Throughout the eighties and nineties, Frank Miller was one of comics most outspoken political voices. In a number of articles and speeches, he has addressed the role of artist in relation to the publisher, coming out consistently on the side of creator empowerment. In the eighties he positioned himself in the front lines of the fight for Creator’s Rights and in the nineties led by example by devoting himself to creator-owned projects.
As he enters the next decade of his career with The Dark Knight Strikes Back, Miller throws an interesting curve into his record. In the following interview, Charles Brownstein quizzes Miller about the implications of this high profile return to work-made-for-hire and examines his perspective on the art and commerce of comics as we enter the 21st century.
CHARLES BROWNSTEIN: What are the political and creative implications of returning to Dark Knight, in the sense that this marks a departure from your rhetoric of the early nineties?
FRANK MILLER: It is a departure in that I have said repeatedly that the most important thing an artist can do in comics is to create new things and to go in new directions. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the last ten years. This is a departure from that. I’m gonna take a year of my life and reexamine the old stuff and try to bring some of its luster back. If it’s a contradiction, I’m contradictory. That’s what I wanna do with this year. After that I’ve got something entirely different planned.
“I’m gonna take a year of my life and reexamine the old stuff and try to bring some of its luster back. If it’s a contradiction, I’m contradictory. That’s what I wanna do with this year.”
– Frank Miller
CB: What message are you sending to a young cartoonist by going back to playing with DC’s toys when you can do whatever project you want?
FM: I think that seven volumes of Sin City and 300 and all the other things that I’ve done are evidence enough of where my career’s going. It should be long enough now that nobody would think that I need to do this. It’s one year out of my career. I can’t direct that career thinking to guide other people. I do what I want to do. I’m not changing course and going from being a modern singer to an Elvis impersonator. This is more like trying to be Elvis Costello doing “Almost Blue.” He was putting as much love into those old country tunes as possible. After that, he went on to do what he was gonna do.
In this case, the fact is, the story I want to tell involves characters that I don’t own. I come in with my eyes open about that fact. There’ll be some new characters I’m throwing into this, and you won’t hear any bitter interviews about how I don’t own them. Work-made-for-hire is just an option that artists have. I wouldn’t make a steady diet of it, but it’ll be a bunch of fun this time.
CB: What then does this say about where Creator’s Rights are right now? What does it mean when you say that work-for-hire is just another option among options?
FM: It’s like saying there’s a menu out there. One can create and own, which is by far my preference most of the time. I guess I’ve stopped being a rebel in the sense that I know the rules of the game. I created Sin City. I own it. I did not create Batman. If I want to make a Batman comic book, I’m taking a very different role than I have been lately.
We’ve gotta be honest here. If you draw Spider-Man, you’re coming in with a lot of stuff that they’re handing you. You’re playing with their franchise and of course they own it. There’s no reason to squabble about that. They just have to pay more for it, that’s all.
Everything’s changed. It’s amazing that people still even use the term Creator’s Rights as frequently as they do because, in a fundamental sense, that battle was won a long time ago. Enough publishers conceded the key issues – and enough new ones came along ready to admit that an author is an author – that whining now about those rights isn’t just bad form, it’s utterly irrelevant.
“It’s amazing that people still even use the term Creator’s Rights as frequently as they do because, in a fundamental sense, that battle was won a long time ago.”
– Frank Miller
CB: Now that the battles of the eighties and nineties are over, what are the battles facing comics in the first decade of their new century?
FM: Survival, of course. And, as always, censorship, that’s a never-ending battle. Ever since Thomas Jefferson wrote the First Amendment it’s been under siege and that won’t stop.
The more we produce comics that new people want to read, the more we’ll have firefights with the cultural watchdogs. These are fights worth having and could, I believe, benefit us as the word spreads far and wide that we aren’t just kiddie fare – and that we aren’t just a sorry cousin of the electronic media. “Movies on paper,” all that crap – it’s not true of the artform and it isn’t true of the best of what comics can do. A censorship battle or three and who knows? – we might just emerge recognized as a small, dynamic, outlaw field producing works that Hollywood would never have the guts to attempt.
But first we’ve got to recognize within our own field what is fresh and new. Sometimes I wish that San Diego and SPX could swap sizes, or at least that the SPX crowd could have a stronger presence at that convention. I don’t suggest that the SPX crowd is necessarily saving the industry. I don’t believe that all of them are very good, but there are some very bright spots among them. There isn’t yet a discernable movement there, but there is fresh blood and new ideas.
I guess what I see lacking in that is, for lack of a better term, the boot camp. Honing the skills that in the old days we did have to learn. Every revolution has its price and the price of the Creator’s Rights revolution has been that people never learned to work in a rhythm. I’m not saying the rhythm of a monthly comic, I just mean to work in a rhythm so that the comic book exists in time – is a narrative, not a set piece – and is not just a precious little pearl. There are matters of discipline and craft that have been sliding out of comics steadily. I don’t know how people who come into some one-shots and a bunch of trading cards and then produce very little for the rest of their careers get by. There’s a certain process that we went through in my early days at Marvel that made me able to understand what a comic book was and how to produce one, not like lightning, but in a timely fashion. That is how I believe comic books have to be produced. I believe the narrative is more important than any other aspect of comics. You move through a comic; you don’t linger that much. I think comics should be produced in the same manner. It’s not a horse race, but there has to be continuity – panel-to-panel continuity, I mean. A comic book has to live and breathe, like any narrative. To do so, it needs to be produced with a certain dispatch, or it withers on the vine.
I’m slower than some, faster than most, but I keep going. Issuing one pearl every ten years doesn’t cut it.
CB: What are some basic matters of discipline that a young artist should be aware of if he’s serious about going the distance as a cartoonist?
FM: It varies from person to person. The most important one, especially when you’re developing your method – your own way of working, which varies wildly from artist to artist – is not mixing your stages of work. I break it down into many, many stages. I do roughs on vellum with a laundry marker, and I do a lot of them, sometimes five or ten for each page. I do them quickly so I can get the shapes and the composition down. Then I can move it around however I want, because I trace it off onto a pencil drawing. A lot of people try to start at one corner and then halfway through a page that they really killed themselves on they realize that there’s something wrong with it. Then they have to start the whole arduous process again. That’s a loser’s game. It drains your energy.
A lot of it is just simple work habits. Focus! Avoid distractions. Far too many comic book people have televisions in their studios, which is madness. I suggest an early schedule, but that varies from person to person. Kirby worked nights, so I can’t argue with that. Mainly, make sure when you’re working that you’re working. A lot of people think that they’re working when they’re doing other things. They’re talking on the phone, they’re working on their Hollywood deal, they have TV in their peripheral vision, and while they’re doing all that, they don’t realize how few hours they actually spend working.
CB: We seem to be in the middle of a trend wherein key artists of your generation are returning to earlier themes or making breakthroughs on paths they embarked on when they were starting out. Part of this trend can be seen in the completion of work like From Hell, another part can be seen in the appearance of Reinventing Comics, The Dark Knight Strikes Back, and to a certain extent, ABC. What does this trend mean for comics right now?
FM: What we’re seeing is a generation coming into its full power. That’s what I like about what’s happening now. As a culture we’re obsessed with people in their twenties in every way: from appearance to talent and everything else in between. Traditionally and I think historically the group of us who are now in our early forties are at exactly the age where artists usually take off. Everything pulls together and you actually move forward with it. I feel like I’m finally getting the hang of it. I haven’t reached a plateau or anything, but I’m at a very dynamic place where twenty-some years of experience are paying off in making me more decisive. It’s making me more willing to play with all the various devices in comic books. I’m discovering new things like crazy and faster than ever. It’s like moving into warp speed. That’s probably what makes it fun to go back to superheroes; it gives me a chance to apply what I’ve learned and see how it works out.