"Pull on your tights…" Andy Waterfield responds to Frank Miller’s recent comments on the "Occupy" movement.
"The “Occupy” movement, whether displaying itself on Wall Street or in the streets of Oakland (which has, with unspeakable cowardice, embraced it) is anything but an exercise of our blessed First Amendment. “Occupy” is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America."
So begins Frank Miller’s recent blog post about the "Occupy" phenomenon. For those who aren’t familiar with his work, Frank Miller is a comics writer and artist of some considerable standing. While critical response to his more recent work is varied, his work in the 1980s, and, to a lesser extent, the 1990s, is considered by many to be one of the most important bodies of comics literature of all time.
His run on Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, beginning in 1979, redefined the character, and his cinematic style, heavily influenced by film noir, invited a new generation of creators to rethink what could be done with the medium.
His Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, produced in collaboration with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley is a compelling and evocative character study, examining the motivations and methodology of an aging Bruce Wayne, determined to reclaim his city and the world from corruption and crime, even it means sacrificing himself in the process. It is by turns a work of masterful adventure storytelling, a biting satire of the "talking head" political commentators of our time, and a beautiful, often genuinely stunning, work of art.
I could go on a lot longer, imploring you to consider the subtle tensions in Batman: Year One, to those familiar with the work, clearly a key source of inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s incredibly popular film, Batman Begins. Or maybe I could talk about the use of contrast in the oppressive and claustrophobic violence of Sin City?
I’m not going to do any of that, because that’s not the point of this piece. I just wanted to make it very clear that I have been a fan of Frank Miller’s work, or much of it, for quite a while, and while I have problems with some of it, I can appreciate that he is a master of the craft of comics storytelling.
None of that matters here, because here and now, in this most recent tirade, Frank Miller is quite simply wrong, and I intend to explain why.
Firstly, Miller appears to be labouring under the misapprehension that “Occupy” as a phenomenon, is exclusive to New York and Oakland, or at the very least, he appears to be implying that it is concentrated primarily in those places. While these expressions of the phenomenon are almost certainly the largest, "Occupy" exists in a great many places, across multiple continents. The Guardian's Data Blog has an interactive map charting the brood brush strokes of "Occupy" in terms of attendance estimates and locations. Without putting too fine a point on it, the map speaks for itself.
Miller claims that Oakland has embraced "Occupy" "with unspeakable cowardice". He doesn’t back up that assertion, but maybe he doesn’t feel he needs to. I’m certainly not prepared to put words in his mouth, but I will say this: Miller grew up in Montpelier, Vermont, and while he spent much of his early career living in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, I think it’s fair to say he made a significant amount of money in the 1980s, and has made fair bit since, given the continued success of his most famous comics works, and the success of films based on his creator owned work.
What I’m getting at, is that Frank Miller may have known poverty at certain times of his life, and he may recognise it in others, but he is no longer of poverty himself, if he ever was.
The US Census Bureau provides vast amounts of free to access data gathered under it’s American Community Survey. The five year estimates for 2005-2009 suggest that Montpelier city, Vermont, the town in which Miller grew up, has 11.9% of individuals living below the poverty line. This is below the figure for the US as a whole, which stands at 13.5%. The ACS gives a margin of error of +/-3.1. Now, Miller might very well have been living in poverty during his younger days, but unless Montpelier has been on the up and up since he lived there, it’s poverty levels more broadly are fairly average.
Now let’s take a look at Oakland. According to the exact same data set, 17.5% of Oakland’s population live below the poverty line. This time around, the margin for error is +/-0.6, so the ACS is a damn sight surer of these figures. In addition to it’s high levels of poverty, when compared to the average across the US, Oakland also enjoys a high level of ethnic diversity, unsurprising since so many African Americans moved there for work in the post-war period.
Now, I should stress that my picture of Oakland is amassed from what I’ve garnered from news reports over the years, accounts of the place in music and film, social science resources like those featured above, and the autobiography of Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide. I don’t know this town, but then how well does Frank Miller know it? Perhaps he’s deeply familiar with Oakland, it’s history, and it’s people, and therefore has a firm foundation on which to base his assertions about it’s people, and their relative levels of courage. We can’t know that, but what I know is this. Given it’s history, it’s economics, and it’s relative poverty, it doesn’t look like the type of place to be apathetic about economic injustice.
""Occupy” is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness."
This is almost certainly the single most malignant sentence in Miller’s piece. Note that he is not merely saying that there are "louts, thieves, and rapists" within the "Occupy" movement. Indeed, for any body of people of that kind of size, we could very well expect some of them to be thieves and rapists (an unfortunate, but very well documented phenomenon, to which progressive movements are unfortunately not exempt). However, Miller isn’t saying this. He’s saying that the people who make up "Occupy" are "nothing but" these things, "an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness." Miller doesn’t back this last assertion up with any evidence. Considering how frequently I myself am asked what the Hell I’m talking about, when I make reference to some aspect of this era in conversation with my peers, I’m loathe to believe that "Woodstock-era nostalgia" is some far-reaching or defining quality of my generation, though I could be wrong. Either way, we might want to steer clear of the brown acid.
"“Occupy” is nothing short of a clumsy, poorly-expressed attempt at anarchy, to the extent that the “movement” – HAH! Some “movement”, except if the word “bowel” is attached - is anything more than an ugly fashion statement by a bunch of iPhone, iPad wielding spoiled brats who should stop getting in the way of working people and find jobs for themselves."
It’s here that Miller gets dangerously close to having a point. The "Occupy" movement is undoubtedly clumsy, and has been poorly-expressed at times. This, however, is the nature of a fledgling movement, attempting to veer away from hierarchy and dogma. Plenty of people, within the movement and without, have acknowledged these points. That it’s an attempt at "anarchy" however, is a shaky assertion indeed. From what I can gather, the “Occupy” movement is composed of individuals from a range of backgrounds and political ideologies. There are, undoubtedly, Anarchists in this mix, but there are also socialists, social democrats, and others, all with their own particular perspective, and, one must assume, their own particular views on the best way for "Occupy" to proceed. Painting such a grouping, across many nations and continents, as some sort of ideological monolith is simply absurd. Indeed, seeking to portray Anarchism as a monolith is ridiculous too, but that’s much of a muchness here.
There are accounts all over the internet from people involved with "Occupy" who have gainful employment of one kind or another (you can search for those on your own time, chums), and while there are certainly valid questions about the relative class privilege of a proportion of the protesters, you can all make up your own minds as to whether every last "Occupy" protester is weighed down by a rucksack full of Apple products. I’m not even going to dignify Miller’s apparent contempt for unemployed youth with a response.
"This is no popular uprising. This is garbage. And goodness knows they’re spewing their garbage – both politically and physically – every which way they can find.
Wake up, pond scum. America is at war against a ruthless enemy.”
It’s here that Miller takes something of a shift in the direction of his bile.
"Maybe, between bouts of self-pity and all the other tasty tidbits of narcissism you’ve been served up in your sheltered, comfy little worlds, you’ve heard terms like al-Qaeda and Islamicism.
And this enemy of mine — not of yours, apparently - must be getting a dark chuckle, if not an outright horselaugh - out of your vain, childish, self-destructive spectacle.
In the name of decency, go home to your parents, you losers. Go back to your mommas’ basements and play with your Lords Of Warcraft.
Or better yet, enlist for the real thing. Maybe our military could whip some of you into shape.
They might not let you babies keep your iPhones, though. Try to soldier on.
Are we to ignore economic injustice simply because Radical Islamist Terrorism is a thing? Apparently so, if Frank is to be believed. On this point, I’ll refer you to David Brothers’ extremely well executed critique of Frank Miller’s Holy Terror. You’ll find it in book shops all over the place. I know I have. Holy Terror that is, not David’s review, more’s the pity. The following is an extended quote from David’s article, which you can find in full here.
The Fixer nabs a terrorist and calls him “Mohammed,” because “you’ve got to admit that the odds are pretty good it’s Mohammed.” They call him “Moe” throughout the rest of the book. The terrorists are viewed as something sub-human. One page contrasts Americans watching a Transformers-style movie on a big screen with Arabs stoning a woman buried up to her neck in the dirt while calling her an infidel, slut, and whore. A generic man in a suit takes his wife, wearing an Afghani Burqa, beats her, and then leaves the house. And finally, when Natalie infiltrates a mosque, she thinks, “the night wind blows away seven centuries.”
The constant bashing of Islam as a throwback to the Dark Ages is stupid, ugly, and tiresome. It’s also factually incorrect. While Europe was in the midst of the so-called Dark Ages, the Arab world was in the middle of what was essentially a golden age of enlightenment. They made vital discoveries and advances in science, math, medicine, art, architecture, and several other areas that had a profound impact on the rest of human civilization.
Al-Qaeda is treated in the text as something that is representative of Islam, rather than something that is a twisted, rotted off-shoot. Conversely, the Ku Klux Klan are terrorists are nominally Christian, but they’re never portrayed as representative of Christianity or whites. Again and again, Miller hammers home outdated and bigoted assumptions. The Fixer and Natalie Stack approach torture with glee, Natalie sends a terrorist off to his “seventy-two black-eyed virgins,” and on and on and on. They’re fighting Islam, not Al-Qaeda, and the book suffers greatly for it.
I strongly suggest that you take the time to read the full text of David’s article. It really is a great piece, and examines the relative merits and deep and troubling shortcomings of the work in an even handed way I don’t believe I’d be able to muster myself.
Somewhere along the way, as an avid comics reader, I stopped reading what Frank Miller had to say in interviews, and a short while later, I stopped reading his new work altogether. Over the years, I’ve wondered whether parting ways with such a gifted creator was the right tack to take, but at this point, I’m sure that it was. I have no interest in supporting this man, or his work, while he continues to hold what I take to be deeply troubling political beliefs. I sincerely hope he changes his mind.
There’s a sequence in Miller’s sequel to The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, where Batman stands in front of a huge mass of confused but righteously angry young people, and entreats them to turn their anger into a positive force for change, and ultimately, for justice. It’s a sequence I’ve gone back to over and over again, and when I hit upon the idea of donating money to Oxfam each time I spent money on comics, and inviting my comics reading friends to do the same, putting a name to the enterprise wasn’t much work.
It’s also the spirit I believe lies behind this enterprise.
So it’s with this quote that I leave you, and I’ll stand by it, even though I’ve left the man who wrote it, Frank Miller, to his thoughts. I hope that it inspires you, whether you’re involved in "Occupy" or not, to do your bit to work toward a more just world, in which the boundless aspirations of the seven billion or so of us who make up this clumsy, ambling, but ultimately hopeful species, are matched by a wealth of opportunities and capabilities to achieve those aspirations.
"CHILDREN, PULL ON YOUR TIGHTS—
—AND GIVE THEM HELL.”
Andy Waterfield is the founder/curator of I Live Sweat, and a News Editor at Punknews.org, and when he isn’t thinking about punk rock and comics, he’s probably thinking about the films of Terry-Thomas, social science, or Marmite. He has a couple of degrees in the social sciences, if anyone fancies giving him a job. Not that he’s unemployed at present - sorry, Frank!
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