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  • Writer's pictureBrad Gullickson

"Patience and Generosity." Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman in Conversation.

At a preview for 'Frank Miller: American Genius,' Gaiman and Miller discussed the power of community.

Frank Miller Neil Gaiman American Genius

A preview of the new documentary Frank Miller: American Genius was held last Thursday at the Angelika Film Center in New York City. Directed by Silenn Thomas, the film attempts to encompass Miller's massive career and impact on the comics medium and larger pop culture. It features interviews with figures you'd expect and a few you wouldn't: Neal Adams, Richard Donner, Walter Simonson, Howard Chaykin, Jim Lee, Tom King, Joëlle Jones, Tula Lotay, etc.


Frank Miller: American Genius will premiere at Cinemark locations on June 10th, but I wanted to make the nearly five-hour drive to New York City and catch the preview in person since Neil Gaiman moderated it. Gaiman entered the industry through journalism, eventually crafting comics about eight years after Frank Miller started. This slight gap between them creates a fascinating perspective, and it was a privilege and a delight to sit in the second row, snapping photos and capturing their conversation.


After a few words from Silenn Thomas and a warm, effusive, and wickedly clever Neil Gaiman introduction, Miller detailed what entering the comic book market in the late seventies was like. Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent still cast a long, poisonous shadow. Respect for the work was practically nonexistent.


"There were wounds left over from the 1950s," said Miller, "when comics were considered a link to juvenile delinquency. It was just a disreputable, horrible trash form that had made many, many of the publishers and the practitioners of the craft almost ashamed to admit what they did for a living."


Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, and the Friends that Made an American Genius

Frank Miller Neil Gaiman American Genius Conversation
Photo Credit © 2024 Brad Gullickson

Neil Gaiman echoed Miller's sentiement. When he found his way in, he felt the stigma of comics from his friends and family. No one imagined a future where adults would engage with the art the way they did novels, poetry, music, or film.


"Back in the seventies and eighties," said Gaiman, "you didn't do comics for either fame or fortune. It would be like telling people you were going to Patagonia to become a famous movie star. It was like, 'No, this is as obscure and weird a place as you can be."

However, Miller refused to wallow in negativity. He spoke affectionately about the comic book community and expressed love for those who let him into their homes and studios when he was a teenager, arriving in New York City shortly before his twentieth birthday. Even if some could not see his talent, they still offered him the courtesy of conversation.


"At the same time," continued Miller, "there were these people who never lost faith. There were the craftsmen who kept turning out terrific work. And early on, by looking up his name in the phone book, I was able to meet Neal Adams, who I regard as kind of a Moses-like figure in the history of comics, because he straddled the generation that created comics and the generation of the new wave, that began the new wave."

Too often, artists fall into the trap of competition, protecting what small parcel of land they've claimed, fighting off others from getting their piece. Miller is tremendously grateful that he did not encounter such selfish and self-defeating behavior.


"I've got to say the comic book community at the time was very, very welcoming," said Miller. "People were not much in competition, so much as fellow voyagers or fellow warriors. And to be invited like I was to what was called Upstart Studios by Walter Simonson, Howard Chaykin, Val Mayerik, and Jim Starlin. And to learn from them and learn with them, and we all challenged each other, was to be part of the future of comics."


Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, and the City that Made an American Genius

Frank Miller Neil Gaiman American Genius q and a
Photo Credit © 2024 Brad Gullickson

Neil Gaiman recalled a recent dinner with Walter Simonson, during which the two discussed Frank Miller's arrival in New York. Simonson told Gaiman that they didn't entirely take pity on Miller, but they also did not not take pity on him. Frank Miller wasn't Frank Miller yet, but Simonson did recognize the extreme passion for comics that burned within him.


As Gaiman understood it, "They were like, 'Here's this kid.' But the speed with which you ran out ahead, the imagination, the way that you grew, and grew so fast. What changed? Was part of it just being in New York? Was it being surrounded by your peers? Was it actually having arrived in a world of comics?"


Miller was quick to respond: "Yes, yes, and yes. It mostly was the opportunity, but also to, well, if I put it this way, it was the advice and guidance of Walter Simonson, the arguments with Howard Chaykin, and the gruff tutelage of Neal Adams in particular. And beyond that, there was the city itself."


Walking the streets of New York City, prowling its shadows, Frank Miller found an unexpected connection to his boyhood comics. Their walls of fantasy crumbled a bit, but their possibility solidified, strengthening his imagination. He could not have done Daredevil from afar. He had to be in it; he had to live it.


"To be in the city that I think I was born to come to," continued Miller, "and to experience it. All of a sudden, so many things about comics made sense. If you haven't been on a rooftop in Manhattan, you really haven't experienced Steve Ditko. You really don't know why he put all those damn water tanks in. So it was everything."


Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, and the Future of an American Genius

Frank Miller Neil Gaiman American Genius
Photo Credit © 2024 Brad Gullickson

Gaiman kept giving Miller his flowers. He emphatically wanted the audience to understand Miller's immense influence on comics and beyond. He could not fathom a world where Frank Miller's father didn't drive to New York City and drop his son on some random street (because Miller didn't want his dad to see the hovel he would be living in).


"Daredevil changed everything," said Gaiman. "It also lets you start rewriting the rules. It led to Ronin, it led to Dark Knight. And from there, it seemed like every Frank Miller project was a complete reinvention of what Frank Miller projects could be. Sin City, Martha Washington. These things were absolutely their own."


Miller humbly accepted the kind words, but he redirected the compliments to the city and those inside it, which allowed him to thrive. He also recognizes the continual conversation about the death of comics but maintains great optimism for its future as long as we remain committed to aiding others.


"Since the industry was located within New York," said Miller, "now it's bicoastal, it's all over the place, and I'm glad to report, global. The particular opportunity that I had probably doesn't exist in the same form now. But I've got to say the biggest thing was the comics community itself, where I was greeted with patience and generosity. Anything else isn't worth remembering."

 

The above conversation is merely a sliver of what was said during the Frank Miller: American Genius introduction. If you want to hear Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman discuss Will Eisner and his refusal to accept their cinematic comparisons to comics, hop on over to the CBCC Patreon.

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