“Hello there.” was the decidedly low key opening to the latest round of Frank Miller and Charles Brownstein’s self described dog and pony show of questions, answers and general verbal abuse, held this past weekend at the New York Comic-Con.
The format had Brownstein asking questions that Miller fielded, before holding an auction to benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, with queries from the audience to follow.
Brownstein didn’t offer any fluffy questions, starting off by asking how Miller was able, from “Dark Knight Returns” to “Dark Knight Strikes Back” to the recently announced “Holy Terror Batman!,” to capture the zeitgeist of an age so accurately in so many different time periods.
“Mostly from reading newspapers and the internet.” Miller said. The tradition of having comics reflect the times they live has fallen off since the days of Frederic Wertham’s near industry killing “Seduction of the Innocent,” but it was commonplace in the forties when characters like Superman and Captain America routinely fought real world evils like Hitler and Mussolini. By turning away from this, by becoming apolitical, superheroes have rendered themselves irrelevant.
But according to Miller, they don’t have to be. Inspired by artists like R.Crumb, Miller has aspired to have his stories reflect his viewpoint of the world, showing the audience the world as he sees it. Superheroes should interact with the real world.
“Superheroes are folk heroes,” said Miller, “and how can folk heroes not interact with folk?”
Superheroes have a great symbolic value. They may dress up in funny costumes, but really they dress up as gods, living out lives on an epic scale, just as heroes like Achilles did for the ancient Romans. The power of the symbols they represent gives them great power, and they can still be relevant. Miller often works with Batman, partly because he is his favorite childhood hero, and partly because he considers Batman to be the most powerful of the mythic characters– an elevated mortal– and Miller always wants to have the biggest megaphone for his work.
When asked why comics were experiencing such a boom in popular culture, particularly in the movie, Miller’s answer was simple.
“Because we’re taking over.”
But the real reason, in Miller’s mind, was because comics are a smaller, more intimate way of expressing creativity. Movies, because of the money involved, have to move through a system that has a tendency to strip them of their edge, making them a more homogenized product.
Because comics are smaller in scale, involving a few people and relatively little money, they have a purity that movies can’t approach. This makes them a resource for movies to tap, a way to bring in fresh blood and fresh ideas.
The audiences that make movies like “Spider-Man” and “Batman Begins” a success, by Miller’s reckoning, are reacting to the primal mythic qualities that comics often entail. They play out ancient themes that humans are wired to react to on some basic level.
Beyond that, it’s just the shock of the new. While most of the stuff in these movies is old hat to comics fans, there are a whole lot of people for whom these are things they’ve never seen before.
“For them, it’s wild stuff,” said Miller.
Asked about the stigma of comics, Miller said he felt the stigma, a result of 1950s hysteria, was something that now largely existed in the minds of fans, a sort of self loathing that we’ve yet to overcome. There are a lot of people who are open to comics now, seeing it as a legitimate art form. It’s largely comics themselves that haven’t got it.
Part of that is, according to Miller, conflicting desires to be both noticed and still under the radar, an attitude born of years of prejudice against the forms, a survival mechanism that is not only unnecessary, but counterproductive.
Speaking to the people who say that comics should simply be escapism, not speaking to current woes and simply serving as an escape mechanism, Miller said “There are an awful lot of people ready to give you exactly what you want.”
If, Brownstein asked, images have that much power, as indicated by the so called cartoon jihad that sprung up as a result of a Danish cartoon, then what in Miller’s opinion is the responsibility of the image makers.
Miller believes that the “cartoon jihad” is simply another ploy to raise the anger of an element that is dedicated to the downfall of civilization, and not a true and natural reaction to the art.
The jihadists are being written off, much like how the civilized world tried to convince itself that Hitler wasn’t a real threat. Because the goal of world domination seems crazy to us, we convince ourselves they can’t succeed. This is a response that, by Miller’s estimation, is not serving western civilization well.
But image makers do have a responsibility, in Miller’s view. And that responsibility is to a do a good job. To try and represent the truth as they see it. A lot of artists and image makers are shirking this now, trying to skirt the issue because they have a fear of being blown up or otherwise injured.
Miller doesn’t feel comfortable proscribing a set of ethics for artists that aren’t him, saying, simply ‘Their ethics should be whatever are their ethics.’
They should do what they feel is right and true. This is the code Miller aspires, to give a representation of the world as he sees it, as true as he can make. He compared the cartoonists function as akin to an assassin armed with sucker tipped arrows. They can annoy and provoke, but their ability to do more than that is limited. Instead of a limitation, this serves to give the artist a certain amount of freedom, the ability to go beyond the bounds others might be restrained by.
Comics can affect culture by allowing the world in, reflecting what we see. There is a reason, Miller says, that most of the great comics heroes were created by Jewish people that lived through the early part of the century. To a certain extent, they were creating a golem, a hero they needed to exist. Their comics were a response to they times they lived, something that comics have largely gotten away from and need to return if they’re going to be a significant voice in modern culture.
Brownstein asked Miller about the wilder, more satiric edge that’s seen in much of Miller’s more recent works. He said it was simple a response to the world we live in.
“The world, she do spin mad. These are wild times,” said Miller.
Also, simply, he’s grown tired of the gloomy approach to superheroes, an approach that, ironically, he is considered of the progenitors of with “Dark Knight Returns.” He thinks that while the situations the heroes find themselves in might be gloomy and bleak, the heroes themselves should be more upbeat.
“If I could fly, I’d probably have a smile on my face.” said Miller.
Miller’s tale of Spartan warriors in “300” is coming to the big screen in a work that Miller says is very faithful to his book and a very complex and gorgeous movie. The Spartans are definitely his Spartans, and while they might not be perfectly historically accurate, they sure look cool.
Miller feels that the story of “300”– where a small band of Spartan warriors fend off a vast Persian army in a battle that probably saved modern civilization-still has relevance today, reflecting the struggle in the middle east and the fight of modern society against certain fundamentalist Islamic groups.
The next “Sin City” film, Miller’s next Hollywood, or at least Austin, venture could start shooting as early as this summer. The script is mostly complete, featuring “A Dame To Kill For” as its main tale, backed up by several shorter stories, including a brand new story about Nancy Callahan, played in the movie by Jessica Alba, after the suicide of her long time champion Hartigan.
“I’m really looking forward to casting Ava,” Miller joked.
Miller learned two very important things working on the first “Sin City” movie. The first was the importance of sticking to your guns. There were times, Miller said, when he wanted to change a scene from how he had originally written it, only to be told it was too late by co director Robert Rodriguez. Miller had already inked them.
The second was the joy of working with actors. The experience energized him, watching actors take the characters and bring them to life.
For the future, Miller just wants to continue to tell stories, regardless of the medium. Whether it’s comics or movies, telling stories is what he’s always done, and what he always wants to do.
After Brownstein was done, they did a lightning quick auction of items donated by Miller to help benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. A script to “All Star Batman and Robin” from Frank’s personal files, signed by the man himself, went for a cool $175. A copy of the comic adaptation of Miller’s original script for “Robocop 2” went for only $30, but a slightly dog eared copy of “Spawn/Batman” went for $75, and a sealed and graded copy of “All Star Batman and Robin” #1, signed by Miller and artist Jim Lee, went for $175, bringing the auction to total to more than $400 dollars. Not bad for less than five minutes of auctioning.
Audience questions came last, as fans lineup behind two microphones to ask their most burning questions. The first question out of the gate was on the supposed gloomy state of comics, and how much could be laid at Miller’s feet.
“Hey,” Miller said, “Don’t blame me.”
The problem is that heroes have lost their focus. The thing about the Flash that’s cool is that he moves real fast, not his marital woes. New books need to get back to what makes heroes interesting, their mythic qualities.
When asked whether he plans on making fun of certain figures or not, Miller said that he simply makes fun of whoever is in charge. Right now, though, he has a strong interest in the survival of western civilization, a theme that informs his work.
He works with Batman, simply, because Batman was always his favorite, and because the human qualities of Batman always appealed to him. Batman doesn’t have powers; he has intelligence and gadgets and will.
“For Christ’s sake,” said Miller, “he’s a superhero who needs a car.”
He hasn’t, rumors to the contrary, seen “V for Vendetta,” so any comments that he’s supposedly made on the quality or lack there of the film are simply false.
Miller ended things by giving some tips to the aspiring cartoonists in the crowd. Don’t draw from comics, he said, learn what things actually look like. Wally Wood once pointed out that when you imitate another artist, all you seem to get right are their flaws. Work on getting good at representing things as they are before you get stylized– you need the basic skills first.
For writers, you need to read. Not just comics, read everything, other genres, other mediums. If you don’t, it’ll show.
“If you write,’ said Miller, “You read. There’s no way to get around it.”
With that, he thanked the crowd with a goodbye as simple as his greeting.
CBR’s coverage of the New York Comic-Con is Sponsored by Comics Unlimited.