Startling confession: There was a long stretch in my misspent youth when I actually stopped reading comics. Sorry to disappoint you. The fact was I’d found other distractions like girls and violence and recreational drugs.

Then someone gave me a copy of The Dark Knight Returns. Not only couldn’t I stop reading it, I had to read it twice. In a row. Straight on through.

“Geez!” I said. “Is this where comics have gone?” But it was wishful thinking. It was only where Frank Miller had gone. Between Dark Knight and his other ditties, the young writer-artist had single-handedly created the next benchmark, the next evolution in comics. He had raised the bar for everyone, including himself.

In 1997, eleven years after that book’s debut, Barnes & Noble asked me to chat with Frank about his then newest project for Dark Horse, Sin City?a series of graphic novels that even a mega-retailer like B&N considered weighty.

Most of that conversation has never been published before. Here’s Part I of the full Q&A:

Meth: The industry regards you as a recluse and temperamental; your fans say you’re a genius. Is any of this true?

Miller: Ha! How do I respond to that?

Meth: Maybe recluse is a little strong.

Miller: A little? (laughing)

Meth: Okay?let’s talk about life after “Robocop” and why no one ever sees you any more.

Miller: I played around with movies and had a great time, bugged out, and got back to what I love most: comic books.

Meth: Why comics?

Miller: I was six-years-old when I decided that I wanted to do this. How more lucky can a guy get than to learn that early what he most wants to do. I’ve pursued comics ever since. There’s been interruptions?and working in movies was a lot of fun?but I’ve got an egomaniac’s dream come true. I get to do exactly what I want, and make a living out of it.

Meth: Most people who’ve broken away from comics and made it into film?Mike Ploog, for example?are happy with the transition. Not just because the money is so much greater, but because of the way that the comics industry treats creators. I typically hear nothing but frustration from creators; they’re denied recognition and credibility. You’re very much an exception to all that.

Miller: We’ve always been the bastard son of publishing, and I kind of like that, to tell the truth. I’d rather be more on the fringe, more of an outlaw. I’ve given it an awful lot of thought, and while I may work with Hollywood again, my heart and soul is in comic books. I really love the work. I feel lucky that I have an audience.

Meth: Do you prefer writing to illustrating, or are they two separate loves?

Miller: Depending on when I’m being interviewed, there are different answers to that question. As far as the actual act of it, I like drawing more, but it’s really hard to separate the two because if I’m not drawing, I’m scribbling dialogue on the corners of my pages. They’re two pieces of one pie.

Meth: Few people can do both well ? maybe a half-dozen that I can think of, but that would be most of them.

Miller: But to me, they’re deeply related. I don’t feel my pages are complete until the word balloons are on them. I mean, I don’t do fine art; I don’t do these precious little pieces that I want to show to people, and then slap word balloons on them at the last minute.

Meth: Tell me about the cover you did for Mefisto and Onyx.

Miller: That was a tough one. Harlan Ellison had written a really good story, and I had to come up with something that matched it. But whenever you deal with Harlan, in a way you’re kind of stuck playing handball. He’s so tough and so good that you have to dig deep and come on strong in response to him, and I wasn’t going to do a cover for that book that was short of the very best I could do.

Meth: Who are some of the writers who were important to you when you were growing up?

Miller: Mainly, it’s the crime guys. I only had a high school education, so I really didn’t discover the great writers until later in life, but I grew up with everything from Raymond Chandler to Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Caine. I consider it a scattershot education. Later, I got into Jim Thompson. Get ready to take a shower after reading him. I think he’s the darkest crime writer that ever lived because he crawls inside your brain and really takes you to places you don’t want to go. It’s remarkable stuff.

Meth: How about comics?

Miller: Standard stuff. I grew up reading Super Boy and the Legion of Superheros, then switched to Marvel Comics, the Jack Kirby stuff, Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man, all that.

Meth: Who do you read now?

Miller: Right now all I’m reading is history books because I’m working on an historical piece, so I’m reading a book about ancient Greece.

Meth: Do you still read anyone for process, as opposed to entertainment?

Miller: Boy, that’s one interesting question? I’ve read James Ellroy for that reason, to understand what was at the heart of his appeal and how he gets to his stories. I don’t read much in the way of comic books, but I find that I keep getting back to crime. For process? I really find myself drawn to the oldest material possible. I find that the literary values have not changed.

Meth: And artwork? Who did you study?

Miller: I study all the time. Besides Robert Beverly Hale, who was a brilliant anatomy teacher, I tend to focus mostly on cartoonists of the ’40s and ’50s: Johnny Craig, Wallace Wood, Will Eisner. I’ve really studied Johnny Craig, and bought some of his originals and studied them. too. He just takes me to school every time I look at him. There’s a lot that modern cartoonists aren’t getting because they aren’t studying these guys. A lot of people who think Sin City is shocking and new should really study Johnny Craig and Wally Wood and Will Eisner. They’ll see what I’m building on.

Clifford Meth’s latest book god’s 15 minutes, a collection of 36 disturbing tales, arrives at retail shops this Wednesday. Three stories from the collection have already been optioned by Hollywood for the big screen.

© 2004, Clifford Meth

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