Spirit guide: Frank Miller adapts Will Eisner's cult comic

Before Frank Miller's Sin City (2005), there was Will Eisner's. Not by name—the writer-artist of the legendary comics series "The Spirit" set his average-Joe masked crime-fighter in a Manhattan manqué called Central City. But under the skin, and the scum, and the sewers, they are kin—each locale less a home for its hero than a stage for its stories.

On paper, at least, Frank Miller, writer-director of the Lionsgate release The Spirit, premiering Christmas Day, seems an apt choice to adapt Eisner's ineluctable vision—Eric Rohmer Moral Tales via Sam Fuller film noir. Miller, the 51-year-old comics star behind the influential 1980s miniseries "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" and the adapted-to-film 300 and various "Sin City" miniseries, tells crime dramas steeped in atmosphere and the kinds of visual innovations in which Eisner excelled. And he was a friend and colleague of Eisner's for over 20 years, up to the latter's death on Jan. 3, 2005. It was at Eisner's downtown Manhattan memorial, in fact, that Spirit producer Mike Uslan approached Miller to write and direct it.

The untoward approach didn't faze him, Miller says, in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria less than two weeks before the movie's opening. "No. The only thought in my mind was, 'It's too big—I can't possibly do it.' And I refused. And about three minutes later as I was at the doorway, I turned around and said, 'Nobody else can touch this,' and I agreed to the job on the spot."

It would be a big job for anyone, let alone a debut director. (He'd received a co-director credit from director Robert Rodriguez for his on-set help on Frank Miller's Sin City.) Eisner's "The Spirit" is a canon of over 600 seven-page stories than ran from 1940 to 1952 in a comic-book-like, tabloid-sized Sunday-newspaper supplement—in a broad range of stories ranging from crime thriller to urban fairy tale, from life-and-death drama to rom-com. A road story could as easily evoke Hope-and-Crosby as it could John Steinbeck and the Joads.

The Spirit—police officer Denny Colt, who, after falling into experimental chemicals that made him appear dead, returns from the grave to fight crime as a cheerful vigilante, under the avuncular eye of the police commissioner—was a vulnerable Everyman confronting Everything from working-class criminals to his terrorist-mastermind archfoe the Octopus…and an array of anything-but-Everywomen, from feisty former fiancée Ellen Dolan (the commissioner's daughter) to exotic femme fatales, lady scientists and international investigators with names like P'gell, Sand Saref, Silk Satin, Nylon Rose and Silken Floss.

"Eisner was one of the people who created [the medium of] comic books," Miller says admiringly. "He was one of the first people who ever took comics from out of the four-panel strip and showed the possibilities of the full page."

His work has proven timeless, with a rebirth launched by a lauded, black-and-white magazine reprint series from Warren Publishing (Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella) beginning in 1974 and eventually continued by Kitchen Sink Press through 1993. That company published new, licensed Spirit stories by such top-name creators as Alan Moore (Watchmen) from 1997-98, and in 2006, DC Comics' supplemented its hardcover multi-volume reprints with new stories in an ongoing monthly comic.

Miller first became acquainted with the Spirit through the Warren series. "I was 14 years old, driving my bicycle in Vermont," where after his birth in Olney, Maryland, he was raised as the fifth of seven children of a nurse mother and a carpenter/electrician father, "and I would go to two drug stores to buy all my comic books. And at the second drug store, in Barre, Vermont, I came across this oversized magazine that was in black-and-white, and I was entranced. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. And I thought, 'This new guy is the best thing that ever happened to comics!' And then I saw: 'Copyright 1948'! Eleven years before I was born this guy was doing this? And it was far in advance of anything being done in comics at the time."

Eisner's work was as influential on generations of comics creators as Jack Kirby's. But as rightly visually spectacular as Miller's adaptation is, with the flat, heightened colors, heroic tableaux and melodramatic chiaroscuro of Sin City, it is the work of an Ayn Rand disciple, one who has credited her Romantic Manifesto as influencing his views of the literary hero and heroic fiction. Miller's Objectivist orientation is just the opposite of Eisner's trademark humanism, and Miller's Catholic tastes the opposite of Eisner's catholic tastes.

Perhaps his biggest departure from the Eisner series is granting the Spirit a superpower—a quick-healing ability, similar to that of Marvel Comics' Hulk and Wolverine, DC's satiric Lobo, and Claire Bennet of TV's “Heroes,” albeit much slower. Miller's Spirit can jump headfirst from low-rise tenements without getting hurt, and, in another early scene of the new film, get an entire toilet rammed upon him without losing consciousness.

"I read a lot of Spirit comics when I was growing up, and he seemed to be able to take a cinder-block to the head better than anybody I ever heard of," Miller explains, referring to Eisner's use of comic exaggeration. "And I just thought that the fact he took unusual punishment was a fact of the character that should be explored. And it also made for some wonderful Tex Avery kind of scenes early in the movie." (Animation director Avery was famous for the exaggerated action in his 1940s-50s MGM cartoons in particular.)

After entering in comics in 1978, drawing two stories for the licensed TV-series comic book "The Twilight Zone," Miller quickly found himself doing Marvel superhero comics. He began what would become a storied run on "Daredevil," starring a blind but highly athletic hero whose other senses had been extraordinarily heightened, with issue #158 (May 1979). Miller's gritty, violent, noir-inspired take would turn the second-string strip into a major critical and commercial hit.

"When I first showed up in New York," he recalls, “I showed up with a bunch of comics, a bunch of samples, of guys in trench coats and old cars and such. And [comics editors] said, 'Where are the guys in tights?' And I had to learn how to do it. But as soon as a title came along, when [Daredevil signature artist] Gene Colan left ‘Daredevil,’ I realized it was my secret in to do crime comics with a superhero in them. And so I lobbied for the title and got it"—as the artist, initially, although writing it as well, which he began doing ten issues later, "was always the plan."

After scoring an even bigger hit and mainstream-media success with the four-issue miniseries "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" (1986)—a Randian vision of a bitter, reactionary Batman a few decades from now, fighting against a corrupt world—Miller transitioned from comics to film. But his first venture, co-writing with Walon Green the script for Irvin Kershner’s RoboCop 2 (1990), did not fare well. Critics denounced its "gratuitous ugliness" and "facile and cynical excuses for mayhem," as The New York Times' Janet Maslin put it; even quote-monger Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called it "repugnant" and "vile." Miller and director Fred Dekker then co-wrote the more kid-friendly, PG-13 RoboCop 3 (1993), which also sank.

"It was humbling experience, and a healthy one," Miller reflects. "Every once in a while, reality has to turn around and kick you in the ass. That was a good case of it."

Writer-director Mark Steven Johnson's Daredevil (2003), while not specifically based on Miller's stories, was influenced by them, and Miller made a cameo appearance as "Man with pen in head." (He has a bit part in The Spirit as a character named Liebowitz, who early in the film gets his head ripped off and thrown at the Spirit.) Aside from that, he professes he doesn't care about that film's poor reception.

"I've got a problem," he claims. "Whenever I've worked on a character, I tend to be very critical of what anybody else does. So I tend not to like Batman movies or Daredevil movies or this and that." On the other hand, he told the now-defunct Now Playing magazine in 2005 that he "genuinely liked" Batman Begins and "felt like it really had heart and substance, and Christian Bale with no doubt performed the best Batman I have ever seen," so who knows what he really feels?

As for future films, Miller is mum on Internet chatter about Angelina Jolie supposedly signed to play Ava Lord in Sin City 2. "I haven't spoken with her," he says, neither denying nor confirming. An adaptation of "Hard Boiled," his 1990 miniseries drawn by  Geof Darrow, "is in discussion," which can mean anything. As for a prequel or sequel to 300, Miller says only, "I've got a story. That's all I can say right now."

Despite the macho pyrotechnics of his film work thus far, Miller doesn't scoff at the suggestion of doing something as far afield as a romantic comedy. Even a love-smitten doofus of a hero needs courage and inner strength, after all. “I don't see it as escapist," he says of his characters' usual mold of outsider fighting morally weaker adversaries. "I see it more as a goal. I think we all try to be brave, we all try to be honest, and we fail. But we can create characters who don't."

The Annotated Spirit: A Guide to the Movie's In-joke References

Ditko's Speedy Delivery – The company name on a truck late in the film is a nod to Spider-Man co-creator and fellow Ayn Rand devotee Steve Ditko, 81, whose moody, noir-ish works and patterned-light designs were influenced by Eisner's "The Spirit" comics growing up. Ditko was inducted in comic books' Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 1994.

Donenfeld (played by Richard Portnow) – In the late 1930s, magazine distributor Harry Donenfeld and accountant Jack Liebowitz (see below) took over Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson's comics company National Allied Publications, which eventually evolved into DC Comics. His movie namesake is a financier who commits suicide.

Elektra – When rookie cop Morganstern (Stana Katic) analyzes Sand Saref as suffering from an Elektra Complex, she's also giving a nod to one of Miller's most popular characters, the ninja mercenary Elektra, from the "Daredevil" comics.

Feiffer's Industrial Salt – The future Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, filmmaker, novelist and Village Voice icon was one of Eisner's primary ghostwriters and art assistants on "The Spirit." He entered comics' Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 2004.

Iger Avenue – Named for S.M. "Jerry Iger," a young, pre-"Spirit" Eisner's business partner in Eisner & Iger, a 1930s "packager" that created comic books on demand for publishers entering the new medium.

Liebowitz (played by Frank Miller) – One of the pioneers, with Harry Donenfeld (above), of the company that would become DC Comics. His movie namesake gets his head ripped off and thrown at the Spirit.

Paul Levitz – One of the credited players in a crowd scene in which the Spirit dangles from a building is DC Comics president Levitz. DC owns the publishing rights to the Spirit.

St. Alice's Hospital – There was a real St. Alice (1204–1250), the patron saint of the blind and paralyzed, but this is primarily a tribute to Eisner's teenage daughter Alice, who died of leukemia in 1969. Her death helped inspire Eisner's 1978 graphic novel A Contract with God.

Tuska – A character calls out the name, referencing to George Tuska, 92, who got his start at Eisner & Iger and went on to become one of the signature artists of Marvel Comics' Iron Man, among many other achievements.

"What's ten minutes in a man's life, anyway?" – Dolan's (Dan Lauria) question quotes from perhaps Eisner's most famous "Spirit" story, "Ten Minutes" (Sept. 11, 1949), an essentially real-time tale of the last ten minutes in the life of a small-time crook.