Friday, March 8, 2013

Frank Miller's Sin City and The Spirit

     I noticed that The Spirit was showing on cable this morning, which reminded me of a glaring example of artistic hypocrisy.

From The
     The Spirit was a film adaptation of Will Eisner's The Spirit, originally a comic book insert in Sunday newspapers, 1940-1952, since many times re-printed in magazine, paperback and hardcover formats. Eisner was a comic book pioneer, and The Spirit is fondly remembered and admired for its storytelling, humor and invention (although the caricatured depiction of some of the people of color are cringe-inducing; that of The Spirit's assistant, young black man Ebony White, is particularly bad, although the character himself developed from comic relief to a balanced and sometimes noble character). Eisner's panels seemed almost cinematic. The action might change only fractionally from panel to panel, like a camera pan. The stories were basically realistic -- after the origin, in which private investigator Denny Colt is believed dead because he was doused with a chemical that causes suspended animation -- though he frequently added surrealistic or even science fictional elements. Strong and attractive women characters, many villains, were often featured.
     Eisner only did The Spirit for a little over 10 years, and there were times when he was in the military or working on other projects where he had others -- including cartoonist Jules Feiffer -- assisting or completely illustrating (maybe writing, too) the stories for him.
     Many people have contemplated filming The Spirit, but -- aside from a little-seen TV film in 1987 -- nothing came of it until Frank Miller’s 2008 movie version.

     I've enjoyed comic book artist/writer Frank Miller's work since an early story in the fanzine Space and Time. (It was crude, both in art style and subject. A sword-and-sorcery parody written by and starring the magazine's editor, it dealt with the hero saving a young woman from becoming a sorcerers virgin sacrifice by, um, making sure she was no longer qualified.)
     The next time I saw his work, it was his debut on Marvel's Daredevil title as artist. Eventually he became both writer and artist, followed by a brief return as just the writer. I read every issue. Around this time, he did the first Wolverine mini-series (artist), the Daredevil spinoff Elektra: Assassin (writer), Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (writer/artist), Batman: Year One (writer) and Martha Washington: Give Me Liberty (writer).
     I didn't read his first Sin City story when it debuted, though I saw the graphic novel in bookstores and glanced through it.
     I also missed his first films, the screenplays for the Robocop II and Robocop III sequels, but I knew he wrote that he wasn't happy with the changes and hassles involved in working in Hollywood. When Hollywood came calling, interested in film versions of his Sin City work, he said no (unlike his Daredevil, Elektra and Wolverine work, he owned the rights).
     Then director Robert Rodriguez auditioned for the job by making a short film based on a Sin City vignette. Rodriguez used the original comics as storyboards, making a completely faithful adaptation of the original. It not only followed the comic closely, but looked like it, mimicking the stark black-and-white of the original pages with computer generated sets and splashes of color. Miller liked it. No doubt he also liked that Rodriguez planned to offer him a co-directing credit (since he would use the original comics as storyboards throughout). The resulting Sin City (2005) film was a popular and critical success, with a celebrity cast including Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Toby Maguire, Jessica Alba and others.
     Then, in 2007, Miller produced a film adaptation of his 300 graphic novel. It was also successful.
     Apparently Miller now liked or trusted Hollywood a little more, and wanted to try his hand at directing. He was offered The Spirit.
      Given his own treatment by Hollywood, and his pleasure with works that were almost obsessively faithful to the original, Miller did likewise. That is, is he adapted The Spirit with obsessive faithfulness ... to Sin City. Yes, the film looked like Sin City, even though The Spirit wasn't a black-and-white comic but a full-color comic. The storyline and characterization of The Spirit also more closely resembled Sin City (and Millers Batman) than Eisners original comic. Eisner's Spirit was plucky and puckish (think James Garner in The Rockford Files).
     To be fair, The Spirit was a seven-page comic book with storylines that rarely extended beyond one issue, so you couldn't stretch one plot out to 90 minutes without a lot of padding. Sin City comics were much longer, but it took three storylines to make a full-length film. Still, what was the point of changing the tone that dramatically if Miller liked and respected the originals?
     Miller also uses the names of several of Eisner's women characters, but alters them almost beyond recognition.
     Then there's the arch villain: The Octopus. The Octopus was The Spirit's only continuing villain (a few female villains recurred, but they were more attractive nuisances than threats). The problem with putting him in a film is that his face was never shown, and he had no overall master plan. He was a villainous Everyman, an opportunist. In one story, he might be looking for buried treasure. In another, he might be after the plans for an atomic bomb. Another time, he might want to silence a former cohort who can identify him to the police.
     As played by Samuel Jackson, he is a scientist after the blood of Herakles (Hercules to you) to gain immortality, who accidentally gave The Spirit the ability to instantly heal all wounds (like Wolverine) during an earlier experiment. The Octopus also seems to have similar abilities, and has genetically created a bunch of stupid, disposable clones as henchmen.
     Miller hasn't been faithful to the look, the personalities or the plots of Eisner's The Spirit, and the film flopped. A faithful adaptation of Sin City succeeded. Is there a connection? I hope so.
     Miller's punishment may be that he is again persona non grata in Hollywood. An anticipated Sin City sequel still hasn't materialized (Rodriguez has moved on), possibly because of how poorly The Spirit did. The ruthless parody of 300, Meet the Spartans, might also have something to do with it. A proposed Miller version of Buck Rogers was also cancelled. Maybe he should stick to comics.


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