Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Frank Miller Part 2: On Pastiche, Directing and the Future

Words: Christopher Irving
Pictures: Seth Kushner

IRVING: What sparked that love to return to superheroes?
MILLER: I loved them.
IRVING: Was it an inciting incident that made you realize that?
MILLER: I wish I could give you some good copy here, but I can’t. I simply love superheroes, and have my entire life.

            After a decade of successfully breaking out of the superhero world, Miller looped back to it with 2002’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, a sequel to ‘86’s Dark Knight Returns.
            That’s probably why Strikes Again was initially so jarring when it came out: it’s entirely different in tone and flavor than the predecessor, trading grim seriousness for pastiche. For Miller, it wasn’t just a celebration of the superhero, but a reaction to the gritted teeth and gun-toting knock-offs that Returns inspired, the “grim ‘n’ gritty” schlock of the 1990s, comics that focused on flash rather than substance.

“I wanted to go back to what was really fun about these things,” Frank admits. By taking one of the definitive post-modernist comic books and bringing it down to a flavor of Silver Age wackiness, Miller took comics back from the world he’d unwittingly helped create. The irony of Dark Knight Strikes Again is that it’s arguably more post-modern than the first one, with more narrative fragmentation and a tendency for more pastiche of old comic books and the current state of the “media.” Miller’s art style was more pared down, with a thicker contour line on his figures, simpler backgrounds, and more bold shapes in the design.

“I wanted to recapture the feeling of DC Comics from when I was growing up. I deliberately did a very crude line and did my best to capture that,” Frank admits. Even the coloring by Varley was a different vein than her usual work, substituting computer coloring for watercolor but forcing the hard pixelized edges associated with the digital world.

“Lynn was doing this bizarre approach to computer color, which I found personally delightful. She said ‘I’ve done paint, and I will show you what a computer can do, where everyone else is using the computer to imitate paint.’ She was much bolder than that, and much more artistic,” Frank elaborates.
“I try to adapt my style as I go,” he says later. “You’ll see Sin City looks nothing like Ronin. 300 doesn’t look like anything I’d ever done before. The work I’m doing now is very much its own thing. It’s a matter of an artist adapting to the material.”

            With a cast that boasts Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, and Plastic Man, it’s Superman who really shines in Strikes Again. Where Batman had his own personal redemption in Dark Knight Returns, Superman realizes that his return to greatness involves loosening the shackles of his government oppressors (actually Lex Luthor and Brainiac) during a period of martial law. With the Bottle City of Kandor and his and Wonder Woman’s daughter, Lara, at stake, Superman finally finds the courage to become “Super” once more. Strikes Again can just as easily be called The Man of Steel Returns.
IRVING: Superman has his arc where he gets his ass kicked, comes back in his original costume, and has a different attitude after.
MILLER: And he screws Wonder Woman.
MILLER: Kind of a big moment.
IRVING: No pun intended. (Miller laughs)

“He’s not the flag-waving World War II character anymore, and now he’s a father, so he’s got to say things like ‘Never with humans, they’re too fragile,’” Frank acts out. “He’s embraced his later age (he’s pushing 60). I found him to be the most fascinating character in the series…

“My feeling was that I wanted to build up to that moment when Superman takes out this helicopter. I was very careful, as a responsible comic book artist, to have the people all jump out on parachutes. I fell in love with Superman, and then I really fell in love with Lara, because I think that she’s a very dangerous character. She’s not a good guy.”

Lara, raised by Amazons, pushes Superman to realize that he really isn’t one of the humans after all, and no longer needs to play by their rules. She’s just as much a catalyst as a character, changing Superman’s perspective on his place amongst humans.

“She’s a bitch. She’s like Elektra and is one of those characters you don’t make up intending to be a good person. There she is, the daughter of Wonder Woman and Superman, and she’s looking around and going ‘What’s wrong with this world?’”

Just like the Batman in Returns realizes he doesn’t belong in current society, Strikes Again is Superman’s realization that he really is a god amongst men. How he acts with that knowledge is left for the reader to speculate as Strikes Again fades to black.

            There are a few winks and nods to Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko in the pages of Dark Knight Strikes Again, through the tongue-in-cheek cameos by Ditko creations Hawk and Dove, the murder of The Creeper, or (most importantly), the appearance of Ditko’s The Question, handled in a more classic manner than in the past twenty years.

            Like Ditko’s version, Miller’s Question isn’t at the forefront of the action, but rather in the background, stirring things up while working behind the scenes, immersed in shadows, with a rattly voice straight out of Sin City.

“I hit something in having him say ‘I am not the answer: I am The Question.’ That’s really what The Question was about: Where do we stand? What do we believe?” Frank poses.

“When you look at Ditko’s work, what you see is a sophisticated knowledge of anatomy,” Miller stated earlier. “As Jim Shooter first put it to me, he was the first artist to show that the shoulder went past someone’s face when they looked back. If you look at that incredible sequence with Stan Lee, where Spider-Man’s lifting the big thing off his shoulders, and he has to worry about his Aunt and Uncle Ben, and then lifts it all off his back—it’s a great study in cartoon anatomy.”

Like Ditko, Miller is now exercising an economy of line and an exaggeration of shape in his superhero art (at least, as far as Strikes Again is concerned), hands growing in size off of wrists, figures contorting in less natural but more visually effective ways.

But more than a visual standpoint, Ditko deserves credit for bravely injecting Objectivist philosophy in superhero work, starting with The Question, and continuing in the more preachy and  verbose Mr. A.

“Mr. A, I think, was his apotheosis, where he was doing the whole Ayn Rand thing,” Frank notes. “It explained to us who Steve Ditko was, and I at one point wanted to enlist Steve Ditko to revive Mr. A and I said ‘All I want to do is you’ll plot it and do everything, and I’ll just shut Mr. A up.’”
“Steve told me he would not know what to do with Mr. A anymore,” Frank smiles.
The Batmobile cleaves through the pouring rain on a Gotham night, Dick Grayson, buckled into the passenger’s seat, turns towards his side window.

“What, are you dense? Are you retarded or something? Who the hell do you think I am?” Batman asks. “I’m the goddamn Batman.”

All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder struck in 2005, with script by Miller and art by penciler Jim Lee and inker Scott Williams. It drummed up a storm of controversy, as Miller presented an anti-social and (forgive the term) bat-shit crazy Batman; the All-Star Batman is a method actor driven too far down into his role, to the point where he loses any sense of reasoning and needs a smart-ass and fearless kid to pull him out of it. He’s a nut.

A total maniac. He’s the Batman from Year One pushed a bit too far; years from the comic, he’ll turn into the aging Batman of Dark Knight Returns. But for now, he’s recruiting an orphaned boy, and finding himself brought back to relative sanity in needing to protect his new sidekick: Robin the Boy Wonder.

With ten issues of All-Star Batman in the can, the book is being relaunched in February as Dark Knight: Boy Wonder, to wrap the series up.

“It depends on Jim,” Miller says of his collaborator, who was just named co-publisher of DC Comics. “He’s got a helluva schedule. It will be February before the next one comes out. We have four or five more, and it’ll wrap it all up. I’ve got it all planned, and you’ll get to the end and go ‘That’s Batman.’”

The ultimate goal of Miller’s newest Batman series isn’t to rehash the predictable and expected Dark Knight of the past seventy years, but to give a solid character arc that answers the question “Why the hell does he need a kid around, anyways?”

“It’s [about] how he is redeemed through Dick Grayson,” Frank points out.

When Will Eisner died in 2005, it was a blow to comics, but especially one to Frank Miller. The affable father of the 1940s comic strip/book hybrid, The Spirit, and father of the graphic novel, was a friend and mentor to Frank. It was at Will’s memorial service that producer Michael Uslan, who held the rights to The Spirit, approached Frank to create a movie, auteur style.

“With Will, I couldn’t ignore the sacred trust,” Frank says, clearly affected. “He was my mentor, and meant the most in the world to me. I took it, and I looked at it, and said ‘This isn’t a movie, but this needs to be changed to be turned into a movie, and I want to put his spirit into it.’”

The end result was a film that was a hybrid of Miller’s sensibilities with Eisner’s own, using the green screen techniques of Sin City to create a world atmospherically linked to Eisner’s newsprint one through the lens of Miller’s own high contrast. Frank’s Spirit is a tad grimmer than Eisner’s footloose and fancy free one, trading a blue suit and fedora for a black one, but moves through the film with his tongue planted firmly in cheek like his comic book predecessor. A cast boasting everyone from movie stars to character actors rounded out Frank’s solo directorial debut.

The fights are cartoonish, like a Looney Tunes on steroids; Samuel Jackson’s Octopus is eccentric and a vehicle for pop culture reference via outlandish samurai and Nazi costumes, just a few degrees removed from the old Batman TV show, but with more teeth. The Spirit clearly isn’t meant to be a straight action or crime film—not even a superhero one—but something aware of its own absurdity.

Miller’s Spirit is an unabashed ladies’ man, a cat person who reveals inner monologues to alley cats (cats, on a mythological level, are linked to the afterlife in ancient Egyptian beliefs), a man incapable of having a relationship with a woman…at least not a human one. The only girl Miller’s Spirit can love is his city.

“I think Gabriel did a wonderful job,” Frank says of star Gabriel Macht. “He had the whole mask on the entire [movie]. I had the other pleasure of working with people like Eva Mendes, who was slow to trust but a real super-talent. Then, Scarlett; you know what you do when you work with Scarlett? You bathe in her glory. And Jackson? He shows up and he goes ‘How much you want? How much you want?’ I go ‘I need you to go nuclear twice,’ because I knew how combustible an actor he is.
“We just ended up having a party.”

The Spirit clearly has much the same production DNA as Sin City, with Miller applying his teachings from Rodriguez, creating a hyper-reality that lives and breathes around his actors.
“Stuart Maschwitz, who was in charge of the special effects, was [also] able to deliver the comic book-y look I wanted,” Frank elaborates. “I didn’t want it to look realistic. When Gabriel was running across the cables (he wasn’t Gabriel, he was The Spirit), he and his stuntman reached a meeting of the minds. His stuntman was too slick, and I wanted a slightly clumsy Spirit. That’s why, when he scoots down the water tank, he slips.”

The Spirit, unfortunately, didn’t fare well in theaters. Part of the blame can be placed on a Christmas release, another part on mis-marketing it as another Sin City. Whatever the case, the DVD sales were healthy, showing that there’s still some life in the old girl yet. Given The Spirit’s blend of pastiche with unapologetic comic book action, it has the underpinnings of a cult film and may find a lasting immortality there rather than in static numbers of box office gross.

And that white cat seen in Frank’s living room earlier? It died onscreen at the hands of Samuel Jackson’s Octopus.

“It is the cat that bought it,” Frank admits. “[My girlfriend] Kim had told me once that if there was anything I’d do in a movie that she wouldn’t forgive, it would be to kill a cat.
“So, I killed a cat and then gave it to her.”

            A beautiful blonde tears down the elevated street of a futuristic city in a classic convertible that spouts fire from its exhaust. She fishtails into a quick park, opening the door and placing a heeled foot on the pavement, leading up to a shapely leg. A man in a leather jacket enters a saloon-type bar, their eyes meet, and they’re soon going at it in a darkened bedroom, the only light coming through the slitted blinds.

            Frank’s commercial for Gucci Guilty, a perfume, combines rock video editing with a hyperreal world. The fact that Evan Rachel Woods and Chris Evans star in the minute spot doesn’t hurt matters, either. It’s the first time Frank’s gone behind the camera since The Spirit, and his hard-hitting style and chop socky edits work well for the short spot.

“That was one of those times in life where everything goes right,” Frank beams. “I had good actors. But what I mean is that I came in with a complete vision. I’d drawn the whole thing and I wanted fire coming out of the back of cars, and for everything to be overhyped. I also wanted the perfect city behind them, and they gave me everything.”

“How about that convertible? That was a no-nonsense car that cost four and a half million dollars! We didn’t pay for it, but we did rent it. It was a museum piece.”

“And let’s not leave out Chris Evans,” he adds. “I told him at the beginning ‘You’re an urban cowboy. You’ve got to get that across every minute.’ When it came to the moment when he walks through the door, he asked ‘How far do I take this?’

“I said ‘About halfway,’ and he just amazed me. I told Chris at the dinner we had after that he was a hero, and it’s very hard to find someone who can play a hero.”

Evans is gearing up to star as Captain America this summer, bringing the classic Marvel Comics superhero to cinematic life.

Miller, however, is gearing up for plenty: Sin City 2 next year, the 300 prequel comic book Xerxes (and subsequent film by Snyder), Holy Terror, and God knows what else is up his black sleeve (including a comic on the life of Jesus). He reemerged recently with a new blog, www.frankmillerink.com, and has also started Twittering.

“I’m just a little occupied,” Frank says, half joking and half serious.

The most striking thing about Frank Miller’s career choices are that he hasn’t hit a level of developmental stagnation. Frank has reinvented his style at least three or four times and, even after achieving a level of media accessibility of a Stan Lee, refuses to keep doing the same schtick each project.

Pretty ballsy, when you think of the critical nature of the online world of comics fandom.

But then, ballsiness has worked well for Frank Miller so far.

Click to View Part 1.