Shooting Frank Miller: Comics in Hollywood

Frank Miller wrote and drew the original sin city comic books and was writer on the classic batman graphic novels, Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, which were a major influence on the new film Batman Begins. He has recently co-directed a film version of Sin City.

By Little Ben

In recent years Hollywood’s production of films based on comic books has gone from what was already a glut to being the standard summer blockbuster to go with your oversized popcorn. While film producers will continue to plunder this vast resource of ready-made heroes, inventively twisted bad guys and predictable moral outcomes, something a bit different is happening in the films made from, or inspired by, the comics of Frank Miller.

Make no mistake: Batman Begins is a lowest common denominator action flick and an enjoyable one at that, but the darker influence of Miller’s origin comic Batman: Year One can still be felt in some scenes. While begins attempts to erase the ethical ambiguity at the heart of the caped crusader (Christian Bale), it can only do so by feebly confronting it, explaining it away through the idealism of a clumsy love interest (Katie Holmes). This is Miller’s influence at work. We might be able to recognise the gothic style from the previous Batman outings on the silver screen, but the need to justify the hero’s raison d’être – and Gotham City’s tolerance of a violent vigilante – comes direct from Miller.

With his groundbreaking comic Dark Knight Returns (1986), he reinvented a toothless character most associated with the visual sound effects of the 60s TV series (of Adam West fame) and turned him into a symbol of righteous vengeance inhabited by a brilliant billionaire psychopath. What’s more, this Batman didn’t live in a world which idealised him, it was a media savvy environment of spin and counter-spin firmly entrenched in Reagan’s USA. Miller’s Batman was part of a revolution in comics that (along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen) was an injection of realism into a medium most people normally considered the realm of adolescent male fantasy. Problems wouldn’t be explained away with convenient super powers, people had to have convincing motives for their behaviour, the police weren’t incorruptible, and politics was about power not ideals. Every movement made by Bruce Wayne (as himself or Batman) was accompanied by a comics panel turned news screen: television psychologists would condemn the protector of gotham even as popular polls were praising him. Miller’s influence was decisive for a comics industry collapsing under the weight of its own internal complexities, instead of going deeper into comics lore, he brought the outside into comics land changing the superhero forever. Batman Begins may still end within a moral logic that reasserts justice over vengeance, but it is an unconvincing one and thanks for that can go to Miller.

If Batman: Year One was about looking at the news media through comics, the Sin City graphic novels were an exploration of the cinematic. Sin City the comics to Sin City the film, is about as close a conversion as could be possible between the media. Much of the negative criticism aimed at Miller’s directorial debut (jointly with Robert Rodriguez) reflects exactly what it was trying to achieve. At the risk of sounding tautological, the film is a brilliant adaptation of a comic that was trying to distil the filmic essence in the comics form. Now the clever-dick critics out there will respond by saying that the comic must have been pretty bad to start with if the film came out as such a pile of junk. But they would be missing the point.

The connections between comics and films go back to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and have operated in both directions. Welles wanted to do something different with the near unlimited creative freedom he’d been given to make the film, yet he’d never directed cinema in his life. His experience was as a broadcaster and theatre director, and much as Miller would look outside the convention of his medium in the 1980s, so did Welles in 1941 make a film about a news broadcast. More importantly for comics, Welles took perspectives found in the audience of a proscenium arch and replicated them in film. Shortly after the release of Kane, comics started to change: the flat side-on perspectives were replaced by a roving comics eye. While Welles’ had to dig up studio floors or construct elaborate rigs to get his desired shots, the freedom of perspective he inspired in the work of comics artists like Will Eisner was unlimited.

For many in film this is due to a very simple relationship – comics are nothing more or less than glorified storyboards. If that’s the case why Frank Miller made a filmic comic gets easily explained: he wanted to make a film but didn’t have the resources (and perhaps he shouldn’t have got them some of you might say after seeing Sin City). Yet the comic wasn’t filmic in a film sense – it was filmic in a comic book sense. If this is understood, the film will come across in a very different light. Sure, its full of exaggerated violence, hyperbolic sadism and carries itself with an over the top film noir style, stealing its plot structure from the oeuvre of its guest director Quentin Tarantino. But that’s comic books for you. Sin City on paper was an interpretation of film but it was still a comic, and comics work by condensing movements into a still frame through exaggeration. If a comic is going to do film noir it has to scream the conventions of the genre from every spec of ink and if it is going to imitate film itself at the same time, it has to step into the difference between the stasis and motion, silence and noise. In Miller’s comic, sound effects take up the whole page, everything in every panel is moving, swirling around the page in black and white: its doing film or as close to it as a comic can – but its still a comic. The point is, so is the film: it's so true to the comic book that the movie is almost imitating itself, imitating itself  – working too hard to be what it already was: a film. the only thing the movie added was a musical score, and that was spot on. But if you think the film doesn’t work the reason is simple, comic books aren’t story boards and Frank Miller has shown us that in more ways than one.
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