FRANK MILLER, his pale hands wrapped around a cane and the smoke from his cigarette swirling beneath the brim of his Homburg, sat at the poolside bar at the W Hotel in Westwood and watched the swimsuits saunter by. “I’m married to New York,” he said between sips of a fizzy Red Bull cocktail. “But there’s something to be said about Los Angeles too.”
Miller arrived at the W a month and a half ago with a one-week reservation, but the L.A. fling is still going and he’s still living out of a suitcase filled with black clothes. The reason is that Miller, the most important comic book artist of the last 25 years, is enjoying his moment in the Hollywood sun. There was, of course, the record-breaking March box office of “300,” a lovingly faithful adaptation of Miller’s bloody 1998 graphic novel, but there’s also the two sequels to “Sin City” now in the pipeline and the Batman project now being filmed in London that borrows its title from Miller’s 1986 masterpiece, “The Dark Knight Returns.” “They finally got the title right,” Miller said with a pretend sneer. “I was wondering when that would happen.”
Miller fancies himself a curmudgeon, and on talk shows he’s proven to be a firebrand with his political views challenging modern-day Islam. But it’s hard to stay grumpy when everything is going your way. Like most stars of the comic-book community (where he is the rare artist who became equally celebrated as a writer), he had become accustomed to be treated like a valet by Hollywood -- Hey, kid, thanks for the keys and the vehicle, here’s a couple of bucks -- and then forced to watch the studios wreck everything on screen. The 1990s Batman movies, for instance, would not have happened without Miller’s work, but they often ignored or trampled his contributions to the character. On two “RoboCop” films, meanwhile, Miller was hired as a screenwriter, but the efforts fell flat. Then Elektra, a beloved character he created, tanked badly on the screen in the hands of others.
Now there’s a sweet satisfaction in the fact that the new Hollywood approach is to hire fan-boy directors and show fawning respect for the source material. “Sin City’s” Robert Rodriguez even insisted on sharing director credits with Miller on those films (a maverick stand that cost Rodriguez his membership in the Directors Guild), and that led directly to a somewhat shocking development: Miller has now been tapped to write and direct his own film based on Will Eisner’s classic noir hero “The Spirit.”
One of the producers, Michael Uslan, also the producer of “Constantine” and executive producer of “Batman Begins,” said the filming will start this year and that there already is intense interest from distributors given the splashy success of “300,” which grossed $70 million in just its first weekend. Uslan was an executive producer on more than half a dozen superhero movies, including the Tim Burton “Batman” films, and he said Miller’s relative newcomer role to Hollywood is not a problem.
“Honestly, to me, there’s nobody else that could do this film. I saw him at Will Eisner’s memorial service last year and I told him that I’d been turning comic books into movies for years, but that with ‘Sin City’ he’s doing something better: He was making movies into comic books. I told him he had to make ‘The Spirit.’ He said there was no way he could do it. Then after three minutes he said, ‘There’s no way I can let anybody else do it.’ ”
Asked about the change of heart in town, Miller smiled like the Catwoman who ate the canary. “It’s gone from being an abusive relationship to a torrid affair. And it is very satisfying. I think I have everybody fooled now.”
Miller, who is 50, was given a hero’s welcome at the premiere of “300" in early March and arrived at the glitzy after-party to find movie stars eager to shake his hand. He lingered in town to talk to actors (including one notable “Sin City” star) about key roles in “The Spirit” and found that the hotel bar was a great place to write the screenplay. He’s been soaking in the L.A. scene and taking meetings, among them a giddy visit to the office of Richard Donner, director of the 1978 “Superman” as well as the “Lethal Weapon” films, where Miller tried to soak in some lessons about directing. Donner, though, came from a moviemaking era when Hollywood took an amused and parental approach to comics fare, and while Miller reveres the veteran filmmaker, he also said he will be making movies that are as wild and fire-breathing as the modern graphic novel.
He made his name with grisly and highly sophisticated revenge fantasies drawn in an alternately brash and shadowy style that seems like “Escape From New York” as reimagined by Akira Kurosawa. He prides himself on approaching his easel with a tough-guy swagger. “I am going to do things my way. It’s the only way I know how, and it’s how I got here. They finally realized that my vision is the way to do it. And I couldn’t agree more.”
MUCH has been made of Miller’s politics in the wake of “300.” The deliriously violent and stylized sword film is based on a Spartan battle in 480 B.C., and although Miller wrote and drew the story for Dark Horse comics a decade ago, in film form it was received by many as a grotesque parody of the ancient Persians and a fetish piece for a war on Islam. Miller scoffs at those notions. “I think it’s ridiculous that we set aside certain groups and say that we can’t risk offending their ancestors. Please. I’d like to say, as an American, I was deeply offended by ‘The Last of the Mohicans.’ ”
Still, Miller gets stirred up about any criticism of the war in Iraq or the hunt for terrorists, which he views as the front in a war between the civilized Western world and bloodthirsty Islamic fundamentalists.
“What people are not dealing with is the fact that we’re going up against a culture that finds it acceptable to do things that the rest of the world left behind with the barbarians in the 6th century,” Miller said. “I’m a little tired of people worrying about being polite. We are fighting in the face of fascists.”
The director of “300,” Zack Snyder, chuckled about the portrayal of Miller as a conservative on the attack or a “proto-fascist” as one pundit called him. “I don’t think he really has politics, he just sees the world in moral terms. He’s a guy who says what he thinks and has a sense of right and wrong. He talks tough and, after Sept. 11, I think he’s mad.” Snyder said Miller is a throwback and that he approaches his art with a bar-fight temperament, like a Sam Peckinpah. “His political view is: Don’t mess with me.”
Miller was born in Maryland and raised in Vermont but, mesmerized by comics and films, he was eager to get to New York -- “The New York I saw on ‘Kojak,’ that’s what I wanted to draw” -- where he could get the pavement and excitement under his feet. He got to New York by 21, and within three years he was a fan favorite with a style that was jolting. It was dark and gritty, with bold brushwork and empty spaces that defied the marketplace conventions of the time, in which the bright, clean intricacies of John Byrne and George Perez were the perceived ideal. That era too belonged to superhero teams with cosmic adventures and bulging, spandex-clad anatomies that defied physics, but Miller was writing and drawing violent operettas for the mean streets with mere mortals such as Daredevil and Batman, who have no powers. The inner spirit was more Bernard Goetz than George Lucas.
“The main reason was I didn’t draw good spaceships,” he said with a shrug. “I drew tough guys in trench coats, and I liked using black and shadows.” The mid-1980s brought the shift of comics toward more mature ambitions and Miller (along too with Alan Moore, writer of “The Watchman”) was at the center of the renaissance. His defining characters -- Daredevil, Elektra, the aging Batman of “Dark Knight,” the disgraced samurai of “Ronin” -- were solitary, haunted, honor-bound and extremely efficient at hurting other people. Reading Miller, Mickey Spillane and Clint Eastwood sprang to mind, especially when one Daredevil cover was an overt homage to “Dirty Harry.”
Miller also became an outspoken champion of artist’s rights in the industry, and he engaged in serious work to celebrate the legacy of past stars, among them, Eisner, who died in 2005 at 87 and was the creator of “The Spirit,” a work often hailed as the “Citizen Kane” of comics. The artists had a close friendship, and Miller seems more nervous about his film living up to the expectations of his late mentor than he does about any pressures from producers or the public.
“There’s quite a standard there, and I feel a tremendous responsibility and honor doing it,” Miller said. He chewed on the thought some more. “It is a lot of pressure, though, yes.”
A dish best served cold
MILLER’S characters are always on the hunt for redemption or, more often, revenge with extreme prejudice. There’s a case to be made that Miller is coming to Hollywood with a similar chip on his shoulder. There’s also a less-obvious argument to be made that he came here looking for a fresh audience. For a guy that could do no wrong in the comics world, Miller has been a little shaky with the old fans in recent years.
In 2002, he finally relented to massive appetite for a sequel to “The Dark Knight Returns” and while the sales were huge, most reviews ranged from disappointment to blistering attack. “A total mess of a book,” one critic moaned. To many, the plot, the exaggerated art and the computer color effects made for a scattered parody of the bracing original. Others, though, saw a punk-rock statement; the Comics Journal, for instance, dubbed it “gloriously trashy.”
Still, Miller is clearly sensitive about the sniping. “It was caricature,” he said, “and if you don’t get it, I can’t help that.” He also wrote a “Batman & Robin” series that was similarly criticized as stilted, indulgent and too winking (not to mention misogynistic -- but that label has been applied to a significant portion of his work, especially the gleefully prurient “Sin City” books and film).
His humor and hard-boiled nature have combined with odd results sometimes. At a comic book convention in 2006, he announced that he was working on a book about Al Qaeda attacking Gotham City that would be titled “Holy Terror, Batman!” People glanced around to see if he was joking. He wasn’t.
The book is still not out, and in the industry there is the general sense that the project has stalled a bit. At the W, though, Miller said about 120 pages of his Batman tale have been drawn and inked and he’s starting in on the “final 50 or so.” He said he plans to finish it even though he senses squeamishness by executives at DC Comics and its parent, Warner Bros. Entertainment, in sending a franchise character on a blood-quest after terrorists. The topic is clearly an uncomfortable one for him, and he gave the impression that the title, the distribution deal and the nature of the project are in flux.
Still, the plot is decidedly straightforward: “Our hero’s key quote is, ‘Those clowns don’t know what terror is,’ ” Miller said. “Then he sets out to get the guys.”
With the hero as terrorism avenger, Miller is pointing to the days of comics in the 1940s, when Superman, Captain America and the Human Torch were drawn taking punches at Hitler or Hirohito.
“These terrorists are worse than any villain I can come up with, and I think it’s ridiculous that people in entertainment are not showing what we are up against here.... This is pure propaganda, a throwback, there’s no bones about it.”
Miller also said he relishes a backlash. “I’m ready,” he said, “for my fatwa.”
The man who says that is not physically imposing. Miller looks older than his age due to an air of fragility -- the cane, the fatigue in his face, his unsteady step. He took a nasty fall in New York this year -- “I slipped on black ice,” he groaned -- and recovering from the broken hip has been a miserable experience.
Miller will need all his supporters and his strength to pull off the new role as solo director of a major Hollywood film. He surely learned a lot at the side of “Sin City’s” Rodriguez, but the new job requires not just artistic antennae but also an efficient dictator sensibility.
“He can do it, absolutely,” said “300’s” Snyder, “because he has the respect instantly of the people around him because of his vision. I saw on the set of ‘300,’ he won people over because he knows what he wants, and what he wants is great. He’s in this unique position now where he is a brand name. Like Quentin [Tarantino], there’s this perception that his take on pop culture is so singular and right that he gets to break the rules.”
Miller got famous for fight scenes that played like ballet across comic book pages bounded by rooftop water towers and dingy alleyways of Hell’s Kitchen in New York. Now he is far from his New York world and getting further from comics, where he has been a beloved figure; if this Hollywood player’s romance is a passing affair, can he comfortably go back to just the small pages? “That’s the hardest question. I love that community and love the freedom I have had there and the success there and appreciation. But I’m on this new adventure right now.”