The Careers and Friendship of Will Eisner and Frank Miller
Florida, May 2002. On Monday, editor Charles Brownstein would leave Tamarac to begin the laborious process of transcribing a weekend of conversation between two industry legends—Will Eisner and Frank Miller. Eisner/Miller, the book-length interview published by Dark Horse, would not see print until three summers hence.
By this time Miller would already have seen the theatrical release of Sin City, the movie he co-directed with Robert Rodriguez, based on his comic book series of the same name.
Sadly, for Will Eisner the book would be a posthumous publication.
Eisner/Miller however, will speak for itself.
The book stands as a significant note in comics culture. Animated by the spirit of the Eisner-Miller friendship, the book gives readers a window into these creators’ thinking, and in so doing it shows the gifted minds and close friendship of two cartoonists at work.
Perhaps most importantly, Eisner/Miller offers a distinct spin on the recent release of The Spirit. Directed by Miller and based on arguably the most recognizable of Eisner’s characters, The Spirit will be a critical measure of the creative legacies of both Eisner and Miller. And perhaps even, a measure of the comics medium itself.
Both Eisner and Miller have assured their places in the history of not only the comics industry, but also the medium. Eisner name has been lent to a premier award of the industry, paying tribute to a career that has spanned most of comics’ history in North America. Beginning in 1940, Eisner penned his now-classic cartoon featuring a masked crimefighter ostensibly returned from the dead—The Spirit. While the comic strip met with commercial success, syndicated in newspapers for the following 12 years, its true legacy lies in Eisner’s endless inventiveness.
With The Spirit Eisner pushed the traditional cartoon strip into radical new territory. Experiments in mixing genre were underpinned by a strong draftsmanship. Just as easily as a hard-boiled detective story became a high-seas adventure in his hands, so too would Eisner use frameless panels and lettering that mimicked background scenery. Each panel was capable of developing a powerful emotional resonance with the reader.
Outside of his contribution to illustration, Eisner’s career might equally be defined by his struggle for the legitimacy of the comics medium. In a historical context that openly sought to bowdlerize comics, marketing almost exclusively to teens, Eisner would challenge conventional opinions around the comics medium. It was this struggle that would see Eisner pioneer the graphic novel, an entirely new format for the comic book, with his 1978 publication of A Contract with God. A collection of four short stories about the residents of a New York tenement, A Contract with God is marked by its probing exploration of adult themes.
With the recognition of the medium growing, Eisner turned to openly educational projects, like Comics and Sequential Art and later Graphic Storytelling. Both books dissect the comics medium, offering critical insight into its unique capacity for storytelling.
While Eisner distinguished himself in fields as diverse as illustration, publishing and scholarship of comics, it was his unabashed love of the medium that fuelled him to interview fellow cartoonists. Collected under the title “Shop Talk”, these interviews afforded cartoonists a frank and open platform to promote the professional legitimacy of comics. It was the “Shop Talk” style that would eventually form a context for his weekend-long discussion with Miller in 2002.
Miller’s big break into monthly comics came from Marvel’s Daredevil. At first appointed to penciling duties, Miller took over writing duties as well after Roger McKenzie’s departure from the title. Miller’s visual style, including afterimages that added a sense of motion within the panel and rapid transitions between vertical and horizontal perspectives, produced a unique look for flagging title.
Beginning with the January 1981 issue, Miller’s writing would redefine Daredevil as a character-driven title. With the introduction of Elektra, Daredevil’s erstwhile college-sweetheart-turned-assassin, the book would become infused with new narrative depth. Far from being the amiable love-interest, or a port in a Daredevil’s storm-ridden life, Elektra was emotionally and psychologically complex. Driven by deep-seated passions, she refused to either conform to Daredevil’s sense of justice and duty, or disavow her attraction for him. In Miller’s hands Elektra became emblematic of the quintessential Daredevil character flaw—being unable to escape the attraction to danger. With Elektra having been fully developed in her own right, Miller’s decision to end the storyline with the character’s death reverberated across the industry.
Although hugely influential, Daredevil would mark nothing more than a beginning for Miller. He would go on to bring DC’s Batman a psychological and sociopolitical richness worthy of Hemingway in his visionary The Dark Knight Returns and his definitive retelling of Batman’s origin in Year One. Titles such as Elektra Lives, Ronin and 300, would stand as Miller’s re-imagining of international formats like French bandes dessinee and Japanese manga for an American market. Miller would distinguish himself by producing engaging stories and visually dynamic panels in these divergent formats.
Later, with his Sin City graphic novels, Miller would redefine not only the physical format of comic books, but also subvert the strictures of monthly continuity. Characters with no more than cameo appearances in one Sin City book, would become harsh and endearing protagonists in the next.
Concurrent to his development of comics properties, Miller would establish himself in Hollywood. Acting as script-writer for Robocop 2 in the early 1990s, he would eventually bring his own comics projects to the big screen. 2005’s Sin City would credit him as co-director while 2007’s 300 would see him as executive co-producer. Sin City, in particular, marked a long fought for achievement by Miller—a film that remains faithful to the original vision of the comic book on which it was based.
Given their respective careers, with Eisner’s decades-long defense of the medium, and his insistence on education about and by comics, and with Miller’s radical experiments with international publishing formats, comic book authenticity in films, and dynamic genre storytelling, the root of their friendship becomes apparent. For both, the comics medium takes precedence above all else.
Where Eisner sees the need for understanding and acceptance of the medium, Miller forces confrontation with the stereotyping of comics. The two go back and forth. Both men’s careers prioritize the comics medium with a sense of urgency. As a filmmaker with a history of remaining true to the vision of his original material, the choice of Miller to direct The Spirit is a choice that reaffirms comics’ own vitality.
While Eisner’s career is marked by an unapologetic faith in the medium that calls for educating others, Miller’s career is marked by deploying the comics medium to produce unique modes of storytelling. With this in mind, Eisner/Miller becomes more than a roadmap for a friendship, it becomes, and stands as, a cultural comment.