Saturday, June 29, 2019

Post-Graduate Studies #22

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:
by Professor Tom Flynn

It really didn’t take long for Frank Miller to become a superstar. His first published work — well, maybe — was a letter printed in The Cat #3 (April 1973) when he was 16, so he was a comics fan at a fairly early age. By 1978, Miller was illustrating shorts for Gold Key Comics, mainly in The Twilight Zone series. That same year, he brought his portfolio to DC, impressing “The Dreaded Eraser” himself, art director Vince Colletta, who tossed him bottom-rung assignments for Weird War Tales and Unknown Soldier. In a few short months, Frank jumped to Marvel, settling in as a regular fill-in and cover artist. 

Miller’s first job at The House of Ideas was issue #18 of John Carter, Warlord of Mars (November 1978). But it was his work on Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #27 and #28 (February and March 1979), which guest-starred Daredevil, that set his career in motion. While the Man Without Fear’s bi-monthly solo series was on the verge of cancellation, Miller saw great potential in the character — “a blind protagonist in a purely visual medium” he thought — and lobbied to become DD’s permanent penciller. Frank joined writer Roger McKenzie and inker Klaus Janson on Daredevil #158 (May 1979). By January 1981and issue #168, Miller had forced McKenzie out and took over scripting duties as well. Three issues after that, the title became monthly and one of Marvel’s hottest properties. 

In our continuing series of Post-Graduate Studies on notable issues and stories from Bizarre Adventures, let’s take a look at Frank Miller’s contributions to that scattershot black-and-white magazine. He only did two stories, both rather short.

Bizarre Adventures #28
October 1981
Cover by Bob Larkin

“The Mongoose Gambit”
Story, Art & Inks by Frank Miller

Letters by Jim Novak

The ninja assassin Elektra steals aboard a fishing trawler and kills the radio operator as he attempts to send out an SOS. After planting a bomb, she struggles with another crewman: they both fall overboard as the boat explodes. The mercenary breaks the surface of the water and grabs on to a floating piece of wreckage — on the other end is the man she fought on deck, his gun pointed at her head. They enter into an uneasy truce, realizing that they will need to work together if there is any chance to reach land, many miles away. As they paddle, he claims that his holy mission will continue on even without his ship and that Von Eisenbluth will suffer for his crimes. When Elektra asks why he would want to kill a simple spice merchant, her reluctant companion insists that Von Eisenbluth is a Nazi and the murderer of thousands, including his parents and sister.

Two days later, Von Eisenbluth’s island appears on the horizon: the Nazi hunter fires and creases Elektra’s skull. She sinks into the ocean but revives and makes it to shore. There, she encounters a pair of body builders and steals their dune buggy. After killing two guard dogs with her bladed sai, the woman warrior slips into the German’s compound. She comes across the boatman standing before Von Eisenbluth, who is consigned to a wheelchair. The intruder shoots the old man in both knees but it has no effect: the enfeebled criminal mumbles that his legs have had no feelings for years and that heart medications have scrambled his brain. The hunter pauses — but the Nazi has been feigning his mental disabilities. He kills his would-be assassin with a concealed pistol.

Elektra makes her presence known and the clear-eyed Von Eisenbluth smiles. He apologizes for killing the target he paid her to assassinate, adding that it’s been far too long since he shot a Jew. The woman turns to walk away but suddenly spins and impales the Nazi to his wheelchair with a thrown sai to the heart.

Like Frank Miller’s fast-rising stardom, it didn’t take his creation Elektra long to appear in her first solo story. As mentioned before, she debuted in Daredevil #168 in January of 1981, the same issue that Miller solidified his grip on the series. So she had only four full-color appearances under her waist sash by the time she took the lead position in Bizarre Adventures

#28. At this point in Daredevil, Frank was only providing breakdowns for Klaus Janson. But for the 10-page “The Mongoose Gambit” — often referred to as simply “Elektra” — he provided full pencils and inked his own work. It’s hard to exactly call Miller a great artist: he’s sloppy, his characters use stilted poses, facial features are not well defined, and detailed backgrounds are rarely attempted. However, he’s a master of mood and shadows as well as quick and deadly violence. And he’s at the top of his game here. Surprisingly, there are a few close-ups of Ms. Natchios and she actually looks quite beautiful. Not something I would expect for an illustrator who revels in the grotesque. She looks a bit like a transvestite in the pin-up below though. From what I’ve read, this story is supposed to take place before Elektra first entered Matt Murdock’s troubled life.

Yes, we can check the box on Miller’s art, but there are quite a few issues with his story. Now Von Eisenbluth hired Elektra to destroy the nameless Nazi hunter’s boat, so she should have hardly been surprised that the “spice merchant” was a vile creep. Von Eisenbluth is dealing with assassins so he’s obviously not all cloves and allspice. Was she once approached by Mrs. Dash to knock-off Mr. McCormick and this stuff is all second nature? Plus, her “plan” of exploding the boat doesn’t seem very well thought out. The ship is in the middle of the ocean when she slips on board — how is not shown — so when it goes “WHOOMMMM,” Elektra is lucky that there is a large enough piece of debris floating on the surface of the water. Couldn’t she have used a pontoon boat and attached the explosive to the trawler’s hull? Also not sure what purpose the two bodybuilders on the beach serve. They claim that their “Dad’s swinging a deal” with Von Eisenbluth, but that goes nowhere. Elektra just does an old shuck and jive and makes off with their dune buggy. Plus, they are middle-aged men, one nearly bald, so that’s a bit confusing. Finally, Von Eisenbluth is totally nonchalant when the boatman caps him in both knees. Even though his legs have no feeling, I’d imagine that the Nazi would be a bit concerned about all the blood loss, considering the amount of splatter Miller illustrates. With all that aside, “The Mongoose Gambit” is a decent little time waster.

The rest of  Bizarre Adventures #28 is a mixed bag, about the standard for the series. “Shadow Hunter” is a lengthy, 20-page tale about a pint-sized ninja sent to infiltrate a U.S. Army base by his evil Chinese master — at the end, he switches side and foils the warlord’s plans. Doug Moench’s story is pretty dopey but the team of Larry Hama and Neal Adams provide more than agreeable artwork. Heck, Neal Adams. Next up is “Huntsman,” a shockingly shameless rip-off of

Logan’s Run by Archie Goodwin and Michael Golden. I’ll go more in-depth on this short in the upcoming “The Bizarre Michael Golden” post. Mary Jo Duffy and Elfquest’s Wendy Pini team on the sophomoric Triton tale, “Conscience of the King.” As usual, there’s yet another insufferable Bucky Bizarre farce by Steve Skeates and Steve Smallwood.

Bizarre Adventures #31
April 1982
Cover by Joe Jusko

“The Philistine”
Story by Denny O’Neil
Art & Inks by Frank Miller
Letters by Jim Novak

In a post-apocalyptic future, a swordsman makes his way across the burnt plains of eastern Missouri. In the distance, he notices a light — striding closer, he discovers that it’s a museum, a skeleton sprawled across the front steps. A voice beckons him inside: it is the bespectacled curator, a short, rotund elderly man. The warrior is welcomed with a feast of fruit and a cup of “special” tea, all free of charge. The curator begins to rant, complaining about the swinish herd that used to trample through his beloved institution before the coming of “The Shift.” Not only could they not comprehend great art, their presence would actually desecrate the fine objects on display. None of them understood the need to cast aside their defenses and let the paintings and sculptures assault them.

Suddenly, the figure from a Rembrandt portrait strides out of the painting, rapier raised. As the museum’s guardian continues to rant that art must be engaged with whatever weapon you possess, the swordsman kills the living portrait with a vicious slash of his samurai sword. Seductive creatures from a Michelangelo fresco start to emerge as the curator shouts that art can give you an awareness of life even as your very existence is threatened. With three well-thrown ninja stars, the swordsman slays the demons. A suit of armor lurches to life as the little man vows

that art will never be bested by sniveling, mincing buffoons. The swordsman beheads the silver spirit with its own lance.

As the wanderer tends to his wounds, the curator groans about the mess that has been made and the hours that it will take to clean it up. The warrior picks up the knight’s lance and impales his tormentor on an ornamental cartouche hanging from a wall. With his dying breath, the old man mutters “I don’t suppose I had … any right to expect … anything else from a … philistine.”

Um, yeah. I know that RenĂ© Descartes was all “I think, therefore I am” and Nietzsche had a beef with organized religion, but don’t ask me what branch of philosophy Denny O’Neil and Frank Miller were aping with “The Philistine.” It’s basically eight pages of the curator pontificating about art while his rhetoric comes alive in real time. “You must permit art to assault you” and, BAM, a swordfight breaks out. “Art can be seductive as well as fierce” and, POW, naked succubi appear. “Art will ever be victorious” and, WHAM, the suit of amour strikes. What’s the point? I can’t imagine that O’Neil and Miller are anti-art. Is it about art snobbery? Maybe I’m just missing something obvious. 

In 1982, Miller was still only providing breakdowns for Klaus Janson on Daredevil, but, like “The Mongoose Gambit,” he goes whole hog here. There’s a very effective —  and prodigious — use of black, which makes up most of the backgrounds. Other panels are simply battling figures against the white of the paper. Miller doesn’t use the entire frame on many pages, leaving a lot of areas empty, though sometimes those spaces are used for the curator’s dialogue. He also experiments with washes and Zip-a-Tone, adding welcomed shades of grey and texture. I’ve said before that I thought that Frank got lazier — though some might say more stylized — as time went on, but he puts a great deal of effort into the paintings and other objects d’art. They are far from photo-realistic, but have that feeling. Maybe it’s just because their fine details stand out against the simple strokes of the characters. Now I’m guessing that’s supposed to be the work of Rembrandt and Michelangelo on display, but don’t make me swear on it. The swordsman has a nice design, kind of like a samurai El Topo.

As Bizarre Adventures #31 promised “A Hard Look at Violence,” according to the front cover at least, the rest of the seven stories are packed with bloodshed and death. But not much entertainment.  Of note are “The Hangman,” by Mark Gruenwald and the great Bill Sienkiewicz, a tale of a reporter trapped in a horror movie come alive. John Byrne offers a two-pager about book burning that’s way too short to work up any gravitas. And the talented Steve Bissette delivers some uber-creepy artwork for “A Frog is a Frog.”

Bonus: LOC published in Claws of the Cat #3 (April 1973)