Let’s Talk Comics: The Cartoonish Misogyny of Miller & Darrow’s “Hard Boiled”
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One of my favorite pastimes as a child was to sneak into my dad’s room and read comics I wasn’t supposed to know about yet. This included all manner of alt-comix and 90s hyperviolence — lesbian erotica like Real Girl and Moore & Gebbie’s Lost Girls, a full run of Taboo, all the way up to the more obscene volumes of The Authority. In his never-ending quest to keep smut and gore out of my adolescent hands, Dad completely forgot the trove he kept just yards away from me at all times.
One book that always stuck out to me was Frank Miller, Geof Darrow, and Claude Legris’s Hard Boiled. I mean that literally; its oversized pages stuck out from the shelf and begged to be investigated. What I found would take many years to fully digest: a cartoonish performance of gender, borne out of misogyny and toxic masculinity distilled to their essence. Dark Horse’s new hardcover edition of Hard Boiled (recolored by Dave Stewart) is out on September 26th, and as sleek as it is, I have to recommend you go read something else. Spoilers for a 27-year-old comic book follow.
That’s a shame, because Hard Boiled is the quintessential sci-fi noir of its time. In its three issues, Miller introduces us to a horrifying capitalist hellscape unlike any other — one where megacorporations like Willeford Home Appliances eliminate their competitors using powerful cyborg assassins with no regard for for the collateral carnage they wreak. Carl Seltz, aka Nixon, aka Unit Four is one such assassin, but his memories keep resurfacing no matter how many times they’re erased. Two other Willeford units, Barbara and Blanche, try to break Nixon’s programming and lead a revolution, but he kills Blanche in a rage and submits to Willeford’s control. Barbara, defeated, kills herself.
Darrow’s art isn’t really at fault here; in fact, it’s easily the best thing about Hard Boiled. This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone familiar with his work, since Hard Boiled was Darrow’s breakout book, earning him (with Miller) an Eisner for Best Writer/Artist and setting up a long and successful career in comics that continues today with his Shaolin Cowboy series. Darrow’s eye for detail and ludicrously precise rendering of violence has rarely, if ever, seen its match in the industry, and Hard Boiled is the book that built that reputation. You can see every gear in each exploding car, every shred of Nixon’s repeatedly sundered flesh — even his explosions are lovingly rendered, rolling gouts of flame that taper into tiny points. Nobody could have made this book look better than Darrow.
No, Hard Boiled’s problems — like those of so many other books — are almost entirely because of Frank Miller. As pointed as his satire of consumerism may have been, his story draws on a seemingly bottomless well of misogyny that makes everything Darrow draws all the more grotesque. Nixon’s “family” are revealed in the first issue to be Willeford agents: his “wife” seduces him as a distraction while the “children” pump him full of drugs to stop his memories from resurfacing. Blanche and her accomplice (another robot made to look like a little girl) create a massive, deadly deception to chip away at Nixon’s flesh exterior and reveal the machine beneath, after which Blanche dances lewdly in a seduction attempt of her own — one that backfires horribly as Nixon beats her to death while she pleads with him to stop. Her last words are “You’re our only hope”; then he punches her head off her body.
Miller is working within the same misogynist trope that’s plagued genre fiction for decades: that women are all deceivers who use sex to manipulate men into doing what they want. In both instances, Nixon explicitly doesn’t give consent for sex, but both Blanche and his wife continue anyway, turning each scene into Hard Boiled’s subtlest assaults. Meanwhile, Barbara coldly dismembers an unsuspecting Willeford engineer and stuffs his body down a toilet. The implication that women are dangerous liars preying on men’s naivete and libido is plain, and it’s vicious.
But despite their manipulative cruelty, Miller also manages to simultaneously take the position that women are still weaker than men. Barbara and Blanche’s plan hinges entirely on Nixon waking up; during the final confrontation, Barbara quietly exhorts him while following his trail of destruction, echoing Blanche’s last words: “Fight it, Nixon. You’re our only hope. If you beat them — we can all be free.” As soon as he capitulates to Willeford, Barbara walks into the generator room, plugs herself in, and electrocutes her body until she dies. Just like in the Sin City stories that Miller would begin a year after Hard Boiled’s first issue, women are shown to be arguably smarter and more sly than men, but never tougher or more powerful. The idea that Barbara herself could achieve her own independence without Nixon’s gun-blazing incredulity is an idea as absurd as any Darrow panel.
The major question of Hard Boiled then becomes: does Frank Miller buy into any of this? Again, the book is an over-the-top satire on consumer culture by design, so aren’t Barbara and Blanche the real heroes here? (It’s worth noting that Stewart’s new colors are more “realistic” renderings than Legris’s original neon fever dreams, making it more difficult to keep in mind the inherent ridiculousness of everything that’s going on. Small wonder, given the book’s ongoing movie buzz.) This is largely open to interpretation, but while I think Miller knows Barbara and Blanche are both in the right, he always treats Nixon like a tragic and sympathetic antihero. That’s not entirely without cause; Nixon is, at his core, a man brainwashed by societal institutions to behave as men are expected to. There’s a lot to talk about there with regards to toxic masculinity, both broadly and individually, and it’s true that Miller didn’t have enough space in just three issues to fully dive into the ramifications of what he was saying.
But even given all of that, Miller still makes major missteps with his female-coded characters, and plays into the very dynamics his story would have readers believe are corrupt. In the end, Hard Boiled — much like Nixon himself — is its own worst enemy.