On Christmas Day, Vermonter’s “Spirit” comes to life

December 24th, 2008 by Daniel Barlow · No Comments

By Daniel Barlow Vermont Press Bureau Published: December 24, 2008

MONTPELIER – During a recent interview to promote his film adaptation of Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” comic strip, Frank Miller remembered first discovering reprints of the cartoonist’s work in a small drugstore in Barre.

“I was 14 years old, driving my bicycle in Vermont, and I would go to two drug stores to buy all my comic books,” Miller told the Film Journal International earlier this month. “And at the second drug store in Barre, Vt., I came across this oversized magazine that was in black-and-white and I was entranced.”

That comic was a 1970s reprint of Eisner’s work decades earlier on “The Spirit,” which ran for 12 years as a supplement to newspapers’ Sunday comics section. Miller quickly devoured Eisner’s work – forever influencing his own artistic direction.

More than 30 years later, Miller, who grew up in the Barre area and attended high school in Montpelier, brings his own version of “The Spirit” to the big screen on Christmas Day. The film stars Gabriel Macht as Denny Colt, a police officer who fights crime as the masked, noirish Spirit.

Growing up in central Vermont, Miller would ride his bike to drug and convenience stores in Montpelier and Barre hunting spinner racks for the comics he liked, according to Steve Miller, his older brother, who lives in Calais.

“He was very specific about the comics he read,” said Steve Miller, a sign painter and artist who designed Miller’s logos for his “Sin City” and “300″ comics and “The Spirit” film. “The comic racks were chaotic back then, but he was usually successful in finding what he wanted.”

Steve Miller said his younger brother never disliked living in Vermont, but he also never felt he fit in. Miller began making frequent trips to New York City as a teenager to show his art around to comic professionals and finally, soon after graduating high school, he left for the big city – and never looked back.

He said Miller hasn’t been to the Green Mountain State in at least seven years.

“Our father and I drove him to New York City when he was 19,” he said. “But we couldn’t find a parking spot, so we just dropped him off in front of the building where he was staying.”

Miller struggled in comics for the first few years until he landed on Marvel Comics’ “Daredevil” series in the early 1980s – and his run on the book was heralded for its gritty city realism.

Later that decade he would go on to write and draw “The Dark Knight Returns” – one of the darkest Batman stories ever told. The comic, which starred an aging Batman coming out of retirement, had everyone from film director Tim Burton to Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy praising his work.

It was an amazing turn for a young man from Vermont who dreamed of being a comics professional.

“He started drawing comics when he was eight years old,” remembered Marjorie Miller, his mother who still lives one town over from Montpelier. “He would sell them for a penny apiece in school and his brothers and sister would write the fan letters in the back.”

Miller’s work frequently appeals to readers who are not traditional comic readers. Mitch Ferrada, 17, is a resident of Montpelier and a student at the same high school that Miller graduated from decades earlier.

He said a friend passed him some of Miller’s comics recently and he quickly became a fan. His favorite Miller comic is “Ronin,” an early 1980s series for DC Comics featuring a samurai reborn in a dystopian future.

“His graphic novels are more than just comics,” Ferrada said. “For him, it’s all about the story. They are really more like books.”

Although Eisner is not as well known to the general public as Miller, his legacy in the cartooning industry dates back to the golden age of comics in the 1930s. He remained prolific up until his death in 2005, when he released “The Plot,” a graphic retelling of the creation of the anti-Semitic hoax, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

In addition to launching “The Spirit” in 1940 – at its height the comic had a distribution of about five million copies – Eisner is also credited with the creation of the graphic novel for his 1978 book-length collection of short comic stories, “A Contract with God.”

“Frank and Will were friends for many years,” recalled Carl Gropper, Eisner’s nephew who with his wife, Nancy Gropper, is the archivist of Will Eisner Studios Inc. in New Jersey. “Will was a mentor to Frank, but I believe the two used to argue quite a bit.”

Eisner’s “The Spirit” focused on a police officer who remerges from apparent death to become a crime-fighter, “an early superhero” with a small blue domino mask, blue business suit, red necktie, fedora hat and blue gloves, according to Carl Gropper.

Over 12 years of the weekly comic strip, which often spanned seven or eight pages for each story, The Spirit fought menacing villains, small-time crooks and legions of dangerous women in tight-fighting dresses – all tropes that are reflected in much of Miller’s work.

That’s how Miller’s mother remembers Miller and Eisner’s relationship too. She said the two artists butted heads over their different creative approaches, although both men had a deep appreciation for the other’s work.

“When Will Eisner was very ill, he told Frank that if they ever made a movie of ‘The Spirit’ that he wanted him to write it,” Marjorie Miller said. “And he ended up directing the movie too because he didn’t want anyone to change the vision he had for the comic.”

The Groppers attended the premiere of the film last week in Los Angeles. Carl Gropper said they enjoyed the film, but quickly added that the movie version of “The Spirit” is clearly Miller’s adaptation of the work and not a straight adaptation of the Eisner’s original vision.

“It is definitely Frank Miller’s vision,” he said. “It was very enjoyable and almost all the actors do an excellent job. We have our fingers crossed that it does well.”

Much of Miller’s family in Vermont couldn’t make it out to the film premiere this year, but they caught up with their brother during a surprise birthday party for him in Las Vegas in February. Suddenly the Miller family was rubbing shoulders with Hollywood stars.

“The first person I saw walking in was Robert Rodriguez,” said Steve Miller, referring to the Hollywood director who co-directed the “Sin City” film with Miller. “He has a lot of respect for the actors who work for him and they pick up on that.”

Marjorie Miller said she plans to see her son’s new film –but probably not on Christmas Day. And while her son’s comics and films – which are noted for their sexy femme fatales and over-the-top violence – are “not [her] cup of tea,” she said she is proud of her son for pursuing his dreams.

“I’m proud of all my children,” she said. “Each one grew up to be a good citizen and have jobs that are interesting. I was a full-time nurse when they were growing up, so I think they understood the importance of hard work.”

Contact Daniel Barlow at Daniel.Barlow@timesargus.com.

Tags: General News · Interviews

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