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Frank Miller: comics to kill for

Watch an exclusive clip of ‘Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For’ and read between the lines with the legendary comic book artist behind it

Frank Miller's monochrome caricatures return to the screen nine years after the unforgettable release of Sin City based on his graphic novel of the same name. As the infamous city dwellers – led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) and Eva Green (Dark Shadows) – return for Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For, we revisit an archive interview with the co-director and creator of Sin City who fought his way into comics shortly after landing in the dirty streets of NYC. Now one of the most visually stunning films gets a sequel, providing further insight into the twisted mind of the comic book genius and his visceral and vile characters. Below, we revisit an archive interview with Frank Miller and debut an exclusive clip from the second instalment.

Taken from the December 2008 issue of Dazed:   

There is a popularly held perception of the kind of men who spend their days rifling through racks of dog-eared Marvel and DC comics, and it’s pretty much an accepted fact that comic book geeks don’t get the girls. However, comic book legend Frank Miller might just prove to be the exception to the rule. In person, Miller may still show the signs of his years in the underground world of comics – he wears a smart but scruffy bohemian outfit and broad-rimmed black hat, and has a self-deprecating humour that you might not immediately identify with a Hollywood director on the ascent. Nevertheless, he has managed to attract some seriously high-profile actresses to star in his directorial debut feature film, The Spirit. His forthcoming adaptation of the iconic 1940s strip features Scarlett Johansson and Eva Mendes, no less, as the female leads, alongside a delightfully crazed Samuel L Jackson and newcomer Gabriel Macht

The cast is pretty impressive for a first-time director… but therein lies a tale. Miller may be a first-time director but he has already achieved near mythical status in the arena of comics and graphic novels, both of which are now big businesses in Hollywood. With the huge successes of the Batman and Spiderman franchises, Hollywood has gone into a superhero feeding frenzy, and with legendary comics like his run on Daredevil, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Ronin and Sin City under his belt, Miller was the obvious choice when Hollywood came knocking. “First you have to separate two subjects,” explains Miller of cinema’s rampant appetite for the comic book medium. “One is cinema, and the other is Hollywood, which is the place where the finance is. Hollywood is a bubble, so every once in a while they need an infusion from somewhere else. First you had the novel – hence Gone With The Wind and other literary adaptations – now they have discovered that comic books, which are created very cheaply, are a font of ideas.”

It could be argued that The Spirit is not, strictly speaking, Miller’s debut feature at all. Film adaptations of his works Sin City (2005) and 300 (2006) were unprecedented successes, and on Sin City the director Robert Rodriguez insisted on sharing the directing credit with Miller. Having worked so closely to Miller’s original drawings, he felt that Miller had essentially been a part of the directing process. This was a controversial move that resulted in Rodriguez withdrawing from the Directors Guild of America – a very public show of support for Miller’s input.

“I realised when I started Sin City that I found American and English comics be too wordy, too constipated, and Japanese comics to be too empty. So I was attempting to do a hybrid” – Frank Miller 

Before the more recent adaptations of his work, Miller had already worked in film, writing the screenplays for Robocop 2 (1990) and Robocop 3 (1994), but his interest in cinema goes back further than that, and has always run parallel to his interest in comics. “I was six years old when I told my mother I was going to draw comic books for the rest of my life, so I can’t really tell what the roots of that are,” says Miller. “I very much enjoyed reading stories like Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes and eventually graduated on to Spiderman and The Hulk. I’ve also always loved movies – and this increased after I moved to New York. They had great old black and white crime movies under the title of ‘Million Dollar Movie’ – and that got me reading crime stories like crazy. I grew up reading a lot of detective novels by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. I always had that kind of imagination. It’s hard to say what got me started on all of this… birth, I guess.”

All of these influences can clearly be seen in Miller’s work, from the hard-bitten noir edge of his classic Daredevil story arc to the graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Although a graphic novel, the controversial 300 was inspired by a film and appeared in a film-like widescreen format as a comic. It was perfectly set up for adaptation. “I was inspired to write the story of 300 as a young boy by watching a clunky old movie called The 300 Spartans,” says Miller. “I realised that heroes could die, and that they didn’t all have medals on their chest, and I was determined I would someday tell the story again.”

Despite the film going on to become a huge box office hit, it was not universally praised and the gleeful violence unnerved some critics. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the celebrated comic writer Alan Moore (From Hell, V for Vendetta, Watchmen) went on record saying, “… it was racist, it was homophobic, and above all it was sublimely stupid.” Certainly the film’s portrayal of Xerxes, the Persian king, as a big black drag queen mystified some, and understandably outraged Iranians. Miller nonchalantly shrugs off this criticism. “The film is meant as a story told over a campfire,” he says. "As far as it being too violent – the violence, as extreme as it is for modern audiences, is nothing compared to what the actual Spartans went through. I consider it my favourite story of all time, and the most heroic story I will ever encounter.”

Miller grew up in the countryside, and his move to New York as a young man had an impact on him that is still present in his work. “I grew up in rural Vermont, and always had a romance with the city,” he explains. “When I moved to New York, I fell in love with it, and never stopped being in love. The city is a character in my life. I know its neighbourhoods like old friends.” 

Once in New York, his approach to getting ahead in comics was ballsy. “When I moved there, I was sharing a tenement flat and scrabbling around for any kind of work I could get. The first work I got was as a carpenter, helping hang doors; I kept trying to find sources of drawing work. On the spur of the moment I opened the telephone book and looked up the premier comic artist at the time, Neal Adams, and he was listed. So I called him up and said, ‘Look, I’m new to town, I’d like to do comic books, I’ve got some samples – can I show you?'” Amazingly enough, Adams invited Miller over. On arrival, Adams put tracing paper over Miller’s comic pages and illustrated everything he had done wrong. This pattern continued for a few years until the magic day when Adams conceded, “Okay, you still can’t draw, but…” He subsequently got Miller his first paid comics job at Gold Key Comics doing short stories for Twilight Zone comics. That was in 1978. In 1981, Miller took over drawing and writing Daredevil for Marvel Comics and his stratospheric ascent began. The title became a hit, and his next benchmark work was Ronin (1983-1984) for DC Comics – a series inspired by his discovery of the Japanese manga style. “My first introduction to Japanese comics was around 1980, when a girlfriend handed me a manga of Kozure Ökami (Lone Wolf and Cub) and I first discovered Goseki Kojima’s work – then I started studying everything else.” Miller went to Japan to further study the form. “I went from being absolutely entranced with manga and imitating it, to becoming more critical.” 

“Robert Rodriguez taught me how the comic book frame could be adapted into a movie” – Frank Miller

The impact of manga is also evident in what is arguably Miller’s most important piece of work, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986). This was a huge influence on the Batman films that were to follow, and was one of a core of graphic novels, along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986) and Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), that were bringing comic books a new respectability – there were even calls for them to be considered as literature. Miller feels that his investigation of manga found its best expression in his Sin City series. “I realised when I started Sin City that I found American and English comics be too wordy, too constipated, and Japanese comics to be too empty. So I was attempting to do a hybrid. I would use a manga pace where I wanted you to be reading quickly, and then I’d use the western techniques to stop you could for something that would take a long time to get through, I was playing with cinematic pace.”

This lifelong interest in cinema has finally brought him to his solo directorial debut The Spirit, and, in a way, the project was inevitable. “When I was 14 years old, I stopped reading comic books because I’d discovered girls and all of those things that are a part of real life,” says Miller. “Then I came across an edition of The Spirit and it just exploded in front of my eyes. I thought ‘This brand new guy must be the head of the class, he must be the newest, most exciting artist in comics!’ – it was dated 1940! I delved into it and found out what creator Will Eisner had done and realised he had always remained ahead of his time. I studied him a great deal.” 

There were other reasons too. “Part of the reason that Will Eisner and I developed the friendship we did is that we both so deeply loved New York. For him it was the city of the 30s and 40s, for me it was the 70s, 80s and 90s – but for both of us it was a deep abiding love.” When Miller was offered the job to write and adapt The Spirit, he was at a point where he felt confident that he could transfer his vision to the screen. “I jumped at it,” he explains. “I had the experience of Sin City, with Robert Rodriguez teaching me what digital could do, and how to use it – I could see how the comic frame could be adapted into a movie.” The style of the original comic also appealed to Miller. “Eisner did things very much in cinematic terms in The Spirit. He cut up the pages and went crazy on the layout because he was the first – he wanted to see what worked. Like any grand experimenter, his failures were up there with his successes.” The process of directing a film is diametrically opposed to that of creating a comic, but Miller finds he enjoys both. “I love the solitary nature of doing comics, but what I love now is working with actors. I love the give and take of it – giving orders and seeing the results, giving someone a problem I can’t solve and having them solve it.” He smiles, summing up, “Basically, I’m like a kid in a candy store.” 

Sin City 2: A Dame To Kill For is in cinemas on 25 August