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robocoparchive.com > comics > Steven Grant commentary

Frank Miller's RoboCop

Steven Grant entered the field professionally around 1978 with work for the Warren Magazines and Marvel, and has since become one of comics' best writers with an impressive range of work from a variety of publishers.

With Avatar Press, Grant has created and written the crime/horror comic saga Mortal Souls, is contributing the sequential adaptation on Frank Miller's Robocop, and has another upcoming project called My Flesh is Cool beginning in December 2003.

"If you've ever picked up a book on writing screenplays, there are rules. Hollywood loves rules. Such-and-such must be introduced here, this has to happen by such-and-such a page. This type of character must be handled in this specific way. This much space on the page equals that much time on screen. There was a time when these things were loose guidelines, rules of thumb. That was back before bankers took over Hollywood, and decided as much as possible should be cut and dried.

So when Frank sent me a copy of his Robocop 2 screenplay, my eyes popped.

Frank and I have been friends a long time, so I know how he operates. Not that anyone who's familiar with his work doesn't know the same thing. One thing's pretty obvious:

At least where making stories is concerned, Frank and rules are like oil and water. If the rules work for Frank, he works with them. If they don't, Frank pisses on the rules. Because when Frank's making stories, the story is his only concern.

Not that he went out of his way to break the rules with Robocop 2. It was his first screenplay. Beyond the formatting, he didn't know the rules. I'm not sure it ever occurred to him that, in an act of pure creation, there could be any rules. The Robocop 2 screenplay plays like that: it's irreverent, dynamic, surprising, filled with tiny asides and pithy observations. It directly addresses social trends of its day and weighs judgment on them. It lets the story build the structure, instead of starting with structure and hanging story elements on them like clothes on a shopwindow dummy. It was funny, brutal, shocking, exciting, even, in places, touching. And it had enough in it for five movies.

It was fun.

So I called Frank, and we had a good laugh about how wrong it was for Hollywood.

I didn't read it back when it was written, or after the movie came out. The movie was okay, in some ways better than the first Robocop, and you could feel Frank's subterranean presence seething up under it all, trying desperate to erupt but only managing to bubble up now and then. That's how it goes in Hollywood: a screenplay isn't a movie. It's, at best, a blueprint for a movie, a boilerplate, and more often than not it isn't even finished until the movie is. Screenplays get rewritten on the set constantly because budgets have to be adjusted, or an actor can't quite get his mouth around a line, or someone decides a scene (which they probably loved when reading the original screenplay) casts a character in the wrong light and has to be redone and, more often than not, other writers are brought in to make the changes. A screenplay may be a writer's personal vision, as Robocop 2 was Frank's, but in Hollywood "personal visions" rarely exist. They're almost always vision by committee. That's just the way it is. People often ask why movies are so bad, but there's no mystery about why films are bad. The real mystery is how any good ones get made. The odds are certainly against it.

Even with screenplays as lovely as Frank Miller's Robocop 2.

Another question that could be asked is: why aren't comics adaptations of movies better? There are all kinds of reasons, but, having adapted a few movies myself (including Robocop 3, for Dark Horse), I can say with conviction a big reason is space. A screenplay can run 120 pages and a screenplay page of action can easily fill three or four pages of a comic book, unless you trim it to the bare bones. If a publisher says an adaptation can only run two or three issues, the writer is no longer a writer. He's becomes a surgeon with, by necessity, a blunt and merciless scalpel. Whole scenes and even subplots must be cut, characterizations often slashed, story reduced to mere plot, and the result is often a Frankenstein's monster with bits and pieces sewn back on but unable to do more than stagger clumsily and grunt what might've once been graceful and intelligent. Space is a problem for most comics stories; with film adaptations, it's a killer.

So imagine my giddy surprise (and Frank's) when Avatar said, "We want everything in the screenplay in there, so tell us how many issues you need."

For some that'd be like setting a kid loose in a candy store. But I'm a professional. I can handle it. I made an initial guess. It was a larger number than usual. Avatar didn't bat an eye. I started reading and breaking down the screenplay, mapping out the issues, and when I saw the sheer depth of imagination and content, my estimate went right out the window.

I called Avatar and said, "You want everything?!" "Everything," they said. I told them how much space it would take. They didn't bat an eye.

So I can make a promise:

This is Robocop 2 the way Frank intended it to be. Before Hollywood got hold of it. Every bit of imagination in it is Frank's. Almost all the dialogue is entirely Frank's. It has everything in it that Frank put in the screenplay. Though I, not Frank, did the adaptation, this isn't one of those cases where a writer gets his name slapped on a cover and someone else does all the work. This is a Frank Miller comic, because Frank, really, wrote it. All I did was get it to the page.

So enjoy. Don't be ashamed to laugh. What many people don't get about most of Frank's stories (including The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Back, and big chunks of Sin City) is they're comedies. Dark comedies, sure, but comedies. Read them with that in mind and you'll see what I mean.

Frank's Robocop screenplays are terrific stories. They're action stories. And they're comedies. You'll see.

We're making comics fun again."

Steven Grant