A Discussion With Frank Miller On Superman: Year One And The Power Of Origin Stories

by Hannah Means Shannon

Frank Miller made a celebrated appearance at Denver Comic Con this year, sitting down for a 45 minute discussion in front of full-to-capacity room of fans and hosted by me, Hannah Means-Shannon, the Executive Editor at Comicon.com. I’d been asked a few days beforehand if I’d like to host the panel with Mr. Miller, and it didn’t take me more than the speed of a keyboard to reply in the affirmative. It was a unique opportunity and a great honor to talk with such an esteemed and influential creator about his work, particularly when he has current projects coming out and new projects coming up that fans are so curious to hear more about.

As I said by way of introducing Mr. Miller to the audience, there is scarcely a single title published by Marvel or DC in which you cannot trace the DNA of Miller’s storytelling and character development, and as for the world of comic art, the many varied and evocative art styles we see today would almost certainly have been delayed in arriving, or have never found their way into the market, without the impact of his innovative art techniques, encouraging publishers to allow more stylistic freedom for artists in order to tell their stories.

Of course, one of the subjects of our conversation was that Frank Miller and John Romita Jr. are creating Superman: Year One, which is arriving as a four issue prestige format series, followed quickly by a collection, from DC, officially described as:

A groundbreaking, definitive treatment of Superman’s classic origin story in honor of his 80th anniversary. This story details new revelations that reframe the Man of Steel’s most famous milestones—from Kal-El’s frantic exile from Krypton, to Clark Kent’s childhood in Kansas, to his inevitable rise to become the most powerful and inspiring superhero of all time.

Our conversation was quite lengthy, if rapid-fire as a live event, and so I’ve transcribed the discussion as faithfully as possible based on a recording, and am presenting the first half of that interview today on Comicon.com. The second, final part of the discussion will soon follow.

Without further ado, here is the transcription of our conversation:

[Photo credit to Dean Haspiel]

Hannah Means-Shannon: Is this your first trip to Denver Comic Con?

Frank Miller: No, I was here last year.

HMS: Denver didn’t scare you off?

FM: Oh, no. Even though I know Denver people are really mean. Really impolite, and don’t like to talk to people. Just about the most unfriendly people I’ve ever met in my life.

[Laughter]

HMS: You’re a brave man!

I’d like to ask you, if you don’t mind, what it was about comics that grabbed you as a young person and fascinated you to the point that all these years later you haven’t moved on? There are a lot of difficulties in creating comics. It’s a hard medium. A lot of work.

FM: It’s funny that you’d say that. Because exactly what attracted me to comics is that it’s such an easy medium to approach. You go look at movies and TV shows, and think, “How could these things happen? They are magic. They are impossible.” You look at a comic book, and boy, somebody picked up a pen and drew this stuff. Wow, if you want to set a story somewhere, you can set it anywhere, and have anything happen. All that you’ve got to do is draw it. Of course, that was me at five years old. I hadn’t really encountered the notion that you have to find out what things look like. Then, along the way, even further, find out how things work, and all of that.

But I drew ever since I was a kid, and I always focused on drawing comic books, and comic book stories. And I decided very, very young that that was what I would do for the rest of my life. I was five, and I announced this to my mother. Who said, “You can do anything if you set your mind to do it”. And later, I moved to New York City, since that was the only place to go at the time to do comics. That’s the only place the publishers were. I moved there, and I opened the phone book, and looked up Neil Adams’ name in the phone book. He was listed.

I called up, and a woman’s voice answered. She said, “Continuity Associates”. I said “Yeah, I’m a newcomer cartoonist wanting to draw comic books, and I’d like to have a meeting with Neal Adams”. And the young woman’s voice said, “Daaaaad! I got another one for you”. And she asked, “Can you be here in an hour?”

That was the kind of shop that Neal Adams ran in New York. He took on all comers. His Continuity Associates was like a half-way house for all these aspiring cartoonists who would come in. And they would enter the firing line that was Neal Adams.

Because the first session with Neal, he simply looked my work over and he said, “So, where you from?” I said, “Vermont”. He said, “Go back. You’re no good. You’ll never be any good. Go back, pump gas or something. Get outta here.” I said, “Well, can I come back and show you some more stuff?” He said, “Yeah.”

[Laughter]

So, I came back. The same process repeated a couple of times and one day he just picked up the phone and got me my first job in comics. But every time he told me I was no good, he showed me exactly why I was no good. On pieces of tracing paper, he’d re-draw everything.

Then, I would keep the pieces of tracing paper and I’d learn from them. What he was, was a classic mentor, a classic sensei, in that he was very tough, but he was unbelievably generous at every turn. More than any other single person, he trained me for the job.

[Photo credit to Dean Haspiel]

HMS: That’s amazing. Thank you. Frank, in terms of what you were reading when you were younger, and even as you have moved through the field of comics over the years, are there creators you look back to and really admire? Were there people you wanted to be like, or whose work moved you?

FM: Oh, yeah. As a kid growing up, I read Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes, and things like that. But I didn’t know who Curt Swan was, or any of the people involved. Because I don’t remember there really being credits in the books. But it was when Marvel Comics came along and put their names in the books [that I knew]. Stan Lee’s name was everywhere. Steve Ditko was doing wonderful, urban artwork. Then there was the powerhouse of powerhouses, Jack Kirby.

[Applause]

And all the rest. Such a wonderful gathering of talent. The fact is that their names were on the books, and their styles were allowed to be as distinctive as they were. The closest thing Marvel had to a house style was Jack Kirby’s because he drew all the books! But Ditko could not resemble less, and by the time Gene Colan showed up, that was a completely different look. And by the time John Buscema showed up, that was Michelangelo compared to anybody else. That was, to me, a form of explosion in comics, of individuality, that changed things forever, and made it possible for people like me, and my generation, to come in, feeling like we could have an independent style in mind.

You add to that the wild magic of Robert Crumb in the Underground Comix, and seeing how things just continued to explode. Just when it seemed to be as far as things could go. In New York City, the Forbidden Planet shop opened, and the comics of Europe were unleashed on an American audience. That, in the late 70’s, was another explosion. When Jean Giraud’s impact began to be felt. There wasn’t an American cartoonist who wasn’t deeply affected by his work. The more international the comics field has become, the better the comics have become.

[Photo credits to Dean Haspiel]

HMS: Absolutely. Am I right in thinking that you had some interaction with Will Eisner?

FM: Yes. Yes, I did.

HMS: Because Will got involved in the Underground Comix scene, and then he moved into creating his graphic novels, right?

FM: Yes. Well, let’s keep in mind that the term “graphic novel” was introduced by Will Eisner. When he did A Contract with God, he called in a graphic novel. And that was a term he coined because he wanted the work to be something that would actually have permanence. Rather than being a periodical that came and went and would be forgotten. So that there would be editions that would stay on bookshelves, and be available for all time, just like novels were available.

There was quite a tussle because at first the collectors were a little shaken up. They felt this would make back issues not as available. And this went on. It was a bit of a strain for a while, but it all reconciled itself, because people realized that both ways of approaching comics could exist. But now if you go into a comic book shop, anywhere, it’s very different than it was when I was a child. When I was a child, you’d go in and you’d see that month’s, or maybe that week’s, products. In fact, they might not even be in a comic shop, they’d be in bookstores. It would like Time Magazine, the shelf life.

But now, you go into a comic shop, and you see not only all the recent comics, but you can walk around and see collections of everything that’s ever been done in comics, and everything that’s been worth looking at since. It’s a complete transformation of our medium stepping into self respect, and preserving what’s good of its past.

HMS: It’s almost as if an entire realm of education has been opened. For people interested in comics. Because you can go back and read these whole runs. Libraries, of course, can now stock them as collections, and as graphic novels, and young people are able to be exposed at a younger age to these different great creators.

FM: Yes.

HMS: Well, we can speak about that further, too, because you’re about to move even more into the realm of graphic novels. Is there anything you can tell us about your upcoming series Superman: Year One? Once collected, it’s going to be distributed everywhere on the book-level in a new way.

Given the title, I think in fan’s minds, they are going to wonder what the connection is between the new book and Batman: Year One, for instance. Is there anything non-spoilery you can share with us?

FM: Let’s see. Yes, it is not a radical upheaval of everything you’ve ever known about Superman, that’s for sure. Just as Batman: Year One wasn’t. But to come in, with fresh hands, on material that’s so rich, and has been handled by so many different people over generations and generations is an opportunity to remind everybody how good all this stuff really is, and to explore some corners that haven’t really been explored.

As any writer would [notice] on material like this, there are materials that haven’t really been looked at with Superman. I’m not talking about redefining his powers. I’m not going to change the name of the planet he came from. But there are just sides of his personality, and who he is, and what it was like being that child. Just as a hint, just in that first chapter, we spend a fair amount of time inside that rocket with the boy. We see what he went through during the months he spent in outer space, and the education he received, and how his perceptions of the universe changed.

And then there’s his symbolic birth on Earth as the rocket crashes to Earth, and he’s discovered by Pa Kent. All of this is material that, to me, is extremely emotionally charged and rich, that has been interpreted in different ways, and I’ve got my own take on it.

[Superman: Year One art by John Romita, Jr.]

HMS: That’s fabulous. I’m very excited to read this. I hope that the audience is, too.

[Applause]

HMS: The way that the book is going to be distributed is such that it’s not going to be hard to find. That’s something neat about what DC is doing at the moment, this incentive toward graphic novels and the book market. Availability has never been better.

FM: Yes.

HMS: What, then, is your interest in working on origin stories, in this book and in others? It seems you do have an interest in them, I think. You commit a lot of time and energy to them.

FM: Yes, with Daredevil, with Batman. The origin is a chance to really engage with who the guy or gal is. And where all these adventures spring from, really. Why is Daredevil “The Man Without Fear”? What is Batman? In some hands, he’s just this guy who’s angry all the time. In some, he’s a Dad figure. In Superman’s case, it’s worth it to ask, “What is this guy?” It’s worth a book just to examine that. And see how he got there. Because you have an alien on Earth, who’s raised by very, very traditional Earthlings, who have very profoundly family and community-oriented beliefs.

Superman has two foundations, but the first foundation is tragic, and the second one is very much based in a loving, nurturing environment. And this is also someone who is possessed of unspeakable power. What does he do? How does he become such a good man that he manages the power so well? All of this is just great story material.

[Superman: Year One art by John Romita, Jr.]

HMS: Thank you. A lot of the things that you’ve mentioned about Superman are things that have occurred to me, and others, and feel as if they aren’t fully answered so far. Because he can be quite an inscrutable character to approach.

FM: Yes.

HMS: Traditionally, in pop culture chat, people say, “Don’t do a Superman story unless you are really sure you want to do a Superman story, because it’s hard to do well.” He’s hard to know in some ways.

FM: Yes. Well, that’s part of what makes him a fascinating character, is that he’s at once alien, and familiar. Which one’s for real? Is it this mighty power, or is it Clark Kent? I think one of the defining portraits of Superman was Chris Reeves in the first Superman movie. Because I had always wondered about the Clark Kent persona, but then I felt like, “Yeah, this unbelievably mighty and powered guy might just be a bit of a geek”. You know, among normal people. Because he’s too strong for them, and he knows way too much. But he also hasn’t been socially acclimated like most people. There’s always been something about him that’s a bit apart from the rest. So that, to me, is a very instructive portrait of Superman. When we do these things, we have to be aware of how they’ve been shown in other media.

Because Superman has been treated particularly well. Like in the old George Reeves series some of you may have heard of from your grandparents.

[Laughter]

That was a wonderful portrait of him, too. It had a real, straight-ahead, good-guy Superman, but also a Clark Kent who was not the meek, mild-mannered Clark Kent that we got later. The George Reeves Clark Kent was…I think there was one point at which, I think, Lois remarked, “Oh you know Clark Kent!” As if that was one guy you expected to fly off the handle and go to face the danger.

So, there are many possible themes to play with here. But the one underlying thing that Superman has to be, and always is, is heroism. He’s a man who does the right thing because it is the right.

HMS: Thank you. You mentioned this in passing, so you do think that there have been different takes on Superman over the years?

FM: Oh, sure.

HMS: Did any of those different approaches inform you, or did you try to create your own essentials for the character?

FM: A lot of them have informed me. I’ve read comic books since I was a little kid, especially Superman. But there have been certain ones that jumped out and meant the most to me. I think if I had to name one that meant the most to me, it would be the Fleischer Brothers cartoons, because they were so direct and simple. That Superman had the level of power that I like the most, in that he wasn’t God flying around, but he was a lot stronger than the rest of us. And his approach toward good and evil was very simple. He was not prone to giving in to his emotions. My Superman cannot give in to his emotions. Because if he gave into his human side, and his cheaper emotions, the results would be catastrophic.

HMS: That’s fascinating. Is it true that there might be a future for Superman: Year One on the screen?

FM: Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves!

[Laughter]

HMS: A lot of the reference points that you’ve brought up have been in TV and film.

FM: Sure!

HMS: And now, with a lot of the technology and things like Blu-Ray, this older visual media can be captured and brought to new audiences. So, they can also make those shows and films part of their mythology as well.

FM: Yes.

Thus concludes the first half of this discussion with Frank Miller, and the second half will be published on Comicon.com on Thursday, June 28th, 2018. Topics in the second half of this discussion include the upcoming Carrie Kelly graphic novel, Xerxes: The Fall of the House of Darius and the Rise of Alexander, historical epics, art techniques, and the future of comics.

The second part of this interview has now been published as A Discussion With Frank Miller On Carrie Kelley, Xerxes, And The Future Of Comics and you can find that right here.

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