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Sin From Berlin

Flick Chick


Published May 4, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

Sin City, the recent release that depicts a bleak metropolis plagued by crime, was adapted from co-director Frank Miller's similarly titled graphic novels. Despite his taste for urban-nightmare scenarios, the 48-year-old writer, artist and filmmaker grew up in little old Berlin, Vermont. At age 6 he produced a "book" with drawings and words on a few sheets of paper stapled together, a creative act that presaged his fabulous future in comics.

"It's all I ever wanted," recalls Miller, who has been described by admirers in recent times as one of the primary architects of the modern comic-book era.

Now living in New York City with Lynn Varley, his wife and frequent comics colorist, Miller is unfazed by critics who deem Sin City a macho motion picture on steroids. "Love it or hate it, this is exactly what I wrote," he acknowledges. "My fingerprints are all over the movie."

His footprints might soon appear on the sands of the French Riviera. Miller will attend next week's Cannes International Film Festival, where Sin City -- starring Bruce Willis, among others -- is slated to be in competition.

This heady honor caps a career that really began to take off in 1986, when Miller's landmark "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" stunned the comics industry.

"Frank came up with a storyline about the aging Batman that was hysterically funny," suggests Jeff Danziger, a syndicated editorial cartoonist who was Miller's English teacher at U-32 High School in East Montpelier during the early 1970s. "But he added a touch of miserable realism as well."

His feverish imagination is rooted in a childhood during which Miller and some fellow third-graders would pretend to fly like superheroes. "I was a geek who loved comics," he says. "But I'd hear people ask, 'Do they still print those things?'"

Back then his family was bustling, with four boys and three girls in the house. Their mom, Marjorie Brigham Miller, is a retired nurse who still lives in Barre. As a teenager, Frank Miller dreamed of escape. "Jeff's classes were a window tour of the world for me, but I was restless," he recalls.

A few years after graduation, Miller headed to Manhattan with no formal training or experience in his chosen field. He began hanging out at the Midtown studio of renowned artist Neal Adams, who has made his mark on almost every comics franchise from "Green Lantern" to "X-Men."

Although Neal showed Miller the ropes, much of what the novice learned was self-taught. "I bought muscle magazines to study what the physique of a hero should look like," he explains.

Miller's big break came in 1979. He was hired by Marvel Comics -- "the place to be back then" -- and began drawing "Daredevil," about a spectacularly adroit blind man who battles villains.

After five years at Marvel, Miller decided to freelance. "Ronin," his "Samurai science-fiction" series for DC comics, debuted in 1984. Two years later, he radicalized the Caped Crusader in print, with a gritty film-noir flourish.

Miller went to Hollywood in the late 1980s to co-author scripts for the live-action Robocop 2 and Robocop 3, sequels to the 1987 original's policeman-turned- cyborg saga. Fraught with compromises, the task was not satisfying for a Vermonter who values independence.

He started drawing "Sin City" during his Los Angeles sojourn, but the comic book's ambience changed when Miller returned to the East Coast in 2001: "The palm trees and terra-cotta tiles were replaced by bricks and fire escapes."

The complexity of his characters -- tough guys and equally tough but scantily clad gals -- won him new fans. "It's a rather bold move to have your heroes not wearing tights," Miller muses. "But I think a trench coat works as well as a cape."

Miller was wary about ever putting Sin City on the big screen until Spy Kids filmmaker Robert Rodriguez invited him to co-direct, an effort that later included Kill Bill auteur Quentin Tarantino. The trio delivered a blockbuster that's rated R for "stylized violence, nudity and sexual content," but also has been praised as "visually intoxicating."

When the Directors Guild denied Miller credit for helming the project because he lacked that type of previous experience, Rodriguez quit the organization in protest. Consequently, Sin City can't be nominated for an Academy Award in the top category.

"Maybe it'll get Best Foreign Film," quips Miller, who'll be busy with his cherished comic-book endeavors until it's time to pack for the Riviera.



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