Comic Release: Adapting Comic Books for Film

The tight, square- jawed, gloomy mask of the Dark Knight looms over a constant onslaught of schoolchildren, businessmen, mums and dads busily pushing prams past a haze of park bench dwellers, drunkenly stewing in the first rays of spring.

The brooding figure of Batman appears sadly comical, self conscious and forlorn among a kitsch array of patterns adorning the beach towels which, half hazardly, dress the window of a cheap linen store.

Fresh news from the box office should momentarily wipe that eternal scowl from his face however. British director Christopher Nolan’s most recent opus, “The Dark Knight”, has been crowned the second biggest grossing film in American history, chalking up over 900 million US dollars worldwide, largely recouping the production budget of 185 million US dollars.

Holy Superlative! If you have passed out from the sheer enormity of such figures, have no fear.  There is no lack of heroes prepared to swing to your rescue.

The Fantastic Four, Spiderman, Superman, the Hulk, the X-Men, an entire gallery of comic book or graphic novel characters is queuing up in an attempt to dazzle the mere mortal movie goer with silver screen exploits, yet ‘tis the actual paper comic, the tactile experience which still brings a twinkle to the pale eyes of Ys Dillema, the burly and baritone manager of Phantom Comics.

A knit beanie screwed to his head, Aaron Mayhew, an avid X-Men and Transformers reader since the nineties, sheepishly concedes, “I think it’s a good thing people are actually getting out of their houses, even though they’re going to go sit in front of another television.” When the Transformers adaptation was announced, he had his doubts. “They’re gonna wreck it. They’re gonna modernise it a bit too much. They’re just gonna take everything that I like about the actual comic- its voice, the mood, the cartoons- and then just wreck it all for me.” The final product caught him off guard.

Triple J’s movie man-about-town, Marc Fennell, acknowledges that adapting widely read property is a risky business. “Anyone that has read it has this image inside their head of what a person’s going to be like, even with a graphic novel where there’s a picture, there is that sense of ownership you have over the character. Whenever you get an actor to play that, you are messing with that a little bit.”

The decision to replace Peter Parker’s boy genius status as inventor of a revolutionary web shooter with that of a mutating teenager has left Kevin C.J. Scarfe, co-founder of Cult Fiction Comics, shaken. “I think they basically said, ‘Oh well look, how are we going to believe that a kid scientist could create this thing that no other scientist has made before?’ I mean, it’s a comic book movie! The guy’s crawling up walls! If we can believe that, we can believe he’s a scientist. I mean, c’mon. I always find it uncomfortable too, to watch it come out of his wrist: it’s creepy, it’s a bit weird”, he shudders.

Greater comic book literacy on behalf of a new generation of directors who grew up reading the likes of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, and the capacity to produce convincing effects seem to explain the current boom, but the cross contamination of the mediums is nothing new.  Scarfe explains that it is not uncommon for prospective filmmakers to commission artists to prepare comic pages out of their scripts to show the studios. “Comic books are just storyboards. Basically it’s all juxtaposed sequential art, telling a story.”

Tent pole blockbusters are raking in big numbers for the movie studios, but not that much profit it being made on the comic book side. The industry is said to be rejuvenated, but it is still very hard for artists to cash in on it: it is about creating a character and selling it off to a studio or getting a big enough cult following. Not many have succeeded.

Three miniature Batmen perched on a shelf behind him, Ys grins knowingly from beyond his counter. “I’d like to say that’s it’s been nothing but positive, but it hasn’t. Everybody’s coming in looking for ‘Dark Knight’ stuff, but mainly because of Heath Ledger and the fact that he’s died. You get people in who want the figures that look like Heath. There’s no comic based on that movie so it’s not like we can sell extra comics.”

Marketing is a big aspect, and seems to be guiding, or leading astray -depending on who you are talking to- both the film and comic book industry. Comic book characters are revamped and rebooted to suit the likeness of actors, storylines are changed to reach a modern public. Toys finance the production of certain films, therefore defining the target audience, as was the case with the Joel Schumacher’s highly criticised “kiddy” Batman films.

Certain filmmakers choose to not overly advertise the origins of the plot. ‘Road to Perdition’, ‘V for Vendetta’, ‘A History of Violence’ are among more independent productions based on graphic novels.

Fennell turns on his presenter voice, “From the greatest graphic novel of all time”. He muses, “Love the language they use.” The Watchman movie is in preparation and is unlikely to keep under the radar. “There’s a lot of expectation to see whether or not they’re going to fuck it up or not, essentially”.

Lined up against the wall, G.I Joe and Doctor Who, respectively a toy and a television show, have graduated to the rank of comic.  Small and big screen superhero successes ‘Heroes’ and ‘Hancock’ are original, non comic book creations while ‘Persepolis’ and ‘American Splendor’, two autobiographical tales,  have gained cult status as both graphic novels and films.

“When I read my comics, it always takes me to a different place, separate from what I actually do. It’s good.” Aaron looks at his watch: almost the end of his break. One last cigarette before heading back into the clothes shop he manages in the Galleries Victoria. His tall frame propped up against a concrete window sill, he relaxes and reminisces of more innocent times when a holographic art comic cover would make his day. There is something endearing in knowing that a Clark Kent lurks under that cap.

Copyright Soraya Nigita, 2008