Gaming | Film | TV
Gaming | Film | TV

The fraught relationship between comic books and cinema

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It’s come to be accepted that comic books can be easily adapted into movies, but is it really the case?

Comic books have of late received something of a renaissance; they’ve been rebranded as ‘graphic novels’, which apparently strips them of the greasy skin, slurping patter of speech and trenchant virginity with which they were once so powerfully associated. The last 40-odd years have seen the medium become more cinematic, moving away from what were unambiguous characters for children, to ‘grittier’ versions of those same characters. But the untold millions on Hollywood’s great ledger, built on the husks of spent and often misused work, rest on one silly premise: that comic books are films if only they were drawn, inked and typed. That, given enough money, effects and star power, one translates to the other.

Untold millions on Hollywood’s great ledger rest on one silly premise: that comic books can easily be adapted into films

Joss Whedon’s Avengers film borrowed heavily from Mark Millar’s run, taking much of the story and nearly all of the characters. But it removed the juice, the sweet lifeblood that made those early issues of The Ultimates so very revolutionary in the medium. The Ultimates was securely fastened in a world that involved itself in the War on Terror, spousal abuse and celebrity culture. Thor was an anti-globalisation activist; Black Widow was a childhood victim of the Eastern Bloc’s despotisms; and Cap was, until the end, an unquestioning drone of the US government’s will.

Joss Whedon is not bad at painting strokes of grey, and he should be applauded for it. But what was missed in The Avengers was that mainstream comic books had made an attempt to transcend the jokes about Batman’s taste for young boys, the bland reactionary heave, and the decidedly uncomplex, opaque universe that the ubermensches were given to preside over. It’s hard to agree with Alan Moore when he says, “I don’t think the superhero stands for anything good. I think it’s a rather alarming sign if we’ve got audiences of adults going to see the Avengers movie and delighting in concepts and characters meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of the 1950s.” But The Avengers does come one step closer to vindicating him.

the avengers team

In any case, you should pity poor Alan Moore, the greatest victim of the movie industry’s often dull and terrible laundry press. His works, some of the greatest that comic books have ever known, were adapted into a bloody pulp. During the run up to Watchmen’s cinematic release, no one would shut up about its apparently consummate cinematic qualities, nor the slavish reverence given to the original comic book that the film would be made with. But they missed a fundamental point – Watchmen was a comic book.

During the run up to its release, no one would shut up about Watchmen’s ‘cinematic’ qualities. They missed a fundamental point – Watchmen was a comic book

Watchmen was drawn in almost entirely nine panel pages, filled with documents from its alternate universe and, more importantly, Watchmen was an attack on the medium itself. Its characters were grotesque caricatures of the great and the good of other works. Batman, given to the real world, is either Travis Bickle or Richie Rich, aroused by his countless toys and with not a fuck given to who they hurt. Watchmen’s Captain America works as a sadist for the military-industrial complex, sharing only a last name with the values it apparently suggests. The smartest man on Earth knows exactly how many people he would have to kill to save the world, and he does it because he cares. Or in the central case, not care at all. Dr. Manhattan is a profound confrontation for the superhero genre: why does Superman, nigh-omnipotent as he is, care? What interest does God have in ants?

V for Vendetta, another of Moore’s masterpieces, was drawn by Dave Gibbons in the colourless, plain and often horrific tones of Mrs Thatcher’s Britain. A Britain where the Cold War reared its head over the channel, however distantly; where the pale ghost of the Empire haunted the mind of the proud and British. The comic book spoke profoundly to that ghost, as well as the feeling that rose to oppose it. More than that, its dreamlike quality, told in and out of Evie’s imagination, could not bear the brunt of the film adaptation’s object reality. If Easy Rider could not be made in any other year than 1969, then we must afford V for Vendetta that same luxury. The film did not work, failing to even evoke a sketch of the country it portrayed, let alone the period that it was about.

Read more on film: Is this the end of the comic book movie renaissance?

v for vendetta hugo weaving

Marshall McLuhan’s seminal piece of work, The Medium is the Message, tells us all we need to know. Simply, one cannot say the same thing in a comic book as one does in a film. One panel is far slower than 28 frames; a comic book frame invites you to study it, to consider the choice. The changes between the surreal and the real, thought and reality, are often told with a grace that cannot bear the brunt of cinema’s object reality. Comic books speak in a language that the momentary oscillation between live action and CGI cannot. It’s a language which all the good intentions going into JGL’s upcoming Sandman will surely fail to speak at all fluently.

The legioned fanboys shouldn’t be given too much credit – they might have been there before comic books were cool, but some really seem to like them for all the wrong reasons. The hilariously bigoted response that came out of the suggestion that a black man, Donald Glover, should play Peter Parker is proof enough. The nerds came out of the woodwork to rail against political correctness in a slew of guardedly racist and straight up racist responses. Unfortunately, many comic book fans seem to be obtuse enough to think that there is something intrinsically white about Spider-Man.

If we’re to expect quality, we’ll have to start treating comic books as a medium of their own, and not as underfunded movies

Those fans surely missed the point, that a young man, knowing what it is to be trampled under-heel, would attempt to stop it for others when given the power to do so. At the core, a good comic book movie picks up on exactly this. It revolves around a character with not only great capabilities, but the profound, emotionally crippling reason for their superheroics. This is also the core of a good comic book movie. X Men: First Class is rightly set in the 60s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, while The Dark Knight concerns itself with a man whose heroism is not only borne of loss, but characterised by his willingness to sacrifice everything else. These are characters, not elements of a larger plot. Christopher Nolan understands this and, for the most part, Zack Snyder does not.

There are good comic book films and there are very good reasons that comic books should be made into films. DC and Marvel have a near-infinite continuity to riff on, one which is constantly changing and provides endless virgin ground to spin-off into. But the relationship between comic books and films is often a deceptively and dangerously fraught one. If we’re to expect quality out of either, we’ll have to start treating comic books as a medium of their own, and not underfunded movies or gaudy novels. That means the abandonment of needing everything to be exactly as it was drawn, as much as it does mean leaving certain things alone. We should let the dead rest as much as we should give new life and interpretation to that which can be reborn. It’s high time this was the case.


Read more on film: Due to fan power, expect Dredd 2


Featured image: Warner Bros

Inset images: Marvel; Warner Bros


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