited as the artist, but Chris Claremont has candidly said that much of the story was developed candidly between both creators during a long car ride to a comic-con appearance. And so much of this book is driven by the visuals—from the anime-influenced page designs, to panels with words alongside a picture but without balloons or boxes, to the dark tone and stark backgrounds. John Byrne was the guy who worked with Claremont to make Wolverine “cool,” but this series is the one that made him into the character we know today. In fact, it may be action-packed, but at bottom this is a four-issue character study. It’s also the first time he uttered the iconic line: “I’m the best at what I do, but what I do best isn’t very nice.”
2. DAREDEVIL #227-233: Born Again (Marvel, 1986)
Miller just did the writing here, with art by the always amazing David Mazzucchelli. This is another book I’ve already written about a lot, but it remains my single favorite Daredevil comic book of all time, and one of the best books ever written. Period.
1. BATMAN: YEAR ONE (DC, 1987)
Also the subject of my look at all of Frank Miller’s Batman work, Batman Year One isn’t just the best Frank Miller comic ever, it’s the best Batman comic ever. It “made sense” of the character in a way that really hadn’t been done before, by placing Bruce Wayne’s loss of family deep in the context of James Gordon’s flailing marriage and Selina Kyle’s desperate need for love and affection. Yeah, it was a great way to work sexual deviance and fetishism into a comic book, but it made sense. You might say that with the release of this book, Miller had now provided the definitive “future” Batman and the definitive origin—so he’d bookended the character. Throw in All-Star Batman and Robin, and his vision of the character is complete. Nobody other than Grant Morrison has ever had such a complete and total world view on a corporate character—and Miller’s influence on everyone else who touched Batman, from comics to film, was far more profound.
Batman Year One is the definitive origin story, and there’s no better Batman comic out there.
Plus, I got a letter printed on the letters page, so there’s that.