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Miller at home in Sin City


This article was published August 22, 2014 at 2:44 a.m.


Dennis Haysbert plays Manute in Sin City: A dame to kill for

The world of Frank Miller's Sin City is black and white in almost every sense. In these popular graphic novels and their film adaptations, Miller, the author, illustrator and filmmaker, presents a fictional metropolis as monochromatic in hue as in values: mean streets populated with trench-coated men and scantily clad women, ready to exchange bullets or bodily fluids when it is to their advantage.

Sin City, which returns to movie screens today in a 3-D sequel subtitled A Dame to Kill For, is Miller's unabashed tribute to the classic crime-noir novels that guided him to a tandem career in comics and cinema. As he put it recently, it reflects his love of "stories that dwelled on good and evil, but in ways you don't expect -- where someone you meet as a scoundrel turns into a hero when the moment is tight."

The Sin City series represents just a portion of the work that has earned Miller, 57, a reputation as an influential and imitated stylist, but also as an iconoclast -- an artist unconcerned with whether his comics are embraced or vilified.

"I love to provoke, because part of the purpose of art is provocation," he said. "And part of my job is to wake people up."

He was speaking from his drawing studio in New York, surrounded by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash CDs, as well as artifacts and merchandise from his career.

Most prominent were statuettes and illustrations from Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, his best-selling 1986 graphic novel about an older, ruthless incarnation of that DC Comics hero; and from Sin City, the Dark Horse Comics series, which first appeared in 1991, that became the hit 2005 movie he directed with Robert Rodriguez.

Miller, who is thin and wild-eyed with some white scruff on his chin, explained through the occasional cigarette that, although he considers himself a cartoonist at heart, "there are times when it gets lonely."

Now that Rodriguez has "dragged me into the movies," he said, "I discovered I loved that, too, so I'm kind of an introvert-extrovert in that way."

Miller had his share of Hollywood disappointments and frustrations -- writing two screenplays for sequels to the original RoboCop, suffering a Daredevil movie based partly on his comics about that Marvel hero -- and Rodriguez said he expected him to be apprehensive when he sought him out to make the first Sin City.

"I think he was always waiting for the other shoe to drop," Rodriguez said of collaborating with Miller on that film. "He was waiting for me to suddenly take over, or for it to turn contentious."

But no falling out occurred: Sin City, whose cast included Jessica Alba as a vengeful stripper and Bruce Willis as a disillusioned detective, was praised for the digital effects and backgrounds.

Miller explained his partnership with Rodriguez by saying: "If Robert and I were rock stars, he'd be Elvis Presley and I'd be Bob Dylan. I work more intimately with the actors, and he runs the entire production."

Rodriguez said that while he operates the cameras during production, Miller watches the monitors. "Even if we really feel like we nailed it," Rodriguez said, "we still have to run back there and see if Frank approves."

Miller's stock rose further with the success of 300, Zack Snyder's 2007 film adaptation of Miller's graphic novel (created with Lynn Varley, Miller's ex-wife), about the Battle of Thermopylae. His storytelling sensibilities seemed to be everywhere.

"He was like a rock band that you just wanted to cover," said Brian Michael Bendis, a comics writer who has put his stamp on many Marvel characters, including Daredevil.

"The mistake that others made," Bendis said, "was, don't just rip him off. Rip off the philosophy of rolling up your sleeves and doing something no one has done before."

Miller said he avoided watching comic-book movies that might bear his influence but in which he wasn't involved.

"When I fix on a character, I see it my way and no other way," he explained. "I have to keep my worlds separate."

Bendis recalled a lively awards-show appearance several years ago, at which Miller tore up a magazine while inveighing against Hollywood's influence in comics.

"You could see it was a wound," Bendis said. "A few years later, Sin City happened and everything was fine. Believe me, I understand all those emotions on every level."

But Miller said that while "a little more credit would be really nice" on projects that owe him a thematic or narrative debt, "the burning anger that people expect isn't there."

"People can always hunt down the source material and see where things came from," he said. "I'm not feeling like my apartment's been raided or anything."

Already the subject of debate, Miller's comics have come under fire in recent years for what some readers perceive as an authoritarian streak -- blunt messages about righteous individuals confronting totalitarian systems -- exemplified by books like Holy Terror (his 2011 graphic novel about a Batman-like hero battling Islamic jihadists on American turf).

"There's a very thin line between the freedom fighter and the lone gunman," said Heidi MacDonald, editor-in-chief of The Beat, a website that covers comics culture.

Miller said he was aware of these criticisms but not worried by them. On Holy Terror, he said he intended to create a piece of post-9/11 propaganda -- "it's not meant to be fair or balanced" -- and that it did not necessarily reflect his personal politics.

"All I can say is, they are my own, and they don't really fit into any neat category," he said. "I judge situations as they are."

Miller said he expected that some professed fans might disavow his work, but if they draw the conclusion that he is a cranky recluse, he said, "they're drawing the wrong one."

Through a grin, he added, "I'm hardly a recluse."

Diana Schutz, an editor at Dark Horse Comics who worked with Miller on the Sin City series and 300, said that many of his books were risky to pull off.

"He gets an idea about something that makes him impassioned," she said, "and he pursues it and damn the consequences."

Still, the passion that went into the first Sin City movie did not immediately ensure its sequel. The original film was one of the last to be released by Dimension Films under Miramax before the departure of that company's founders, Bob and Harvey Weinstein. While they waited for the Weinstein brothers to bring Dimension to their Weinstein Co. (which is releasing A Dame to Kill For), Rodriguez and Miller said, they were distracted by separate projects, which included Miller's poorly received 2008 movie The Spirit, based on the Will Eisner comic.

"It tossed me back on my heels," Miller said of the film's failure. "And it made me smarter. There are a million things that can go wrong with a movie, and you've got to get them all right. I still approach the set with great confidence."

MovieStyle on 08/22/2014

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