INTERVIEW: Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler on their Arthurian spin, ‘Cursed’

frank miller - interview - cursed
(Photo: Corey Nickols / Getty Images)

Cursed is the new Young Adult novel from Tom Wheeler and the legendary Frank Miller. Their collaboration is clearly built on a foundation of a shared appreciation of the Arthurian Mythos. It’s a thing of joy and beauty when two artists can agree on a genre of collaboration that they both love. There’s an excitement that is natural to their efforts that transfers to the work. In this case, Cursed is the object of their creative affection, born out of a fundamental love of the mythos – and it’s a love that will be readily reciprocated when it is read by others.

I love that Frank looked back to his childhood in the creation of this work and I had the exciting chance to sit down with him and chat the collaboration with Wheeler and their vision of the Camelot legend for a Young Adult audience. We talked about how it all came about, and after reading the book, I realized I’m one of those childhood fantasy lovers, and it was exciting.

I mean, there is an eternal sense of discovery whenever you read works that Frank Miller is associated with; there are so many levels to appreciate them on, and in this case, mythology is such a mutually acceptable level of compatibility, that it’s easy to accept this work. But, then there’s Frank: responsible for so many new perspectives in his long career (Carrie Kelly, Robin from The Dark Knight, the rebirth of Daredevil, and others), Miller now lends his illustrative powers to a re-examination of the mythos of Camelot. It’s a pretty persuasive stuff: add Frank’s illustrative super-powers to a novel. It’s a perfect way to get a young reader to read and this is a technique that Frank learned at an early age. How can anyone resist? How did it begin?

“Well, it began with a conversation. Tom and I both have a life-long fascination with the Arthurian Legend. He has a much more organized mind than me. And he was much more able to juggle and rearrange things and what was able to emerge was a fresh perspective on the legend that has never been done before.”

frank miller - interview - cursed
(Simon & Schuster)

Innovation and relatability are what I gleaned from this start to our conversation. Basically, both Tom and Frank came up with a way to make the Arthurian mythos more than relatable to the modern and discerning audience of today’s Young Adult readership. I had to ask Frank – an expert in creative fiction read by young people for over forty years – how he felt that a re-telling of the Arthurian saga would be received by today’s modern young readers.

“There is nothing wrong with the Arthurian legends. They have worked on every other group of people that they have ever been presented to. It’s really just up to us to do our job and do it proper service, and it’s capable of surprising an audience with plenty of fresh angles.”

This makes complete sense. But I also needed to know the motivation behind Frank’s selection of this particular mythos. From mutual acquaintances, I know that like me, Frank is a big mythology buff who has a tremendous amount of respect and loyalty to the realm of legend. After all, in their infancy, the original legends were what taught people how to be story tellers. The Arthurian legends are one of those enduring mythologies that continue to capture the imaginations of people to day because of their adherence to the essential of humanity: loyalty, devotion to a cause, brotherhood and a shared sense of the betterment of all. The Knights of Camelot had their flaws, but they also recognized a common good. Frank shared his sense of the Arthurian legends with me.

“There is no beginning and no end to Arthurian legends, at least, in my lifetime. For me, the beginning it might be The Disney Animated film, ‘The Sword and the Stone’. But more likely, it might be rummaging through the huge library my parents kept of old children’s books, a good portion of which included Arthurian legends. Particularly the illustrated books, like the ones illustrated by Arthur Rackham, who did the most memorable illustrations. Then I followed it through movie adaptations like Camelot, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves and on to its regular reincarnations in cinema. The wonderful Excalibur and my personal favourite, Monty Python!”

frank miller - interview - cursed
(Simon & Schuster)

Gaining this bit of insight into Frank’s childhood was definitely exciting; after all, this is the guy whose foundational creativity sparked some of the most striking comic literature in modern history; rooted in a love of fantasy and mythology. Who wouldn’t want an idea of how this artist’s mind worked?

So, what was different about this book? It can’t be a straightforward recitation of the Mallory or T.H. White material. Hell, I’m a guy who did his English degree steeped in this stuff, so even though I’m a purist when it comes to continuum, I know there has to be a new angle on presenting this material for a new audience. I asked Frank what was the x-factor on making this appealing to a modern YA audience?

“I’d say that beyond the fact that it has all the magic and verve of the original legend, it does have a perspective that is striking. It’s that the lead character, that of all things in Arthurian Legend, is a young woman who does come from the legends and has never been played up properly, to degree. The story is more about her journey to a rather magnificent destiny – that I will not disclose!”

With a chuckle – yeah; who wants to give away the story? Especially when this has not only more books to come, but also a Netflix television adaptation in the works? I love how Netflix has signed on to this without even knowing what the eventual outcome of the series will be. As a sideline notion, this is how literary creators and television media are now collaborating in the new age of storytelling. It’s exciting and dynamic and represents the cutting edge of new media storytelling.

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But is this a great power that needs to be taken responsibly? In my humble opinion, yeah; it should be. But look at the incredible entertainment value that can be gained form this sort of collaborative endeavour. This is an awesome power, to be sure, but at the same time, look at the result. But this is a quality that is mirrored in the fabric of the work. When you look at Nimue, as she comes to grips with her true nature, it’s an embryonic look at the not just the nature of who she is, but who she can become. Frank even agreed with this when talking about Nimue.

“It’s a study of someone of great power learning first to come to understand that it exists, and then learning to harness it.”

I love reading about characters who grow into great futures. I think teenagers do too. Young people are about hope, even if they don’t want to acknowledge that fact. Those youth who embrace future possibilities are hero kids, and on a subconscious romantic level, who doesn’t want to be a hero? That’s what Carrie Kelly, Elektra or Nimue are all about. The promise of being great, even reluctantly, make these characters great and worthy of our attention. Frank has a lot of experience in this area and his work with Tom Wheeler comes out.

In fact, I had to ask him about what it was like to collaborate with Wheeler – who, already is on record for saying that he is: “ … a lifelong Frank Miller fan, and this collaboration has been the unlikeliest of bucket listings. He’s one of a handful of creators whose work helped shape my creative voice through the years, and it has been my high honor [sic] to tell this story with him. I’m so thankful for his trust, his wisdom, and his idea to ally Sister Iris with an army of killer children (a must for book two). “

This was Frank’s hilarious and respectful response.

“Horrible. Not only is he a thoroughly unpleasant person, but he’s the worst of things! NO, it’s been an absolute ball! He and I have had a lot of fun and it’s been the best of collaborations! It’s not a grim thing, where we endlessly debate the meaning of a sentence. It’s been a case of ‘let’s throw this at them and see what happens’!”

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(Simon & Schuster)

There’s a sense of childish enjoyment in this response that underlies the whole idea of creating a collaborative work in this statement: it has to be fun. That, in itself, has to be the greatest reason for undertaking the work. Fun is really a lively word for entertainment, and the effort in creating this work has to satisfy that level of enjoyment. The act of creating is fun for people with imaginative capacities like Miller and Wheeler.

In this book, they have fun.

What’s more, they transfer that sense of creative fun into entertainment fun for their audience.

But this book also has a promise. The fact that it will also be a Netflix television show lends not only a sense of faith in the quality of the book (even as it’s JUST being released), but it also shows a longevity in its creation that should stand for something. In fact, Frank has this to say about the future of the storytelling in a television format and his affinity for his favourite character.

“I’m a lifelong Merlin fan. I can’t get enough of him. Gustav Starrgard is playing him in the show. To say he’s an actor is an understatement. To see the guy in action. Not only is he extremely tall he brings a sense of fun to the part. So, he’s Merlin on every level. But there are other characters who you haven’t heard of yet.”

And there you have it. Not only is this a product of a passion, but also a childhood love. I completely enjoy that this book, which touches on so many teen values (identity, potential, the endurance of youth, etc.) but that it also sees the positive strength of youth to propel them to a successful destiny.

It’s a labour of love, to be sure, and it’s a book that will be enjoyed by young readers because it’s borne out of the experience of reading while young. Reading something with passion while young never dies. Love for something is eternal; the love that existed then, exists today.

Make sure that your young readers are picking up a copy of Cursed; it has the love of the values you want them to grow up with, but more importantly you want them to read about them from creators who had fantasy-rich and knowledgeable childhoods and who love and understand daring young people.

About Captain John K. Kirk

Captain John K. Kirk
John Kirk is an English and History teacher and librarian in Toronto, Canada. In addition to the traditional curriculum, John tries to teach his students to make sense of geek culture. And with the name "J. Kirk," it's hard for him to not inject "Star Trek" into his lessons. Comics, RPGs and the usual fanboy gear make up his classroom resources.