Fast chat with ‘The Spirit’ director Frank Miller

[26 December 2008]

By Frank Lovece

Newsday (MCT)

One of the few comics creators who has become his own brand, writer-artist Frank Miller first made his mark with a gritty, film-noir take on Marvel Comics’ “Daredevil.” He went on to pop-culture stardom with DC Comics’ “The Dark Knight Returns,” a 1986 miniseries envisioning a bitter, reactionary Batman a few decades from now, fighting against a corrupt world as seen through Miller’s Ayn Rand-devotee eyes. His vision helped inspire the similarly dark Batman movies, and the less- successful “Daredevil” film (2003).

Miller went on to such creator-owned comics as “Sin City” and “300,” from independent publisher Dark Horse. Each became the basis of a popular movie, with director Robert Rodriguez granting Miller co-director credit for his help on “Frank Miller’s Sin City” (2005).

Now flying solo, Miller, 51, has adapted “The Spirit,” Will Eisner’s legendary 1940-52 comics series that appeared as seven-page stories in Sunday newspapers. Its tales of an average-Joe-masked crime-fighter in a rumpled suit, encountering both Everyman criminals and exotic international thieves, became famous for both their humanistic fables and Eisner’s pioneering techniques.

Miller recently spoke at the Waldorf-Astoria with Frank Lovece.

Q. For those poor, deprived souls who don’t know his work, what makes Will Eisner so important to comics?

A. Well, it’s like asking what Thomas Edison did for the lightbulb. Eisner was one of the people who created (the medium of) comic books. He was one of the first people who ever took comics out of the four-panel strip and showed the possibilities of the full page. And so he was one of the founding fathers. It’s like asking what Thomas Jefferson had to do with the Constitution.

Q. Producer Mike Uslan (the “Batman” movies, “Constantine”) approached you at Eisner’s memorial service in Manhattan in 2005 to ask you to adapt “The Spirit.” Did you tell yourself, “Geez, we’re at my friend Will’s memorial. Couldn’t they wait and call my agent?”

A. No. The only thought in my mind was, “It’s too big - I can’t possibly do it.” And I refused. And about three minutes later, as I was at the doorway, I turned around and said, “Nobody else can touch this,” and I agreed to the job on the spot.

Q. One of the hallmarks of Eisner’s Spirit is that he’s an ordinary guy without superpowers or Batman-like gadgets. The movie gives him a self-healing superpower, like Wolverine or the Hulk. What was the reasoning behind that?

A. Well, I read a lot of Spirit comics when I was growing up, and he seemed to be able to take a cinderblock to the head better than anybody I ever heard of. And I just thought that he took unusual punishment was a fact of the character that should be explored. And it also made for some wonderful Tex Avery kind of scenes early in the movie. (Animation director Avery was famous for the exaggerated action in his 1940s-50s MGM cartoons in particular.) But it also raised the mystery of who he is and ... why he could take so much punishment.

Q. Eisner was perhaps using comic exaggeration rather than saying the Spirit had a superpower. Do you anticipate taking any flak for this from fans?

A. I assume I will get a lot of flak for a lot of things, and frankly, I don’t give a damn.

Q. What else do you think you’ll get flak for?

A. Because he doesn’t have a blue suit, which would have looked silly. That (supporting character and love interest) Ellen Dolan isn’t just a little simpering daughter to somebody; she’s a surgeon. I don’t know what I’ll get flak for - I just do the stuff I do! ... Comics fans are wonderful, sincere people, but they can be a little arch.

Q. What’s with all the cats in the movie? They even had credits.

A. Yes, all my cats got credits.

Q. They’re your cats?

A. I figured anybody who lived in a mausoleum would have two things: a vermin problem and a lot of cats. I just thought that was a detail that Eisner left out, so I put a lot of cats in his place. I’m reverent but not faithful! (smiles)

Q. You’re working on the graphic novel “Holy Terror, Batman”?

A. Yes. It’s about 40 pages from finished now; it’s 122 pages. (Batman is) fighting al-Qaida.

Q. Speaking of which: You engendered some controversy on a radio show, comparing our invading Iraq with our response to Pearl Harbor. Since Iraq didn’t attack us, did you really mean to say that?

A. When the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor, we didn’t just declare war on Japan, we declared war on Germany. It was an international fascist effort. And so when I said that the attack on Iraq made sense, it was the same way we had to attack not just Afghanistan. Instead, we had to attack the center of Islamofascism.

Q. Germany and Japan were allied; Afghanistan and Iraq aren’t. But moving on: I may be your only interviewer who, like you, wrote for Marvel Comics.

A. We all have our sins in the past.

Q. That’s why we live in Sin City! (both laugh)

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