Frank Miller interview: It's no sin

A SMOKESCREEN appears to have been swirling around Frank Miller's movie of Will Eisner's seminal comic strip, The Spirit.

Two weeks before I was due to meet Miller to discuss his first solo directing project, a publicist informed me that work was still being done on the special effects and therefore I might only be able to see selected footage ahead of the interview. I wasn't worried: The Spirit was scheduled to open in America three weeks after the London junket. Of course it would be ready in time.

Come the day of the interview, however, selected footage was still all that was on offer – at least to us press folk. Samuel L Jackson, who plays the Spirit's arch nemesis, The Octopus, told journalists he had seen the film. This did not necessarily mean that some last-minute tweaking was not taking place. On the other hand, it wouldn't be surprising if the film's distributor was experiencing pre-release jitters brought on by months of negative blogging by comic-book fans.

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Many have been up in arms ever since the first trailer was unveiled. With its hard-boiled voice over, noirish mood, and shots of the film's hero running across rooftops in a digitally rendered cityscape, it made Miller's take on The Spirit seem closer to the movie of his own groundbreaking opus Sin City – which he co-directed with Robert Rodriguez – than to Eisner's colourful newspaper comic series.

Attempting to set the record straight, Miller counter-blogged on the Spirit movie site: "SIN CITY, that one's my own baby, folks, and it looks the way it does for its own reasons. THE SPIRIT is, and will always be, Eisner's SPIRIT." Part of the reason for the confusion, he suggested, was that the "kickass" teaser-trailer – unlike later ones – gave the "accidental impression" that The Spirit was black-and-white, whereas in fact it is a full-colour movie.

All the same, where the directors of Sin City and 300 treated his comics like sacred texts, The Spirit is a hybrid of two different sensibilities, admits Miller. In other words, his aesthetic fingerprints are all over it. This should not necessarily be cause for alarm, though. Miller did great things with Daredevil and Batman – neither of which he originated – in comic form. It was partly thanks to the influence of his classic 1986 story, The Dark Knight Returns, that the Caped Crusader finally escaped the camp trappings of the 1960s TV series in Tim Burton's Batman.

Talking to Miller, there is no doubting that his heart is in the right place or that his intentions are sincere when it comes to The Spirit. He was close friends with Eisner, who died in 2005, aged 87, for several decades, and loved the man and his work. Which is not to say that their relationship was always harmonious. As their heated conversations in the book Eisner/Miller show, they frequently disagreed about what they were doing as artists. Eisner, who pioneered the graphic novel in 1978 with A Contract with God, saw his work as a branch of literature, for instance.

"He and I had so many arguments about that," says Miller, laughing. "He would deny the obvious cinematic influence on him and he would say he was more influenced by theatre. I'd say, 'C'mon, you saw Citizen Kane. I can tell.' And he sought for comics to be next to prose, where I always thought of comics as being another scrappy form, messing in popular culture."

Their sensibilities were formed by different backgrounds, explains Miller. "We're completely different generations. He was a Bronx Jew. I was raised as Irish Catholic. (And] as much as those two have in common, including the love of storytelling and arguing, there are profound differences."

Miller was 13 when he discovered Eisner. He recalls that at the time, just two artists – Neal Adams and Jim Steranko – were, in his estimation, keeping comics alive. "But they were almost like monks keeping the faithful alive through a dark age," he says. "Then along comes this strange magazine that is called The Spirit: it's bigger than comics are, it's in black-and-white, and it's by Jim Warren. I opened it and my mind exploded. I thought, 'This is the hottest new artist around.' And then I noticed 'Originally published 1948'." He was reading a reprint. "I went, 'Who is this treasure?'"

The first Spirit story appeared in 1940. In it a detective called Denny Colt turns himself into a mysterious masked crimefighter – The Spirit – after apparently being murdered. More human than superhuman, he has no special powers, and survives frequent beatings simply by having a hard head. "What I particularly adored, since I was on the cusp of manhood," says Miller, "was the fact that the hero had adult motives, most of the time."

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One of his favourite stories was a two-parter featuring Colt's childhood sweetheart-gone-bad, Sand Saref (played by Eva Mendes in the film) – just one of the many beautiful, and sometimes dangerous, women with exotic names who drifted through the pages of The Spirit. "That's why the movie's more or less based on it," enthuses Miller, recalling what appealed to him. "It's all about romance and duty and honour, all these really Faulkner-like themes, whereas the rest of the comics out there (at the time] were about giant monsters, and big thick guys hitting big thick guys."

The Spirit was also noteworthy for, and influential because of, its rejection of formula. Eisner used the comic strip as a kind of storytelling laboratory in which he experimented with different genres and narrative modes. There were allegories, science fiction, stories told in verse, satire, children's stories, grim melodramas – virtually anything that could be contained in the space of a seven-page comic story. "Eisner was this young man throwing everything against the wall to see what stuck," says Miller, "and he made as many mistakes as he had triumphs. I think he'd agree with that. Some stuff is just plain lousy and other stuff is genius. It's like watching a form being born."

In technical terms, Miller's film is also at the cutting edge. Shooting against vast green screens on virtually empty sound stages, Miller says, he was able to work in a way that allowed his imagination to burn. Did he have as much freedom as when he is sitting at his drawing board? I ask. "It's very close," he says. "But this is a new adventure for me so I try not to compare the two. But I think that without the CGI, I don't know what my role in movies would be. This allows my mind to really go all over the place. I draw something and then (effects supervisor] Stu Maschwitz turns it into something astonishing. There are places in the movie where it feels like a brush drawing!"

But will the film feel like Will Eisner's The Spirit? In at least one respect, yes. Denny Colt/The Spirit still acts like a man rooted in the 40s. "His sense of not just honour but also of good manners is something that is part of that generation. And it's something that I really adore," says Miller.

"A lot of my intent behind this whole project was reclaiming masculinity for men at a time when men have been so feminised as to be androgynous. I think we've gone far enough in one direction with the petty, self-pitying kind of antihero," he offers. "And the idea of a hero that actually is not just pure of heart but decent in his behaviour is fresh now."

But not everything about the hero has stayed the same. Alarming to some fans is the way that his famous blue trench coat and matching fedora have become black (although his tie is still red). He has also acquired the power to heal quickly after being wounded and, judging by some of the trailers, can move with almost superhuman agility – aspects that might have concerned Eisner, who was always keen to stress that The Spirit was an ordinary flesh-and-blood man. The Octopus only ever appeared as a pair of gloved hands in the comic strip; now he is Samuel L Jackson. I cannot help wondering what Eisner would have made of it all.

Ultimately, the film is perhaps best viewed as a continuation of Miller's conversations with Eisner. Indeed, the late artist's presence was "deeply felt on set", says Miller, "but mostly as a challenge more than as a guide book."

As for whether his old mentor would approve of the film, Miller, despite all the flak from fans, is convinced that he would have been more disapproving if the younger artist had not tried to do something new with The Spirit. Eisner "would rise from the dead" if he'd indulged in nostalgia, Miller insists.

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"Will had no patience for nostalgia. To the end he was doing stories and, as he put it, he was writing for an audience that wasn't there, because his stories were more and more about ageing, and being in a position that comic-book readers simply aren't in.

"So I don't think Will would have respected me if I had been slavishly faithful. I think he would have been pretty disgusted with me."

• The Spirit is released on 1 January

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