superman frank miller

30 years ago, writer Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli explored the earliest days of the Caped Crusader in Batman: Year One. This storyline has since become the go-to origin tale for the character, heavily inspiring other comic creators and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Now, Miller is looking to do the same for another iconic DC superhero. At Comic-Con 2017, Miller revealed that he’s set to tackle Superman: Year One.

The news came out of Comic-Con’s DC Master Class panel, but details remain scarce. Speaking with Vulture, Miller revealed that the story will re-tell the very familiar origin tale of Kal-El, the Kryptonian child who fell to Earth, became Clark Kent, and then became Superman:

I’ve got a new Superman project that’s getting started, telling his origins. It’s telling his beginnings from when Pa Kent discovered him in the cornfield, and the little boy goes to youth, and then to manhood.

Miller, who also wrote and drew comics like Sin City and 300 before trying his hand at directing with the well-intentioned but poorly received The Spirit, is best known to comic book fans for reinventing Batman (and across the aisle, Daredevil), updating the Dark Knight for the edgier ’80s. But as he tells Vulture, he’s never told a proper Superman story:

You know, through Dark Knight I got to touch just about the ones in the DC pantheon but I never had my real meaningful crack at Superman. In the case of DC Comics, which has by far and away the strongest and richest mythology, there are those three fundamental pillars they have of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. All of the other characters, they kind of string along underneath them, which is wonderful.

What’s not clear is whether or not Miller will pencil Superman: Year One or if he’ll just stick to writing duties. Miller’s increasingly exaggerated and experimental work has proven divisive amongst comic book fans (see the art at the top of this article). Plus, he shared art duties on the recent Dark Knight III: The Master Race with Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson. For a major Superman book, DC may seek out an artist with a more approachable, populist style.

dark knight returns

The Problem With Frank Miller and Superman

The idea of Frank Miller retelling the early days of Superman is both fascinating and horrifying, mainly because he has showcased a genuine antipathy for the character in his past work. Miller is a cynical guy, an artist whose work is steeped in shadows and blood and tragedy. In many ways, he fits the tortured, potentially unbalanced Batman like a glove. He’s noir to the bone. Even his charged political views inform that character in interesting, challenging (and sometimes troubling) ways.

But Superman? The most optimistic, hopeful, and genuinely good superhero in the entire DC pantheon? Miller has not showcased him in the most positive light in his past work.

Perhaps the most famous example of this can be found in the seminal 1986 miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, which imagines a world in which an elderly Bruce Wayne returns to his war on crime as Gotham City descends into chaos. It’s a rightfully famous comic – Frank Miller’s intentionally grotesque art certainly inspired Tim Burton’s movies and his hard-boiled prose transformed the World’s Greatest Detective into…well, someone who actually sounds like he could have crawled out of a Raymond Chandler novel.

Superman himself doesn’t show up until late in the story and when he does, he’s an adversary to the Dark Knight. Depicted as an ageless, pompous government tool, he’s a poster boy for Reagan’s America who is less interested in helping the little guy and more interested in taking meetings at the White House about arresting the Batman for his “crimes.” It’s actually a fascinating political dynamic – Miller approves of Batman’s borderline fascist approach to cleaning up the streets but disapproves of Superman working with the established conservative government. There’s a lot to unpack here, but it ultimately boils down to Batman being the hardened human warrior who does the right thing no matter how much it hurts while Superman is the godlike monstrosity who needs to be taken down a notch.

And Batman does just that in the series’ final big battle, where the Dark Knight stands toe-to-toe with the Man of Steel and lands one humiliating blow after another. It’s a very clear where Miller stood on the whole “who would win a fight between Batman and Superman?” debate.

This is where I get curious. With Batman: Year One, Miller’s grounded and gritty style worked in conjunction with Bruce Wayne. He’s a superhero fighting in a cynical world, perfectly in tune with Miller’s cynical style. But at his best, Superman is a beacon of hope. Miller saw that as cheesy, as a false idol in need of being torn down by a realist in a batsuit. I believed when I was younger, too.

However, with each passing year, I have begun to love Superman more. I love that he’s driven by basic goodness and that he believes in the best of humanity. I love that he’s a simple guy who fights because it’s the right thing to do. I like that he’s so adjusted. I’m sick and tired of reinterpretations that try to make him in a darker character with a murkier mission (like in the recent DCEU movies). Sometimes, a hero can just be a hero. Sometimes, we need that. That’s harder to write, but no one ever said good storytelling was easy.

So here’s the big question: does Miller apply his normal style to Superman and transform him into something nastier, darker, and edgier? Or is this a chance for him to break out of his comfort zone, to explore a character who is unlike what he is famous for, to stretch his creative muscles? As someone who likes Miller and loves Superman, I hope it’s the latter.

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