In what seemed like a left turn in Frank Miller‘s storied career, it was announced that he would be working on a YA (Young Adult) fantasy novel called Cursed with Thomas Wheeler. It seemed as if Wheeler would be doing the writing and Miller would be providing the illustrations and indeed that’s the way they are credited so one could be forgiven for seeing this as a simple illustration job for Miller, a pit stop on the way to reclaiming his place in comics. That would turn out to be not quite accurate. First of all, Miller’s name is credited before Wheeler’s (which is the opposite of the way credits are usually doled out on illustrated novels) and as one reads the book, it quickly becomes clear that this is very much a Frank Miller venture. In fact, I would say that this is the most Frank Miller thing I’ve read that Miller’s done in a long time. Beyond Xerxes, which seemed disjointed, and Dark Knight III, which seemed to be a laughable excuse to slap Miller’s name on something pushed out to capitalize on the Dark Knight brand, this reads like a Miller tale, albeit in prose: I distinctly had the feeling that I was reading a Sin City story that was transposed into mid-English history/folklore with a strong dose of fantasy thrown in.
When they presented a panel discussion to promote the book at the recent NYCC, eyes and ears and attentions were turned towards Miller. Nobody seemed to care much about Wheeler or what he’d done. Wheeler, bless his soul, took it good naturedly, a second coronet lost in the middle of Miller’s fanfare, straight man to the maverick comic maven’s jocular jousts. The book (and by extension the series – there will be sequels it seems – and the Netflix TV series which Miller and Wheeler are developing in conjunction with the books) seems to be capitalizing on the interest in fantasy spurred by Game of Thrones mania.
Cursed is about Nimue, a young woman of the Fey (fairy kind who have various powers according to their tribes) who, orphaned after the religious Red Paladins have laid scourge to her village and crucified her people (this is what the Red Paladins, led by Father Carden like to do – they like to ride up and down the countryside and cleanse it by exacting extreme and cruel fates upon those that are not human), inherits the Sword of Power, an ancient sword that both empowers its owner to kill hordes of enemies and bends his or her will towards its bloodthirsty desires. There were shades of eighties X-Men comics in the plight of the Fey. Along the way, as she is thrust into the role of saviour of her people and leader of all of the remaining Fey refugees who have escaped Carden’s ministrations, she meets other characters who are bowdlerized nods towards the Arthurian legends: Uther Pendragon, Gawain, Lancelot, Morgan, Arthur, and perhaps most interestingly, Merlin. Even Guinevere makes a cameo as a kick-ass female warrior which is pretty much the default position for Miller’s heroines.
Those who are particularly loyal towards the Arthurian tales will not like what they’re doing with the characters here – I myself was a little on the fence though I did not mind it as a whole. Arthur, for example, is a fickle and charming but unreliable sword for hire that Nimue flirts with without wholly convincing us why she feels this way. Arthur’s sister Morgan is a herbalist/healer/witch but the sort that helps the Fey and has very strong feelings of anger about what is being done to them. Lancelot is a misguided Paladin, alone and intense and trying to wrestle with his tortured soul. You can see how, in concept, there are nods towards the more familiar Arthurian characterizations and dynamics (except for Arthur – he’s completely thrown under the bus, or the hay cart if you will) but in practice, this does not feel like an Arthurian tale at all. There is a fair amount of violence and bloodletting – what would a Miller joint be without that? – and the sexuality can be somewhat edgy: more than once, rape is implied and the tension between Nimue (who is still a teenager) and Arthur is more lustful than loving from what I can make out. I often found myself wondering whether this book could actually have been targeted towards tween girls but then I was told that there is a spectrum of ‘mature’ levels in the YA field, though Cursed would still tend towards the edgier limits.
The character that I found the most interesting in the book was Merlin. Merlin is another character who has been twisted away from the imperious mage of old Arthuriana towards the wise fool Miller and Wheeler have fashioned him to be. This Merlin is constantly drunk when we meet him, serving under a very self-important Uther Pendragon, without magic but not without cunning. He has lost his ability to perform magic a long time ago but as he tells us, he has not lost his ability to recognize magic or read the signs, nor does he wish to be anybody’s fool. I couldn’t help but think of Miller’s own situation, if only in broad strokes (one must be careful not to read autobiographical similarities too quickly). As Merlin remembers the vast power he once commanded, his ability to hurl magic at whatever mark he desired, I couldn’t help but think of Miller’s towering stature in the comics field, the prodigious and powerful creativity he commanded at such a young age, the reports of his downfall and declining health, and his road to creative recovery in the last few years. His Merlin is similarly inspired by reports of the Sword of Power (a riff on Excalibur?): he wishes to seek it out, influence events, and reclaim whom he once was. Nimue is tasked with delivering it to him but can she let it go? The ways in which their paths and lives cross form the backbone of this plot. I can’t talk too much more about the plot without spoiling things but I will say that Nimue’s prodigious capacity to command ‘The Hidden’, and the fecund powers of nature associated with this force, also seems to be an analogy for the font of creativity Miller once wielded, and may hope to handle again.
In terms of the writing, I found the early chapters too choppy, the introduction of too many characters too overwhelming. I needed more time if I was going to develop a bond and affinity for them. The story would move from one location to another and from one set of characters to another too fleetingly for me to really dig in. At first, anyway. At some point, as the various strands came together, especially as the plot of Nimue’s task of carting the sword to Merlin (and killing a whole bunch of Paladins along the way) gelled, I got drawn into the plot. There were some lines, such as the sound of catgut being drawn as a bow is pulled, that were classic Miller and I felt that the choreography of the violent altercations was definitely his. A question that I wish could be answered is how the ‘writing’ was enacted. I suspect that Miller might have envisioned certain scenes and communicated these to Wheeler through oral recordings and then Wheeler re-purposed these precise directions and lines into prose. Other passages don’t read like Miller at all and I imagine they are more or less pure Wheeler working from general ideas they’ve both discussed. As mentioned before, this is like a mid-Sin City tale so the characters aren’t fleshed out to the degree of classic 80’s Miller work like Ronin or Daredevil but there’s enough of a pulpy bite to them that you’ll enjoy following what they think and feel and get up to. It’s entertaining enough if you’re a Miller fan. Miller’s writing was always stylized and as his career progressed, it became increasingly thus, dividing fans and critics so that whether he was lauded or lamented often came down to a case of what you liked. Up to Give Me Liberty, I would say this wasn’t necessarily the case. Miller was playing with internal tensions and degrees of irony that were philosophically well thought out and received accolades for what he did.
The art is like a cherry, or cherries, on top. It’s nice to read a YA book with illustrations in it. The intention is to hearken back to those children’s books of yesteryear which had lovely plate colour illustrations. Miller has said he was inspired by the work of Arthur Rackham and others when creating the drawings for this book. That doesn’t necessarily come out in the work itself but the illustrations are interesting in their Miller-esque way, especially the ones that make use of more linework or shadow and negative space. There are a few colour plate illustrations but most of them are black and white.
In the end, I’d like more people to read this book just so I can discuss it with them, although Miller fans seem to be sidestepping the project in order to pick up more traditional superhero fare by him like Superman Year One or the upcoming Dark Knight installment. I would say that’s a bit of a loss on their part. When Miller is parachuted in to a DC corporate venture like some Dark Knight thing, it feels very handled and Miller’s handiwork does not seem to have enough of an influence but if you pair him with an able collaborator (think Mazzucchelli or Darrow or Gibbons or Janson or Sienkiewicz or Varley, etc.), he produces some interesting stuff because a good collaborator will bring out the best in him and enhance it; it also allows Miller the space to move fast and generate ideas which, when done well with rough edges sanded down by a capable collaborator, is what he’s best at. It’s when the creativity flows. And that’s what the magic’s all about, isn’t it?
Will Cursed become another one of these hallowed and fruitful collaborations? Time, I suppose, will tell.