Friday, June 12, 2020

After His Public Downfall, Sin City's Frank Miller Is Back (And Not Sorry)

After His Public Downfall, *Sin City'*s Frank Miller Is Back (And Not Sorry)

Felix Pfäffli
20 AUGUST 2014

Felix Pfäffli
We see the middle-aged man crouching in pain, alone. His clothes are torn, and one eye is swelling shut, but his fists are clenched. He is a hero. He is the Batman, as drawn by Frank Miller, and he is on the T-shirt that Frank Miller is wearing.
Miller smiles. He's sitting in his studio in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. He has a red-flecked beard and gentle, watery eyes, and his longish hair peeks out from under a straw hat. He's got a bad cough from a lingering cold. But don't let his frail carriage fool you. Miller possesses a brutal, muscular worldview—of vigilantes pushed to the edge by a fallen society—that has resonated throughout popular culture over the past three decades. His 1986 breakthrough, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, recast the squeaky-clean superhero as a gritty urban warrior and helped comic-book trade paperbacks storm bookstores for the first time. He created the indie comic Sin City, a black-and-white noir anthology series that he later turned into a big-budget movie with codirector Robert Rodriguez. The film of his graphic novel 300 made Zack Synder an A-list director and engendered a spate of imposters seeking to recapture its blockbuster success. His characters are fighters, loners fueled by an inner sense of justice starkly at odds with the reality around them. They are often bloodied but always uncompromising.
And Miller's blunt morality wasn't confined to the page or screen. He distinguished himself as one of the most vocal and courageous forces in the comics industry, fighting corporate exploitation and censorship. But, as if Miller were one of his own antiheroes, his stark individualist philosophy has also led him down some lonely corridors. He's written graphic novels that many of his fans recoil from—including one that WIRED called “one of the most appalling, offensive, and vindictive comics of all time.” And he followed that up with ferocious online musings that provoked an outcry, even from some of his most stalwart supporters. In recent years, he's withdrawn from the public eye.
Until now. In late August, Miller will return to the limelight as writer and codirector of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, the sequel to the 2005 blockbuster that represents his last artistic and commercial success. A repeat performance is by no means guaranteed. The screenplay—which was adapted from his comic series along with new material—has been in the works for years. Its original October 2013 release date was pushed back almost a year. Even at the time of this writing, no scenes from the film were ready to be shared with a reporter. It's hard to be too pessimistic about a film that once again pairs Miller with Rodriguez and supplements its initial star-studded cast (Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, and Mickey Rourke) with the likes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Eva Green—but the question is whether Miller can still marshal these forces to deliver a vision that enthralls rather than alienates.
For now, though, he's just a guy in his studio, talking about country music—which he's grown to cherish. Unsurprisingly, he's drawn to crusty rebels like Cash and Kristofferson. But he's most moved by the tender soprano of Emmylou Harris. He picked her version of Neil Young's “Wrecking Ball” during the filming of a key scene in the original Sin City movie; as he watched it, he wept. He particularly loves her work with Bob Dylan, like 1976's Desire. “He seems to just wig out—to go crazy, the way Bob Dylan does,” Miller says. “But she keeps pulling him back in.”
Miller had someone like that once, but they split up years ago. “Right now, there's nothing like an Emmylou, really,” he says. “I'm much more of a solo act.”
Miller grew up in rural Vermont with six siblings, and when he just couldn't stand all the commotion of a big family, he'd go play Tarzan on the 14 acres of land around his parents' house, climbing trees too high, falling through branches and onto rocks, and finally returning home a bloody mess. His mother, a former combat nurse, did not coddle him. “She would throw me in the bathtub—I was only 5 years old—wash off my head, give me butterfly stitches, and send me off to play again.” scrapes, he saw The 300 Spartans at the local cinema and learned about iron will in the face of impossible odds. Detective fiction—Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett—provided another model of fortitude. “This great universe of dark characters, with their long trench coats and big guns, and all the beautiful women, helped focus me,” he says. So too did the work of Spillane admirer Ayn Rand, whose Romantic Manifesto legitimized heroic fiction for him. When he ran the high school newspaper, he used it to attack what he saw as the moral failings of his teachers. “And they couldn't stop me,” he says, “because I knew how to use a printing press.”
Miller moved to Taxi Driver-era New York City in 1976, a nervous, lanky hick, an Ichabod Crane in a land of “danger around every corner.” Subsisting on peanut butter sandwiches and cheap hamburger meat, clutching a portfolio held together with stolen baling twine, he was met with rejection at every turn. Go back to Vermont and pump gas, people would tell him. He found work doing carpentry on a stranger's loft, but it turned out that the client was a cocaine dealer wanted by the Mafia. Miller walked in one morning to face “men with guns, pointed at me. The next thing I remember, I was three blocks away, breathing hard.” It wasn't the last time city life would terrorize him.
Like its predecessor, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is lovingly—and pains­takingly—adapted from Miller's original work.
Comics: Copyright Frank Miller, Inc. Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics
But he kept showing up at the studio of Neal Adams—his favorite Batman artist—for critiques. The intense, quiet kid listened as Adams patiently eviscerated Miller's pages of homemade black-and-white crime comics. “He told me that I was just no damn good, and I would never be any good,” Miller says. “But my problem is I got fired from every other job I ever had. So it was either comics or nothing.”
“It was like trying to stop a force of nature,” Adams says. “He was a sponge. The last time he came, he'd gotten a six-page assignment, and I went over what he'd done wrong, how he could make it better. He said, ‘You're saying I have to draw it over again.' I said, ‘Well, yeah.’ He said, ‘OK, but the problem is, I turned it in, and they accepted it.’ I said, ‘In that case, don't draw it over again; I think you just started your career.’”
With that, Miller was off. In 1979 he landed a job as the regular penciler of Daredevil and soon began writing the series, making him a true rarity in the world of superhero comics: an artist who was also allowed to script. By the dawn of the '80s, Daredevil's crisp dialog and inventive, cinematic cartooning had sent sales soaring and turned Miller into an industry star. “Frank was pioneering new territory, at the vanguard of what could happen with comics,” says Jenette Kahn, the president and publisher of DC at the time. “So I called him up and asked him to lunch. I said, ‘Tell me what you want to do; it doesn't matter how impossible you think it is.'”
Miller pitched Ronin, an anticorporate sci-fi samurai tale that anticipated the cyberpunk zeitgeist of the 1980s. The ambitious project was a risk for DC: Miller enjoyed vastly increased creative autonomy as well as retaining copyright. “Frank didn't want to be loyal to one company just because he had worked for them,” says Lynn Varley, who colored the series. “He wanted to break the system, much as Cary Grant had broken the Hollywood studio system.” Ronin was all-consuming for Miller and Varley, both professionally and personally. Working in marathon sessions, they soon began dating and moved in together. When Ronin was released in the summer of 1983, the critical reception was glowing. Varley's painted colors gave Miller's art greater depth, as well as prestige. “It was about changing the entire industry,” Kahn says, “putting up a signpost of what comics could be.”
Yet even as Miller's career was taking off, the everyday violence in Manhattan at the time was taking its toll. “New York is no longer fit for human habitation,” Miller told one friend. After enduring three robberies in the course of a month, he and Varley decided to escape to LA. While she went out west to search for a home, he stayed behind to set up more work to get them out of debt. He had a check in his pocket when, once again, someone tried to rob him. “Frank just went berserk on the guy,” Varley says. “He didn't hit him or anything, he just went so berserk the guy backed off and ran away. We were on edge.” anxiety would fuel Miller's Dark Knight, which reimagined Batman as an embittered, bristle-haired 55-year-old ready for punks to make his day. Published in 1986, the year Miller and Varley married, it became a pop culture phenomenon, garnering lavish coverage from Rolling Stone and Spin. Reviewers and readers were particularly drawn to the dark reinterpretation of its campy source material. Along with Alan Moore's Watchmen, released the same year, Dark Knight gave comics a new respectability and gave the medium exposure beyond the dingy confines of news-stands and specialty stores. Together they cemented the viability of comics as literature and ushered in the current age of the conflicted superhero—The Dark Knight clearly inspiring Tim Burton's 1989 Batman movie and all the grittier films that followed in its wake. Miller was now a bona fide public figure. He'd already been the most vocal gadfly in comics circles—rallying troops to combat an MPAA-like ratings system, raising funds for retailers who'd been scapegoated by overzealous crusaders against obscenity—but this was different. It was mobbed-by-fans celebrity.
A few years after Dark Knight, however, Miller found himself at a professional crossroads. The success of the title “kind of flipped him out,” Varley says. “Anyone who's had the excitement of success, what happens afterward is very confusing and very hard to sort through.” Miller tried his hand at screenwriting—he worked on the scripts of two RoboCop sequels—but the films flopped and the Hollywood grind made him miserable. (“You've got to be always afraid of the deadly words ‘I love you,'” he says, “which mean ‘I've got the dagger in your back and I'm about to twist it.'”)
Richard Burbridge
But he would never fully leave the film industry. Over the next decades, as a generation weaned on his comics began to rise in the Hollywood ranks, interest in adapting his creations exploded: Artist Geof Darrow told Nerdist that the Wachowskis wanted to do an animated adaptation of Miller and Darrow's comic Hard Boiled, but Miller nixed it, holding out hopes for a live-action version with Nicolas Cage (Darrow and Miller now won't confirm this). Director Darren Aronofsky worked with Miller on adapting both Ronin and Batman: Year One. “Frank found the process of writing screenplays suffocating. He always came back from LA very upset and unhappy,” Varley says. “You get beat up and insulted, but you get a really good check, and you go home to keep drawing comics.”
Those comics remained the purest expression of Miller's vision. Sin City was born in 1991, when an out-of-practice Miller picked up his pen and returned to the black-and-white crime tales he'd never been able to sell. It was as if everything—the backyard scrapes, Spillane and Rand, Daredevil and Batman, the heartbreak of writing for Hollywood—was distilled. In Miller's world, unlikely protagonists rise up against sinister forces and stare evil in the face. Loyalty is a virtue, but lovers rarely make for permanent allies, and old faces can signal danger. The hero, alone, is defined by excruciating physical tests, and his code allows for vengeance. Sometimes he survives.
But that need for vengeance could cause problems. At the turn of the millennium, Miller and Varley were working on their long-awaited Dark Knight sequel. It was initially hatched as a romp, a reinjection of Day-Glo fun into what had become a relentlessly grim superhero landscape. They were about halfway through the series on September 11, 2001. By this time Miller had moved back to New York, and the assault on his home disturbed him deeply—which again quickly became apparent in his work. In the later issues, Batman decides to let an alien force destroy Metropolis and its citizens, Captain Marvel is killed, and Batman kills a genetically manipulated Robin by hurling him into a lava-filled chasm. “I think there was a PTSD effect,” Varley says of 9/11. “I think many people didn't get over it, that it will continue to affect their lives forever. And I think Frank is one of those people.”
The Dark Knight Strikes Again was a critical disappointment. But Miller was undeterred; he described 9/11 in a 2003 interview with The Comics Journal as “the whole point of my work. I'm going to play around with doing some propagandizing.” He began working on another Batman book, Holy Terror, Batman!, which pitted the caped crusader against al Qaeda.
Around that time, Rodriguez approached Miller with a plan to adapt Sin City. At first Miller resisted—he couldn't stomach the idea of ruining Sin City with studio notes and an outside director. Rodriguez cut him off. “I'm going to make it out of my studio,” he promised Miller. “I'm going to write the script from your book.” Most enticing of all, he offered Miller the chance to codirect the film with him. That did the trick. City, a production of Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios, used greenscreen technology to meticulously re-create Miller's stark black-and-white panels, synthesizing a glowingly beautiful nightmare of a style as identifiably maverick as the original work. “With Robert,” Miller says, “I discovered not just a good partner and a good friend—I found another brother.” Perhaps emboldened by Rodriguez's behatted film-rebel persona, Miller soon began wearing his own hat—a fedora—for public appearances. There would be a lot of them: The film went on to gross more than $150 million worldwide.
It also reestablished Miller as a star. Private jets ferried him places; he rubbed elbows with boldface names. Soon after the Sin City premiere, Miller and Varley separated. Many of his friends in the comics industry haven't seen him in years. “Frank became even more famous than before, exposed to a kind of celebrity he'd never experienced,” Varley says. “It was really distracting. You don't want to come back to Hell's Kitchen and just draw pictures. It seems like a letdown.”
Richard Burbridge
Red carpet photos of Frank Miller are abundant. In one, taken at the Sin City premiere, he looks like an energetic man at the top of his game. His eyes are bright, and his clean-shaven face seems almost boyish as he mugs for photographers and fans.
Looking at Miller now, it's hard to believe that was just nine years ago. He's only 57, but his face is gaunt; his eyes smolder rather than blaze. In 2012, after he canceled an appearance due to injury, a columnist for Portland's Oregonian mentioned rumors that the writer “is really struggling with health and dependency issues” and that “friends and colleagues are fearing the worst.” Miller has no comment.
His professional standing took a serious hit in 2008, the year after Zack Snyder's meticulous adaptation of 300 earned $456 million. Miller had been hired to make a film of Will Eisner's seminal '40s vigilante comic The Spirit. “It was a very hot property to have Frank Miller attached,” says Spirit producer Deborah Del Prete.
But The Spirit fell prey to a danger that Sin City had flirted with—that the faithful application of comic-strip language to film could veer into stultification. Miller's sensibility, so often pitch-perfect, seemed needlessly dark in the lighter world that Will Eisner had created. The results were messy. Divorced from the panel flow of a comic-book page, the fussily composed frames and staccato bursts of one-liners vanquished most traces of humanity. When it was released, Miller's solo debut as a filmmaker was ravaged by critics and ignored at the box office.
“We all thought Frank had his own following and that they'd be true to him regardless,” says Del Prete. “But that was wrong.”
The Miller Mill
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For signals Frank Miller’s return to adapting his work for the big screen. But for every project Miller’s involved in, there’s another out there he’s inspired. —JASON KEHE
Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy
Nolan’s Batman stems from Miller’s Dark Knight not just in name—his subplots (Bruce Wayne retiring) and character arcs (especially the Joker) come directly from the ’80s miniseries.
Zack Snyder's Career
After his 2007 panel-to-frame adaptation of 300, Zack Snyder basically internalized Miller’s aesthetic. See: the high-saturation gloss of Sucker Punch, the visual splash page that was Man of Steel, and—judging from interviews—2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The Wolverine
Hugh Jackman didn’t go to Japan for fun—that was the setting of Miller’s ’80s Wolverine comic with Chris Claremont. Jackman had been eager to adapt it for years, and the 2013 movie borrowed a number of characters from the story.
The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was created as a parody of ’80s ninja comics— specifically Miller’s work on Ronin and Daredevil.

That became even more apparent when issues of his widely panned series All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder—which featured a gratuitously sadistic Batman—stopped appearing in 2008. Then, in September 2011, Miller finally published Holy Terror, the graphic novel that had been percolating for a decade. By then the project had left DC's development pipeline, and Miller had redrawn it without the Batman. Frenetic and vicious, Holy Terror portrayed a cowardly American populace, a corrupt government, and a protagonist who gloated while committing torture on Muslims. What were readers being rallied to do, exactly? If a piece of propaganda is to be judged by how many it persuades or even by the coherence of its message, then Holy Terror's failure was profound. The reviews, and the response from fans, were unforgiving.
“People attacked my city,” Miller says today. “They killed my neighbors. I despise them. And I want them destroyed … If people think that's somehow reactionary or overly conservative, that's their problem. Let them have their neighbors murdered and see what it feels like.”
Despite the uproar, Miller didn't exactly back down. Instead he followed up Holy Terror with a startling anti-Occupy rant on his personal website. “Wake up, pond scum,” he wrote. “America is at war against a ruthless enemy. Maybe … you've heard terms like al-Qaeda and Islamicism. And this enemy of mine—not of yours, apparently—must be getting a dark chuckle, if not an outright horselaugh—out of your vain, childish, self-destructive spectacle.” His website—which he'd promoted as “a more direct, participatory way for us to stay in touch”—filled up with comments, over 11,000 of them. The site was abandoned soon there­after, although the comment-section vituperation remains. “I used to be your biggest fan,” reads the top-voted comment on the page. “You're now dead to me.” Miller's comic-book contemporary, the avowedly anarchic writer Alan Moore, went even further. “Frank Miller is someone whose work I've barely looked at for the past 20 years,” he told an interviewer. “I think that there has probably been a rather unpleasant sensibility apparent in Frank Miller's work for quite a long time.”
Asked about it now, Miller is immovable:
So about that Occupy post … it was about that time that your updates stopped.
My computer was disabled, so I've … I've been offline. And I'm kind of enjoying it.
You're completely offline?
Completely, now.
Because of the Occupy thing?
No, it was computer problems. I haven't solved it.
You should get a better technician if you want to get back on.
[A silent stare.] I will.
On a July morning two months after our interview, Miller is standing before thousands of people who have crammed themselves into the San Diego Convention Center to pay fealty to their hero. It's Comic-Con, and he's here to promote Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Codirector Robert Rodriguez sits to his right. Stars Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, and Josh Brolin fill out the rest of the panel. But Miller is clearly the big draw. Most fans haven't heard much from him since the dark days of 2011. If anyone here feels any lingering negativity, it's completely overwhelmed by excitement over what looks to be a return to form.
Miller seems in good spirits. He walks out onstage with a halting gait, but he's clean-shaven and seems almost youthful again. Seeing him in his black T-shirt and straw Panama hat, speaking before an army of admirers, it's easy to imagine him poised for yet another comeback. He mentions that he has more Sin City stories to tell and has a plateful of other projects in the works. But he and Rodriguez are already discussing Sin City 3—“so you'd better show up for this one,” he says, “or else they won't pay for it.” Meanwhile, the Syfy network has announced a series based on Ronin, and Netflix's 2015 Daredevil series appears to be based on the gritty '70s vision of New York City that was the backdrop of Miller's version.
For a self-declared solo act, Miller seems to thrive with this set of collaborators. Rodriguez, Alba, and Dawson all hail Miller's fine touch with actors, bringing out the best in them and helping them understand their characters. To hear Rodriguez tell it, Miller could be downright giddy at times, especially when he was pleased with a take. “Frank doesn't grin very often,” Rodriguez says, “so if he had a big grin on his face, you knew you'd nailed it.”
All in all, the afternoon has the celebratory feel of a hero's homecoming. Miller has struggled, but he's here now—and this crowd seems eager to welcome him back. As the panel ends, Rodriguez and the cast stand up and move away from the long table, but Miller sits there for a beat. Then he leans toward the microphone. “I'll be damned,” he says, “if it takes us nine years until the next one.”
The Miller Mill
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For signals Frank Miller’s return to adapting his work for the big screen. But for every project Miller’s involved in, there’s another out there he’s inspired. —JASON KEHE
Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy
Nolan’s Batman stems from Miller’s Dark Knight not just in name—his subplots (Bruce Wayne retiring) and character arcs (especially the Joker) come directly from the ’80s miniseries.
Zack Snyder's Career
After his 2007 panel-to-frame adaptation of 300, Zack Snyder basically internalized Miller’s aesthetic. See: the high-saturation gloss of Sucker Punch, the visual splash page that was Man of Steel, and—judging from interviews—2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The Wolverine
Hugh Jackman didn’t go to Japan for fun—that was the setting of Miller’s ’80s Wolverine comic with Chris Claremont. Jackman had been eager to adapt it for years, and the 2013 movie borrowed a num- ber of characters from the story.
The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was created as a parody of ’80s ninja comics— specifically Miller’s work on Ronin and Daredevil.


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