Frank Miller: I Stole From The Best!
Interview conducted by the COMICDOM team
Edited by Dimitris Sakaridis
For many people, Frank Miller is probably the greatest writer/artist that came out of comics in the last 25 years. Standing on the shoulders of giants like Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman and Gil Kane, he managed to leave his mark on American comic books, while winning the acclaim from the, usually harsher, European critics.
Being absolutely certain no one would care to imagine the state comic books would be in, if Frank Miller wasn't around for the last couple of decades, we dedicate this interview to all the fans of the masters work.
COMICDOM: When you took over DAREDEVIL in the late 70's, you were practically an unknown in the comics industry, but you managed to immediately become a household name. What do you think the public (and the critics) saw in your work that made them stand up and take notice?
FRANK MILLER: I think I got by for a while on sheer exuberance. Drawing comics had been my passion since I was six years old and first used a stapler and sheets of folded typewriter paper to imitate comic book pamphlets, drawing my own little-boy stories. The comics audience responds to sincerity and passion. It's quite forgiving to weaknesses of craft. And it took me a few years to marry my enthusiasm with stronger drawing and writing. So I guess I'd say that they could tell I love my job.
Also, I stole from the best.
COMICDOM: When you started writing as well as pencilling DAREDEVIL, was your intention to basically sweep off everything that came before and create something dramatically different, or was it a more progressive change?
FRANK MILLER: I never planned to draw superheroes. My favorite genre has always been crime fiction. So there I was, bugging New York publishers with a very young version of what would become SIN CITY many years later - and there the editors were, explaining that all they published were guys in tights. It was adapt or die time, so I adapted. With DAREDEVIL I found the perfect vehicle: The hero's signature feature is an impairment. He's blind. I was able to do my kind of crime comics. I followed the example of Will Eisner's THE SPIRIT. He gave his hero a mask to keep the publisher happy. Me, I had a blind guy in red tights.
Like I said, I stole from the best.
COMICDOM: How did you come up with the character of Elektra? It was one of the earlier cases of ret-conning a popular characters continuity by inserting previously unknown elements in their history. How did the editors at Marvel respond to this?
FRANK MILLER: I stole from the best. Compare Eisner's Sand Saref with Elektra's first appearance. I copped his structure cold. As I drew and wrote DAREDEVIL, Elektra became her own, terrifying sexual fantasy - I don't recall Eisner ever having The Spirit tricked by an old love into stepping into a bear trap.
The editors loved it, and it sold. It was a grand time.
COMICDOM: Fans of your work in DAREDEVIL consider Elektra still dead and disagree with Marvel's decision to resurrect her.
FRANK MILLER: God bless them, every one. Elektra is dead.
COMICDOM: Which brings us to a two-fold question about continuity and ethics. Do you feel that readers have a right to pick and choose which parts of a title's continuity they prefer?
FRANK MILLER: Yes. When a character's been published monthly for forty or seventy years, a reader has to pick and choose between the good work and the bad. And if a talent has either made up a character or left his indelible stamp on it, a reader is under no obligation to blindly follow whatever nonsense the publisher pumps out. Surely no reasonable JAMES BOND follower would demand that fans of Sean Connery's Bond should be required to stick with every actor that succeeded him. As audience, we are the judges of what we consider meritorious.
Did I mention that Elektra is dead?
COMICDOM: Essentially, what is your take on continuity?
FRANK MILLER: Continuity is the hobgoblin of small minds.
But Elektra is still dead.
COMICDOM: Also, what is your opinion on corporate decisions about characters created under work-for-hire agreements? I mean, obviously, they own the rights and technically they can do whatever they want with the properties, but don't you think that on some cases, the model DC is following with Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN is more ethically appropriate?
FRANK MILLER: DC's move was classy and smart. They showed Neil respect. Marvel, however...
...Well, Elektra is dead.
COMICDOM: "Born Again" was not only a great Daredevil story, but arguably, one of the best Captain America stories ever told.
FRANK MILLER: Thanks! Wasn't David Mazzucchelli's work wonderful?
COMICDOM: Indeed it was. But I have a feeling that Cap is also a character you're very fond of. What's your take on the character at present? Do you have any "untold tales of Captain America" hidden in you somewhere that you regret not working on?
FRANK MILLER: Yeah, I love Cap. And sure, I've got ideas. But I have been very fortunate. I have total creative freedom on work that I own. While DC has allowed me to carve out my own "Dark Knight Universe", letting me play with their characters with abandon, I don't think it's part of Marvel's current administration's DNA to countenance such freedom. Why swim with sharks when you can fly?
Have I mentioned that Elektra is dead?
COMICDOM: After making your name working for Marvel, you got up and left to do RONIN for DC. What were the reasons that led you to this career choice?
FRANK MILLER: Freedom. Genuine authorship. A chance at wild experimentation. It was, at the time, the wisest and most creatively rejuvenating decision of my career. An artist mustn't let himself go stale. Sometimes it's essential to scare the crap out of yourself.
COMICDOM: After all these years, do you consider RONIN to be a creative success or failure? Depending who you ask, you might get that it was a masterpiece or pretentious crap. Some people also believe that it was ahead of it's time. Do you agree with any of these assessments?
FRANK MILLER: I'll have to settle for all three.
COMICDOM: Then came DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and people outside of comics started looking in to see what the buzz was about (to be fair, WATCHMEN and MAUS had a lot to do with this, too). What kind of feedback were you receiving at the time?
FRANK MILLER: Once it came out, I knew it was selling through the roof and getting wild attention from mass media. DC was very happy. Batman was back, and finally the badass son of a bitch he always should've been.
COMICDOM: Were you immediately aware that you were creating an important piece of work?
FRANK MILLER: I don't strain for Importance: I play, bringing every ounce I've got to the game.
COMICDOM: If you did THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS today, post 9/11, would you change, add or leave out anything?
FRANK MILLER: Impossible to tell. I was a different artist then, and fifteen years' life experience makes for a different man. And 9/11 did change everything: the West is confronted with a fascist, misogynist, homophobic, genocidal blood enemy that is dedicated to the annihilation of everything civilization has achieved in three millennia. At the very least, my idea of what makes a true villain has changed. An existential threat to everything in the world that's worth a damn clarifies the mind.
COMICDOM: What were your intentions when you decided to create DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN? Did self-sarcasm fall into the picture?
FRANK MILLER: No, no self-sarcasm. Quite the opposite.
I was out to remind readers about the inherent joy and wonder these superheroes offer, and also to celebrate their delicious absurdity. I saw the superheroes as Gods and Heroes in the Classic sense: Mighty, quirky, lustful, capricious, noble, petty, wrathful, unpredictable. Superman, Wonder Woman, Lara, Batman, Brainiac, Luthor, and Green Lantern are Gods. Carrie Kelley and the rest are heroes, offspring of Gods and men. Batman is the greatest of these Gods. Even though he can't leap tall buildings or throw cars around, he knows what he wants, and he's smarter than any of them. He uses his Pantheon to save humanity from its own self-embraced slavery.
I wanted to drag these Gods and Heroes out of that musty museum they'd been stuck in and drag them back to the streets where they belong.
COMICDOM: Did you anticipate the rather negative critical response it received?
FRANK MILLER: I expected shock. I wanted it. I never make it my mission to reassure people. Time will make its own judgement.
COMICDOM: In connection with the previous question, do you care about reviews and critiques of your work anymore? I mean, one would think that being "THE Frank Miller" could get to your head, making you completely indifferent about anything written about your work or yourself personally.
FRANK MILLER: Good reviews make me happy. Bad reviews make me sad. They're all contact. They're fuel. Everything is fuel. Life, politics, fashion, fiction...everything.
COMICDOM: One could probably interpret DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN as a DC Universe story, rather than a Batman story. Was this a conscious choice on your part?
FRANK MILLER: A guy as smart and determined as Batman would use every resource at his disposal. He had a Pantheon to deploy. Those Gods and heroes he could enlist, he did. Those he couldn't enlist, he humilated, then converted.
Oh, and Elektra is still dead.
COMICDOM: In the same vein, someone once said that any story featuring Superman eventually becomes a Superman story. Do you agree with that?
FRANK MILLER: Superman must be acknowledged as Power. He is Boreas. Mightier than a roaring hurricane. But this is Batman's story.
COMICDOM: How did GIVE ME LIBERTY come to be? Was it entirely your story, or did Dave Gibbons have any input?
FRANK MILLER: We're partners. Of course, I wrote the stories and Dave drew the pictures. But ours is a deep, complex collaboration. I wouldn't attempt to sum it up without Dave joining me.
COMICDOM: Do you see the stories of Martha Washington more as "military sci-fi" or "political statements"... or both?
FRANK MILLER: Both. Not to mention political satire. Look at the world. Almost half my country equates flushing a Koran down a toilet with sawing the head off an innocent contractor, or using airplanes those barbarians could never have invented to slaughter thousands of my neighbors. Much of Europe shrugs off the disgusting murder of director Theo Van Gogh. And Paris Hilton and Michael Jackson's noseless face get the headlines. You can't make this stuff up.
COMICDOM: Are you planning on doing another Martha Washington story in the near future?
FRANK MILLER: Yes.
COMICDOM: When you started doing SIN CITY (the comic book, not the movie), were you shooting for a Mickey Spillane atmosphere and storytelling style?
FRANK MILLER: That, and more. I use the wealth of great crime fiction to attempt something new.
I steal from the best.
COMICDOM: People have accused it of sometimes being more than just "homage".
FRANK MILLER: Much more, I hope. I take that as a compliment, though I suspect not the way you imply.
COMICDOM: How do you see the current trend for "fallen" heroes? Do you perceive the protagonists of SIN CITY as "fallen angels"?
FRANK MILLER: My SIN CITY heroes are knights in dirty, blood-caked armor. They bring justice to a world that gives them no medals, no praise, no reward. That world, that CITY, often kills them for their brave service.
COMICDOM: SIN CITY was also a big move for you artistically, with more heavy blacks and high contrast panels and less detailed linework. What led you to this creative move?
FRANK MILLER: As always, the stories. Each calls for stylistic adjustments. A DAME TO KILL FOR needed a nervous line to reflect young Dwight's anxiety. THAT YELLOW BASTARD, the most heroic of the series, called for a lean, stark manifestation of Hartigan's pure, abiding, self-sacrificing love for Nancy Callahan.
COMICDOM: After the immense success of the first SIN CITY film, are you thinking of expanding your endeavors into the film industry?
FRANK MILLER: You bet. Robert Rodriguez opened up a whole new career for me, and I love the job.
COMICDOM: How is the pre-production for the second film going? Are you going to co-direct, or will you be an executive producer only? Which story (-ies) will the movie be based on?
FRANK MILLER: I will co-direct. SIN CITY#2 will largely be based on A DAME TO KILL FOR, weaving in other material, including a brand-new plotline featuring Nancy Callahan's actions after Hartigan's suicide.
The script is well along. We should be casting soon. I can barely wait.
COMICDOM: I've read somewhere that it was a movie you watched as a child, called THE 300 SPARTANS that inspired you to finally decide to create 300, a comic book about the legend of Leonidas. How familiar are you with Greek history and mythology? Do you plan on using them as starting grounds for future projects?
FRANK MILLER: I'm an unschooled military history fanatic whose main focus is on the epic of Ancient Greece. I will do more, but only when I've read the texts and done the research and walked the battlefields. These stories speak to me. They address what I consider most important about human life.
COMICDOM: The story of 300 is, undoubtedly, a significant part Greek History. Were you aware of the cultural impact it would have in Greece, when you were creating the comic?
FRANK MILLER: I was just trying to do some kind of justice to the best story I've ever encountered.
COMICDOM: Leonidas embodied many virtues of the Greek spirit. Do you believe that he is, in a way, an ideal hero? Additionally, do you think that 300 is a "heroic" story?
FRANK MILLER: If it isn't, there never has been one. Anywhere. Ever.
COMICDOM: Even though your name is more closely associated with Dark Horse in the last decade, you have also worked with DC a couple of times, and you are currently working on the publisher's best-selling title. Is there any chance of you working with Marvel again in the future?
FRANK MILLER: Who can tell? I rule nothing out.
COMICDOM: Since I mentioned "best-selling titles", I think it's a sad fact that even the most popular titles today rarely sell more than 200 thousand copies, while in the 80's the best-selling books sold close to a million (I'm not bringing the early 90's in the discussion, since the millions sold then were, in no small part, a product of speculators entering the industry). How concerned are you about the future of the comics industry? It seems that the number of people reading comics in the US is constantly shrinking.
FRANK MILLER: Oh, but the sales climb when we create something brave and fresh and vigorous. I am not at all discouraged. Our market is changing, as are our venues. We're just getting started. The best times await.
COMICDOM: Are you satisfied with the quality of the current comics output?
FRANK MILLER: Of course not. But there's more great stuff happening all the time. Superheroes are going from being the only genre in American comics to taking their place with a plethora of other ideas, other genre, other wild, new visions. This is a happy time. But satisfied? I pray I never am.
COMICDOM: Do you think your creative prowess lies more in your writing or your artwork? How important was it for you to be able to excel in both independently?
FRANK MILLER: It's one craft. My pictures are incomplete with words. My words make no sense without pictures. Mostly, I do the whole job myself. Sometimes I share the job with other talents. But it's one, single craft, not a shotgun wedding between two.
COMICDOM: Have you reached a certain emotional plateau as to become disassociated from your former work?
FRANK MILLER: Hell, no. My stories are the only children I ever intend to have. My love for them is lifelong.
COMICDOM: What would your response be to those who characterize your work as overly militant or pointlessly violent? In the vastness that separates John Milius from John Sayles where would you place yourself?
FRANK MILLER: Right where I am.
COMICDOM: Thank you very much for your time.
FRANK MILLER: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
Have I made it clear that Elektra is still dead?
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