Frank Miller’s Wolverine Controversy

An illustration of Wolverine. That’s all it took for the internet, at least the pop bubble, to turn inside out. All because Marvel released four illustrations for the covers of some of their titles with the signature of Frank Miller. Far from the perfect superheroes that populate comic books, the cartoonist’s versions are brutal, exaggerated, anatomically incorrect. Striking. Geniuses!

It was not with this enthusiasm, however, that Miller’s trait was received among part of those passionate about comic books. His take on Wolverine sparked a heated debate about the evolution of his artwork, but ended up revealing the absolute inflexibility of some comic book fans towards what they tolerate as “good cartoon”.

Liking or not an illustration, regardless of each individual’s baggage, is something totally subjective. If a drawing displeases someone, it is a valid point of view. What this case made more evident, however, is the intolerance of a section of this group with anything that escapes their definition of art for comic book characters.

The superhero comic book fan, as the material currently produced by Marvel and DC makes clear, is pretty conservative. He was “educated” in a pattern that rarely escapes industrial production. The art of modern comics, with few exceptions, brings the style popularized by cartoonist Jim Lee in the 1990s: detailed, dynamic, realistic and efficient. No surprises.

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Batman illustrated by Frank Miller for a collection of ‘The Dark Knight’ series

Image: DC/Playback

Frank Miller, on the other hand, was never very fond of the rules of the market. When designing the Daredevil series, still in the early 1980s, the artist incorporated elements from cinema noir and authors outside the North American circuit in his style. The 1982 miniseries “Wolverine” highlighted these influences, even if it was produced within Marvel standards.

Miller’s art in “Batman – The Dark Knight” of 1986, brought even more ruptures with the current pattern, in which its supposed realism was broken with interventions that looked like caricatures. “Elektra Vive”, graphic novel from 1990, showed Miller’s style, still within a corporate structure, moving towards the evolution that he would show in the following years.

From then on, the artist abandoned any convention in his creations. “Sin City” is an aesthetic knockout of high contrast black and white, light and shadows. “300” is historical fiction with a unique visual refinement. Outside of the superhero universe, the mass of fans gave a standing ovation, recognizing Frank Miller as one of the greatest geniuses in comic book history.

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‘Sin City’ brought a brutal contrast of light and shadows without gray areas

Image: Dark Horse/Reproduction

The reception from the same enthusiasts was already radically different when, at the beginning of the new millennium, Miller returned to DC with “DK2”, a continuation of his Batman miniseries. He opted for an experimental, almost abstract style, which at times struggled on paper with digital colorization by his regular collaborator (and then-wife) Lynn Varley. The artist’s armor for the first time found fissures among his admirers.

Not that Miller gave a shit. At that point, he was already preparing for other creative leaps, resuming a dialogue with Hollywood, interrupted after his scripts for “RoboCop 2” and its sequel were shredded and distorted. Robert Rodriguez’s invitation to co-direct the adaptation of “Sin City”, however, seemed undeniable.

His eventual return to comics was always surrounded by controversy. “Holy Terror,” an explicitly anti-Islamic graphic novel, was rejected by DC as a Batman adventure and found its way into a standalone comic, Miller’s belated response to 9/11 – he recently said that while he can’t erase art produced, there is no longer a “dialogue” with the work.

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The controversial graphic novel ‘Holy Terror’

Image: Reproduction

“Xerxes”, historical fiction in the same universe as “300”, initially published as a miniseries between April and August 2018, was the last work developed entirely with Miller’s traits. His style deconstruction, since drawing Daredevil for Marvel four decades earlier, seems finished. The covers he eventually produces for Marvel – in addition to Wolverine, the publisher has shown his take on Blade, the Thing and Moon Knight – are a gift.

Over the course of his career, de Miller gradually reduced his art to its simplest form. He trimmed all the rough edges, took out all the fat, and solidified his style. All his influence, from Argentine Alberto Breccia to “King” Jack Kirby, from manga to cinema noirimposes itself as an abstraction, in which the grotesque results in superhuman figures that are not necessarily super heroic.

His style is exactly everything that makes the traditional superhero fan turn their nose up. These are the same criticisms of Mike Mignola’s increasingly minimalist style. Or to the trait that refers to the pop art by Mike Allred. Or even the punk and brutal art of Paul Pope. They are artists who even travel through the universe of costumed vigilantes. But it is a visit seen by many as uncomfortable.

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Moon Knight, Blade and the Thing, Marvel heroes in Frank Miller’s dash

Image: Marvel/Reproduction

The truth is that a single illustration of Wolverine signed by Frank Miller put Marvel superheroes back in the spotlight. His peers applauded, understanding that art, when it remains static, especially in a dynamic medium like comics, also becomes boring.

In Miller’s trait, Wolverine was translated as a mass of muscle, fur and savagery that conveys danger. It’s exactly what it’s always been: brutal. Some say that Frank Miller “unlearned to draw”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Marvel – and the comics – stand to gain when a giant decides to walk among mortals. His drawings belong not only on the pages of comic books: they deserve to be on display in an art gallery.

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