I’ll be heading down to the comics shop today to pick up Howard Chaykin’s Black Kiss II #1, which I’m sure will be worth the effort. I’ve been on a bit of a Chaykin kick lately, so today I’ll offer a quick look at an oldie I picked up on a recent trip: Marvel Premiere #32 (Oct. 1976), featuring Monark Starstalker!
This is an early effort by Chaykin as both writer and artist, and it unfortunately shows. The good stuff is the artwork, which is sleek and well-designed. It’s pretty unusual stuff for Marvel at the time, though the style seen here would become more familiar with both Chaykin’s later work and Frank Miller’s style on his original Daredevil run. The individual panels and pages are well-designed and look decidedly un-comic-book-y for the era. Chakyin goes heavy on the blacks and it looks most like Chaykin’s work on Star Wars #1. (I believe Roy Thomas stated in an issue of Alter-Ego that I don’t have handy to confirm that it was this issue that prompted the Lucasfilm folks to specifically request Chaykin draw the Star Wars comic.)
While this looks great, it’s a complete mess to read. The story nominally involves a guy named Monark Starstalker, who’s a kind of bounty hunter pursuing a target on a remote planet. It’s a simple premise, but it gets bogged down in clunky exposition intended to inject a sense of reality into this world. The character is a prototypical Chaykin hero: hard-boiled, tough and irresistible to the ladies.
This book is also awfully murky looking — the heavy inks just didn’t translate well into the printing processes used for comics at the time. It’d be nice to see this done on better paper that could present the images more sharply and vividly.
Writer and artist: Frank Miller Cover colors: Lynn Varley Editor: Bob Schreck
There’s not much to say about the story in this issue, which can be summed as follows: Marv walks through a snow storm to a barred doorway that leads down to some kind of dungeon. He gives some cash to a woman dressed like a Nazi, who shows him a cell where a small and very scared young girl looks back at him. He turns on the woman and her armed thugs, shooting them dead right quick. He opens the door, tells the girl, Kimberly, that it’s OK and she’ll be home with her momma soon. He scoops her up and carries her out and back into the snowstorm.
This story is told completely in silent splash pages, with only one dialog balloon in the whole issue. That prompted a lot of howls at the time this was released since “reading” this black and white comic takes only a few minutes and it cost a then-whopping $2.95. But that belies that fact that it’s 26 or so pages of Frank Miller Sin City art, which has always been worth the price of admission alone. I always thought this was Miller’s attempt to do for snow what he did for rain in the first Sin City story. Was it a cash grab, as some have charged? Maybe, but again it’s Frank Miller art and there are few comics at the time where the entire package was worth $3, let alone just the art.
Of course, this ain’t the most happy, touchy-feely holiday story ever — but Marv’s good deed does stand out as a worthy gift considering how tough and hard-boiled every day is in Miller’s “town without pity.”
“The Spirit,” which adapts Will Eisner’s beloved strip and features the solo directorial debut of Frank Miller, is by pretty much any common standard a complete flop. After two weekends in release — one of them an extended holiday weekend — the film has grossed about $18 million domestic and $3 million international. The reviews have been savage.
But what’s been sinking in with me since I saw it sometime last week was how similar watching this movie is to reading a Frank Miller comic book. Yes, it’s jarring and over-the-top and falls short in telling a story the way moviegoers expect, but it’s also fascinating to watch Miller put his style up on the screen so completely untouched. Doing so also puts Miller’s flaws on display. The same was true in “Sin City,” where the telling of three stories in one film emphasized their similarities in a way reading the comics one at a time did not, though the overall result was a more conventional film.
But “The Spirit” fits right into Miller’s recent work. Since “The Dark Knight Strikes Again,” Miller’s work has polarized fans as he stripped away the elements that grounded his work in the real-world milieu most fans prefer in favor of an unapologetically primal pulp style. Miller has largely abandoned superheroes as a vehicle for expression, going for the gut reactions evoked by pure sex and violence. In some cases, such as All-Star Batman, this goes so far against the audience’s expectation for comics (and the movies based on them) to plumb the hero’s soul and to establish their actions as occurring in the real world. “The Spirit” is much the same — Miller’s happy to have his hero beat up bad guys and make femmes fatales swoon because that’s his job. The villains, similarly, have little to no motivation beyond their fueling their own basic urges for power, money and sex. (Though it is interesting that Miller used the same formula Marvel does for its movies by connecting the origins of the hero and the villain.) The result is a story that lacks the depth commonly expected of comic books and movies in favor of the gut-level reactions to Miller’s intentionally provocative depictions of sex and violence. Miller’s love of breaking taboos is, in its way, admirable, even as I sometimes wish he’d get past pushing those buttons for their own sake.
The visuals are the one part of the movie that even the reviewers will admit are impressive to look at. Some of the things that are the most jarring in a movie — such as the scene with the Octopus and Silken Floss wearing kimonos — would work just fine in a Miller comic book. The background that changes from glowing red to a rising sun image, and the cartoonish figure of Samuel L. Jackson chopping a henchman in half with his samurai sword are so Miller-esque you can imagine the panels and the layout of the page with ease.
The way Miller sticks to a comic-book style of storytelling — especially at the start of the film, with its dense first fight between villain and hero and minimal exposition — reminds me of the dense, quick-action start to many a comic book. While readers can follow a story at their own pace and re-read panels or pages as needed to catch up, film and its audiences are much less forgiving. Given the way Miller slaps the audience around in the opening 20 minutes or so, it’s no surprise that viewers and critics gave up on finding a way into this bizarre, hyper-kinetic world.
By now you’ve probably guessed that I’m working up to saying I admire the film in a strange way — and I do. This is a film that is so comic-booky through and through, that it’s a taste that’s as refined and difficult to acquire as the most continuity-intensive superhero comic book series. This is a film made from and for the purer fringes of the comic-book culture and esthetic — and it is about as far from the standards of mainstream moviemaking and its audiences as you’re likely to get. I do lament that Miller’s vision of The Spirit completely overwhelmed the charm and wit of Will Eisner, but it’s been obvious from the first that that would have to wait for another time.
So is the movie bad? From almost every conventional standpoint, the answer is yes. But the parts of my head that really enjoys the occasional Heavy Metal story because it has nudity and violence, or Howard Chaykin’s “Black Kiss,” or the extreme violence of Simon Bisley’s artwork, and secretly cheers even the most childish of Miller’s anti-censorship rants, finds a lot to like in “The Spirit” — and is glad it got made.
Just in time for Christmas and the release of the film, I have three copies of “The Spirit: The Movie Visual Companion,” by Mark Cotta Vaz to give away, courtesy of the publisher, Titan Books, and the most excellent Tom Green. The book is definitely worth a look through for fans of Miller, Eisner and the movie — even if the movie itself turns out to not be to everyone’s taste. But to get a shot at winning, you’ll have to wade through me prattling on about some stuff and then answer a couple questions.
The film seems to be losing the battle of the critics so far, which is both unsurprising and still disappointing. I haven’t seen it yet myself, so I’m hoping there’s something about it — the tone, or simply embracing its own goofiness, if need be, that makes the experience fun.
I feel more invested in this movie than usual, as I’ve been writing about it for what seems like forever. I chatted up producer Michael Uslan at a party Oddlot Entertainment threw to announce the pic at Comic-Con in 2006, and managed to ask Miller about adapting Eisner’s short stories into a feature film (he said he was working on it). I did a set visit in November 2007 for Newsarama that produced threestorieson the film; I did a short interview with producer Deborah Del Prete last summer about shooting in Albuquerque for a Variety special on New Mexico; and, coming up shortly, a piece on the film’s visual effects for Animation Magazine.Through that time, I’ve been impressed by the way the film is being made. The project was put together independently by Oddlot, who shopped it around, saying “this is what we’re gonna do, take it or leave it” and got Lionsgate to bite. This was the first feature film to shoot at the booming Albuquerque Studios, a brand new state of the art facility. The set visit was in a lot of ways less impressive, given that all there was to see was a huge greenscreen-draped studio and a few bits of scenery. It was cool to see an old-fashioned delivery truck with the logo “Ditko’s Deliveries” stenciled on the side, and to chat briefly with Gabriel Macht in costume. Unfortunately, none of the films’ femmes fatale were on set that day.
Beyond that, I’ve met Miller a number of times. (Some day, I’ll have to get my pal Jeff to talk here about the time he asked Miller to make corrections on a piece of original art he owned.) I was most pleased to meet him at a Dark Horse Comic-Con party in 2002, when I handed him a copy of the first Variety comics special I had edited and got a quick pic, taken by DH editor Diana Schutz with my camera. I later learned Miller always does the evil-eye thing in pictures. That night, he excused himself to go say hi to “a good friend,” who turned out to be Will Eisner.
Eisner was one of the greats I never had a chance to really meet. My favorite Eisner story was in “Invisible People,” the episode in which an obit run by mistake destroys a meek man’s life while the newspaper editor refused to admit the mistake and eventually won an award for her error-free track record. I was asked to be a judge for the Eisner Awards in September 2004 (the same day I had gone to press event for the DVD release of the original Star Wars trilogy and got to meet Mark Hamill and irvin Kershner — it was a good day). I had been looking forward to the opportunity to meet Eisner and perhaps talk with him a bit more. But it was not to be, as will died at the New Year, several months even before the judging. I don’t recall any of the judges discussing Eisner much in the room, but when the ceremony came around and Will wasn’t there, it was definitely a very sad moment.
Eisner and Miller’s relationship is also interesting, and I am quite looking forward to finding the time to reread “Eisner/Miller” after seeing the movie to see if the impression that these men were in tune with each other’s sensibilities was real or just an impression made larger than it really was by the very nice idea that these two creators from different generations could have the kind of collegial relationship they seemed to enjoy.
So, on to the giveaway: The first three people to answer the following three questions correctly in the comments section of this post will win a copy of the book. Be sure to use an email address I can use to contact you with when you make your post. I have to limit the contest to domestic entries, i.e., I will not ship overseas. I will contact the winners via email to get shipping info, etc. Got it? Go:
1. What year were the Eisner Awards first given out?
2. Who conducted the interviews in the 2005 book “Eisner/Miller”? (Bonus points if you can tell me what worthy comics org he works for.)
3. Which of his famous characters did Miller freely admit to copying almost directly from Eisner’s Sand Saref?
A slain cop is resurrected as a masked crime-fighter in “The Spirit,” but Frank Miller’s solo writing-directing debut plunges into a watery grave early on and spends roughly the next 100 minutes gasping for air. Pushing well past the point of self-parody, Miller has done Will Eisner’s pioneering comicstrip no favors by drenching it in the same self-consciously neo-noir monochrome put to much more compelling use in “Sin City.” Graphic-novel geeks will be enticed by the promise of sleek babes and equally eye-popping f/x, but general audiences will probably pass on this visually arresting but wholly disposable Miller-lite exercise.
If this film does well enough to rate a sequel, and with some more directorial seasoning under Miller’s belt, perhaps future installments could achieve the greatness this one just frustratingly teases. As it stands, “The Spirit” does a precarious balancing act juxtaposing great moments and terrible ones, leaving audiences likely be split over which makes the greater impression.
And Ain’t It Cool News skewers the film as the worst since “Battlefield Earth.” Ouch.
And now I’ve seen something that has taken the top prize from “Battlefield Earth.” I mean, I honestly thought that would never happen. And it’s not like there aren’t MANY shitty movies made every year, and it’s not like I don’t SEE many of those. In fact, friends of mine and I have recently started a “Bad Movie Night,” where we have an opening act, a main feature, and a dessert: all of incredibly bad film & TV (the last one we did featured a vampire theme, so we started with “Knight Beat” (only available on VHS, but highly recommended), we feasted on the horror that is “Lost Boys 2: The Tribe”, and then for dessert, watched the (very) little-seen, “Paul Lynde’s Halloween Special” (holy crap! Amazing!). They’re our very own “MST3K” nights.
I’ll withhold judgment until I’ve seen the film, though given my general reaction to Frank Miller’s writing the past decade I can’t say my hopes for this film are high (despite the apparently excellent technical aspects of the film) were terribly high even before reading the reviews.