By/Por Ray Falcon, Special for LWR
Film Director, Screenwriter, author, graphic novelist, illustrator Frank Miller was at Comic-Con recently to promote DC’s imminent release of a hardcover collector’s edition of his The Dark Knight III: The Master Race, and stoke anticipation for the 2018 release of his 300 prequel Xerxes: The Fall Of The House of Darius And The Rise Of Alexander. The iconic comic book creator took time out for a LWR chat on everything from the state of superhero movies to his ever-evolving career. The man can wear a hat, and looks very much like a grizzled character out of his Sin City precinct. But he’s instantly disarming. And considering how much his work has informed the dark tortured superhero mythologies of everyone from Batman to Wolverine, Miller is downright optimistic about his work right now.
LWR: You have been coming to Comic-Con forever. How much has it changed?
FRANK MILLER: I still really enjoy it. It’s a great chance to reconnect with the audience and friends I’ve got in the business from all over the world. It’s become such a premier show that packs ’em in. I remember the first time I went, which must have been in the early 1980s. It was held in a rundown hotel and it was mostly comic book dealers with cardboard boxes full of old comic books, and a few old actors from Star Trek. They’d sit on panels and argue about comic books to crowds of people. It was as much a social event as it was a show, where all of us would get together and have a grand old time. Over the years it’s become such a behemoth that it now involves all media. You get all these movie and TV stars, everything. First, I thought it was losing its focus and now I think it’s just turned into some new animal that I’ve never seen before.
LWR: Do you pine for the good old days?
MILLER: You can’t pine for the good old days. It’s become what it’s become. You have to grow or die in business, so it grew. You can always be nostalgic, mostly what you’re nostalgic about is when you were a lot younger. Memory sweetens everything but it’s so much better run now. It was always run by good people but now it’s so professional. Things always happen on time. I can’t complain.
LWR: I suppose we all pine for memories of our youth. It is remarkable that the movie business revolves around heroes hatched so long ago, like when Stan Lee and his guys sat in those stuffy Marvel Comics offices in New York and plotted hero mythologies that endure to this day. You’ve had a hand in that at Marvel and DC. Why do such well worn tales still interest you?
MILLER: If you look at it in terms of superheroes there are two novas where superheroes took off. One began in 1938 and the other one around 1962. One begat the DC Universe and the other the Marvel Universe. I started my career at Marvel with Daredevil and Spider-Man comics, but because I turned Daredevil into a crime comic and because my stories got spooky, they had their eye on me at DC to do Batman. That was always the big kahuna to me and I wasn’t ready. But you never really wait until you’re ready for something, and finally one day I just dove in. I was meeting with Jenette Khan at DC. I had just done my book Ronin, and I said I’ve got an idea for a Batman book. She said what is it? I was meeting with her and with Dick Giordano, and I said, I want to do Batman but I want to bring him back. They said what do you mean bring him back? I said I want to bring him back like he’s been retired and like he’s old and cranky now and bring a bit of Clint Eastwood into him. They were ready to try because Batman had remained the No. 1 character in terms of popularity but in terms of sales it was terrible. That’s what I was told.
MILLER: Well, obviously somebody was doing something wrong. It all got too sanitized. Put things in a historical context. In the early 1950s the comic industry was traumatized by a censorship movement that was headed by a pop psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham. He made a name for himself saying comic books caused juvenile delinquency, which was the big scare of the time. There were pretty raunchy horror comics and stuff coming out back then and comic books were selling beyond belief. Sales numbers were astronomical. He organized, or inspired comic book burnings. It became very, very bad to sell comic books. The comic book publishers were terrified. They went after the biggest publisher there was, EC Comics, which did all the Tales From The Crypt and the horror comics at the time. They shut them down with something called the Comics Code, the strictest censorship code in history.
LWR: I remember seeing reference to the comics code on the superhero comics I read as a kid. I had no idea what it meant.
MILLER: I read it, and actually visited the offices once, back when they were running the show. It was created by the Archie Comics people and it was like a Cold War antique that mostly wanted to keep comics strictly for kids. And they wanted to keep kids good, and stupid. So anything about sex obviously was out but also there were lots of political prohibitions. The secret agenda there was to go after EC Comics because the people at Archie Comics wanted EC Comics out of business. The people at Archie Comics ran the Comics Code, so they deliberately put things in the comics code…no comic book shall feature horror or terror in its title. That’s EC Comics. There shall be no living dead, no zombies, nothing like that. It went on and on.
LWR: EC Comics just gave up?
MILLER: What EC Comics owner Bill Gaines did, as someone very astutely put it, didn’t get angry, he got Mad. Which means he took one little book he had called Mad Comics and turned it into Mad Magazine. He made a publishing empire out of that and let all the other comic titles die. That was the origin of Mad Magazine.
LWR: That must have impacted your work, which infuses Raymond Chandler-like noir and cynicism into the superhero world.
MILLER: Well, I was a country kid but I always liked crime stories. I read Mickey Spillane and then I graduated to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. When I moved to New York I started watching…was it the Million Dollar Movie, where they played these old black and white crime movies, one after the other. I just mainlined those. When things changed in comic book land and we started getting more freedom, I hooked up with a wonderful publisher, Dark Horse Comics, and they offered me the rights that I was after as an author, the ownership of the material plus the creative control I needed. I did some science fiction work like the Martha Washington series, and then finally decided to take my chance and do the crime comic I’d always wanted to do and that was Sin City. There, I did everything I wanted to do without restraint. That’s been my staple ever since. That was around 1990.
LWR: How did you navigate the Comics Code when it was first enacted?
MILLER: I was working for Marvel. It was silly and repressive and I reacted to it like an adolescent. I did things to deliberately provoke it. I wanted to bring the thing down. To me it became really offensive when at the height of the epidemic of a drug called angel dust, which was destroying kids all over the place, people were still following this code and saying you couldn’t show the use of drugs in any way in comic books. So I just went right at it and I went to the editor-in-chief Jim Shooter and said, this is silly. We’ve got this [drug]thing happening and this is supposed to be an urban drama. I said let’s just do it and see what happens. So we did, and it got bounced by the Comics Code. Jim said the Comics Code just bounced your book so we’re running them without the code.
LWR: So yours was one of the first ones to defy the code. Did that help bring it down?
MILLER: Obviously it helped. I think the code had shaky foundations by then and we definitely pulled one of the rocks out, but the main thing that brought the code down was not me. It was the direct market. It was the change in distribution that brought publishers like Eclipse Comics, which just ignored the whole thing coming in. Once they were around, the Comics Code’s days were numbered. I was a rebel and I pulled a piece or two out of the foundation. But they blew the whole building over. The advent of the direct market itself meant they were able to sell direct to the shops. I don’t know the exact details but it feels to me like that got the mafia out of the game. People realized the audience had grown up and that shops could be run in such a way where they simply racked the books that were for older readers higher than the ones for kids. The argument I made all along was that simply by the way the covers were drawn made it very clear who it was for. DC played around with a ratings system similar to the one used in movies, but we all argued about and they realized they really didn’t need it either.
LWR: Your vision of a beat-up Bruce Wayne was the thing that appealed to Ben Affleck when he became the current movie Batman. Your stylistic and visual imprint is all over these movies. How closely involved do you get? And are you the first in line when a movie like Wonder Woman or Spider-Man: Homecoming opens?
MILLER: Well, they invite me to the premieres and it’s fun to go. As for involvement, it all depends. With 300, for instance, I was consulted and I was on the set but I was not a participant in the making of the movie. That was the arrangement we agreed on. That was a property I was most protective of, and I decided it would never be a movie and set out to make it impossible to translate into one. Everybody in comics was Hollywood-crazy and I thought, I’ll be the rebel. I thought if I do a comic to make a movie it’ll corrupt my process and it won’t be a good comic book. Then this crazy Texan, Robert Rodriguez, calls me up. I first hear through my editor that he wants to make it a movie. I say tell him no. Then I meet the guy and I go, you’re a real nice guy and I love your enthusiasm, but I just can’t see it happening. We shake hands. A few days later, he calls and wants to fly me down so we can do a test and see if I can change your mind. I go down and he’s got a couple of real professional actors, Josh Hartnett and Marley Shelton, to play a little scene that he calls a test. It’s a little short story I did in Sin City. We shoot it, I looked at it. I just went over and shook his hand and said I’m sold. I’m in. We’ve got to do this thing because it was so much fun. Josh was so good in the part and Marley was so beautiful and she was lit so perfect. Then the adventure began that was like nothing I ever expected in my life. It was just breathtaking.
LWR: Rodriguez was so adamant in you being co-director that he left the Directors Guild when they wouldn’t approve you.
MILLER: A brave, good man. Two great things about that experience stand out. One was being educated by a director as accomplished and as much of a renaissance man as Rodriguez. He knows every aspect of filmmaking and you learn every inch of it within. There was that. There was his confidence in me and the fact that after a while he’d leave me alone on the set for a day because he trusted me enough. He said you’re coming out of this and you’re going to be able to direct. I would be on the set going, Robert, are you really sure we can do this? He’d say, sure. Who’s going to stop us? But the private joy that was beyond belief…I knew I loved the visual side. I knew I loved planning camera movements and doing all the things that comic books can’t do. I didn’t know that I would fall in love with actors.
MILLER: Each of them with a personality, particular strengths, unexpected twists and turns. It was like falling in love every 10 minutes because they were so beautiful and so sweet. To work with Bruce Willis…a world class actor as good as you’re going to find.
MILLER: Not him, no. He’s too good and sweet a guy. He would occasionally come up to me on the set and say, “I just don’t get it, man. I just don’t get what’s happening here, why I’m saying this.” We talked it over and he’d go, oh, OK. But he was an actor of the old school which means he didn’t go on trying to ad lib all over the place. He would take your line and make it work. If he had any suggestion he would bring it up with you privately. So it wasn’t this public contest between the director and the actor as so often happens. That was him. Then there was the unbelievable tiger force that is Mickey Rourke. A locomotive. When we were first making the movie, Mickey hadn’t had a big movie in a while, and the way he assumed that role and took the movie on his shoulders was just beautiful.
LWR: You later directed The Spirit. Do you want to get behind the camera again?
MILLER: Oh, yeah. No direct plans right now but it’s not the kind of itch you lose.
LWR: What fuels the itch?
MILLER: More than anything, actors. I love their talent, their energy. They are like magical instruments, and they come up with their own music a lot of the time. What I do can get real lonely. You are so far inside your own head. There’s no better test of writing a line of dialogue than having someone say it. You can write stuff that looks great. You’ll see in novels and in comic books people who write what seems like really good dialogue. Yeah, but does it sound like a human being could say it? It’s words on a page. Early on, I found that very simple things like short sentences always work. Long sentences can work, but they tend to work best with certain actors. I found that a good actor makes the best material even better. Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis, they were Apollo and Dionysus. Bruce Willis was so in command of what he was doing, it was magical to watch. Whereas Mickey Rourke is full of power and emotion. With Mickey, bad grammar works and that’s the way I had written that Sin City character. He can say things like I shouldn’t oughta do this, something out of an old ’40s movie. He would say it and it would sound absolutely perfect. Those were two completely different, diametrically opposed style of actors, but I regard them as of equal talent. It was an honor to work with both of them.
LWR: You moved right from there, to 300, your graphic novel exploration of the Spartans, the Persians and the Battle of Thermopylae.
MILLER: Sure, but I’ve got to underscore here that 300 was Zack Snyder’s movie. It was a science-fiction movie about Greek soldiers.
LWR: Are you territorial about the movie matching the comic?
MILLER: I have a basic rule that whatever you do you do for the format you’re doing. When I do a comic book I have to stop myself from thinking, does it mean anything else. Now, when I finish my day’s work I’ll go that would be great to cast or all of that. But when I’m doing it it’s got to be contained in its format. I’ve seen too many people dilute their projects by making it a toy line and a movie and all of that, TV show. I might have a character walk right off the page, just to remind that in no other medium could you do that.
LWR: The two-picture arc that ended Hugh Jackman’s run as Wolverine was very much informed by the that four-issue comic you did with Chris Claremont, bringing him to Japan to seek a lost love. It fueled Wolverine’s resurgence after a rocky start as a stand-alone movie character.
MILLER: He was a wildly popular character before Chris and I did the series. When he got his own title that seemed to be what really pushed him over the top.
LWR: You seem content with the way your influence has brushed off on the movies.
MILLER: Here’s how I process it. When you do something for DC Comics or Marvel Comics, you’re entering into a collective body of work because these are the characters they own lock, stock, and barrel. You do your best and you put your baby in the river and hope it grows up good. But Sin City or 300? That’s the baby that stays at home and with them, I’m much more hands on and much more protective.
LWR: We’ve got our first Twitter president. How will the nasty time we’re living in this instantaneous digital world filter into superhero comics and movies?
MILLER: Well, it’s very hard to predict. It’s a fool’s errand to try to compete with a medium that’s better than you at certain things. It’s best to rely on the things you’re better at. That is, play to strengths which have to do with our roots in cartooning, illustration, and literature. In the comics, we can never achieve the spectacles that Hollywood can. Planet Krypton blowing up on a comic book page can never match the screen. Superman flying was never as breathtaking as when Chris Reeves took off. But that said, we can get inside people’s heads in ways that I think is going to change comic books profoundly and for the better because I think it’s going to lead us to our true identity. Let the big guys do what big guys do. We’re small and we’re clever and we can do things the big guy can’t. That’s where I’m eager to get on to the next Sin City because that’s a very internal series. As good as comics are at spectacle — and believe me with Xerxes I intend to get spectacular — I think that comics can really put you inside someone’s mental space. At any occasion, Sin City can be a very dark and scary place. As for Trump, he’s a buffoon.
LWR: Where will you take Xerxes in your next book?
MILLER: Xerxes is going to be more expansive than I originally intended it to be. It’s a bible in certain respects because Xerxes chose as his bride a Jewish princess, Esther. Xerxes is in the Hebrew bible, in the Book of Esther. So Xerxes was originally going to feel like an extension of 300, my scope has broadened and it’s going to be a much longer book and more ambitious. I am still pulling together my research.
LWR: Xerxes came off as such an arrogant villain in 300. How has that research changed your assessment of the Persian leader?
MILLER: I’m still doing the research but there was much more to him than I portrayed in 300. When you write the kind of stories I’m known for, you always have to take the point of view of your protagonist. In the point of view of 300, the preliminary work on Xerxes was definitely Greco-centric. What I’m finding now is all leading toward Alexander, and it all crosses a time when, measured in centuries is not that large, but in terms of human change and development is extraordinary.
LWR: So your Xerxes novel will lead to an Alexander project?
MILLER: Yes. It’s a segue.
LWR: Who is the historical figure who most fascinates you that you haven’t tackled?
MILLER: I keep finding more and more. Some of the most fascinating characters you can think about have been written about so well that I wouldn’t go near them.
LWR: An example?
MILLER: Why do anything about Adolph Hitler? He’s been explored brilliantly and in every medium I could think of, not just in cartoon form but in serious psychological terms. But right now I can only think of what’s in front of me. When I first began Xerxes years ago before I abandoned it for a time, he was a very cartoon-y figure in it. A mythic one but cartoon-y, and now I’ve been challenged by some people who know a lot more history than me too to bring greater dimension and depth. A character who’s actually revered by many people.
LWR: So people actually come forward and say your comic and the movie gave Xerxes the short end of the stick?
MILLER: Sort of. I’s hard to be told you’ve done an unflattering depiction of a world-conquering mass murderer. But he was world-conquering; I can say he was a mass murderer, but he did it militarily so it’s not exactly the same. But he was not, per se, genocidal. There was no evidence that he was insane. He was not a Hitler.
LWR: Is he more like Alexander, who also conquered?
MILLER: Xerxes couldn’t have been so effective if he were Hitler. Hitler was an unstable weapon that went off and it’s amazing how much destruction he was able to create, but it took a very peculiar set of circumstances to give Hitler the power he had. He basically had to have a country go insane, and for it to be a mighty country. Alexander? He was brilliant and he did good things for the world. I mean nobody talks about the horror of Alexander’s reign. He was a very benevolent force to the world. Advances in culture, irrigation…a lot more people lived because of him. That’s kind of like, you don’t want to say Thomas Jefferson was a terrible man because he owned slaves, when he was the one who wrote the articles that ended slavery and he happened to free his own slaves at his death.
LWR: Every hero is flawed?
MILLER: In Jefferson’s case I wouldn’t even point to any flaws really, except he had an affair with his slave. Historically that’s not gigantic.
LWR: Swinging back to the superhero movies we’re all obsessed with. We’ve seen low ebbs, but Logan, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming. Where are we in terms of quality superhero movies?
MILLER: This has been the best period for superhero movies we ever had. I mean there was that wonderful sunburst of the first Christopher Reeves Superman movie. That was just a ray of sunshine. We’ve had ups and downs over the years. Now look at what we’ve got. Wonder Woman is the crown jewel.
MILLER: Without question. She is perfect.
LWR: I wouldn’t have predicted that; she had cheesy origins. The red, white and blue costume, the gold wrist bands seemed corny.
MILLER: If I may, I think that was because of the old Lynda Carter TV show. That was a clunky old show, cute for its time and fun. But this movie managed to do everything right. The Israeli actress Gal Gadot, not only is she spectacularly beautiful but she’s heroic and she gets away with that costume. Having Chris Pine, the guy who used to be Captain Kirk, play Steve Trevor…he was impeccable in that role. Evil Nazis always work. I just thought they managed to have a real good rock ’em, sock ’em adventure movie with a genuine sense of mythology to it. The parts in Amazonia were breathtaking. Her mother, played by Connie Nielsen, she was just wonderful.
LWR: They did a good job with Spider-Man, which felt like the comics I grew up reading as a kid.
MILLER: It’s funny. I found Wonder Woman breathtaking and exhilarating and Spider-Man I felt like I was a little kid rocking along with Spider-Man. They’ve had good luck casting Spider-Man, haven’t they? This one was a lot more fun, down to the music. When he was jumping across the rooftop and they were just boogieing with it. It was just so much fun. This has been a great era for superhero movies, without question. It’s like they came back and it’s like everybody is riding a wave of simply wanting to bring the joy of the genre in and lose the cynicism.
LWR: Some of that darkness and grit you brought into the genre, I think.
MILLER: I joked about that with Alan Moore. He had done Watchmen, and I had done Dark Knight. A whole bunch of gloomy superhero comics were coming out and then we started seeing gloomy superhero movies. I said, Alan, we’ve ruined everything. Nobody’s having any fun. He went, you’re right, Frank.
LWR: Odd to be hearing that, given the cynical reality that confronts us every day. Maybe that has opened the door for pure escapism.
MILLER: My feeling right now is that pure cynicism is a refuge. It’s a place where cowards go. You have to repel it with idealism and purpose. The work I’ve got planned in the future…some people might be disappointed about how un-cynical it is.
LWR: Your work for so long has influenced these movies. Is it possible the recent good ones have rubbed off on your optimism?
MILLER: I don’t know. It could be. You ask what influences me? It is everything. The rain. This conversation. If you blanket yourself you miss everything. What’s happened is I’ve done a bunch of work that I guess made gloomy cool, and then they out-gloomed me. I don’t want to be gloomy. I’m going a different direction. But I still intend to scare the crap out of everybody.