Masters of comics: Frank Miller

Masters of comics: Frank Miller

Candido Romano Published on 4/26/2023

The life and work of Frank Miller, the great innovator and creator of noir comics who revolutionised the Batman character and created masterpieces like Sin City and 300.


– Masters of comics: Frank Miller

– The early eighties at Marvel: Daredevil and Elektra

– DC and the Batman revolution: the Dark Knight Returns

– The nineties: cinema, Sin City and 300

– Frank Miller’s legacy

Frank Miller is one of the best-loved and most influential comic book writers of recent times. His ideas have revolutionised the world of superheroes in particular and comics in general. His noir style might not fit conventional ideas of beauty, but it has always marked him out as one of the most original authors of all time.

Miller was born in 1957 in Olney, Maryland, but grew up in Montpelier, Vermont. It was during Miller’s somewhat lonely adolescence that he developed a passion for drawing. His dream had always been to create comics, but he struggled at first because his drawings were still too immature.

Illustrated panel by famous cartoonist Frank Miller, all rights reserved.

In the second half of the 1970s, Miller showed his first portfolio of drawings to Neil Adams, the legendary comic book artist whose credits include Batman. Adams said Miller’s portfolio was “horrible”. At this point, most people would have given up and gone home, but Miller didn’t have a plan B. All he wanted to do was draw comics. So, aged 21, he moved to New York, America’s comics capital. He kept in touch with Adams and managed to strike a deal with him: he would come to Adams’ studio every day to learn, but would not receive a commission for any work he did. It took Miller two years to hone his craft until, finally, in 1978, seeing how much his drawing had improved, Adams got him a job working on short story for the Twilight Zones comic.

And so began Frank Miller’s career, inspired by the aforementioned Neal Adams and authors like Jack Kirby, Frank Frazetta, Will Eisner and Hugo Pratt. It was the so-called Bronze Age of American comic books (1970-1985), which saw revolutions in print formats, the beginning of distribution through comic book stores and the first super-hero blockbusters at the cinema.

The early eighties at Marvel: Daredevil and Elektra

After a couple of jobs that helped him find his feet in the industry, Miller landed a job at Marvel, thanks in large part to Jim Shooter, the editor in chief at the time. He started out with minor tasks, like drawing covers and short stories for Spiderman anthologies. Then, at the beginning of 1979, came the big break: Miller became the official artist for Daredevil, one of Marvel’s lesser-known series.

Illustrated panel by famous cartoonist Frank Miller, all rights reserved.

At the time, sales of Daredevil were falling and the character lived in the shadow of the much more famous Spiderman. Miller had lots of ideas for reviving the character’s fortunes, but these ran into opposition from Roger McKenzie, who was then the writer for Daredevil. After some changes at the top of the title, Miller took over as writer and penciller for Daredevil in 1981: when issue #168 came out in that same year, everything changed for the Marvel character.

Still in his early 20s, Miller immediately set about revolutionising the world of superheroes. First, he decided that Daredevil needed a change in atmosphere. For this he found inspiration in the work of Will Eisner, from whom he got his great love of the noir genre, which Miller wasted no time in bringing to the pages of Daredevil. As a result, Hell’s Kitchen, the New York neighbourhood where the comic had always been set, became darker and more realistic. Next, Miller took a minor villain from Spiderman, Kingpin, and turned him into a three-dimensional character and nemesis of Daredevil. He also introduced the ninja assassin Elektra, who became a key character in the Daredevil series and would also get her own standalone stories. Miller also re-wrote the origin story of Matt Murdock and was inspired by the narrative techniques used in Japanese manga, especially the storytelling of Lone Wolf and Cub, which was much more minimalist and effective.

Illustrated panel by famous cartoonist Frank Miller, all rights reserved.

This change in direction also brought commercial success to the title, catapulting Daredevil from minor character to one of Marvel’s best-known superheroes. Miller ended his first stint with Daredevil in 1983, but his revolution was just getting started…

DC and the Batman revolution: the Dark Knight Returns

At this stage in his career, Miller was much in demand: he accepted an offer from DC Comics to create the Ronin miniseries, which drew heavily on Japanese manga for inspiration. But it wasn’t until 1986 that his greatest masterpiece was released, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which gave a noir makeover to one of the most iconic superheroes of all time. Until then, Batman had been seen as the camp and colourful main character of simple stories thanks to the eponymous 1960s TV series.

Illustrated panel by famous cartoonist Frank Miller, all rights reserved.

Miller completely rewrote the character. But rather than start with his early years, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns focuses on a fifty-something Bruce Wayne who has withdrawn from crime-fighting after the death of Robin. Set in a violent and grim future, it features a grey-haired Batman in a story that would inspire Christopher Nolan’s much-loved film trilogy.

The square-bound four-part miniseries Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was completely different to what comics readers were accustomed to back then: the pages are densely packed with 16 panels per page. The first images of Bruce Wayne show wrinkles and signs of age, while his costume is now worn, torn and dirty.

Illustrated panel by famous cartoonist Frank Miller, all rights reserved.

This miniseries made the superhero genre much more adult, even though the style often spills over into caricature. In this story, we see a tormented and suffering Batman in a Gotham City that is descending into chaos. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, as well as the Watchmen by Alan Moore, released around the same time, finally enabled the medium of comics to appeal to an audience beyond children and teenagers.

Miller’s influences for this work are clear: Moebius, at the time published in the US in Heavy Metal magazine, and authors like Hugo Pratt with his long stories and thoughtful characters.

Illustrated panel by famous cartoonist Frank Miller, all rights reserved.

During this period, Miller also revisited Daredevil, writing one of the character’s best-known stories: Daredevil: Born Again. Published in 1986, it was drawn by a young David Mazzucchelli. It also coincided with a difficult time for Miller, who was going through a divorce that left him with money problems.

In 1987, Miller returned to the Caped Crusader with Batman: Year One, which told the character’s origin story. Also drawn by David Mazzucchelli, it was part of the same continuity as The Dark Knight Returns.

The nineties: cinema, Sin City and 300

By the end of the 80s, Frank Miller had become a phenomenon, so much so that Hollywood had noticed him. He had always wanted to write for the cinema and he finally got the chance when he was asked to write the screenplay for Robocop 2 and then Robocop 3. But the Hollywood system was quite different to the world of comic books, where Miller had total creative control. When his screenplays were completely reworked, he was left frustrated and disillusioned.

Miller subsequently turned his focus to the graphic novel Elektra Lives Again and then, in 1990, together with Geof Darrow, created the miniseries Hard Boiled, which was a mixture of violence and satire. The writer’s next comic book success would not feature characters from the Marvel or DC universes. Instead, miller turned to independent publisher Dark Comics and pitched a comic written by himself, for himself, completely free of editorial considerations. That comic was Sin City.

Illustrated panel by famous cartoonist Frank Miller, all rights reserved.

With Sin City, Miller pushed his stripped down, dark style further than ever before: it is predominantly black and white, apart from a few issues where colours such as yellow or blue are used, and only when justified by the story. The lines are clean and sharp, the atmosphere noir, with Miller taking everything he learned from Will Eisner to the extreme. Miller would spend the next eight years working on the Sin City series. Its success was such that it would eventually hit the big screen in 2005 as a film directed by Miller, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.

Another of Miller’s comic book miniseries to successfully make the jump from page to screen – as a film directed by Zack Snyder – was 300. Originally published as five albums starting in 1998, it was later turned into a graphic novel.

Illustrated panel by famous cartoonist Frank Miller, all rights reserved.

It tells the story of the battle of Thermopylae, and the events leading up to it, from the point of view of Leonidas of Sparta. 300 was inspired by the 1962 film “The 300 Spartans”, which Miller had seen as a boy. Miller’s comic book series really caught readers’ imagination with its striking graphics and the way its panels were put together.

After publishing a number of other works, Miller returned to the cinema, his other great passion. In 2008, he made his directorial debut with The Spirit, a film based on the character Will Eisner created in 1940.

In parallel with his foray into cinema, Miller continued to be prolific in the comic book world: between 2001 and 2002, he wrote the sequel to Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which was published as  Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, going on to complete the trilogy in 2015 with The Dark Knight III: The Master Race.

Frank Miller’s legacy

The legacy that Frank Miller has left the comic book world is incalculable. His raw and minimalist style has inspired generations of cartoonists, while his innovations in visual storytelling and characterisation have had a profound effect on the comic book medium.

Photograph depicting comic book master, Frank Miller

Miller showed that comics can tackle serious and complex themes, and that superhero characters can be written in new and unexpected ways. His influence is still felt today and his work holds valuable lessons for the next generation of comic book artists and writers.