Comic-book iconoclast Frank Miller is his own best character. After his much-imitated, years-long run on Marvel Comics’ Daredevil, he bullishly pushed the boundaries of how mainstream comics stories were told in milestone titles like The Dark Knight Returns, Ronin, and 300. His heroes are similarly self-assured beyond mere arrogance: They’re above reproach, a standard that Miller maintains as a rejection of psychological realism. His comics often take place in decadent cities. But even in his Sin City comics, Miller maintains an undiminished — albeit deranged — sense of optimism and romance. In Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Robert Rodriguez’s new “translation” of Miller’s hyper-violent neo-noir comics, Josh Brolin plays a sucker that pines for Eva Green’s vicious (and frequently naked) femme fatale with a little help from killer friends Mickey Rourke and Rosario Dawson. Vulture talked to Miller about how he stays optimistic, what the future of comics looks like to him, and why he likes pissing off readers.
Since Robert Rodriguez has said that the first Sin City film was a “translation,” and not an “adaptation” of your work, how would you say the act of translation has affected the way your preference for operatically grandiose characters translates to the screen?
I can only really speak for the superhero characters I’ve created since I don’t own characters like Batman or Daredevil. But I’ve always preferred my heroes to be grandiose, and think that Robert and I always saw eye-to-eye in that sense. I tended to stay hands-off and let Robert do what he wanted since the process of making movies was so foreign to me. We also didn’t have that many conversations about the characterizations because I trusted him with the material. I grew up with three brothers, and now I have a fourth.
The fact that Sin City has a group of politicians named Roarks ruling over it suggests that the city’s pervasive corruption has a Randian quality to it. That is, the people are both products and architects of their debased environment like The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark builds according to his environment.
I liked writing a story set in an environment where the residents were all essentially survivors. Their personalities are all extensions of that: What kind of people are able to survive here? But that might have had more to do with the fact that these characters were an extension of me, as an artist that was pursuing and exploring an environment and style that I was drawn to. I mean, these are all essentially good characters that are forced into bad situations where they have to act on their best intentions. The circumstances they’re thrown into aren’t separate from their personalities, but they do aspire to do the right thing in spite of that.
The fact that Sin City is, as you’ve often said, a “romance” also suggests a recurring theme in your work: your need to have generic walls and conventions to resist and work within. In a 1981 interview, you said that readers should forget about getting a one-size-fits-all version of superheroes like Batman and Superman. That need for continuity seems like the biggest wall or restraint that your work pushes back against …
Yes. But when I made Sin City, I wasn’t hemmed in by expectations put on me. I wasn’t writing a Batman or a Spider-Man, and the folks at Dark Horse are real easy to work with. I just came in, and told them my ideas on what I wanted to do with the characters, and they approved it.
But when you created Sin City, you had just finished working on RoboCop 2, and were eager to get back to work on drawing something for yourself, something more personal. In that sense, you removed some of the walls that you were creatively exercising against. Is that fair?
It’s more than fair. I needed to get back to drawing because I had a bad experience making Robo-Cop 2, which was not a fun time in my life.
The recent RoboCop remake revived interest in your old RoboCop 2 script. Have you ever revisited that material? Do you think you could recognize it as your own if you came back to it? In the ‘90s, you took the attitude that your experience writing that script wasn’t a complete wash since it was a learning experience, and essentially provided gristle for later projects.
Oh, it’s all gristle. But I wasn’t involved in reprinting the RoboCop material, and don’t have much interest in it anymore. I generally don’t like to revisit my older material, but am sure I would recognize it as mine if I were to look at it.
Going back to Dark Horse Comics: You’ve said that, after the battle for creators to earn royalties for their original characters was essentially won, creator-owned material seemed to lack innovation and vision, and was geared toward making the most profitable properties possible. Do you think that’s a side effect, a reaction, or a cause of what you’ve previously called comics artists’ “self-loathing,” happy-to-be-here attitude? Are they still making themselves beholden to companies like Marvel and DC in exchange for being allowed to play with those publishers’ toys?
I actually think we’re living in a time where comics creators have more choices and options than before, and that can only be a good thing. I don’t follow it as much, but a lot of the stuff that’s out there now reveals more innovation, and more chances for idiosyncratic work than there were before. There are people out there pushing the boundaries of what types of stories can be told, and experimenting with how they’re being told. So I don’t want to be too negative about that.
What comics in particular have recently sparked your imagination? Your comments reminded me of David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, but who and what immediately comes to mind for you?
Mazzucchelli, definitely, as well as James Kochalka. But there’s a lot being done right now, and it’s not limited to any one group.
You and fellow comics creator Howard Chaykin both often champion flawed characters that are, in some ways, fascists for democracy. It seems to come from a need to agitate and shake up readers’ expectations, like how “I’m the goddamn Batman” became an almost-instant catch phrase after All-Star Batman came out. How important is it for you to piss people off, or maybe just push their buttons?
I like to push buttons, and offend people.
You once said to Will Eisner that “In the world of comics, ‘troublemaker’ means someone with some sense of dignity.” Do you know many contemporary comics creators that are galvanizing enough to be dignified?
I’m not going to take anyone down in public, but there are still creators like Neal Adams out there setting a good example.
After 9/11, you said that your political stance was most like a “liberal hawk.” That perspective comes up in your Holy Terror graphic novel, which serves as a good companion to your sequel to The Dark Knight Rises in some ways. Complacence seems to be the real enemy in both of those stories. Is that why you’ve been outspokenly critical of Occupy Wall Street? Do you feel it’s a kind of slacktivist movement?
I’ve mainly objected to the Occupy protests because I don’t see them as having clear-cut goals. I don’t see its purpose, or who they’re rebelling against, or what they want. As for my hawkish-ness, I wrote Holy Terror as a New Yorker that lost a couple thousand neighbors in a day. We were attacked, and a response needed to be made. I don’t agree with the direction or the motives of the ensuing political indecision that followed. So I made a story about heroes that were ready to respond. I don’t want to comment on it further than that.
Whatever happened to the film adaptation of Batman: Year One that you worked on with Darren Aronofsky? How far along with that did you get?
I finished a complete script for that. Warner Bros. asked that we stop moving ahead with that project, though, and shortly thereafter, they made Batman Begins. Make of that what you will.