Propaganda, Soft Power, and Frank Miller

I don’t like Frank Miller. Or more precisely, I don’t like Frank Miller anymore. I read and liked the first installments of Sin City, for two reasons: the drawing, which I found inspired, impressionistic, interesting, and the twisted, rough narration, with its Chandleresque dialogues and plot turns. The drawing style was what stuck with me, what still makes me consider Ronin, especially, as the bloody good work of a superb illustrator. Miller has the same suggestive, impressionistic quality exposed in Mike Mignola’s work. He adds to it a taste and an eye for chaos, profusion, destruction. Where Mignola will suggest, Miller will rub your face in details, blow your mind. I read the Dark Knight Returns, as well. That is when Miller became a ham-fisted, bloody-minded caricature of himself – the later Sin City books and 300 are, to put it mildly, not to my taste.

So this caught my eye: Le Monde commenting on Miller’s proclaimed intention to ressuscitate the propagandistic quality of comics on behalf of the all-American project: pure and strong heroes of democracy fighting evil, suspiciously effiminate, authoritarian, perverse Easterners. Superman, Capitain America, enlisted in supporting American power and American values.

What is the most interesting here, in the context of this blog, is what the incident shows us about propaganda. Propaganda, as Miller seems to conceive it, is mostly about selling a foreign policy and a national project to a domestic audience. “Smashing Capitain America” kicks Hitler’s butt in 1943 not so much to convince the Germans to abandon their war effort, but to tell Americans that they are strong, that they fight the good war and will win. Propaganda has a double meaning, domestic and foreign. And actually most public diplomacy, at least in countries like the US, aims at domestic audiences.

On the other hand, comics, like “Hollywood-diplomacy”, give us another example of soft power: the crafting and diffusion of notions about society, the relations between men and women, liberty and justice, free speech. Comics are part of the external image the US show to the world. This might be too much for Frank Miller, who obviously has come to think his work in terms of wartime propaganda, but the “liberal” comics he decries might do more to sell America and American values abroad than his efforts. What gives the best image of the US abroad: manly all-American heroes smashing caricaturized muslims, or the very possibility that a DC Comics superhero could openly be a homosexual?

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