I published a story today I’ve been working on for a long time, one of the cool ones you pitch that turns out the way you hope it will, about Frank Miller’s sudden comeback. He’s writing a Superman miniseries with John Romita of Daredevil: The Man Without Fear fame, he’s got a couple of YA projects in the works, one of which has already been optioned for a Netflix series, and he’s writing and drawing Xerxes, the prequel to 300, which is really weird and eccentric and cool.
As always I love writing about comics, I love talking to artists and writers who work in the form, which I think is vastly important, and I find the publication process very difficult because the various comics fan communities online that find it interesting are so contentious and underinformed. But in this case a guy who’s been around the industry for a while and does some very good journalism of his own, Jay Edidin, tweeted something friendly about the article and when I mentioned in reply that I had more from the Neal Adams section, said he would like to see it. And a few other people concurred, and comics folks were generally baffled by the non-Neal parts of the feature and didn’t understand why anyone would need Frank Miller explained to them and wished mightily for an all-Neal extravaganza. So here it is, lightly edited for readability. Thanks for asking and double thanks for being nice about it, Jay.
Neal on Frank
Me: I interviewed Frank yesterday, who was wonderful, and one of the things he told me was that as a young artist he’d cold-called you out of the phone book.
Neal Adams: He did. I think he talked to my daughter. He came up to the studio. My daughter who was out front said, ‘There’s this Frank Miller here.’
And I said, ‘Ugh, oh boy. Okay.’ I said, ‘Kris, is there any way to avoid this?’
And she said ‘Daaaaaaaad c’mon, c’mon daaaaaad, c’mon. Be a good guy.’
And I said ‘Oh, god.’
When my daughter leans on me it’s very, very rare. Obviously she felt sorry for him because he was a skinny kid who looked like Ichabod Crane from some backwoods New Hampshire piss-townlet. And so he opened his stuff and I don’t remember exactly what was it was drawn on. It seemed to be page-sized. But it was awful. It was so bad. My heart sunk, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, one of these guys. He can’t draw, he doesn’t know how to tell a story, he doesn’t know anything.’
So I talked to him and I said, ‘Look, you don’t really wanna do this, do ya?’
And he said, ‘Yeah, I really wanna do this!’
I said, ‘This doesn’t even look like comic books.’
He says, ‘Yeah, but can you tell me what’s wrong?’
I said, ‘Frank, if I started now and I talked for 24 hours, it still wouldn’t be enough. I still wouldn’t be able to cover everything.’
And he said, ‘Well, can you give me an hour?’
I said, [sighs heavily].
And I could see my daughter lurking in the doorway. ‘Daaaaaad.’
So I said ‘[sighs again] Okay. All right. So we’ll do an hour.’
And I did. I went over the pages and I pointed things out, and I spent time, and I spent about an hour. I figured that was it. He was gonna go, it was too much. Obviously, I had beaten him up so bad he was gonna go and cry. Which he probably did. [chuckles.] That’s terrible. I think my daughter said that he cried.
The problem is that if I’m gonna spend time with somebody, I have a responsibility. Basically, if young artists go to talk to artists at conventions or wherever they talk to them and show their work, the artists, being human beings, lie to them. They just lie. It’s not because they’re bad—they don’t want to hurt somebody! They don’t want to offend. They want to encourage. They’re all nice guys. They’re all really nice.
But the truth is that being nice doesn’t help anybody. It’s gonna just put off the disappointment. Because people come to me later and they’ll say things like, ‘I dunno! So-and-so told me that if I just worked on this and I worked on this, [they’d work with me] but they still don’t like my stuff!’
And I say, ‘Well, what if they lied to you? I mean… because they’re nice, they don’t want to offend you, they don’t want to make you cry. But have you considered that?’
And they look at me in surprise like I’m telling them this terrible secret.
It’s like a dad. He cares, so he doesn’t want to hurt you, but the truth is that they’re not telling you the truth! The truth is that you don’t know anything, and you have to learn stuff and it’s a long, hard, evil process! And if you want to learn you have to do it.
Well, Frank went away. A week later, he came back. And my daughter comes in and she says ‘Dad. Frank Miller’s back.’
‘Frank…? Oh, Jesus. Kris! Can’t you tell him I’m out or something?’
‘Dad. He came back. You went over [his work], you said you’d see him.’
‘Maybe I did. Fine.’ So I went out, and I looked at is stuff again, and it was awful. Awful. Oh, god, why am I doing this!
But then I looked at it a little more carefully and I realized that he’d actually paid attention to the things I’d said. He’d tried to fix those things and worked on them. It wasn’t a successful fixing but he did work on ’em. He paid attention, he thought about it, and he worked on ’em.
And I said, ‘Okay, Frank, you should go back and try again, but what do you want?’
And he said, ‘Can I have another hour?’
And I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ That went on for, I dunno, a couple of months. Seems like forever.
Every week. Well, I dunno, sometimes it would take him two weeks [to fix the drawing the way I told him to]. And it was heartrending, but he did pay attention. I mean, I hadn’t really seen that from anybody before. The things we talked about, he paid attention and he did them. He wasn’t becoming a better artist, but he was becoming a better comic-book person.
He was learning to tell a story, he was learning to focus on things, he was learning to get a focus on an area of a face that was important for the story. He created a focus and he understood what he was driving at. But still it was so rough and so bad.
So anyway one day he came in and he had six pages and I said ‘What’s this?’ And he’d gone to [Gold Key] and somebody had given him a test script you give to artists to see what they can do.
He said, ‘They gave me a test script.’
And I said, ‘Oh, really?’
And he said, ‘Can you go over it?’
And I said, ‘You want me to read it and go over it? [sighs] Okay.’
So I read the script, and I went over the story, and of course there was were of things wrong, there were no miracles, it was just hard work, and I went over the things that should be done, and had to be done, to make the thing right.
And he said, ‘So I should go home, and I should do the thing over again?’
And I said, ‘Well, if you want to hand it in and have it right, or at least close to right, sure, that’s what you should do.’
And he said, well, that’s a little bit of a problem, because I handed it in actually, and they accepted it.’
I said, ‘What, they accepted it?!’
And he said, ‘What should I do?’
I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’re done! That’s it! It’s accepted! That job is done, move on to the next thing, whatever you do, do not go back and do this over! Move on!’
And so he did, and pretty soon he was working at Marvel and I think within a year he was working on Daredevil. He just kicked a blazing trail and moved forward. It’s not as if he suddenly became a tremendously better drawer, he became a tremendous storyteller. People say, ‘Neal, are you responsible for Frank Miller?’ I constantly say, ‘No. No.’ Whatever you do, don’t say that I’m responsible for Frank Miller. Frank Miller did it himself.
I may have been there as a teacher or somebody who could open a book and show it to him, but it was Frank. Because I’ve done the same thing for a hundred guys and nobody responded the way Frank did. Nobody advanced that quickly. And I made it hard for him. If you’d gone through it, you’d have gone home crying. And I never would have thought that he’d turn out to be what he is. He’s become like a son to me. I didn’t teach him other of life’s lessons, unfortunately, and I should have. That was the bad part. But by golly, he certainly learned these lessons.
What life lessons?
Don’t drink, don’t smoke, and don’t fuck up. I mean… lookit, a life to me is family, is health, and is hard work. Family, health, and hard work: It’s a very simple triumvirate. I never sat and had that conversation with Frank. We just talked about work. And if you don’t teach family, if you don’t teach health, good health to somebody, then suddenly you turn around and go, ‘Oh, my God. We didn’t have that conversation.’ And you feel like shit, because Frank didn’t. And now he’s having to learn it.
Frank on Neal
How did you get to New York?
Frank Miller: I don’t remember that first visit well because I was just a nervous kid. It was many years later when I actually moved there that things became serious. What I did was I woke up, I called each company, and they said to come by and show them a portfolio, and I made a third call, the most important one: I looked up the name Neal Adams in the phone book and he was listed. It said, “Neal Adams, Continuity Associates,” which was a company he had, and I called them up and a woman’s voice answered. I gave her my name and said I was a comic book artist and wondered if I could meet Neal Adams, and she said, “Just a minute. DAD!”
And I got to meet Neal Adams for the first time and got my first professional rejection, which he repeated a number of times until one day he got me my first job. He’s a wonderful man. A lot of people owe their careers to him. As a beginning artist, he didn’t just tell you you were terrible and no good and never had a chance, he did put a piece of tracing paper over your page to show you how you should do it, and you’d come home with the tracing paper, so you’d have a Neal Adams original showing you how you could do it better.
That must have been horribly humbling.
Anything but! It was exhilarating that my idol was that generous with his time!
One quick note before I sign off here: I usually have a pretty thick skin about this stuff but in this case one of the people who was upset about the article was Neal, who, for the record, I think is actually kind of an amazing person in addition to being a genuinely great and transformative artist much like Miller. He helped the impoverished Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster squeeze a tiny portion of the money they deserved out of DC Comics when they were both destitute, he helped Jack Kirby get his art back from Marvel Comics when the company was holding it hostage in the hopes of forcing Kirby to sign a draconian release form, and he tried to unionize comics creators.
So in my book he’s a hero, but he was also on the record in our interview, and on the record is on the record, though I do try to quote people in context and give leeway when they tell me they’re worried about blowback or hurting someone with something they’ve already said, which, I want to be clear, did not happen when he and I talked. I wish him well and I hope the interview he so generously gave me doesn’t ultimately hurt his relationship with Frank.