Sunday, May 23, 2004

Films and Comic Books

As everybody knows, films based on comic books are all the rage today. This is partly because CG technology has enabled super-duper acrobatics and fantastic creatures, landscapes, etc. as never before, and probably because the market for them is intergenerationally large enough for the studios. As a comic book reader from long ago (though not anymore) I have thought for a while that they were natural material for cinema because of their strong narrative thrust, melodrama, adventure, and spectacle. In recent years, as I have learned a little bit about the creative process of films, it occurred to me that they are very similar as media too.

As a matter of form, aren’t storyboards (which reputedly the best filmmakers, like Hitchcock, compose religiously before filming) essentially comic books? And aren’t the best comic books (such as--just to pick examples--Watchmen and Batman: Year One) so accomplished in their visual narratives as to constitute storyboards?

To stay on Watchmen for a moment, the richness and complexity of Watchmen’s narrative may make it difficult to duplicate, in its entirety, on film (thus the controversy of the film project). But all of those narratives are either visually represented or visually suggestive (as in the appendix at the end of each issue/chapter). Thus, I don’t see an insurmountable formal obstacle to the transition. Cross-cutting and juxtaposed narratives have been a convention since Birth of a Nation, and only refined since then, right up through Soderbergh, Fincher, and Tarantino. And would not the best comic books make the best comic book movies (maybe even some of the best movies)?

It is true that--as Scott McCloud and Will Eisner discusses wonderfully in Understanding Comics and Comics and Sequential Art--comic books are their own particular medium. They have their own representation of time and space, and their own capacities for storytelling and character. Reading a comic book, just like reading a novel or looking a painting, is experiencing a particular form of art. So the forms of comics and films are not identical.

I also recognize, or believe, that almost all the superhero adaptations that have made it to screen have been poor imitations of their sources, and mediocre entertainment themselves. With the exception of Richard Donner’s Superman and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, superhero movies have generally failed to capture what I always enjoyed in comic books:
the thrill and lighthearted fun of dressing up in a flashy costume and performing extraordinary derring-do;
the grandeur of chivalry in this modern form;
the mythical richness of heroism, including the psychological burdens of accepting one’s special powers, special burdens, special mission, and essential separateness from the herd of ordinary persons that one serves;
the dramatic richness of enemies (or even archenemies) and of the inevitable confrontation with them.
Apart from Superman and Spider-man (and, of course, Adam West’s Batman [!]), the films that best realized these elements have been Unbreakable and The Matrix--ironically, neither of them adaptations. Generally, when Hollywood takes up an established comic book character and story, it both oversimplifies them (to fit into 90-120 minutes) and clutters them (as by cramming the film with supervillains, secondary characters, and plot details).

Of course, not all comic books are about superheroes, nor have been all recent comic book films. At least a couple of these (Ghost World and From Hell) have been fairly true to the stories and character portraits in their sources, while being entertaining in their own right. I have not seen Road to Perdition or read the original story, but it seems to me that graphic novels are already natural proto-films, particularly through the connection with storyboarding.

However, these objections to recent adaptations are more substantive than formal. It seems to me if filmmakers appreciated and could reproduce the virtues and pleasures of comic book characters and stories, and would take advantage the similarities in media, they could realize on film a treasure trove of popular, modern-day myths.
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