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Frank Miller on his YA spin on the King Arthur legend, Cursed

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Oct 1, 2019, 7:34 PM EDT (Updated)

You may think you know a lot about the Arthurian legend, but talk to Frank Miller about it and you'll quickly realize your knowledge is lacking. The legendary comic book creator and filmmaker's latest work is a collaboration with writer Thomas Wheeler on the YA illustrated novel Cursed, which debuts October 1 from Simon & Schuster. Cursed retools the famous story of King Arthur to spotlight a different character: Nimue, the Lady of the Lake.

Miller, who drew eight color and 30 black and white images for the book, says the impetus for the book was giving the famous story a different perspective. That is accomplished by making a female character, Nimue, the one who wields the sword Excalibur, instead of Arthur.

These are not the characters you know from whatever version of the story you're familiar with. In that regard, Cursed is a sort-of prequel to the familiar Arthurian legend. As Wheeler and Miller created these characters, they have not yet become the people they are meant to be. Arthur is a mercenary, and Merlin is also quite different from his usual interpretations.

Cursed Illustrated novel

Credit: Simon & Schuster, Cover art by Frank Miller

Cursed is the latest project in Miller's ongoing career renaissance. Along with Superman: Year One for DC Comics' Black Label, the maverick artist has returned to some of his most successful properties, including the 300 spinoff Xerxes for Dark Horse and the hit mini-series Dark Knight III: The Master Race. It was recently announced he'll be returning to the Dark Knight universe to script a new adventure, the standalone comic The Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child. Miller is not quite ready yet to talk much detail about that one, but he is excited for fans to crack open his all-ages fantasy adventure.

Cursed, incidentally, will also be a companion 10-episode Netflix series that Miller and Wheeler created. The TV series came about after the duo had crystallized their vision for the story. Just as they had decided to do a novel, the streaming giant came knocking and wanted to do business. That led to the simultaneous development of both versions of Cursed.

SYFY WIRE had the chance to hop on the phone with Miller for an exclusive conversation about the novel and its unique development process, his love of the King Arthur story, and putting on his "artist-only" hat for the first time in quite a while.

You and Thomas Wheeler have said you wanted to frame your fantasy story within the harsh settings of that actual time period in English history. Why?

It was something that just evolved. Especially being over there [filming the television series], because that's where the ... the resources are endless, but the Arthurian myth is just endless and the places it comes from and where you could change it.

Was Thomas as big a fan of the Arthurian legend as you are?

Oh, gosh, yeah, yeah. His interest in the story goes back as long as mine, which goes back to when I was a little boy. That's how long I've been in love with Arthur. I grew up with the whole deal, Disney's Sword in the Stone and a house full of children's books, so I was surrounded by Arthur stories, illustrations and everything. So yeah, this goes all the way back for both of us.

I'm curious, was The Sword in the Stone your first experience with the legend?

I don't know, really, but the Disney film is an early one. Before that, I was in love with Arthur Rackham's old illustrations too, so it's hard to tell. I grew up in a very book-oriented family, and so it was great.

Some of the characters in this story are pretty unrecognizable from the way they're usually depicted ...

I think that part of what freed us up was that there's so many different interpretations over the years. I've mentioned a few, but beyond that, there's all the interpretations of Robin Hood. I like to cite everything from the Lerner and Loewe's musical Camelot to Monty Python's version, and all have different levels of accuracy and different interpretations. I was a big fan of the old ... wasn't it Richard Greene on the Robin Hood TV show?

Yeah, yeah, The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Right. And there's a lot of different versions. It's kind of like Superman. It's one of those things where you can try it all kinds of different ways, and they all seem to work.

cover to Frank Miller's upcoming one-shot, Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child

Credit: DC Comics

Obviously, one of the notable twists in the Cursed story is that it centers on Nimue, a female protagonist. Could you talk about the importance of that and really turning the story on its ear and making her the focus of it.

Overall, there's a reason why so many people seem to be excited about it.

I think that it is so attractive [that] the idea is so attractive to young girls in general, but that's been more and more a demographic that I've been aiming for myself in my comic book characters, with Carrie Kelley and Lana Lang [in Superman: Year One]. And so this is all of a piece. That's a huge part of the audience out there that Thomas and I are hoping to reach.

Did you find yourself in a certain groove while writing these younger female characters on back-to-back projects?

Well, I find a wonderful challenge to it, because ... I mean, coming up I have a Carrie Kelley YA book with Ben Caldwell that is in progress. But there's a number of reasons for it, but it chiefly is because that is where I think we have to go in order for the industry, for comics to have any future at all.

It's been a while since you've drawn illustrations for a project that someone else wrote, aside from a variant cover and whatnot. You and Thomas have a very unique collaboration here on Cursed — can you talk about how unique a partnership this is compared to the other ones that you've had in your career?

Oh, yes, Tom and I work all over each other in terms of bashing out story points and things like that. He's just got a wonderful encyclopedic knowledge of this material, and we bash around ideas. And so, in any collaboration, you all affect each other in different ways.

Was it nice just wearing the artist hat as opposed to the artist and writer hat?

I mean, it is fun just to do standalone illustrations, but other than that, it's ... you should see the rooms where we all working together on this.

Demon Bear image from YA novel Cursed

Credit: Simon & Schuster, Art by Frank Miller

I want to ask you about one particular image, the one where Nimue is facing the Demon Bear. I love that perspective because the bear is not only facing her, but he's facing us. It's an imposing image. Can you tell me about the idea and the process of how you came up with that particular image?

Oh, thanks. Well, what I had in mind there was to get across two things. One was just how small she was and how big it was. And the other was just by her posture, to show how brave she was. I love to get across a character's emotion and personality without showing their face. In fact, her shoulders are kind of pushed back, so she looks like she's not running away. That says a lot about who she was.

Another thing the book does well, and all the best YA books tend to do this, is they don't talk down to the reader. How challenging was it for you and Thomas to create a book for a different audience than you're used to working for?

Yeah, Tom, in particular, is really good at this sort of thing, and I think the fact that he has a daughter made him particularly well equipped. And in my case, I guess what I'm trying to do is to simply try to turn myself into a younger person. So we all approach things in our own way.

Katherine Langford as Nimue in Netflix's Cursed

Credit: Netflix

A question about the television show: Is the book a prequel to the Netflix series, or is it going a completely separate part of the Cursed franchise?

They are companions. Each offers something that isn't in the other, but they are — they're family members. And this is the real crazy part: They were both produced at the same time.

Was that easier, more challenging, or just weirder?

Yes to everything you said [laughs].

I mean, it's definitely weirder, and it's certainly challenging. I also think in lots of ways there have been some surprising advantages.

Like what?

When I was in England and we were going over things and I started asking for research materials and some medical instruments and such — and we had easy access to all of this because it's there — and I was sketching like crazy to make use of all this wonderful reference. It's just, on these kind of productions like Cursed, it's amazing the number of hats one wears. It's a lively crew, and we all keep very busy.

You have the TV show coming up, you have this first book out. Are there plans to do another Cursed book if the reception is what you hope and expect?

Oh, they got my phone number. And getting me to draw is never hard.