A Discussion With Frank Miller On Carrie Kelley, Xerxes, And The Future Of Comics

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 Ben Caldwell are creating an untitled Young Adult graphic novel focused on Carrie Kelley, which will be arriving from DC, featuring the character that Miller created in The Dark Knight Returns. But we also talked about the many characters Miller has worked with, his current series Xerxes: The Fall of the House of Darius and the Rise of Alexander, his working methods, and his hopes for the future of the comics medium.
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 second half of that interview today on Comicon.com. The first part published recently as A Discussion with Frank Miller On Superman: Year One and the Power of Origin Stories.
Without further ado, here is final segment of the transcription of our conversation:

[Art by Ben Caldwell for the Carrie Kelley book]

HMS: Aside from Superman: Year One, you’re also going to be working in the graphic novel format on your Carrie Kelley book with DC, where they are working on Young Adult books to reach out to different age groups.
FM: Yes. With Ben Caldwell.
HMS: Superman: Year One, I think, is part of the Black Label category, which is more adult, but the Carrie Kelley book falls under the Young Adult category. Can you talk a little bit about how that book came about?
FM: Well, on one occasion we all got talking. Dan DiDio has a wonderful vision for the company in terms of expanding it in very healthy ways. Because for a long time, comics in general had been working toward pleasing an ever-shrinking audience more and more. And I think that led to where we had platinum editions all over the place, and comics were worth $100,000 dollars, and nonsense like that, that led us to a near collapse.
I think that this is part of a much healthier movement to come up with comic books that are going to bring new people in as readers. For most people, if you’re going to come into comic books, you’re going to come in at a pretty young age. Before you get into the notion of separating words and pictures so much. And when striking, colorful images are going to attract you.
I remember the motto for a long time was, “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore”. And there’d have to be some kind of counter-motto that suggests that they aren’t just for adults anymore. And I think it’s a very good initiative on Dan’s part to start pushing. I’m very glad to be part of it.
HMS: I’ve seen a lot of movement at DC in that direction. Well, if you’re here at Denver Comic Con, you know that Pop Culture Classroom is a big part of this show, and that there are librarians and educations here at the show, and also heavily involved in the programming. We have a lot of allies in librarians, and school librarians, making sure that these books are going to be available for young people.
FM: Librarians are great.
HMS: You mentioned earlier that you like simplicity and directness in some of these early Superman stories. Is that the kind of thing you’re thinking of when you’re working on a Young Adult book and you know that it’s a bit different?
FM: Oh, yes. With Carrie Kelley, in particular. She is young. She’s very young in these stories. Batman, in the Carrie Kelley story, is going to be a little too big for the book, really. It’s from her perspective. Batman’s a really big guy, and this child-like perspective is excessively important.

[Art by Ben Caldwell for the Carrie Kelley book]

HMS: When you’re approaching a project as a writer, versus when you’re approaching a project as a writer and an artist, how is life if different for you? For instance, Xerxes is coming out right now from Dark Horse Comics, as a single issue series that you both write and draw. I imagine that’s a very different process for you than when you sit down just to write, or even to write an entire graphic novel.
FM: With Xerxes, there are several factors. One is that this is all based on real events. The visuals are extreme, and extraordinary, and more fantastic than the way things really looked. As much as I do research them, I take great liberties. It still does get back to what really happened. When it comes to Superman, the guideposts are much more fluid. There has to be a planet Krypton. There’s gotta be a Lois Lane. There’s got to be a Daily Planet. But after that, it does start to get to: What do you want to pick and keep? Because there’s just so much, over the billion years or so they’ve been publishing Superman. There’s just so much material, of which some is just plain lousy.
You want to pick the good stuff, and you want to bring in some new stuff. And have it come out as a unit that will be really good to read. And beyond that, of use. With Batman: Year One, there was an extreme effort toward distilling it down toward the essence that you needed, to have one book that would introduce you to Batman. And kind of shake the memory of that old TV show out of your mind.
HMS: For something like Xerxes, what makes comics the best way to tell that particular type of story, for you? I imagine that we can go and read historical epics, or we might go and watch historical films, which can also be awesome and wonderful. But what excited you about making Xerxes a comic?
FM: Well, I make comics! And it’s a great story. Let me put it this way: Everything that happened during that period in history changed the world. Every event changed the world. Certainly every change in power changed the nature of the life we lead right now. The battle shown in 300, between the Greeks and Persian forces, saved Western Civilization, by many arguments. It was going to be mowed down by the Empire, and who knows what would have been left? Even the memory of everything that had existed before, and of the philosophies of the religions, and everything.
So, when it comes to history you’re dealing with things of such epic importance, that to actually see those contests fought by men with shields and spears. And by bargains made in the middle of the night. And by brilliant thoughts that no one had had before. To me, this is about as exciting as it gets.

HMS: Is that part of what makes you sure that you want to physically draw a project yourself? Is the subject matter what inspires you to do that?
FM: Well, if I really love a story…historical stuff I love to draw. The stuff is really fun to draw. You can turn around when looking at historical stuff without finding something that’s really cool looking. But, yes. I love the high drama and all of that. I have a very operatic kind of mind that loves to embrace the meteoric forces that collide in stories like that.
HMS: I have a background in medieval literature, and I love it whenever I see comic creators really dig into choosing moments and figuring out how to tell these stories. Because there’s so much material culture that you want to convey, and so much about a way of thinking in different time periods. But you have to do it, and make it look effortless and easy for the reader. But it’s hard.
FM: What have you seen that’s really jumped out at you?
HMS: Well, there’s a version of Beowulf by David Rubin that’s coming out in reprint soon from Image Comics.
FM: I was wondering if you’d mention Beowulf. Yes. That’s wild, that one!
HMS: Yes it is. He’s been nominated for an Eisner Award this year for some of his other work. But he also did a two volume series called The Hero that is a retelling of Hercules’ story. It’s very fast and loose, and he does comical things, like breaking the fourth wall, but it’s basically Hercules.
These are all great things. Comics can be anything. Comics can be any kind of story that might appeal to you, and that’s wonderful.
FM: Yes. Yes.

HMS: Do you see a difference in your way of thinking when you know something is going to be presented to the reader as a graphic novel, or when you know it’s going to be presented as single issues? Do you plot it differently or pace things differently?
FM: I like to serialize my stories. There’s a long tradition of doing that. Charles Dickens’ books were all serialized. Dashiell Hammett’s novels were all released in pulp magazines. I like doing it that way for two reasons: One is that I kind of like cliffhangers and keeping people in suspense. But the other thing is that it means someone is on the phone yelling at you, telling you to get it done.
[Laughter]
And you’re not just off in some cabin in Maine thinking about how you’ve got writer’s block. It’s better to have a pace to work to.
HMS: Are you someone who does physical scripts, and scripts things out? If so, does that mean it’s kind of the same whether you’re doing writing, or doing writing and art?
FM: Yes, well, the only difference is that if I’m scripting for somebody else, it’s likely to be more formal. But if I’m scripting for what I’m going to draw, I just scribble things. Or I draw a page, and I scribble down the side of the page, on the art board. A rough draft of what text I want to have. I end up with drawing boards just having pieces of paper all over the place with my various versions of my scripts per page.
HMS: Are you someone who is ever critical of yourself while you’re working? Do you come back to something and hate it? Or you come back to something and love it, even though you thought you didn’t like it at first? Do you throw things out as you’re working?
FM: Oh, I throw things out, sure. The problem with that question is that everyone will say, “I’m my own worst critic”. Never believe anybody who says that! You gotta have somebody in your life who is a much worse critic than you are.
[Laughter]
There’s always a chance you’ll say, “Wow, I really had a good day”. And somebody’s got to come in there and say, “I can’t understand what’s going on”. You’ve got to have a strong editor, and preferably other people around you who will look at it. A good editor is, more than anything else, a good audience. Who will read it and just react, saying “I’m a little confused here”. I remember once a good friend of mine was reading my story. And he said, “You know, I’m having a real hard time caring about these guys”. It was 300. I knew I was in trouble.
[Laughter]
And I went back to work on it. I realized I’d made them too harsh and too cruel. And I’d lost a very good reader right off the bat, before I ever turned it in. But yes, you need other people to read your work.
HMS: He’s giving you [the audience] some very good advice. As an editor, I say, “Yes, you need someone else to give you perspective”.
Thank you, Frank. You’ve worked with so many characters over the years that you’d be forgiven if you couldn’t even remember them all…
FM: You want me to list them all? [Laughs]
HMS: Yes, right now. We should just about have time.
…Having gotten so close to some of these characters, since you’ve worked with some of them over multiple storylines, do they feel like they are still with you?
FM: Oh, sure.
HMS: Even when you move on to other things? Do you feel like you know them and they are still with you?
FM: Oh, yes. It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything with Daredevil. But if I sat down now, I know the guy. I’ve got a good sense of his faults. And I definitely know how to piss him off and how to trick him. And how to completely fool him. To me, he’s a particularly easy character to relate to.
Batman, he’s more iconic. He’s more of a force of nature, so he has to be judged more that way. But yes, I could revisit any of these guys. Or any of these gals.

HMS: Do the characters who you have created yourself feel the same way as those characters, or do they have a different layer to them? In terms of still being with you, or on your mind?
FM: Yes. Well, the ones that I made up for myself are ones that I did long histories of. Because I’ve not just made them up, but because I own them, and I’ve done the only book on them, they haven’t had a moment that I haven’t made happen. And in preparation for doing their stories, I’ve written long back stories. And I’ve also written stories I’ve never done about them. So, there’s so much more. That’s like talking about a very close friend or family member.
HMS: Definitely like talking about a real person?
FM: Yes.
HMS: Well, obviously you don’t have to answer this, but I can’t help but ask: In the future, is there going to be more for us to explore in terms of Sin City?
FM: Oh, yes.
[Applause]
Thank you.
HMS: Is there anything about where the new work would fit in the timeline that you could reveal? Is it set back in earlier days?
FM: Sin City? I have two set in the past. I don’t want to get into that too much, because I want it to be a surprise.
HMS: Awesome. Thanks for letting us know.

Has anything about the way you approach comic art changed over the years? Or are you someone who sticks to the same tools and the same approach?
FM: I like to find new toys to play with. Occasionally I do. But I am a traditionalist when it comes to the materials I use. I really am, because the basic materials were made up a long time ago. You’re talking about technique and that kind of thing?
HMS: Sure, what you’re using to make the art.
FM: I don’t often find a new ink that’s a breakthrough, or anything like that. But you never know. Stuff will pop up. Sometimes I’ll be in love with a technique and somebody will point out to me that I’m over-using that one, and it’s kind of sticking out too much. I can fall in love with toys, but no, I haven’t really run into anything that’s transformed the way that I work. The tools I use are pretty traditional. They are the same ones that were used by people in the 1920s.
HMS: We’ll be finishing up in just a minute, but I was wondering: You mentioned earlier that it inspires you, this idea of being able to reach more audiences with comics.
What do you hope that comics will look like in a few years, ten years, fifteen years? What are your hopes for the comics medium out in the wider world?
FM: Well, I guess I want it to be all around, and reaching people of much wider interests. I think we’re securing a place, just being a medium now that’s understood to be different than prose. And not just a second-rate version of cinema. But something that is related to both, but is its own entity. And where I want to see it go is where it is going. The more I’ve seen some of the stuff that’s being done for kids, the more excited I’ve been. That’s really the most exciting breakthrough I’ve seen. The way it’s being applied more to education is an absolute thrill. I guess, again, the place I’m personally looking for it to go, beyond my interest in historical stuff and all that, is to not just recapture, but expand the children’s market.
HMS: At this point, it’d be good to mention that we just had the first Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards (EGLs) here at Denver Comic Con last night. And 75% or more of the categories are in children’s categories, so opportunities for recognition for people in those fields is increasing. And this is just the first year. It’s going to keep going and hopefully expand.
FM: That’s great. Keep in mind that some of the best comic art techniques and some of the best illustration that we’ve ever seen came from classic children’s books, and what’s happening in kid lit right now is just a wonderful explosion of talent. It’s been a joy to discover it.
HMS: There’s so much to explore, regardless of age level, that there’s always plenty to be reading and finding those new influences.
Frank, thank you so much for being here with us today.
[Applause]
Thus concludes the second half of this discussion with Frank Miller, and the previous half was published on Comicon.com as A Discussion with Frank Miller On Superman: Year One and the Power of Origin Stories.

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