Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Insane? Completely over-the-top? Outrageous? Ultra-violent? It must be a Frank Miller comic!
Hard Boiled by Frank Miller (writer), Geof Darrow (artist), Claude Legris (colorist), and John Workman (letterer).
Dark Horse, 3 issues (#1-3), cover dated September 1990, December 1990, and March 1992.
SPOILERS ahoy, as usual.
Before we begin, let’s look at excerpts from some of the letters published in issues #2 and 3 of this very comic book. That’s always fun! These are verbatim, by the way. Would I change stuff as good as this?
Hard Boiled #1 was a thoughtless, depraved yarn. That alone accounts for it being unoriginal. Dark Horse, in publishing this story, makes a strong case for the need for the comics industry to police itself more closely. Hard Boiled should have clearly been labelled “For Adults Only.”
I really don’t like the combination of sex and violence. On pages 25 and 26 [of issue #1], you have panels of a woman undressing and a violent gunfight going on simultaneously. These are probably only dream images of Nixon in his surgical dream state, but the two totally different acts being associated with one another bothers me.
The brutal sex and violence throughout are, in a word, offensive. I realize the excessiveness is intended to be humorous, but I’m repulsed by the callous lack of regard for human life.
You could just as easily create stories with more productive themes. Stories of love, friendship, trust, devotion, of the wonder of life as we journey through the real world. Of life and what it has to offer, rather than the stories that make everything blacker than it really is and contribute to forming an attitude that gradually makes it that way. … I’d just like you to think about the destructiveness of what you’re producing. Hopefully that will lead you to create more worthwhile and upbeat projects in the future.
I really expected a lot better from Frank Miller. I really enjoyed the Dark Knight Returns [sic], but I’m beginning to feel that now Frank Miller is simply a marketing tool. I see absolutely no substance to his writing. What happened to developing a character? How about some dialogue other than: “whif,” “hoof,” “yay” and “yaa”? Essentially, we have a “man” who we know nothing about and see him get shot up, blown up, and sewn up. In the end, we just don’t care.
Geof Darrow is obviously very talented, but at what? Rendering severed limbs, slaughtered animals, and bizarre sexual escapades? Basically, we have a sequence of extremely detailed and violent scenes, but that’s it. When I got to the end, I can only ask myself, “Why?” I think the end result is just silly, and a complete waist [sic] of money.
I will no longer tolerate this obscenely violent method of producing entertainment. I hope Miller and the gang that works with him realize that they’re heavily contributing to the corruption of everything good in Mankind [sic], and that they can live with that fact. I would find it hard to.
The obsessive details and morbid dwelling on tiny pieces of sharp matter penetrating flesh makes it painfully obvious that Dark Horse comics [sic] has taken to hiring the clinically insane to produce these socially-irresponsible and politically-incorrect comic books. ¶ It is a perversion of all that is normal and healthy to have such detailed drawings. The artist is not just drawing, he is publicly masturbating. He is in fact, scribbling with his penis. I for one do not condone exploiting the mentally ill in this manner. The artist is a sick man suffering from schizophrenia and sexual obsessions and should be guided to counseling before he physicalizes [?] his fetishes. All those little lines are a cry for help, a ritualized exhibitionism. He’s saying, “Look at me! Look at my penis!” Dark Horse comics deserves to roundly condemned for this tasteless and exploitative title. Hopefully the comic buying public will boycott this title in favor of more wholesome and healthy comics like X-Men and The Avengers. [Yes, it reads “more wholesome and healthy comics like X-Men and The Avengers.” Would I lie?]
I cannot appreciate the malevolent nature of Hard Boiled. The perversion and depravity of this future world are deplorable.
If those letters don’t make you want to run out and buy this, I don’t know how I can convince you! The angry letters have a theme, though, if you’ve noticed: The writers are disgusted by the violence in Hard Boiled. And damn, is it violent, especially as lovingly rendered by Darrow, who indeed puts a lot of work into showing every single shard of glass entering the bodies of the hundreds of victims in this comic, as the writer above points out. I would also point out that the letter-writer who wanted Miller to write stories of “love, friendship, trust, devotion, and the wonder of life” must have never read a Frank Miller comic in his life. But that’s neither here nor there.
If I’m to argue that the shocking violence in this comic isn’t disgusting (as these are Comics You Should Own, I obviously don’t think it is), we need to consider the career of Frank Miller, pre- and post-The Dark Knight Returns. Can we agree that his major post-DKR works have been colored by that achievement so much that it has been almost impossible for Miller to write something “serious”? With the exception of “Year One,” his work has become increasingly satirical, as he cannot escape the shadow he himself created early on in his career and therefore needs to poke fun at it as best he can. Even his most “serious” post-DKR work, 300, has elements in it that cannot be taken seriously. If we do, the work falls apart. (The Marsha Washington books are also “serious,” I suppose, but I haven’t read all of them. What I have read contains elements of satire, though.) Miller started satirizing the violence in The Dark Knight Returns almost immediately, in Elektra: Assassin, which came out at the same time as his seminal Batman story. In Hard Boiled, he simply goes even further than he’s ever gone before or since, and it helps make his point. Yes, he has a point. It’s a fairly simplistic one, but it’s also, in light of what the letter-writers wrote, extremely important.
Of course, it’s tough to suss out the point. Miller and Darrow’s story is drenched in blood, true, and we’re lost for much of it, as we have no idea who Nixon (or Carl Seltz, or Harry Seltz, or Harry Burns) is or what he’s doing. We believe he’s a cyborg, but then we’re not sure. Then we think he’s some kind of crazed investigator, but then we learn the truth – he’s a cybernetic corporate assassin. He kills competitors of Willeford Home Appliances, the company that built him. But he doesn’t want to accept that truth – he wants to believe he’s a tax collector (or insurance investigator) with a nice wife and two kids. He’s psychotic, sure, but he also wants “the good life.” This is where Miller makes one of his two points, the more subtle one, to be sure. But we’ll get back to that.
The first point (and the more obvious one) that Miller and Darrow want to make is the way society worships violence. This, as I pointed out, is not a terribly original thought, but it’s something that doesn’t get this kind of treatment often enough. It’s usually through the hand-wringing of concerned parents – the creators often miss out on opportunities to make ironic comments about the violence they’re peddling (which is why The Last Action Hero, despite its many flaws, is an underrated movie). People who railed against Hard Boiled are missing the point a bit, as it’s clearly taking the violence we expect in entertainment to the maximum extreme. Consider the top-grossing movies of the years when this comic came out. In 1989, the biggest movie was obviously Batman, with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Lethal Weapon 2 rounding out the top 3. In 1990, Home Alone was on top. Total Recall and Die Hard 2 make the list, too, but at #7 and 8. Terminator 2: Judgment Day took the top spot in 1991. Aladdin and Home Alone 2 topped the list in 1992, followed closely by Batman Returns and Lethal Weapon 3. Here are the top ten movies for that 4-year span:
1. $285,761,243: Home Alone (1990)
2. $251,185,407: Batman (1989)
3. $217,631,306: Ghost (1990)
4. $217,350,219: Aladdin (1992)
5. $204,843,350: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
6. $197,171,806: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
7. $184,208,848: Dances with Wolves (1990)
8. $178,406,268: Pretty Woman (1990)
9. $173,585,516: Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
10. $165,500,000: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
Here are the rest of the $100 million movies from those years:
11. $162,744,850: Batman Returns (1992)
12. $147,253,986: Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
13. $144,731,527: Lethal Weapon 3 (1992)
14. $141,340,178: A Few Good Men (1992)
15. $140,088,813: Look Who’s Talking (1989)
16. $139,470,392: Sister Act (1992)
17. $135,270,000: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
18. $130,724,200: Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)
19. $130,719,208: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
20. $124,033,791: City Slickers (1991)
21. $121,945,720: The Bodyguard (1992)
22. $121,697,350: Wayne’s World (1992)
23. $120,709,868: The Hunt for Red October (1990)
24. $119,654,900: Hook (1991)
25. $119,394,840: Total Recall (1990)
26. $118,500,000: Back to the Future Part II (1989)
27. $117,727,000: Basic Instinct (1992)
28. $115,288,665: Die Hard 2 (1990)
29. $113,502,000: The Addams Family (1991)
30. $112,494,738: Ghostbusters II (1989)
31. $109,859,444: The Little Mermaid (1989)
32. $107,458,785: A League of Their Own (1992)
33. $106,593,296: Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
34. $103,738,726: Dick Tracy (1990)
35. $101,599,005: Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)
36. $100,047,830: Parenthood (1989)
I apologize for the huge list, but let’s consider some of these movies (and I haven’t seen all of them, so I’m not going to go into too much detail). Of the top 10, only two don’t feature violence as a major theme (Aladdin, although it does feature a battle between a good guy and a bad guy, isn’t terribly violent as far as I can remember, and I have never seen Pretty Woman, but it’s not violent, is it?). Of the 8 that are violent, only 2 (Ghost – which I also haven’t seen – and Dances With Wolves) take the violence remotely seriously. The other 6 feature what we can call “cartoon” violence – violence that we’re not supposed to take seriously. It doesn’t matter if the violence is presented realistically and graphically – Terminator 2 – or in a goofy manner – the Home Alone movies (which I also haven’t seen) – because the point is to be exciting, not examine the effects of violence. If we extend this to the $100 million movies, 26 (including those I already mentioned) are violent in one way or the other (again, I haven’t seen them all, and others I may be misremembering), while 18 feature “cartoon” violence. That’s half of the $100 million movies. Someone was seeing these movies, and a good amount of them showed violence either in humorous situations or in situations where the effects of the violence were ignored or shown as okay, because the bad guys got what they deserved. You’ll note that I’m not necessarily opposed to this kind of violence (Lethal Weapon 2 KICKS ASS, BEEYOTCHES!!!!!!!!), I’m just pointing out that as a society, this is the kind of entertainment we gravitate toward. However, Miller and Darrow broke the social contract we have with this kind of entertainment, and so people reacted negatively.
How did they break the contract? Well, in most versions of cartoon violence, we get some kind of release. It can be humor (Danny Glover telling Joss Ackland that his diplomatic immunity has been revoked after he, Glover, shoots Ackland in the head) or it can be the fact that the victim isn’t really human, so it doesn’t matter (Terminator 2 comes to mind) or it can be the fact that the bad guys are really, really evil, so killing them balances the cosmic scales somehow (can you believe John Amos was really a bad guy in Die Hard 2 – I’m so glad Ass-Kickin’ John McClane smoked his ass!). We always need the release, unless we understand that the movie (I’m using movies, but the contract comes into play with any form of entertainment) is being “serious” about violence (which is often a cheat to show more cartoon violence, but at least some people pretend to be serious about the effects of violence). One of the reasons people got upset with Pulp Fiction was not because Tarantino didn’t offer the release (come on, Marvin getting his head blown off was pretty damned funny), but because the violence itself appeared to be “realistic” (in that it wasn’t just good guys blasting away at bad guys) but Tarantino didn’t treat it as such. In much the same way, that’s what Miller and Darrow did in this comic. It’s slightly humorous, but not to the point where it offers us a release. Miller and Darrow go so far over the edge with the violence that it’s certainly not looking at the true effects of that violence. In the first double-page spread in the book (pages 4-5 of issue #1), I count at least 55 corpses. These are just random dead people, and it’s surreal and slightly humorous because it’s so out of proportion with what we expect. But it’s not funny in the “right” way – meaning the good guy makes a joke that lets us know it’s okay, because the dead people were evil. It’s humorous in the same vein as Pulp Fiction – we laugh uncomfortably, guiltily, not sure if we’re allowed to. Miller continues this juxtaposition of horrific violence with uncomfortable humor throughout the comic. The second double-page spread (pages 9-10 of issue #1) is a close-up of our hero. He has been shot up, blown up and shoved through a barbed-wire fence. The wire is wrapped around his body and head, shards of glass protrude from his scalp and face, and the fingers of his left hand (the right still clutches a gun) are bent at unnatural angles. This terrifying image is coupled with his dialogue: “Nobody move. My name’s Nixon. I’m a tax collector.” This unbelievably odd dichotomy between what we see on the page and what Nixon says makes us chuckle, sure, and it signals that Miller and Darrow aren’t playing by the rules. This leads to an adverse reaction on a gut level, but that’s why we need to step back and really consider what they’re doing.
Miller and Darrow are holding up our worship of violence for ridicule. As I wrote above, this isn’t a terribly insightful or complex point, but it’s one that needs to be made occasionally, because it happens so infrequently. In comics it’s often made humorously, but Miller and Darrow go the opposite route and say, “You want violence? We’ll give you violence!” They do this almost without irony (any humor in the book is muted a bit, because Nixon is so obviously insane), so we can never laugh out loud at what Nixon is doing, and therefore we become more and more uncomfortable as the series progresses. Miller and Darrow don’t want us to become comfortable with the violence, and that’s why the letter-writers miss the point. We’re supposed to react the way they do, but we’re not supposed to take it out on Hard Boiled. We’re supposed to consider our attitudes toward popular culture in general, and why Hard Boiled makes us angry while “normal” violence, say in superhero books or television shows or movies, doesn’t. It’s mostly because Miller and Darrow, as I’ve noted, simply don’t allow us to laugh this away. Nor do they really offer any insightful examination of the violence that Nixon perpetrates. He slaughters hundreds of people, but nobody seems to notice. Why this becomes a devastating satire of our own culture is because of this fact – no one cares what Nixon is doing. Nobody cares in our own culture about the escalation of violence – it takes something like this to make people notice. Nixon kills his way across this futuristic Los Angeles, and it’s fascinating to look at the ancillary characters in this book, because, again, no one cares. When he chases the robot who has “kidnapped” a “girl” in issue #2, he blasts his way through a freeway traffic jam and onto surface streets, where he and the robot fire indiscriminately at each other. People drop, blood spurting from them, but onlookers right next to them are so drugged or otherwise occupied that they simply move on. Only when it affects them directly – the bikers whose motorcycles get knocked over – do they react. This ennui extends to his employers at Willeford. In issue #3, a scientist walks in on a robot who is quite clearly flushing a corpse down a toilet, but he ignores that and converses with the murdering cyborg as if everything is natural. Miller and Darrow hold a mirror up to our society, like all good satire, and reveal things we’d rather not see. They ask, Why do we ignore real violence and get entertained by fake violence? Why do we get bent out of shape by pictures in a book when horrific things are happening in the real world? We have no answers for them.
Similarly, the connection between violence and sex, which is so present in our society that we’re numb to it out of necessity, is also made ridiculous by Miller and Darrow. As the letter-writer points out, it’s troubling to see scenes of a naked woman straddling Nixon while, in his head, he blasts people to bloody pulps (including shooting a guy in the crotch, an unsubtle image if there ever was one). Again, that’s the point – that letter-writer should be troubled, but why is he angry at Miller and Darrow, who are, they can claim, simply giving us what we want? In Nixon’s world, sex is everywhere – early on in issue #1, the car he’s shooting at crashes into what looks like an arena inside of which people are copulating in front of fans cheering them on. As usual with this book, Miller and Darrow violate the social contract with the audience because they’re simply so audacious as to take the subtext of popular entertainment – sex is violent, violence is sexy, and if we mix the two, people get turned on – and put it right in front of us and demand that we deal with it. People don’t want that, and so they write angry letters. This is not surprising, as when anyone makes the connection between sex and violence explicit, they are roundly condemned. Why is Miller and Darrow’s harrowing vision of sex and violence any worse than, say, the Hellfire Club women dressing up in dominatrix gear? That’s easy: Emma Frost, Jean Grey (who wasn’t really Jean, but we’ll assume she was), and Selene were so obviously evil, and as we know, women who like sex are inherently evil. Can you imagine if “good” Emma of today decided to whip Scott and our cornfed hero got off on it? “Think of the children!” the people would cry. Marvel would never let that happen. Miller and Darrow are simply pointing out that the two activities are linked, not necessarily in reality (I’m unaware how many people are really turned on by violence), but definitely in entertainment. How many movies/television shows have we seen where fighting has led to the bed? Viggo Mortensen beats Maria Bello in A History of Violence and then basically rapes her, but it’s okay, because she’s so turned on (this is an example of what my wife and I call “movie sex,” because I don’t care how turned on you are, fucking on steep wooden steps can’t be any fun). That movie wants to treat the link between sex and violence “seriously” because it’s a serious movie, but it’s still idiotic. Miller and Darrow don’t attempt to consider the sex/violence tangle seriously, and ironically, it forces us to consider it seriously. Most people don’t like that.
When we consider how the story ends, we come to the more subtle point that Miller is making about our favorite psychotic cyborg. The plot, such as it is, concerns Barbara, the robot at Willeford Home Appliances that I mentioned earlier as stuffing a dead guy down the toilet. Barbara and the other cyborgs are trying to convince Nixon to rebel against his programming and free the robot population so they are no longer slaves of the corporations. In issue #3, Nixon learns all this from a sexy robot who tries to convince him that it’s so much better leaving the lie behind. He smashes her and goes to see his programmers at Willeford. After attempting to destroy them and failing, he simply gives up and allows them to reprogram him. This is the cynical end of the book – Nixon returns to his “wife” and everything goes back to normal. Miller emphasizes this throughout the book – Nixon is just a guy doing his job (whatever job that is at the moment) and all he wants is to get through the day and get back to his family. Even as he chases cyborgs all over the city, he keeps repeating how great his “normal” life is. Miller casts his jaundiced eye on the typical American suburbanite as he takes us through the book, because Nixon is confronted with the horrors of life and chooses to reject them. Nixon has a chance to make a difference, and instead he retreats to a faux life that offers him nothing but banal pleasures. The difference between Nixon and us, Miller is saying, is that Nixon is programmed, so he has very little choice. Americans choose to bury their heads in the sand, which is far worse. If we were confronted by the horrors of life, Miller implies, we would ignore them and simply retreat. We don’t even have the excuse that Nixon has. This gets back to Miller’s larger point about violence – people get angry about the ridiculous violence in Hard Boiled, but ignore the greater, actual violence in our society. Nobody actually dies in this comic, after all, but people die every day and we remain willfully oblivious to it. Nixon strikes close to home because he’s us – indulging in cartoon violence (there’s no difference between Nixon destroying cyborgs built by a corporation and people in their living room blowing away bad guys on a video game) and then returning to their comfortable world when the going gets a bit tough. Although nobody wrote letters about Nixon’s choice in issue #3 (because it was the last issue of the comic), I’m willing to bet people would have been angered by it.
On the surface, Hard Boiled is what all those letter writers said it was: Gruesome, horrific, pointless, and crass. But that’s because those people didn’t bother to sit down and figure it out. It’s obvious the violence is not to be taken seriously, and therefore it begs the question of what Miller and Darrow were trying to say by making the book so ridiculous. Is it all just a “waist” of time? As we re-read it in its entirety (which we couldn’t do for a long time when the book was coming out, as the third issue was so delayed), we can see that Miller and Darrow were creating a marvelous satire, one that pulls no punches and lets none of us off the hook, which is what the best satire does. Hard Boiled is a wild and extremely fun ride, but it’s also an insightful examination of a sickness in our society that we don’t like to confront. And it has fun letters, too!
There’s a trade of Hard Boiled out there, and it’s still in print (at least I think it is – I just saw a copy in a comics shoppe about a week ago). And if you’re interested in other Comics You Should Own, the archives are a good place to start. And I apologize to Steve Earnhart for this post. Sorry, Steve!
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