Should an artist’s opinions affect your appreciation of their art?
That isn’t a rhetorical question, I’m honestly asking.
It’s a question I’ve often asked myself. As a Hip-Hop fanatic there’s often been a sense of selective hearing: guiltily pretending not to hear a misogynistic line in an otherwise great song. Just this year Kanye West released Famous, a track that featured the frustrating lyric “feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? / I made that bitch famous” but also an irresistibly catchy sample from Sister Nancy’s Bam Bam. It served as a microcosm for Kanye as an artist; equal parts visionary producer and self-confessed provocative asshole. However, rather than throw another Kanye think piece onto the mountain of hot takes, allow me to switch gears to talk about another influential artist who also happens to be even more of an asshole: Frank Miller.
Miller is one of the most important figures in comic book history, whose work has had a tremendous influence on not just the last thirty years of comics but also television and film. In the 80s he redefined Batman in two short comic book runs, The Dark Knight Returns and Year One, which have been mined shamelessly from Chrisopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy to Zach Snyder’s Batman v Superman, which probably wouldn’t exist without their iconic fight in TDKR. In the 90s he worked on creator owned comics like 300 and Sin City which both received popular, meme-spawning film adaptations. Believe it or not, even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wouldn’t exist without Miller. The original TMNT comic was developed as a parody of Miller’s work on Daredevil; a run that introduced a grittier tone and characters like Elektra that were integral to both the film and Netflix television adaptations of the Marvel character. All this to say Frank Miller has had a profound impact on pop culture.
Miller has been back in mind recently thanks to James Harvey’s excellent blog post about how modern comic colouring techniques are spoiling his work as it evolves into an increasingly divisive and exaggerated style. I admit it took me a while to appreciate it, but it’s essential to approach Miller’s recent output the same way you would the career of an artist like Picasso; we’ve seen they can work in a more traditional realistic style, so when they start abandoning perspective or putting a comical emphasis on Superman’s dick it’s reasonable to assume they’ve made a choice rather than a mistake.
(Seriously, DC actually published a comic where Superman has a clearly defined bulge in his pants. That’s how important Frank Miller is to the history of comic books.)
Unfortunately, every time I want to evangelise about Miller’s work there’s a disappointing addendum to be made; Miller’s graphic novel Holy Terror is extremely Islamophobic.
Miller was living in New York during the 9/11 terrorist attacks and seems to have been deeply affected by the tragedy, developing Holy Terror as propaganda against Al-Qaeda. As such, Holy Terror can be seen as Miller’s modern take on the classic cover to Captain America Comics #1 depicting the titular superhero punching Adolf Hitler, a year before the attack on Pearl Harbour led to the US joining the Second World War. In theory I understand what Miller was trying to achieve, but in practice it’s not as simple as switching Nazi’s for terrorists. The Nazi’s are pop culture’s greatest villains because they’ve become a universal sign for evil; it’s why Steven Spielberg can show faces being melted in Raiders of the Lost Ark without fear of audiences feeling guilty. In fact Nazi’s would fit easily into Miller’s comics because he shows no sympathy for his villains; they’re corrupt officials, cannibalistic serial killers, and disfigured paedophiles who are so grotesque that they break from the restrictions of Sin City’s black and white colour palette.
Where Miller goes wrong in Holy Terror is conflating terrorism with the religion of Islam. His protagonists, who are thinly veiled Batman and Catwoman analogues, are ignorant and vile characters who torture a terrorist they refer to as Mohammed because “odds are pretty good it’s Mohammed”. Throughout the book Miller Islam is depicted as from “the dark ages”; either he is wilfully portraying the Muslim community and Al-Qaeda as one and the same, or best-case scenario is too oblivious to see why his approach lacks vital nuance. It’s a book full of both vague and explicit slurs that promote a self-destructive ‘Us and Them’ mind-set that is simply inexcusable. This fascist worldview is unsurprising from a man who would later call the Occupy Wall Street movement “a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists”, accusing them of distracting from the real enemy: “Al-Qaeda and Islamicism”. Holy Terror reeks of this disgusting mentality from start to finish.
I didn’t give up on Kanye after that distasteful jab at Taylor Swift on Famous: I’ve listened to enough of his work to know he’s an intelligent artist who really should know better. I haven’t given up on Hip-Hop, despite the persistent streak of misogyny within the genre, because I know there are brilliant artists making vital statements about society with groundbreaking music. But revisiting Holy Terror has forced me to reconsider my admiration of Frank Miller, regardless of how striking his artwork continues to be. He has an undeniable legacy in pop culture but the extent of his bigotry makes it hard not to feel dirty when reading his work. What once stood proudly on my bookshelf now seems to harbour something rotten. Should I stand by my principles and boycott his work altogether? At what point does an artist’s opinions outweigh the importance of art itself?
These aren’t rhetorical questions. I’m honestly asking.