Without a story that’s intellectually stimulating or even remotely affecting on an emotional level, this comic is far less memorable than it ought to be.
With new coloring by Dave Stewart, this hardcover “second edition” reprinting of writer Frank Miller and artist Geof Darrow’s Eisner Award-winning Hard Boiled, originally published as a three issue miniseries between 1990 and 1992, now has a fresh coat of paint. As such, original series colorist Claude Legris is now out of the picture, and though letterer John Workman remains on board with his own distinctive style, this new edition is still, for better or worse, Miller and Darrow’s baby.
Let me start out by saying that my feelings regarding Frank Miller are conflicted, to say the least. There is no other creator–not just in comics, but every artistic medium–who has a wider gap between work that I rank among the greatest the artform has to offer and work that I find absolutely vile. Batman: Year One (with David Mazzuchelli) is quite possibly the best straightforward superhero story ever published, while Holy Terror is easily the most morally repugnant comic I’ve ever read, so much so that it’s nigh-unreadable. Granted, these comics were published about 25 years apart from each other, but it fascinates me that they were helmed by the same man.
I was attracted to reviewing Hard Boiled because Miller is the kind of creator who is always interesting, even when at his worst. Indeed, Hard Boiled is fascinating for myriad reasons, but one of them is the timing. Miller and company began serializing the comic as its initial three issue miniseries in 1990, ending in 1992. This may have already been the end of what many fans might consider his prime, but he still had good work ahead of him, including original creations like Sin City (which remains entertaining and compelling, problematic as it may be) and more corporate work like Daredevil: The Man Without Fear (which, aided by excellent John Romita Jr. art, stacks up against any of the Daredevil stories from Miller’s 80s heyday). I expected to find Hard Boiled comparable to those comics in terms of quality. What I did not expect was to find Miller’s brand of conservatism to come out in such force.
More on that to come, because I suppose it is here that I should discuss what the book is about, although there’s not much of a plot to speak of. The story, which takes place at an unspecified point in a dystopian future, is centered around the connection between Carl Seltz, a seemingly normal family man and insurance investigator living in the suburbs, Nixon, a psychopathic tax collector whose violent tendencies are so over-the-top that they quite often are presented as comical, and Unit Four, a similarly murderous robot.
This is a story that could have easily been told in just one issue, if that. Yet Miller, with his own background as an artist, wisely uses whatever flimsy story he may have as an excuse to let artist Geof Darrow cut loose, and stays the hell out of his way.
This comic is about as minimalist as possible in terms of actual words on the page, and absolutely maximalist as far as Darrow’s art goes. Whereas a great deal of comic book art is designed to smoothly transition the reader from one panel to the next, to not spend a considerable amount of time lingering on just about any given panel of this comic would be to miss the entire point. It’s not often that comic book art is so astonishing that it forces me to audibly gasp, but here we are.
This is not an exaggeration. Look at what Darrow is able to accomplish within these pages. Look at that level of detail. That clarity. The energy. For most comic book artists, an output of just three oversized issues within a span of three years would seem unproductive, to say the least. For Darrow, it must have been a small miracle.
In discussing the artwork of this particular edition of a 25-year-old comic, it’s worth noting that the original coloring by Claude Legris has been replaced by Dave Stewart. Not having read this comic with the Legris coloring as it was initially printed, I can’t speak to how smooth the transition is to Stewart’s palette. I will say, however, that simply looking at these pages as they are, it’s difficult to argue that this is a remarkably well-colored book.
Recoloring comics can be a tricky thing. A few years ago, for example, Marvel reprinted Amazing Fantasy #15 (you know, the first appearance of Spider-Man) with new colors, and the results were downright garish. There are probably colorists out there who would have tried to match wits with Darrow’s more-is-more approach with a wild and frenzied palette, but Dave Stewart hasn’t won nine Eisners by being foolish. The colors here match the tone of the story being told, which is to say that they’re grimy and, at times, slightly sickly, while maintaining a certain smoothness and charm.
Lettering aficionados may be attracted to seeing John Workman’s name in the credits, and while Miller’s spare use of words means that you don’t see much of Workman’s fingerprints throughout the comic, he still turns in excellent work here. More than any other letterer I could think of, Workman conveys a sense of loudness, which is good, because this is a very loud comic. I don’t mean that it’s noisy, as that would imply that it was cluttered and overwritten, but that when there are words on the page, Workman makes them count.
There’s no question that this comic is a feast for the eyes, making it all the more a shame that when you remove all that visual storytelling from the equation and simply think about the story in more direct terms, there’s a lot left to be desired. This comic is pure id, plain and simple. There’s not much to intellectualize, and there’s even less to feel any sort of emotional connection to.
Worse yet, there are definitely some questionable ethics at play. This is certainly not the hateful work that Holy Terror is, and yes, I understand that it’s satire. I would never accuse Miller and company of actively trying to glorify the absurd level of violence that’s on display here, even if Darrow in particular does make it look, well, glorious. Yet still, true satire is seldom divorced from politics, and there’s an argument to be made that whenever you’re depicting a vision of the future, especially a dystopian “near-future,” you’re making a political statement of some kind.
So, what is this future that we’re being presented with? One where American cities have become so depraved that men and women have sex in the middle of the overcrowded streets, full of puking junkies and homeless people, not to mention everyone who sees brutal gunfights happening right in front of them, mere feet from them, but barely bat an eye until their own personal property or bodies get harmed. Now that I write all that, I realize that there may be a more “liberal” reading of this book’s politics to be done, but the idea of cities becoming crime-infested, nigh-irredeemable hellscapes is one that Miller explored frequently prior to this book and one that he’d return to frequently later in his career, so it’s hard not to see Hard Boiled as being part of that larger thematic tapestry.
Make no mistake, the politics presented in Hard Boiled are not its only problem. Again, despite my misgivings about Miller politically, ethically, and, quite often, artistically, he is a creator whom I quite often enjoy. No, the biggest problem with this book is that for as much as it evokes a visceral reaction from the reader, that’s fleeting. It’s thrilling for a moment, but it’s hard to imagine how anyone could come away from this book after some time without being at least somewhat disappointed by how empty they feel.
Is it Good?
I said earlier that I can always count on Frank Miller to be interesting. This comic is interesting, but not enough of that is because of Miller. Hard Boiled is an extraordinary visual accomplishment. Every page gives the reader far more to chew on than most other comic book artists could ever offer. Yet without a story that’s intellectually stimulating or even remotely affecting on an emotional level, this comic is far less memorable than it ought to be, given the talent involved.