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300

When Frank Miller was five years old, his brother took him to see a movie about 300 Spartans standing off the invading thousands of the Persian army. Haunted by the memory of that sacrificial stand in the pass at Thermopylae, Miller eventually gave the historic battle his own interpretation in a 5-issue mini-series published by Dark Horse in 1998. And then director Zack Snyder turned Miller’s graphic novel into a new motion picture, “300,” which, according to USAToday, “held on to the top spot at the box office” its second weekend, its revenues for the first two weeks topping $127 million. It grossed $70 million the first weekend, “the biggest March debut ever,” saith Evan Thomas in Time, adding that the movie “may be none too cerebral, but it is disturbingly beautiful,” looking and feeling “like a lavish slash-and-chop videogame.” Among the bad guys in the film, Thomas notes, are “corrupt Spartan politicians who refuse to send more troops to the battle,” an echo of right-wing accusations about liberal Democrats voting against the surge in Iraq. On the other hand, he continues, “the Spartan heroes seem to be in love with what one of them calls ‘a beautiful death’—just like, er, Islamic suicide bombers.” Snyder, a comics fan who stayed away from the medium until Alan Moore and Frank Miller revitalized it, used Miller’s graphic novel as a storyboard in filming the epic. Interviewed by Joseph McCabe in the Comics Buyer’s Guide, Snyder said he very early decided that the best way to bring Miller’s work to the screen was to follow Miller’s book. “I had it next to my director’s chair, and I would just open it every time, in every scene,” Snyder said. “Most of the time, I would just do whatever Frank had drawn in the book.”

And Miller, whose Sin City graphic novel had served similarly for its film version, was very pleased. “This is the movie I wanted to see when I was five, seeing ‘The 300 Spartans’ for the first time” he exclaimed. “I wanted to see this!”  Snyder’s movie, Miller told Stephen Garrett at Esquire.com, “really is my comic book come to life.” Garrett wanted to know why, after all the research for the graphic novel, Miller ultimately disregarded historical accuracy.

“The Spartans were dressed like beetles when they went into battle,” said Miller. “They wore half their body weight in armor. And I wanted them to be big, physical, and fast. As a cartoonist, I’m a caricaturist. First you find out what somebody really looks like, and then you find out what they really look like.”

Given Miller’s less than ecstatic experiences in Hollywood writing two RoboCop movies, Garrett was surprised to find the cartoonist so enthusiastic about motion pictures. “What I learned there,” said Miller, deploying a pungent metaphor, “is that your screenplay is a fire hydrant with an awful lot of dogs lined up behind it. And I wasn’t interested at all in directing: I just wanted to draw my comics. It took Robert Rodriguez to drag me, kicking and screaming, into movie-making again.”

Although he wasn’t on the “300”set as he was for the “Sin City” effort, Miller was a profound presence. Said Snyder: “I’m sure in some ways we were more careful [following his book] than we would have been [because we didn’t have] Frank with us every minute.” And Miller was quick to respond long-distance to any question Snyder posed, on one occasion sending the movie-maker a scale drawing of the Spartan sword, the details of which Snyder couldn’t quite make out in the graphic novel. But this film is likely to be the last time Miller turns his work over to others to film. With “Sin City” and “300" to his credit, Miller can probably write his own ticket in the near future, but, as I interpret his comments to CBG editor Maggie Thompson, his ticket will be on the drawing board a good part of the time. Said Miller: “I really most want to remain a vital force in the field [of comics, I assume he means] and be a part of the changes that are coming. I don’t know where it is going. I don’t know where my own work is going. I’ve got a lot of ideas and I’m pursuing them, of course; but most of all I want to stay engaged with it as an artist.”

Miller told Garrett that his next stories are likely to be graphic novels first, then, probably, movies. “That way, once it’s all drawn, people kind of have to agree with it,” he said. “It’s very time-consuming, but it means you can shoot fast [when translating the book into film], and everybody knows what it is. First and foremost, it’s a comic book; and then if people want to translate it, I’m willing. I’m a great believer in drawing twice from the same well.”

He professes complete infatuation with CGI. “It’s great for conveying a cartoonist’s sense of reality,” he said. “I’m like a kid in a candy store, getting to use sound, and working with real actors was probably the biggest dream come true for me. But it’s odd drawing Sin City again ... It’ll be funny drawing Nancy Callahan jumping across the stage with Jessica Alba stuck in my head.”

At CBG, Maggie Thompson finished by giving away Miller’s image secret. He’s almost always scowling at the camera when photographed, the epitome of an angry young man. “Don’t be confused by his glower, his lifted eyebrow,” said Thompson; “it’s a stance he has routinely adopted when posing for photos. When the camera is put away, he breaks into laughter.”

Miller’s work in progress is a graphic novel about Batman kicking Osama bin Laden’s butt, I understand. And then there’s the Spirit movie, the celluloid incarnation of Will Eisner’s iconic character. Michael Uslan has the rights to the motion picture version, and, as reported in CBG, he told Eisner before the cartoonist died that he wouldn’t let anyone touch the property unless they understood the character and the concept. And there the project languished until Uslan ran into Miller at the memorial service for Eisner in early 2005. They talked about the “Sin City” movie and how its technology might pave the way to the Spirit movie. Then Uslan read the Dark Horse interview tome, Eisner/Miller, and realized Miller was destined to write and direct the Spirit movie. “When we first offered the job to Frank,” Uslan said, “he refused, claiming there was no way he could attempt to bring the great work of Will Eisner to the screen. About three minutes later, he agreed [to do it], realizing that he couldn’t let anyone else touch it.”

But one other creative intelligence is touching it. Eisner. Said Uslan: “Frank later would take his story outline and photocopy all of Eisner’s Spirit tales, then cut them up into sequences and even individual panels, placing them up on his wall until they fit into the movie story he laid out.” Miller occasionally drew in connective scenes, but “the movie has been storyboarded by Will Eisner—with an assist from Frank Miller.”

Meanwhile, Zack Snyder is gearing up turn Alan Moore’s Watchmen into a motion picture. And the way he approaches the project will be shaped, he told Jamie Portman at CanWest News Service, by what he learned making “300,” some of which he learned from Miller’s graphic novel.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

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