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'Batman' Author Frank Miller


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. US military officials today defended the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. They say extraordinary steps are being taken to protect the rights of prisoners there. They also say detainees are being held humanely and their cases are being processed as quickly as possible. And the board of General Motors, under intense pressure to cut costs, has reportedly told the United Auto Workers union to accept lower health-care benefits for employees and retirees or face imposed reductions. You can hear details on those stories later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, before you hit the beach or the cabin, join us for a discussion of what's new and good in summer books, from enriching non-fiction to the latest in brain candy.

Or you may want to consider the graphic novels of Frank Miller, or you may want to wait for a rainy day. His gritty stories of the back alleys of Gotham and Sin City might feel a little incongruous on a sunny beach. A movie version of Sin City came out earlier this spring, and a new Batman movie opens today. While Frank Miller's name doesn't appear anywhere in official connection with "Batman Begins," fans of his work know that both the movie's style and its plot owe a great deal to Miller's Batman: Year One. Miller also wrote about a much older Batman in the Return of the Dark Knight.

As the new movie opens, we've asked Frank Miller to join us to talk about this iconic character, about Sin City and the deepening relationship between comics and movies. If you have questions for Frank Miller, our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is totn@npr.org. Frank Miller joins us now from our bureau in New York.

And it's great to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. FRANK MILLER (Graphic Novel Author): Well, thanks a lot, Neal. I'm a big fan.

CONAN: Oh, thank you. As I mentioned, "Batman Begins" today; let's hear a little clip from the movie.

(Soundbite of "Batman Begins")

Mr. CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Batman) People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy, and I can't do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I'm flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol--as a symbol--I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.

Mr. MICHAEL CAINE: (As Alfred Pennyworth) What symbol?

Mr. BALE: Something elemental, something terrifying...

CONAN: A clip from the new movie "Batman Begins." Now, Frank Miller, I understand you've not seen this new movie. But...

Mr. MILLER: No, I haven't.

CONAN: ...that idea of following the evolution of Bruce Wayne from the terrified small child who saw his parents be murdered on the street to the Caped Crusader--that's your story from Batman: Year One.

Mr. MILLER: Well, it's also Bob Kane's story and Jerry Robinson's story and a number of other people--Bill Finger's story as well. I did--you know, I expanded it a great deal with my Batman: Year One. Like I said, I haven't seen the movie, but I did work on an earlier version of it. And it's just--I mean, I regard Batman as kind of a--as--working on Batman as kind of like holding a very large multifaceted diamond. You can throw it against the floor or the wall or the ceiling or anything, and everything works.

CONAN: Huh. Which is maybe why the character can work reasonably well in, you know, this sort of camp `Zap!' `Pow!'--you know, Adam West Batman of the old days...

Mr. MILLER: Sure. Mm-hmm.

CONAN: ...or even, you know, Mr. Freeze and that sort of stuff, but also works with a very realistic tale, a ve--well, realistic--how realistic are the comic books? But a realistic tale--a psychologically realistic tale.

Mr. MILLER: Well, I mean, I think that fantasy at its best is not realistic. I think that fantasy at its best is emotionally realistic, but not--the same way that, like, a cartoon that I'll draw does not look like a photograph, because my feeling is if you want something photographic, just take a photograph.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MILLER: In the same way that when you're doing work that is this romantic or this tragic or this over the top, you want to use its power. You don't want to try to do a "Terms of Endearment" with Batman.

CONAN: No, I wouldn't think so. Now every superhero, just about, has a secret identity.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah.

CONAN: That's--this is one of the key ideas to the success of supermen.

Mr. MILLER: Do you have one, Neal?

CONAN: I do, but it's Neal Conan. I actually appear in the comic books, so it's--but it seems to me that there's a fundamental difference between Superman-Clark Kent and a Batman-Bruce Wayne.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, because one--it's because Clark Kent is a persona that Superman takes on so that he can fit in with us humans, because he is an alien. He's--and he's from another planet and all that. Bruce Wayne is actually who Batman is. I mean, he has to create the character of Batman in order to follow his mission, but he really still is a very suave, rich man, you know, who's raised and bred very well.

CONAN: To be both Bruce Wayne and the Batman, does one or both of them have to be crazy?

Mr. MILLER: Well, my own personal theory is that everybody's crazy, but I would say not really. And as a matter of fact, Batman and Bruce Wayne are both characters who believe in sanity and, you know, in a sane world, but they believe that it only makes sense when you force it to. So there's a touch of the fascist in them, and there's a--he saw all sense ripped out of his life when his parents were murdered in front of his eyes, and he has come back and said, `I'm going to make the world make sense.' That's Batman.

CONAN: Is "Sin City" Gotham without Batman?

Mr. MILLER: No. "Sin City"'s its own thing. "Sin City" is something that exists inside my head, and it's got pieces of every city I've ever lived in. It's much more--"Sin City" is much more a series of morality stories than something that would feature a single hero. That's why there were so many different lead characters in it and why so many of them, well, frankly, die...

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. MILLER: ...is that I--you know, the underlying premise with "Sin City" is that without sin, there is no virtue, and so I define the virtue and the romance of my city through my heroes being tested.

CONAN: Some people drew comparisons not so much to Gotham but to another fictional creation, Raymond Chandler's Bay City, a place of corruption against which he set his stories of--well, morality stories again.

Mr. MILLER: Well, I mean, anybody who wants to make a reference between me and Raymond Chandler, I'll simply give them a kiss.

CONAN: OK. Here's an e-mail question we have from Parker in Norman, Oklahoma: `In the making of "Sin City," was the term `neo-film noir' ever brought up? Could you discuss the implications of "Sin City" as an academic force in film theory?' I don't know if we have time for that, but go ahead.

Mr. MILLER: I'm a little dizzy, Neal. That was--neo-film noir?

CONAN: Neo-film noir, yeah.

Mr. MILLER: Well, I mean, I find film noir to be a vital part of American cinema and American culture in general, and with "Sin City" I was just trying to update it, but I didn't have as fancy a name as that.

CONAN: Updating it--updating it and--that's an oddly--'cause the look was very retro. I'm sure there's a better word than that, too.

Mr. MILLER: Well, the cars were really cool, weren't they?

CONAN: Yeah, they were really nice.

Let's get another caller on the line: Michael. Michael's calling us from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes. Hello?

CONAN: Hello. You're on the air, Michael. Go ahead.

MICHAEL: Hello. I want to ask a question to Frank Miller in conjunction to--he was referring to the romantic aspect of graphic novels. Do you believe that when comics of the sort are translated into film--does it lose that type of romantic aspect to it?

Mr. MILLER: Not if it's done right. I mean--but what often happens when they're making movies of comic books is they--because comic books are very cheap to produce--they only cost a few thousand dollars to make--and movies are extremely expensive, the movie industry is naturally very attracted to the vitality of comics. Also, you know, comic books can be done by somebody like me, where one person can do the entire operation, and--whereas a movie takes hundreds of people. And I think what happens is that once the comic book property is moved into the film industry, often, it becomes worried about a lot more because the stakes are so much higher. This is natural and human. And--but the result of that can be that your screenplay, as fresh as it might feel when you do it, becomes something like a fire hydrant with an awful lot of dogs lining up.

CONAN: (Laughs) I know Michael Chabon wrote an early version of the screenplay for "Spider-Man 2" and...

Mr. MILLER: Yeah.

CONAN: ...I think he felt very much the same way.

Mr. MILLER: I mean, it's a great business. Luckily, thanks to Robert Rodriguez and his crew...

CONAN: On "Sin City."

Mr. MILLER: ...on "Sin City," I was able to, with Robert--we shot that in Austin, Texas, far from, you know, the fields of Hollywood. And we were able to stay meticulously close to the book and, in fact, in some ways improve on it.

CONAN: Some critics, as you know--and, by the way, Michael, thank you very much for the phone call.

MICHAEL: Thank you.

CONAN: We've drifted off your point. I apologize for that.

Some critics have said, you know, `They stayed a little too close to Miller's storyboards, you know, frame by frame, and it sort of sucked all the life out of it.'

Mr. MILLER: Well, yeah. I mean, I don't agree, but I don't know what else to say.

CONAN: Mm. Let's get another caller on the line. This is James. James is calling from St. Louis.

JAMES (Caller): Yes. Hi.


JAMES: I was calling in regards to Mr. Miller's artwork and such. I have, through seeing the movie "Sin City," been exposed to this great new--how do you put it?--presentation of comics in movies, and am just entirely captivated by it. It's like the new-candy-for-a-kid-type thing. What I was wondering, Mr. Miller, is what can we look forward to forthcoming from you--translate comic books into movies, if you will?

Mr. MILLER: Well, the next thing up is going to be the sequel to "Sin City."


Mr. MILLER: We're going to continue adapting the "Sin City" stories until we're done.

JAMES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MILLER: I mean, it's--we've got the crew, we've got the cast. It's all too much fun to stop.

CONAN: The first movie...

JAMES: So no chance of bringing Bruce Willis back, huh?

Mr. MILLER: What's that?

JAMES: No chance of bringing Bruce Willis' character back?

Mr. MILLER: Only the first chance I get.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAMES: That's right. And the other quick question I wanted to ask Mr. Miller is: I've noticed that, like--and I have yet to see "Batman Begins," but in reading The Dark Knight Returns and some of these other comics that you've written, I'm finding a fascination--and I think that the comic books like that that show actual reality with heroism in the comics will be more truly presented in movies, rather than the campy, you know, earlier "Batman" pictures and such. I'd also like to see that in other movies like, you know, "Superman" and that type thing, and I don't know if there's kind of a push to maybe make that happen.

Mr. MILLER: What I think has happened, really, is that a generation of people who read comic books have come up and taken over certain aspects of entertainment. In other words, the inmates have taken over the asylum and you're all in trouble.

JAMES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MILLER: But it's--and so you're seeing more and more faithful adaptations. You look at the most successful of the superhero movies; they tend to be things like "X-Men" and "Spider-Man," which cleave very closely to the source material. I mean, you can feel Steve Ditko's and John Romita's hand in "Spider-Man," and certainly Chris Claremont's and John Byrne's in the "X-Men" movies. So I think what we're seeing is, the closer we get to the source material, the more that vitality comes out. And in "Sin City" and, I suspect, in "Batman," it's an example of people really using material for what it's good at rather than going off into some office somewhere, you know, in the, you know, dark corners of Hollywood and figuring out how--`Could we turn this dog into robot?' You know?

CONAN: (Laughs) And we could call him Krypt--no, it's been used. James, thanks very much.

JAMES: Thank you, and I look forward to seeing more from you, Mr. Miller. Thank you very much. OK.

Mr. MILLER: I'll keep at it. Thanks a lot.

CONAN: We're talking with comic book author Frank Miller. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's talk now with Jeff. Jeff's calling us from Jackson--Michigan or Mississippi?

JEFF (Caller): Michigan, actually.

CONAN: Michigan. OK. Go ahead.

JEFF: Oh, Mr. Miller, just wanted to say I'm a big fan. I love your work.

Mr. MILLER: Thank you.

JEFF: And pretty much the two pinnacle--considered in most comic circles pinnacle pieces of comic fiction have been your Dark Knight Returns, of course, and the Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. And many people compare the two, both the dark visions of superheroes and real world, and I was wondering just to--what are your thoughts on the comparison of Dark Knight to the Watchmen?

Mr. MILLER: Oh, I think that the two books were bound to be tied up together and compared a lot. For one thing, as it is that--all of us are really good friends. But beyond that, there was something in the air--I mean, something that could be shaken up with all these old superheroes, because they were really getting stale. I mean, for goodness' sakes, Batman was deputized. How wrong is that?

JEFF: Yeah.

Mr. MILLER: And then, ultimately, the differences between me and Alan as writers shone through. I mean, I like to joke that when it comes to superheroes, Alan Moore provided the autopsy and I provided the brass-band funeral.

JEFF: (Laughs)

CONAN: Jeff, thanks for the call.

JEFF: Thank you.

CONAN: You wrote Batman. You write and draw Sin City. What's the difference?

Mr. MILLER: Well, I find drawing is--you know, drawing Sin City is a very different experience, because when I'm working on Batman I'm working on--I'm playing with somebody else's toys. And I--I mean, I love doing it, but when I do Sin City I go off into a very, you know, much quieter place, where I'm essentially doing my own stuff and digging deep for my own fantasies.

CONAN: When you say you're playing with somebody else's toys with Batman, are there keepers of the flame, archivists, who say, `No, you can't possibly do that'?

Mr. MILLER: You have no idea, Neal. They're everywhere. They haunt me. They follow me down the street. They're nuts.

CONAN: Well, some of them are nuts and some of them are actually nuts who work for your employer. Do they say, `No, Alfred didn't...'

Mr. MILLER: Oh, most of them are.

CONAN: Most of them are.

Mr. MILLER: They hire these people. Yeah.

CONAN: Well, some of them are called editors, but I--their process, their input--I mean, is that what makes it--does it make it more satisfying, then, to do something like Sin City, where you can make your own rules?

Mr. MILLER: Absolutely. I mean, there is nothing like cutting off completely on my own. But I'm sure you know this from your own work, too, Neal, that when you do go off on your own and you're creating something out of whole cloth, it's also a more fearful time that you live through.

CONAN: Indeed.

Mr. MILLER: And so Sin City is scarier and, ultimately, more rewarding.

CONAN: The scary part--there's nothing worse than the oppression of the big corporation, except maybe the check.

Mr. MILLER: (Laughs) Well, you know, I mean, I'm not complaining about anything here. I have a great time. I mean, I have a wonderful relationship with Warner's and with DC Comics. I just--I'm just saying that when it comes to the actual personal--the brush-hit-the-page part, when I do Sin City, I'm the author. When I work on Batman, I'm a little bit more of a hired gun, and I accept that.

CONAN: Are you going to work on Batman again?

Mr. MILLER: Oh, yeah. I've got two new Batman books coming out this year.

CONAN: We'll look forward to them. Frank Miller, thanks very much.

Mr. MILLER: Well, thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: Comic book artist Frank Miller. His graphic novels include Batman: Year One and the Return of the Dark Knight. Stay tuned, as he just said, for more.

In Washington, I'm Neal Conan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.