Frank Miller and ‘The Spirit’ of Will Eisner

Nov. 02, 2008 | 3:54 p.m.



The big Holiday Sneaks issue of the Los Angeles Times Calendar section hit the street today and it’s got amazing stuff in it. (It will probably be selling on EBay for $20 in a few weeks for the “Twilight” coverage alone.) The editor of the special section, Elena Howe, sent me up to the Bay Area a few months ago to get the lowdown on “The Spirit,” the Christmas Day release that will mark the solo directorial debut of Frank Miller. Here’s the story I came back with (although you can expect to see at least two more articles in The Times and more posts here at Hero Complex; I have a lot left in the notebook). –G.B.

Hoiliday_sneaks_3SAN FRANCISCO — No comic-book creator has seen his work brought to the screen with more reverence than Frank Miller, whose ultra-violent graphic novels “300” and “Sin City” were adapted to film practically panel by panel. “It is very strange,” Miller said, “to draw something and then have it come alive in front of you. You start to feel like a low-rent god, but, in my case, one with major feet of clay.”

This minor deity, who favors fedoras and Winston cigarettes, is now attempting a new type of Hollywood trick and it starts on Christmas Day, no less; that’s the release date of “The Spirit,” the superhero film that Miller hopes will complete his unlikely transformation from comic-book artist to successful movie director, a career path that did not seem possible even at the start of this decade. “The Dark Knight” and “Iron Man” may have racked up historic box-office numbers this summer, but if Miller succeeds with this particular pop-culture leap, it will be the most dramatic proof that comics have become hard-wired into the circuitry of Hollywood.

Interestingly, Miller, the most important comic-book artist of the last 25 years, chose to make his solo directorial debut with somebody else’s superhero, and a relatively obscure and vintage one at that. The Spirit was created in 1940 by the late, great Will Eisner, a beloved figure in comics who brought a cinematic flair to his drawing board that influenced several generations. No one admired Eisner more than Miller — in 2005, shortly after Eisner’s death, the book “Eisner/Miller” hit shelves with 350 pages of collected conversation between the artists as a sort of comic-book-sector version of the landmark 1967 film book “Hitchcock/Truffaut.”

“I adored Will Eisner and took a real ‘Don’t tread on me’ approach when I came to this movie. At the same time, I was willing to tread all over it. I knew Will always wanted to do something fresh and new, not some stodgy old thing that aspires to be revered. I don’t want anybody to bow to this movie. I want a ripping good yarn. It is not an antique.”

Samuel_l_jackson_spirit The film is certainly of the moment with its “digital backlot” approach — it was filmed against a green screen at a production complex in New Mexico and the backgrounds and settings were added well after the acting was done. With its dramatic use of color, stylized grit and dream-time physics, it will remind some viewers of “Sin City,” the 2005 film co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Miller that served as the comic-book artist’s crash course in filmmaking. Unlike that film, however, “The Spirit” is laced with a fedora romance and screwball-comedy sensibility that makes it a digitalized kindred soul to “Dick Tracy,” Warren Beatty’s 1990 film.

The_spirit_and_pgell_2“It’s very different than the look and feel of ‘Sin City’ and ‘300’ because the source material is so different,” Miller said earlier this year while taking a break from his labors at the Orphanage, a postproduction facility in San Francisco’s Presidio. ” ‘The Spirit’ is its own, full-color world.”

“The Spirit” stars Gabriel Macht as the title character, who starts the film as an ambitious rookie cop named Denny Colt before he dons his domino mask. The young cop is murdered but then apparently comes back from the dead — even he’s not sure how or why, but he learns that the sinister crime lord called the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) has the answers he needs. The villain, meanwhile, wants to get his hands on the mystery man to exploit his back-from-the-grave ability. Some of the contours of the film are different from the old comics — the Octopus was never even shown in the old days (he was just a pair of gloves in Eisner’s panels), and Colt comes “back from the dead” with something close to invulnerability as well as a sort of pheromone boost that makes women swoon. “The old Eisner comics were loaded with romance, beautiful and dangerous women, and that was a way to explain the sparks flying between the Spirit and every woman he meets,” Miller explained.

Miller has a cast stacked with high-glamour actresses: Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes, Jaime King and Paz Vega all play beautiful women with bad intentions, while Sarah Paulson is the Spirit’s frazzled girlfriend, Ellen Dolan, the proto-feminist daughter of the city police commissioner who has to contend with all the people who want to get their hands on the Spirit — whether it’s to punch him or kiss him. Another update: Spirit’s girlfriend is now a surgeon, a career Miller says is a melding of nurturing heart and brainy realism.

My_city_screams_2 The biggest differences between “The Spirit” and “Sin City” or “300” are the romances and the cartoon combat; the Spirit and Octopus both have a sort of Wile E. Coyote invincibility by the time they duke it out and they whack each other with cinder blocks, spanner wrenches and even a toilet with a jolly unreality that makes the film seem something like “The Mask” meets “Green Hornet.” Jackson said it was a giddy time on the set filming the escalating mayhem.

“There are some great scenes where we just go at it,” Jackson said, although he added that Miller found a way to keep the loopy universe true to itself. “Frank knew what he wanted to do. You look at this movie and you can tell it’s his. Nobody else would make this movie this way, which is why he’s doing movies now.”

That may be a bit of a sore spot, though. Eisner’s humanistic and often gentle, Capra-like approach to his character has many comics fans wondering why Miller — famous for spilling vats of blood-red ink in his comics — is taking the old man’s winking Spirit into a Sin City. Miller welcomes all that.

“I’m sure when this movie comes out, it will stir up a fiery debate,” the artist-turned-auteur said. “People have been loving the way comic books have been reaching the screen, but I don’t like when everybody drinks the Kool-Aid. I like to shake things up and tell the story the best way possible. And I can tell you first hand, that’s what Will Eisner liked too.”

— Geoff Boucher


Frank Miller drops an F-bomb in “All Star Batman and Robin,” calls it “terrible and glorious”

Mr. T, Superman and why Frank Miller thinks Sylvester Stallone would make a good Batman

Frank Miller’s Hollywood adventure: “I’m ready for my fatwa.”

Photos: Frank Miller by Robert Durell/Los Angeles Times. Samuel L. Jackson as the Octopus in “The Spirit” courtesy of Odd Lot and Lionsgate. The comic-book image is courtesy of DC Comics.

More in: Uncategorized, Frank Miller, The Spirit, Will Eisner


8 Responses to Frank Miller and ‘The Spirit’ of Will Eisner

  1. Serge says:

    I'd like inform you that Scarlett Johansson (actress)actually is a clone from original person,who has nothing with acting career.Clone was created illegally using stolen biomaterial.Original Scarlett Galabekian last name is nice, CHRISTIAN young lady.I'll tell more,those clones(it's not only 1)made in GERMANY-world leader manufacturer of humans clones,it's in Ludwigshafen am Rhein,Rhineland-Palatinate,Mr.Helmut Kohl home town.You can't even imaging the scale of the cloning activity.But warning,H.Kohl staff strictly controlling their clones spreading around the world,they're NAZI type disciplined and mind controlled,be careful get close with clones you will be controlled too.Original family didn't authorize any activity with stolen biomaterials,no matter what form it was created in,it's all need to be back to original family control in Cedars-Sinai MedicalCenter in LA.Controlling clones is US military operation.Original Scarlett never was engaged,by the way

  2. Quinn Que says:

    It's disappointing to see a journalist produce such an inaccurate and unobjective piece. Why are Frank Miller and Will Eisner only described as "artists"? One might be led to believe, based on this, that the comics genre is nothing but pretty pictures. Alas, it is far more. Although Miller has indeed illustrated works such as his own Sin City narrative, he's primarily known as a writer. Furthermore, Frank is far from "the most important comic-book artist of the last 25 years". Honestly, Frank's art is only three star at best. I truly feel for true artistic greats like Jack Kirby, George Pérez, Jim Lee or Michael Turner? I promise you, Geoff, if Miller–rather than Lee–had been illustrating All Star Batman and Robin, it wouldn't have sold nearly as well.
    As for the Spirit, I can't help but think that Miller's respect for Eisner is more than finite. The WRITER/director even admits as much, saying "I was willing to tread all over [Will Eisner's the Spirit]". But of course, such concerns of Eisner fans receive only a passing acknowledgement.
    Ironic; Geoff is at once quite obviously fawning over Miller, yet oddly dismissive of the writer/director's real claim to fame.

  3. Geoff Boucher says:

    So Quinn, who would you say is the most important comic book artist of the past 25 years?
    Miller's new work published in that specific time period has had more influence, success and (especially) pop-culture impact than any of the people mention in your comment. Unless you think Kirby's final months on "Captain Victory" stacks up to his 1960s work in its cultural resonance…

  4. Geoff-
    Jim Lee. It was his popularity that jump started the X-Men books (again!), led the the formation of Image and who's style influenced nearly every mainstream superhero penciler since.
    It doesn't help that he's also easily the best artist in the past 25 years.
    I LOVE Miller, don't get me wrong, But it's his STORYTELLING ability that makes him so incredible, both with words and pictures. I used to hate John Romita Jr., but after reading Man Without Fear, I realized that Frank Miller is such a magnificent storyteller that he can take a subpar artist and make a great story with it. Of course, JRJr's art is more "street level", that might have helped.
    As a side note, I never though Alan Moore worked with an artist who was quite as good as he was a writer.

  5. Geoff Boucher says:

    Ambrose, thanks for the comment. Lee may be a BETTER artist in the minds of many fans but I'd still say that Miller is the more IMPORTANT artist.
    If you subtracted Lee's work from the comics sector, it would not look that different than it does today. That's not true of Miller. Lee is extremely popular and extremely talented, but Miller changed the rules. Miller is more important as a storyteller? Yep, I agree, but art IS storytelling in comics, if they are done right.
    Miller's art on "The Dark Knight Returns," "Ronin," "Daredevil" and "Sin City" tilted the era in which he worked. The simple fact that two major Hollywood films, "300" and "Sin City," were made as a direct homage to Miller's work on the page should suggest that his vision is singular and, by definition, important. Charles Shultz was not the best comics strip artist of his generation but he may have been the most important. Art Spiegelman may not be the best cartoonist of his era but with "Maus" and his other works, he may be the most important…you get the idea.

  6. The Spirit says:

    Become The Spirit as he fights crime from the shadows of Central City. Rescue a beautiful woman in distress; dodge the bullets of a cold hearted killer; and finally confront your arch-enemy, the Octopus, to save your beloved city.
    At each step a bevy of beautiful women will bestow their gifts if you succeed. Chapter 1 and 2 are available now but the rest of the story will unfold soon.

  7. Comissioner Dolan says:

    The Spirit movie is an unhearteningly dispirited affair. Will Eisners original comic is flush with humor and humanity – a wellspring of restrained irony born out of Eisner's jewish childhood in early 20th century New York. With nothing left of the Spirit but shallow (though stylish) graphics, Frank Miller's pretentious film leaves only an impression of a disgruntled comic book artist wishing for a career move. As much as I hated this movie, I appreciate Miller's comics, so I'm relieved to see that he has most likely killed his future in Hollywood.

  8. Phil says:

    It's been some time now and the horror of the "movie" known as the Spirit is still with me.
    Stop Frank Miller before he strikes again.
    Just read the post war Spirit stories instead.

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