I have a deep, personal, vindictive hatred for Frank Miller, the cartoonist who originated 300 and whose views and aesthetics are clearly reflected in the movie - even down to the advertising. I cannot say that I feel about any other person, even people who personally betrayed me and spread lies about me, as I feel about him; in his case, comic-book epithets such as "DIE, treacherous hound!" really do seem appropriate. He is a treacherous hound; a man who has used his talent, success and influence - talent and success which I did my bit to support - for evil.
I have known Miller's work since I was a teen-ager falling in love with the comics arrform, and he was a hot new talent burning his way through Marvel Comics in the late seventies, as the American comic book industry was struggling to survive a failed business model and move ahead towards an as yet only dimly perceived new world of fandom-based sales, conventions, and comics shops. And as soon as I saw the ads, with their livid stylishness and vicious underlying sexuality, half-naked women and gleaming swords eager to cut human flesh, I knew what to expect - and that wild horses would not have dragged me to watch that abomination, as I had refused to watch its equally vicious predecessor Sin City.
As the movie, rather than Miller's whole body of work, is at issue, let us start from the move. This is a summary of its story, from a critic who, God forgive her, actually liked it:
When the Persian King Xerxes demands submission from the entire Western world, with few exceptions, most regions turn knock-kneed and cave. Leonidas, King of Sparta (Gerard Butler) refuses to exchange the future of his people as a free state for a tenuous and temporary peace. Instead, he begins to prepare for battle.
Sparta's Ephors, the cloistered academics of their time, claim that the gods don’t want war and won’t support Leonidas' stand. Rather inconveniently, neither will Sparta's governing council. By law, the king cannot override the will of these two groups, and so he finds a loophole by taking 300 of his personal entourage to Thermopylae, also known as the "Hot Gates," a strategic corridor where they and a few thousand neighboring soldiers hope to hold off hundreds of thousands of invading Persians.
In the meantime, back in the city, an oily politician (Dominic West of The Wire) undermines the King's mission at every turn, arguing for diplomatic resolutions and claiming that Leonidas has started an "illegal" war that will draw destruction down on all. Leonidas wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), counters that it is Persia who began the war and urges the Spartan congress to commit more troops. Amazingly, for today’s cinema, the oily politician and the waffling congress are not the heroes of our story. Soldiers—single-minded and un-conflicted—are.
I did not need to read any further to know that Miller had not failed me: that all the odious and immoral features of his post-Marvel work were present in 300 in full spate. This is from beginning to end a crock of shit. And it is a crock of shit with clear ideological points to prove - points which those of us who have been opposing Miller for decades are all too familiar.
To begin with, the story is a lie. According to our only source, Herodotus, when two Persian ambassadors reached Sparta demanding "earth and water" - the traditional signs of submission to Persian power - the Spartans threw them both in a well, telling them that if they wanted earth and water, that was the place to find them. As I said, Herodotus is our only source, and Herodotus likes a good story - even where it is distinctly hard to believe. But in this case, we have every reason to believe it. For this is not an isolated anecdote: it had consequences. The Spartans, who regarded the laws as such with immense respect, soon repented the insult offered to ambassadors, who, according to their own law, should have been free from harm whatever their message. They had in their own town a hero-shrine to the hero of ambassadors, Talthybius, herald of the legendary Agamemnon; and that shrine made its displeasure clear. So the Spartans in turn sent two ambassadors to Xerxes, specifically for the purpose of submitting to whatever punishment he might see fit to inflict; but the King, impressed by their behaviour, let them go unharmed. However, Herodotus concludes, members of these ambassadors' families met with signal misfortunes later on, and the punishment of the gods was felt to be in that.
So; no discussion; no lily-livered politicians quivering before Persian power; no warrior-king acting in their despite. The whole citizenry is so quivering-terrified of Persian power that they perform the equivalent of tarring and feathering the ambassadors; and if they repent of anything later, it is that they have gone too far in their defiance, not that they have defied the King. Miller has taken the reality of Sparta and turned it upside down. And he has done so systematically. To cast the Ephors of all people as lotos-eating academics is crass in the extreme: it would make a lot more sense to cast them - as the Italian writer Roberto Calasso has - as the predecessors of modern totalitarian governments, Politburo members or Gestapo hierarchs, ruthless and relentless, and used to blood. The Ephors were all former Spartan soldiers of the highest rank, who had killed since childhood. Their powers were immense, and they included a power of secret arrest and disappearance that does much to explain Calasso's view; effectively, they were the first incarnation in Western history of that mighty nightmare, the State as supreme and ultimate source of right. "Lotos-eating academics"... yeah, right.
The rest of the tale is equally crap. The notion that a woman, even a queen, would have been allowed to speak in public on political matters, is one that will strike anyone with the slightest knowledge of classical Greece helpless with laughter; the Greeks were the most misogynous civilization in history, not excluding modern Islam, and they would as soon have allowed their dogs to speak. Historically, Leonidas led the whole Spartan army to Thermopylae, but ordered them back - except for the famous 300 and their Helot slaves - when he realized that their position had been turned. His was a gallant rearguard action intended to give the main forces time to disengage and retreat, as well as to serve the Spartan law that dictated that Spartans should die where they had taken up position. He and his followers sacrificed themselves to the laws of Sparta; which the great poet Simonides clearly stated in the famous two-line epitaph he wrote, and which was later carved in stone in the place. "Wayfarer, go to Sparta, and bear them this message:/ That we lie here, in obedience to her laws." Rebelling against the city authorities, indeed! If Leonidas had any notion of Frank Miller's poisonous lies, he would rise from the grave to avenge his country's laws, if he had to rip his throat with his teeth.
In all this I am not praising the Spartans - unpleasant people with one of the most frightening social structures in history; just trying to explain what they were and how they thought, and why Frank Miller has lied about everything in their history. The fact that a real live historian such as Victor Davis Hanson, who really and truly ought to have known better, gave this the seal of his approval, only shows how truly poisonous are the forces of party spirit and intellectual snobbery. Hanson knows that Miller falsified history from beginning to end; but heck, he is only a cartoonist after all. It is not as though a member of a respectable artform - a novelist, for instance - had ripped Herodotus apart and strewn the rubbish all over the floor; it is only a miserable comic book person, someone fit for children and other mental defectives. And his work supports the "right" party - or so Hanson deludes himself, since he cannot be bothered to look at what Miller is really saying in any depth. Why, after all, should he waste his precious intellect on comic books - things which poncey left lecturers in modern faculties bother with? Hanson is a classicist, sure enough, of a high and noble calling. Such things are beneath his notice.
But if Hanson had bothered to use his intellect, which is undoubted, then he might have seen that the story has a tendency which, far from supporting Hanson's own beliefs and values, should have troubled him deeply. The superhero is more rooted in moral reflection than any other genre. In the course of their battles, heroes and villains often spout whole ethical debates. And this is one of the appeals of the genre: the classic image of a single individual placed in front of the responsibilities and demands of power. Now Frank Miller came in, in about 1978, as a particularly eloquent and passionate defender of normal ethics and morality, especially of the laws by which men live and that stand as a barrier between society and chaos.
However, somewhere between the beginning and the end of his great run of Marvel Comics' DAREDEVIL character, Miller went mad. His fascination with violence became sickeningly dominant, in the same way as his artwork moved from the stylish to the brutal, and later to the stylishly brutal - bestowing on unspeakably odious material the gloss of a vicious visual refinement. In a small number of limited-run comics series ("mini-series" and "maxi-series") featuring the characters of The Batman (DC Comics) and Elektra (Marvel Comics), he set out with horrifying clarity his new view. I wrote what I thought of it at the time, and I have never seen any need to alter my judgment; what follows is drawn from an article written some twelve years ago, and should explain just why Miller rewrote history to present society - even Spartan society - as divided between a gutless majority and a healthily brutal vicious minority that breaks all laws to deliver its salutary violence.
Now I hope I am not the kind of person who just throws around the words Fascist and Nazi as a catch-all for anyone who disagrees with me. I have learned, both from the pages of history and in the streets of the city of Rome, what Fascism is. And when I say that Frank Miller's mind turns to Fascist ways of thinking and acting as naturally as the needle turns to the north - just as when I say that Marvel Comics' most important franchise is basically Nazi in orientation - I mean something very specific and detailed. Frank Miller cannot be described as a Fascist, because there is no properly Fascist or near-Fascist body to which he can attach himself in America, and therefore no way for the basic tendency of his ideas to become self-conscious. I think the cast of his mind is certainly Fascistic, just as that of Alan Moore is fellow-travelling or even Communistic; I see that not only in his work, but in his attitude, which is hostile in a rather rabid and yet unfocussed manner, always ready to pour invective on any fancied enemy - especially large, impersonal, distant ones. It is my view that Miller is as close to Fascism as any artist in America.
In both ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Miller's moral is: the brutes are right. To cope with the world as it is, you have to be brutal. The way to deal with the Russian bastards (ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN was created when there still was a Soviet Union) is to scare them to death. (And consider the significnce of the fact that this story, which implicitly suggested that America was losing to Russia because democratically elected politicians were either gutless or in league with the Devil, was created and published under Ronald Reagan.) By the same token, the way to deal with social disaster is to organize a vigilante committee led by the Batman. Everybody else loses: psychologists are pap-minded incompetents, big business is corrupt (one characteristic of the genuine Fascist and Nazi is his intense distaste for big business) and elected politicians - well, in Frank Miller's ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN, elected politicians are the Devil. Quite literally the Devil. The Devil enters the world through the electoral process, and the country and the world are saved by a Strong Man with a military background, who insinuates himself into a position of supreme power without anybody voting for him, and proceeds to strong-arm everybody else into doing what's good for them under threat of machine-guns. It is impossible to miss the tone of exultation in the last page of the maxi-series - damn straight!
It becomes clear that Miller resents all the slow work of compromise, negotiation, backtracking, law enforcement, discussion, opposition and sheer bloody-mindedness that is a fundamental part of democracy. He has no patience with civilized measures. Behind the work of convinction that any elected politician must carry out to take the masses with him, there is only the smile of the Beast. The institutions are corrupt to the core, a field for the Devil to play with (yet another typical Fascist aspect is the sick fascination with magic, especially with magic as power - irrational power).This is Miller's mood and mind since the last few issues of DAREDEVIL. I can tell you that I left ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN feeling soiled, as though I had been in touch with dirt. Miller's world has no grace, no simplicity, no softness, no love, and no courage: only obsession and cruelty.
And in this sick world, only the explosion on to the scene of a positive new element, militaristic, vindictive, violent, cleansing, healthily brutal, can clean the Augean stables. When the Bolsheviks, after a single day of pretending to respect the elected constituent assembly of Russia, threw it out, the officer performing this despicable duty used a sentence that went down in history: "The Guard is weary". In the same way, Mussolini, in the speech which broke the last democratic resistance in Parliament, said: "I could have turned this grey, dumb, deaf hall into a bivouac for volunteers". There you have it: the weariness, the irritation, the burden of greyness, compromise, inglorious management of events, visible deal-making perceived as corruption; this is the Fascist's attitude to normal democratic life. And bear in mind that there is a fascination in it. We Italians learn Mussolini's threatening sentence in school, as an object-lesson in Fascist bullying and violence, but the significant percentage of votes the Fascist party MSI had throughout the First Republic - from 3% to 5% at every general election - prove that, on some minds, they had exactly the opposite result. A part of society, however small, is always drawn to violent short cuts.
Miller’s two famous Batman mini-series state this even more clearly than even ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN. In BATMAN FIRST YEAR, the Batman charges the whole civic leadership of Gotham, en bloc, not so much of having robbed the city, as of having "fed on its spirit". The metaphysical tone is important, because the true Fascist is never so much angry about specific acts of corruption as about the general sense that his and his people's lives have been devalued, emptied of meaning. It shall never be repeated enough: Fascism is the attempt to recover a lost sense of meaning through the use of systematic brutality. Fascist brutality, whether real or only threatened, means a recovery of meaning and sense in a life that is felt to be have been made senseless by the vampiric group usually referred to by the dreadful word "they". The flaunted uniforms, the songs, the parades and festivals, all represent a protest against this loss of meaning.
In THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, we have the extreme result of this same mindset: the corrupt institutions have not so much collapsed as been made quite irrelevant: the streets belong to the cleansing brutality of the grim Man of Destiny. The whole thing, while a complete flight of fancy, dismissing from its sight half the factors of American life, is in detail, and very unpleasantly, a blueprint for a specifically Fascistic movement. The Batman seizes control of the city’s disaffected youth, the thugs and the muggers, and turns them into squads of strong-arm enforcers. He is even shown on horseback, like Mussolini; I do not think any other Batman writer ever showed him in such a pose, wholly out of keeping with the character as a creature of night and shadows. And nobody who knows anything about Fascist history can miss the creepy similarity between the Batman's strong-arm squads, who don't need rifles, and Mussolini's squadracce, with their blackjacks and bottles of castor oil, whom the police watch "clean up the city" without intervening. Two successive Commissioners of Police who stand aside and allow old grim-and-gloomy to deal out justice any he sees fit, both repeating the same mantra: "it is too big for us". It is, in fact, History, the goddess that justifies anything the true Fascist does. And anyway, the story implies, the unleashing of “justice” squads on a strife-torn Gotham City, at the command of a self-appointed hero, is probably is a good thing. And this is also creepily similar to many very real policemen, generals and public administrators in Italy and in Germany, who consented to Fascism and Nazism, not just to the party as a political power, but to the brutalities and street violence. For them, too, “it was too big for us” and anyway it was probably a good thing.
Speaking as a historian, this made me think a bit. Although Nazi-Fascist and Communist groups come under the common denomination of totalitarian parties, there is a fundamental difference in their attitude to existing institutions. Communist parties form whole alternative power structures intended not to integrate but to replace the old State. While it is possible to point to hundreds of thousands of defections to Communism in the course of the Russian (and Chinese) civil wars, it is also the case that every institution in the country, with the single and partial exception of the Churches, springs from the Party; no institution independent of it had been allowed to remain. However many former Tsarist officers might serve in it, the Army was a Party army; however many lawyers trained before the Revolution might take part in it, justice was Party justice; however many - or few - old Okhrana hands might be involved, the police was Party police. The schools, the taxes, even the land - all rested in the hand of the party.
On the other hand, Mussolini left the king of Italy on his throne and only modified the democratic and liberal part of Italian institutions. Nazism did not replace the Reich; it only set up a whole lot of parallel institutions - the SS to parallel the Army, Goering's Four-Year Plan to parallel the Reichsbank, People's Courts to shadow Imperial Courts, and so on. Fascists always disregarded the institutions, which therefore tended to carry on in some recognizable shape under their rule. In the end, both Mussolini and Hitler found themselves regretting they had not followed the example of fellow butchers Lenin and Stalin and killed the whole old guard. This is usually interpreted as a tactical decision - and a wise one - on the side of Mussolini and Hitler, or the result of convergent interests between a State frightened of Communist subversion and a street rabble party in search of excitement and enemies. This may be true, but it is also the case that, if Nazi-fascist parties were capable of living with a whole layer of society not originally of their making, it must be that something in their mind-set made it possible.
Now when I see the same thing in Miller's completely imaginary world, I have to wonder whether it isn't something fundamental about Fascism that makes it possible for the old order to compromise with it, surviving, certainly, in a subordinate role, yelding political power to the marauding bands, but continuing to exist as a structure? It seems to me that Miller shows that admiration of those outside the militia - the institutions of society, embodied in Police Commissioner Gordon and his female successor - is an essential part of the Fascist psyche. This compound of fear and awe, as to an almost supernatural manifestation of the pure nation's soul and people's will, is a part of the Fascist's own self-image. For the bold young troops to parade and be admired, there must be some more staid or weak element to stand on the sidelines and watch. Communism presumes a new world, and forms the institutions of that new world - however much it might announce that the future would be without any institutions at all; Fascism presumes a restoration, and looks upon democratic institutions - but not on all institutions - as nasty parasites on the healthy body of the nation. A crude painting, obviously the work of a militiaman, has been found in one of the last SS barracks in besieged Berlin: it showed two young SS volunteers in uniform covering a nun and some children with huge, medieval-style shields. Given the brutality with which the Church was treated, the concept is ridiculous: yet this is how the SS saw themselves - as heroic defenders of a helpless people. And above all they expected due recognition and gratitude for it.
I don't think Miller would recognize himself as a Fascist. There is at least enough left of democratic humanitarian values for him not to underplay the brutality and ugliness of his visions. He does not revel, like the classic Fascist, in visions of clean and pure strapping young lads in unbesmirched uniforms: his violence is crude, muddy and nasty. He also has several more-or-less leftyish traits. But then, so had the former hard-left Socialist Mussolini and the "national-socialist" and "proletarian" Hitler. But take him to another country, another time, another climate, and, by God, watch him salute!