If you queue up any recent movie or TV show based on comic book superheroes, the odds are good it’s based on Frank Miller’s work. The legendary comic writer/artist’s influence can be felt everywhere from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (heavily based on Miller’s landmark 1986 comic Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) to Netflix’s Daredevil TV adaptation (largely influenced by Miller’s run on the character in the early ‘80s). Miller’s work added new darkness and gravitas to superheroes that have since become de rigueur for comic book storytelling. Unlike fellow ’80s comic book legend Alan Moore, however, Miller has not renounced superheroes. In fact, he’s recently returned to The Dark Knight Returns with a new sequel, Dark Knight III: The Master Race (with co-writer Brian Azzarello and artist Andy Kubert). Ahead of a retrospective panel about Miller’s DC work at this year’s New York Comic Con, EW caught up with Miller to see what keeps him coming back to superheroes like Batman, and what’s changed in comics in the years since he started.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: With Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, you gave two of the most popular, definitive takes on Batman decades ago. After all these years, what keeps you coming back to Batman?
FRANK MILLER: Batman’s just a terrific character, open to wildly different interpretations. If you look at the animated version with Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, that works. The old Adam West show works. The Denny O’Neill/Neal Adams run was remarkable. Dick Sprang, Bob Kane, and through to the stuff that I did with cops and men, and on to other people’s versions, he’s astonishingly versatile. He’s kind of like a diamond. You can throw him against the wall and you can pound him with a hammer, but you can’t break him. Every interpretation seems to work. Hell, when I was a kid, they had a comic come out featuring the Rainbow Batman of all different colors. When I was a kid, I bought it and loved it. You can do it badly, but you can’t really do it wrong.
What do you think it is about Batman that allows for these different interpretations? Is there something elemental about him?
Yeah. The most simple, obvious appeal is that he looks great. Beyond that, there’s an emotional appeal that’s iconic. It’s simple, simpler than Superman. Superman is wonderfully simple: Exploding planet, superpowers, good guy. In Batman’s case, it’s a kid whose parents are murdered when he’s very young, and he has a lot of money, so he decides to dedicate his life and his fortune to making the world make sense. The best way I could put it about Batman is that a lesser man would’ve become a villain from that trauma. Because he’s a hero, he became a force for good, and because he’s a genius, he was very good at it and made himself a cave full of the best toys in the universe.
What was it like revisiting the specific Dark Knight Returns version of him with Dark Knight III?
It’s been an adventure revisiting all these characters in different ways with Brian. They’re all a bit older, but some of the same fun with the same toys had to be had. There can’t be a Dark Knight story where Batman does not humiliate Superman in some way. My feeling has always been, since the first Dark Knight, that the secret lead character is Carrie Kelly. In fact, the whole Dark Knight saga, the leads are the daughters of the iconic heroes. Any future story I would do with it would more pointedly focus on Carrie and Lara.
Lara’s one of the most fascinating parts of Dark Knight III.
She gets better every time I touch her. I love drawing her, I love writing her. I love her anger, and I love her lack of understanding about things. I guess there’s a part of me that always wished he had a daughter, because I feel like a father writing these characters. To me, it’s refreshing to have female characters in comics who aren’t there for sex appeal.
How does it feel to see so many of these big-budget comic adaptations (like Batman v Superman and Netflix’s Daredevil) based on your work?
Well I haven’t watched the Netflix show, so I don’t know anything about it. It’s probably better I don’t see it, because I just don’t like anybody touching Elektra. I’ve got my own take on her and so on, in the same way that I’m really glad every time they do a Batman movie and they don’t use Carrie Kelly. I’m just so protective of those characters and don’t want anybody else to touch them. With Batman V Superman, I felt like they… let me put it this way: When you work on a DC or Marvel character, the conditions of employment are that you are adding to a collective work. It’s an honest trade between someone like me and the publisher. They get their stuff dusted off, freshened up, and given new life; I get access to characters I wouldn’t otherwise have. I can’t go off and do an original work that will have the gravitas of Superman, and they can’t keep Superman going without people like me. So we work together.
How have you seen recognition of individual comics creators change over the course of your career? You were one of the first voices way back when saying Jack Kirby wasn’t getting enough credit for all the Marvel stuff he helped create. How has that changed?
Kirby wasn’t even getting his original artwork back. Early on in comics, a pivotal figure in my career and in the whole way of conducting myself as a professional was Neal Adams. He had a shop in Manhattan that was like a halfway house for comic book artists. We’d get stray TV advertising work to keep us alive, because the payment for doing comic books was so low that people really couldn’t have a decent livelihood. He changed the way we thought. He always said, “comic book artists back in the ’50s were people who had nice homes and were able to put their kids through school. We oughta be like that. And rates were high enough that you could do work that was memorable. You didn’t have to draw two books a month in order to get by.” And so while I was trained in the old system and became someone who could draw quickly and make decisions quickly, Neal led the charge and people of my generation helped change the field, to everyone’s benefit. It was more equitable. Because of his vision, and because of figures like Jenette Kahn and Paul Levitz, the mentality of it changed. We got royalties – first called “incentives,” and then became actual royalties. The books got better, and the sales got better.
I have a copy of the new giant-sized edition of Sin City at my office. It’s so fun to read, and also so unlike anything else. People who walk by my desk, even people who aren’t into comics at all, are kind of wowed by it. What do you like about reissuing them in that size?
Well for one thing, it’s just plain fun. Beyond that, I think it’s good for people, especially artists, to see the work warts and all. It’s pretty easy to see where I went wrong, all the places with whiteout smeared over it, the places where it was re-lettered, things are pasted up and all that. That’s the main thing, but for me the separate joy is all of a sudden you’re holding a comic book that’s the size it was when you were a kid. That’s why I loved it back when DC did those wonderful editions that were tabloid-size, like Superman vs. Muhammad Ali and things like that. All of a sudden you were a five-year-old reading a comic book because it was that big. I like anything that changes format, anything that changes the rules. With DC I’m talking over every conceivable permutation of project that could be done. The audience has opened up its minds and expanded, and with a publisher that has the resources like DC, the sky’s the limit. We could start taking wild chances and discovering new things.
Anything specific you have in mind?
Everything. I’m talking over some projects with DC that probably aren’t best to discuss until we get serious about them, most of them involving Carrie Kelly, who I want to use for some major projects. But it’s time to have fun. Why not bring back the flipbook? I think it’s important, since we’re working in the publishing medium, to remind people of the things publishing can do that computers can’t. Comic books can’t really work as an online product, because they’re competing with animation. But there is an intimacy and portability to comic books that is unlike anything else.
I’m sure you’re used to being compared to Alan Moore throughout your career. He has repeatedly sworn off superheroes and comic books. In contrast, what keeps you interested in them?
It’s really a strange comparison. We’re friends, but we’re not like each other. It’s just because of timing. Alan and I have different views of the universe. I love heroes, I believe in heroism. I also adore fantasy, and so I’m drawn back to these superheroes. Their mythology is open to infinite expansion, and the basic myth is irresistible. They got so much right in that first Superman movie, down to the tagline “you’ll believe a man can fly.” That’s our job.