Historians and fans consistently cite Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns as the turning points for American superhero comics. Moore's book used original characters while Miller's explored the future life of an aging, grizzled Batman, but both were notable for their grim tone and down-to-earth style, and both were exhaustively imitated in the years that followed. But while Moore continued to explore superheroes in a variety of ways, Miller moved away from them. His background was in superhero comics: During the 1980s, he scripted Daredevil stories, including a particularly striking pair of Elektra spin-off miniseries, and he illustrated a range of Marvel comics, including Wolverine and Spider-Man. In 1987, a year after The Dark Knight Returns, he scripted Batman: Year One, yet another DC Comics retread of Batman's original history. But as his success grew and he gained the freedom to choose his own projects, he began to produce increasingly idiosyncratic work. Miller delved into crime fiction with book after book in his gritty Sin City noir series, satirized contemporary politics in the adventure- and science-fiction-themed Martha Washington series, and even documented a war in ancient Greece in the magnificent 300. He worked with artist Geof Darrow to produce two unique series—the ultra-violent Hard Boiled, and The Big Guy And Rusty The Boy Robot, which later became a children's cartoon series—and Miller also scripted the live-action movies RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3. This year, he took a break from crime and adventure and returned to his best-known work. Fifteen years after its publication, The Dark Knight Returns is getting a sequel: The Dark Knight Strikes Back. Miller recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the new series, the comics industry's bad habits, and his screenwriting career.
The Onion: So, why a sequel to Dark Knight Returns after all these years?
Frank Miller: It's really simple. I had a story. Also, I've always loved the superhero stuff—I just didn't think it was the only thing comic books should be doing—and I just really got the itch. Fifteen years away from it has given me a much different perspective. I'm much more able to approach it like I'm 7 years old than I used to be able to.
O: Was the actual process of writing Dark Knight Strikes Back significantly easier?
FM: Well, only in that I've learned how to do my job better. I tend to spend less time in blind alleys when I'm putting together a story. But, in a lot of ways, it's been more pleasurable. Because when I did the first one, I was very much rebelling against all the established stuff, like the old TV show. Just how lame all the stuff had become. This time, I'm finding that I'm playing around with DC's whole pantheon of characters, and trying to show them off in ways that feature the joys behind them. I'm not really interested in the Flash's marriage. I want to see him move fast.
O: So it's just about getting back to the core of what made the characters interesting to begin with?
FM: Well, yeah, that and updating it. These are curious political times, to say the least. I love to throw some political satire into superhero comics. It just seems like a natural fit to me, strange as that sounds.
O: The first several pages of the first issue ring fairly strongly in light of the events of Sept. 11.
FM: It gets even weirder. I turned in the second book on Sept. 12. And there are events in it that… people are going to think I did the whole thing after the attacks. It's just too much.
O: Given the trend just after the attacks to revise popular culture and pull images of the World Trade Center or terrorism out of any entertainment, were you concerned about the content?
FM: [Laughs.] Well, it's on the press.
O: When you were first bringing out the violent, obsessive side of Batman in the first Dark Knight, did you feel you were doing something new with the character, or just stressing something that had been there all along?
FM: What I was after was the feeling I had when I was 6 years old and I first saw a Batman comic. That memory is a lot more vivid than most of my real life as a child. But that's why people like me do silly jobs like this. [Laughs.] I remember opening up this Batman comic and just basically falling into it. I can't tell you which one it was or anything, but I just remember, the way the city was drawn, and the fact that this guy was dressed like a bat, just took my breath away. When I was doing Dark Knight, I was essentially trying to evoke that same feeling, but to an older and more sophisticated audience. Of course, the guy dresses like a bat—what kind of guy would do that? He's got to be kind of strange.
O: Did you intend for it to be something that the industry would learn from and imitate, or were you just doing it for yourself and your audience?
FM: I was just doing my best, really. I mean, at the time I was drawing it, it was a project that made people pretty nervous. I always tell people who are breaking into my business, if they're going to do superheroes, look for the one that's not doing so well. You'll have a lot more freedom. So I was just doing my best to show off what I thought Batman should be like.
O: Did it cross your mind at the time that you were doing something that other people would consider revolutionary?
FM: You really have to be an egomaniac to do this kind of stuff, so I guess I'd say yeah. Because I tell myself that every time. [Laughs.]
O: So you actually consciously set out to change things in the comics industry?
FM: Well, I set out to remark upon them. And seeing how all these heroes had been castrated since the 1950s, and just how pointless they seemed to be… In this perfect world of comic books, which was what it was back then, why would people dress up in tights to fight crime?
O: Because there wasn't anything bad enough going on back then to justify that extremism?
FM: It was just a bunch of goofy villains. It was 1985 when I started working on this, and I thought, "What kind of world would be scary enough for Batman?" And I looked out my window.
O: Do you think someone like Batman could actually function in the real world?
FM: Hmm. No, I think he'd get killed pretty quick.
O: How would you describe your effect on comics?
FM: It's really not for me to say.
O: Not even as an egomaniac?
FM: Well, that's what I mean. [Laughs.] I just mean, you have to think what you're doing is important in some way, in order to do it. If it's not important, at least worthwhile. "Important" is far too strong a word. Because I do think it's something to be very pleased with, to spin a good yarn. And that generally is my ambition. But at the same time, I'll think, "I don't think anybody did that before," and pat myself on the back until it hurts.
O: Is there an effect you'd like to have on the industry, in a best-of-all-possible-worlds scenario?
FM: Yeah, I'd like everybody to read comic books. [Laughs.] I'd like to see, within the comic-book business, less of a reverence for stuff that really wasn't all that good in the first place. Comic books have been around for more than 60 years, and as in any field, there's been an awful lot of bad stuff. In the comic-book world, there tends to be an overblown sense of tradition. Bad habits die hard. There are ways I think the form could work more effectively if we lost the bad habits that were created before we were born.
O: Any specific habits you have in mind?
FM: Well, yeah. The overabundance of words. It does get to be a bit much. And the acceptance of the audience's belief in things that are absurd. For instance, that people can fly. The magic of that has to be brought back. Instead, you pick up a comic, and in the first panel, somebody's flying. And there's no comment about that. It should be a gosh-wow moment. Beyond that, something I'd like to change is to open things up a bit more, so we could redefine what the comic-book mainstream is. Right now, the comic-book mainstream is guys in tights, hitting each other in the face. I'd like to at least get to where we're used to the idea of crime comics, of Westerns, of political commentary, of autobiography, even. All these things are being done, but the world seems focused on superheroes.
O: Does the label necessarily matter? Is it important that one thing is called "mainstream" and another is called "alternative," if people have access to both?
FM: It represents mindset. "Comic book" has come to mean a specific genre, not a story form, in people's minds. So someone will call Die Hard "a comic-book movie," when it has nothing to do with comic books. I'd rather have comics be the vehicle by which stories are told.
O: Is it true that you originally wanted to do crime comics when you started your career, but you were pushed toward superheroes as the only legitimate form of commercial comics?
FM: Absolutely. Color me stupid, but I came in with a bunch of samples of guys in trenchcoats and old cars and stuff, and they looked at me like I was crazy. I had to learn to draw the muscles.
O: What kind of artistic training do you have?
O: Totally self-taught?
O: Do you have specific graphic influences you look to?
FM: Well, yeah. Just about everything I can get my hands on. As far as training goes, one unofficial teacher of mine was the artist Neal Adams, who put up with me when I kept showing up at his studio. He would do tissue overlays to show me how to compose a page better, and generally tell me to give up and go home. But I kept coming back until I was able to get some work.
O: Did he tell you that in a friendly sort of way?
He's a New Yorker. [Laughs.]
O: He wanted you to give up, but he helped you anyway?
FM: He's a very generous New Yorker. But as far as what I look at, I look at a lot of comic books, a lot of the old stuff, because there's some beautiful artwork there, and some really good storytelling. I watch a lot of movies and read a lot of books. I always hate this question, because I never know quite how to answer it, and I always give a lame-ass answer to it. [Laughs.]
O: Having reached the 10-year anniversary of Sin City, what do you think about the series, looking back on it?
FM: It's been a ball. I'm eager to get back to it, as a matter of fact.
O: Are you accomplishing what you want to with the series?
FM: I think I am. I really am. I mean, I love bringing things like politics into stories, because it's such good material, although it's kind of hard to keep pace these days with just how silly people can be. But I just want people to read the stories and enjoy them.
O: Is there any metaphorical significance to the unusual black-and-white art, with no gray tones?
FM: Actually, it was because Lynn Varley really didn't feel like coloring comics at the time. But also, I wanted to see if I could actually do the whole book myself. That's also why I lettered it. And it fits the genre so well. In a way, Sin City's designed to be paced somewhere between an American comic book and Japanese manga. Working in black and white, I realized that the eye is less patient, and you have to make your point, and sometimes repeat it. Slowing things down is harder in black and white, because there isn't as much for the eye to enjoy. A lot of my job is slowing you down. That's really a lot of what goes into a comic book. Finding ways to charm or amuse the eye in ways that make you linger. Because unlike in a film, I have no control over your eye. Technically, you could read my work in seconds, and I want you to take minutes.
O: The black-and-white art does tend to suggest a moral simplicity that's echoed in the heroic scale of your characters—the epic, larger-than-life bad guys, particularly.
FM: The larger-than-life thing is definitely what I'm after. I've always drawn dark stories. Occasionally, I'll try a perfect hero, but it's a real stretch for me. I like 'em warts and all, and obsessive and weird. No wonder the superhero I'm most associated with dresses up like a bat.
O: You referenced King Leonidas and the battle at the Hot Gates in one of your older Sin City stories, which implies you'd been thinking about that story for years before you did 300. How long had you been planning a book on the subject?
FM: I barely knew I was going to be a comic-book artist. I think I was 7, and my parents took my brother and me to a movie called The 300 Spartans. And I sat there astonished at the ending, when the good guys died. I was possessed by that story. And I knew I wanted to do comics, but I didn't put the two together for many decades. But I've always… That movie, even though it's really a clunky old thing, though when you're 7, things aren't clunky… That story has just informed so many of the narratives I've come up with, because the notion of heroic sacrifice is so compelling. That the hero would do what he's doing because it's the right thing, not because he gets a medal at the end.
O: How did Dark Horse Comics react when you told them you wanted to do a book about a historical battle in ancient Greece?
FM: With total enthusiasm. I mean, they've been a good publisher. They were dying to know what it was going to look like, first off. And so was I, because I was really intimidated by the material. But I finally decided I'd spent too much time talking about the story, and that if I kept it up, I'd just be making a fool of myself. I sort of embarrassed myself into doing 300.
O: It must be fairly comfortable knowing that you're well enough established in the industry that you can spearhead a project that unconventional, and have a major publisher back you up on it.
FM: It's really a luxury that I enjoy, but it makes me tempted to say, "Oh, what can I mess up next?"
O: Are you tempted to push the envelope just because you can, or to see how far that liberty goes?
FM: Yeah. Because I want it pushed, and I've got an unusual amount of latitude. Even when I'm working on the superheroes. And I like to use it, because that makes for more latitude all around, and things get less repetitive.
O: Have you had any interest in doing Sin City movies?
FM: I did for a while. I wrote a screenplay and everything. Then I decided, at least for the present, that I would only do it if I had an awful lot of control. I didn't want to release any of the underlying rights. The time hasn't come, and I'd rather do more comics right now.
O: You've found that it's still true that fame and creative license in one artistic medium don't translate into fame and
creative license in any other medium?
FM: I don't know. I mean… Yeah, of course, I'd be jumping into a much bigger pond that's full of sharks. But with me, it was all an issue of control. As a screenwriter… I like the work. It's a lot of fun. Movies are a really sexy business, and the money's great, and all of that. But it's a collaborative medium, and I'd have to have an awful lot more control to do Sin City.
O: How did you first get involved in screenwriting?
FM: The phone rang. It really did. I had had a Hollywood agent earlier on a nibble I got from TV-land. I'd just finished Dark Knight a few months earlier, and I was starting to take myself way too seriously. Thank goodness I never let any of the work I was doing at that time get published. Because I made the classic mistake, I believed my own press. And I wasn't having any fun. My agent called me, and [RoboCop executive producer] Jon Davison wanted to know if I was interested in writing RoboCop 2. So I saw him, and got involved in the process from start to finish.
O: What did you think of the finished project?
FM: I thought it was kind of all over the map. It's hard for me to see, because I was on the set, but I think it kind of veered out of control. I don't know, it's hard, because when I see it, I remember what it felt like to be there on the set, with all the crew and people all around. So it's hard to watch.
O: How close is the final film to your script?
FM: Which one? There must have been a half-dozen drafts of RoboCop 2. And there were many hands as time went by.
O: Was there a significant difference in your level of involvement between RoboCop 2 and 3?
FM: Yeah, yeah. When I did the first one, I had aspirations of directing, and I really thought I could control the thing. In the second one, I met with the director, we got along, I threw some ideas at him, he threw some ideas back, I wrote a draft, he wrote a draft, and so on. But I realized I was a hired gun, which was a lot more fun, because I wasn't possessive. I realized at that point that what I own is my comics.
O: If you had complete creative control and the funding to make Sin City movies, would you want them to be live-action, or animated in your visual style?
FM: That's a good question. There was a while that I wanted to do them in live-action, but I think now I'd probably want to do it animated, because so much of that book is what it looks like. The lighting and all that, and the stylized people. In an ideal world, I'd go with animation, yeah.
O: Were you happy with the episode of Batman: The Animated Series that used your Dark Knight character designs?
FM: Oh, that was wonderful! [Laughs.] It was hilarious, yeah. Bruce Timm called me up, the animator, and asked if it
was okay if he did a little bit of Dark Knight in the show. And I said, "Absolutely, you're Bruce Timm!" He said, "Do you want to see a script?" I said, "No, you're Bruce Timm! I just want a videotape." The videotape came, and I watched it about three times in a row, laughing out loud. It's spot-on. He even got my Robin right.
O: Does that indicate that an animated Sin City in your style could work?
FM: Yeah, if it was done by Bruce Timm. He just did a remarkable job. Yeah, I think that would be a lot of fun. It's just, one project at a time, you know?
O: Have you considered getting Bruce Timm and his team involved in an adaptation?
FM: Oh, yeah, we've talked. But there's no plans right now.
O: Have you written any other screenplays, besides the Sin City spec script and the two movies that have been produced?
FM: Yeah, there are a couple that died a terrible death on shelves piled high with screenplays. There's one that I don't know where it is now, that I did based on my book Ronin, and was developing with [Pi and Requiem For A Dream director] Darren Aronofsky. And Darren and I are currently developing my Batman: Year One as co-writers. I just passed a draft to him the other day.
O: What's he like to work with?
FM: He's a ball. Ideas pour out of his ears. We tend to have a lot of fun together. It's funny, because in many ways I think I'm the lighter one of the team, and I'm not used to that.
O: He just doesn't seem like the comic-book type. He seemed like an odd choice to direct a new Batman movie. What's his take on the character?
FM: He does like comics a great deal. I can't really talk about what's in the movie, though, because I think Warner Brothers would have somebody beat me up. And asking a screenwriter what the movie's going to be like is like asking a doorman whether a building is going to be condemned.
O: What's going on with the JESUS! project?
FM: It's on hold for now. If I do it, it'll take an awful lot of research, so it would be years off anyway. And Sept. 11 has made me a little down on religion these days.
O: You were interested in doing that research in the Middle East, which also doesn't seem as feasible right now.
FM: [Laughs.] That'll have to wait, too.
O: Do you have a religious background?
FM: Not really. Well, I guess so. Catholic father, Quaker mother. But I didn't have to go to church. I went to Sunday school, but I wasn't raised in a Catholic school or anything.
O: Are you interested in re-imagining or re-framing Christ from a new angle?
FM: I don't really want to address that right now. What I have in mind is unusual, but if I start talking about it, I'll embarrass myself into
actually doing the book.
O: Are there other historical events, periods, or figures that particularly interest you as narrative seeds?
FM: There are. It seems like every time I look at anything in history, it's just a story waiting to happen. There are so many. It'd be interesting to do something about Ireland sometime.
O: Any particular era or event, or you just like the idea of the setting?
FM: I think the early IRA stuff. The stuff they wrote all those great ballads about. But history takes a lot of research, and right now I'm interested in doing another Sin City, though I don't think I'm going to do them in pamphlet form anymore. I think I'm just going straight to books. The people who are reading Sin City have a pretty long attention span, and they'd rather have books anyway. And I had so much fun doing Family Values, which was five months on one big story. With pamphlets, I feel like I'm wearing leg irons. Getting stuck only doing 26 pages at a time… sometimes I want to do a single scene that's longer than that.
O: One particularly interesting thing about your work is the language your characters use, especially in the two Dark Knight series and the Martha Washington books. How do you develop a realistic-sounding slang patois?
FM: The one in Dark Knight is the one I can really answer. In the other books, it's just stuff I overheard or made up. But in Dark Knight, it all has to do with the town where [wife and colorist Lynn Varley] grew up. Her brothers—Don and Rob, by the way—were part of a bunch of kids who talked in this very peculiar manner. Whenever I heard it, I'd just go nuts, because I loved it. It was this very sarcastic mode of speech. One time I was in Michigan visiting the family, and I sat the two of them down and had them do it into a tape recorder, and I went back and studied it. Then I wrote my stories, and I would always show those parts to Lynn before I got it lettered, and she'd tell me where I got it wrong.
O: So the gang members Don and Rob in the two Dark Knight series are actually speaking a legitimate street slang?
FM: The way some kids used to talk back in the '60s in one suburb of Detroit.
O: Do you have any interest in pursuing your other franchises, like the Martha Washington books?
FM: I want to do more Martha, and I've got some ideas about where to go with her, but that's dependent on [artist] Dave Gibbons' schedule. It takes much longer to draw this stuff than to write it. As far as Hard Boiled, we aren't planning any sequel to that.
O: Rolling Stone said this just after Dark Knight came out: "In Miller's hands, Batman is bigger than a comics icon. He's a violent symbol of American dissolution and American idealism." How does that strike you?
FM: Anything that glowing, I've got to say I like. I've got to say he really was a metaphor for that, particularly in the first series. In the second one, he's not in as bad a mood. In fact, he's in a good mood, which is really scary.
O: In a way, the Dark Knight books advocate a vigilante approach to dealing with the violence and apathy in our society, and as you've said, events in the new book parallel recent events closely. Do you think that could ever work in the opposite direction? Could people be inspired by the Dark Knight books to act as vigilantes?
FM: I don't know many people who get their politics out of comic books. The notion of doing that scares me most of the time. I'm just kind of someone out there throwing my stuff against a wall to see what happens. I don't think anything I'm doing could affect things on such a broad basis. I don't think anybody doing fiction could. It seems to me that that's not really the purview of fiction. In rare cases, people could write a piece of fiction like Uncle Tom's Cabin, or To Kill A Mockingbird, that's so powerful or popular that it does affect things. But I think for someone to set out to do that, to have that effect on society, is a corrupting effect on one's work. You end up writing a tract.