Frank Miller was once like the old blues musicians whose work was shamelessly plundered by early rock bands but the last decade has seen him finally achieve public recognition in his own right.
The comic book writer and artist has emerged as one of the biggest influences on modern comic book films and he remains very much at the heart of what is now a mainstream genre. It’s easy to forget that he once turned his back on the film industry following his frustrating experiences as the scriptwriter for Robocop 2 and Robocop 3.
“I learned the same lesson,” Miller later recalled.
“Don’t be the writer. The director’s got the power. The screenplay is a fire hydrant, and there’s a row of dogs around the block waiting for it.”
Miller was one of the pioneers who revolutionised the world of comics in the eighties and nineties. Sanitised, spandex-wearing heroes were replaced by antiheroes and the new books’ psychological complexity, provocative themes and social commentary started to attract an older audience.
Miller made his name as a writer and penciller on Marvel’s Daredevil, rebooting the character and introducing a darker tone and a violent, noirish edge. He also introduced a new character called Elektra before brutally killing her off in a shocking storyline.
However, he would have no direct input into the lacklustre Daredevil and Elektra films that were released in the early 2000s.
It would be his reinvention of Batman in 1986 that would reclaim the character from the camp stylings of the sixties TV series and continue to influence big screen adaptations of the character.
Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was a seminal miniseries that featured an ageing Batman coming out of retirement to renew his war on crime. Batman was re-imagined as a morally ambiguous anti-hero whose borderline psychosis and vigilante methods were portrayed with a previously unseen maturity and brutality.
The book would redefine the character for future generations and pave the way for Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, often cited as the forerunner for the modern superhero film.
His follow-up, Batman: Year One, portrayed a gritty, realistic take on Batman’s first steps as a costumed vigilante and it would prove to be an obvious inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the franchise.
Just before Batman Begins was released in 2005, Miller finally broke into Hollywood on his own terms when director Robert Rodriguez convinced him to attempt an ambitious adaptation of one of his classic comics.
The neo-noir tales of Sin City feature anti-heroes, call girls, corrupt officials and distinctive black and white visuals that seemed to defy an on-screen adaptation. Rodriguez produced a short test sample of what he planned to do and Miller was sold, not least by the chance to join Rodriguez behind the camera and finally get access to the seat of power.
The resulting film brilliantly captured the essence of the books and its success offered a form of redemption following his bitter experience on the Robocop films.
Sin City was followed by an adaptation of 300, Miller’s gory but poetic tribute to the Battle of Thermoplylae. The striking artwork and bloody passion of his book was translated onto the big screen in 2006 by Zac Synder, whose stylised approach brought the pages to life. It proved to be a major box office hit and added to the growing fanbase that was now seeking out the writer’s published work.
The one speed bump on Miller’s cinematic career was his solo directorial debut, an ill-judged adaptation of Will Eisner’s work called The Spirit. It was a critical and box office flop but it wasn’t enough to derail his forward momentum.
A sequel to 300, based on his comic Xerxes, was released earlier this year ahead of the much anticipated Sin City sequel,Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.
Meanwhile, Miller’s wider influence continues to resonate in the cinemas as DC and Marvel repeatedly mine his back catalogue.
The recent Wolverine sequel was set in Japan and it borrowed liberally from the clawed mutant’s first solo run, which was pencilled and co-plotted by Miller and written by Chris Claremont. The spin-off helped to establish Wolverine’s identity outside of the X-Men and the enduring popularity of the character would see him take centre stage in most of the X-Men films.
Meanwhile, the upcoming Batman vs Superman is set to reference Miller’s work once again. It features an older Batman and a storyline based on the rivalry between Batman and Superman, a theme first established in the The Dark Knight Returns but extensively explored in the comic book world ever since.
Maybe his recent success has helped but Miller remains remarkably magnanimous about his work for DC and Marvel being constantly looted for ideas. He recently cited the creators who inspired him and described himself as a “contributor to the collective force.”
“But I wouldn’t mind if they bought me a car,” he added.