The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were considered the pinnacle of comic book art and quality.
Certainly his track record was near-perfect. His classic and rightly acclaimed Daredevil run, which really established the character in a way that everyone has followed since. His art and plotting work the first Wolverine mini-series with Chris Claremont, which is still my favorite take on that character. The stunning Ronin. That's not even going into his Batman work, the aforementioned Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, which, again established a tone for that character that was unchallenged for over 20 years. We can't forget his brilliant Martha Washington collaborations with Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons, or Hard Boiled with Geoff Darrow.
Not to mention his creator-owned Sin City. The multiple Sin City mini-series created an "comics noir" environment that few others would have the audacity to commit to 100%. Miller committed to it 150, even 200%. These books really, still to this day, encompass the best of what Miller can do. They're huge, epic, operatic, and not afraid to get down and dirty. In a lot of ways, I think the world of Basin City is where Miller would, ultimately, like to live. A tough, gritty, violent, sexy, un-PC world in his beloved black and white, with flashes of raw, emotional color.
Take, for example, the long-awaited sequel to The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Again. This 3-issue mini-series was released in 2001, and almost immediately hailed as a huge disappointment. Part of the reason had to be that the artwork didn't reflect the moodiness of the 1986 original, but rather the psychedelic spray of color that defined the last (to date) Sin City 1999 mini; Hell and Back.
I actually enjoyed The Dark Knight Strikes Again. (No, I really did.) Yet, I never thought of it as a sequel to Dark Knight Returns. I always look at is as a sort of The Justice League Returns. It's a bizarre tale, and that can be appreciated. Mainstream success was not, however, ever in the cards. It's just so far outside the realm of what we expected, there was no chance it would be accepted.
It only gets worse when we have Robert Rodriguez approaching Miller about a highly faithful, panel-for-panel adaptation of Sin City to film, with Frank Miller, himself, as Rodriguez's co-director. I enjoyed the movie, no doubt, and it was a faithful translation. However, to my thinking, it also pointed out some of the more silly and overwrought elements in Miller's work.
So, the film is a triumph, but it also did a really, really awful thing. It propagated the image of "Frank Miller: Visionary." That reputation was only fueled when Zach Snyder's adaptation of Miller's 300 hit two years later. Miller suddenly had "clout," and clout far beyond just being a legendary comic creator, he had Hollywood clout.
This is when things seem to really spin out of control.
First we had Miller's collaboration with artist Jim Lee, All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder. This series was announced as a monthly title, free of continuity, in which these two superstar creators could craft a "definitive" version of the Batman mythos. Fans soon found this series not to their liking.
For his part, Miller gave us a Batman that was more extreme than anyone expected. "I'm the Goddamn Batman!!," a particularly reviled line from the series, became a running chat board joke. In his defense, Miller always said that he was writing "his" Batman, and frankly, the Batman of The Dark Knight Returns wasn't exactly family-friendly. Miller's Batman has always been an extreme version of the character.
I would never call All-Star Batman and Robin "definitive," but I have to admit I found it intensely entertaining. As the issues wore on, two things became evident, the plotting was off, and I think that's because Miller expected a monthly series (as Lee said), and was getting what amounted to an annual one. What also became obvious was that Miller was having a grand ol' time pissing off fanboys. "I'm the Goddamn Batman" started showing up in almost every issue, and I cackled every time.
All that aside, it was clear that this series owed more to Sin City than any Batman work Miller had ever done. There was an inherent ugliness that kept creeping in. A sexuality that seemed out of place (we know Miller's Batman likes to do it with the costumes on...which, if you think about it, does explain the Catwoman thing.), and female characters that all fell into the "femme fatale" type. All of these elements certainly can be mined with Batman, but Miller seemed to just be going from his Sin City playbook, and, entertaining as I found it, it didn't read as a great Batman story. It read as a Sin City story, with character that looked like the DC Comics icons.
But that wasn't the worst, as far as I was concerned.
I am a big fan of Will Eisner's The Spirit. Eisner was an undisputed genius, and the creator of the "graphic novel" with A Contract With God. (If you're a comic fan, you need to read it) He also was the creator of the "daylight noir" The Spirit, which found a Denny Colt, who had been "killed," but risen form the grave to do battle with criminals.
Notice the description "daylight noir." Eisner's Central City in The Spirit wasn't a dark and foreboding place. Yes, there were noir elements, but the pages literally burst with color, and The Spirit, himself, was a generally chipper guy, with a great sense of humor, a quick smile, and an eye for the ladies. When I started thinking about how the property could translate to film, in my mind's eye I saw a Raiders of the Lost Ark in an urban setting. A roguish, devil-may-care hero in a pulpish adventure.
But, somehow, due to his "Hollywood clout," they gave it to Miller, as his solo directorial debut, and we got this;
Ah, yes..."My City Screams. She is my lover. I am her Spirit." Which is total Sin City stuff. Wrong. Wrong.
This is The Spirit:
"I'm gonna kill you all kinds of dead." Again, a total Sin City line, but, Frank...The Spirit is not Sin City. I know you were friends with Will Eisner, as evidenced by the fantastic Eisner/Miller book. I'd even agree with the assertion you made that Will would've wanted you to do The Spirit your way, instead of just aping him. If you did a Spirit mini-series I'd be all over it...
...But when you do a movie, you have some responsibility to try to capture the, well...spirit of the thing! Miller's The Spirit wasn't even in the same hemisphere as Eisner's stories. Eisner's gift, be it in his graphic novels, or in The Spirit, was to portray the life that was going on around him. Some of the most classic stories were about normal people caught up in extraordinary events.
Miller doesn't give a damn about normal people. He cares about Gods among men. He's said in interviews, he doesn't give a damn about personal lives and mundane things. He works in massive, broad strokes. There's nothing subtle about his stories or characters. There's no shading or compromise. Just like Miller's ultimate art style, it's black and white. No gray.
Plus...HE'S IN COLOR.
I, honestly, have a lot of respect for Frank Miller, and I think that, even now, he's one of the finest comic artists at work in the field. Yet, I live in abject terror of the rumor that he'll be making a Buck Rogers movie next. Buck Rogers isn't even on the same planet with Sin City.
I certainly don't think he's crazy. I do, however, think he's lost within the world of Sin City that he has created, and I will always want to see what he will do in that world. It's a vital and exciting place for exactly the kinds of stories Miller likes, and wants to tell.
However, what he has lost, I think, is the ability to work with other people's characters and worlds. In his Daredevil days, he could take his sensibilities and use them to enrich the traits of the character as it existed. Now, he feel the need to throw out established elements, so that these characters can conform to his personal fetishes.
I'll always pick up his work. I owe him that loyalty, as a reader who got a lot of enjoyment from his work, but I'm gonna speak up when it just...doesn't work.