Musings of a phenomenologist

Science, psychiatry and random musings

And now for something completely different

Posted by soveda on June 7, 2010

Ok, I admit it I’m self obsessed (well I’m writing this aren’t I?) and I look at where people have clicked through to get to my blog. I had a bit of a shock yesterday when I saw someone had categorised me in their gone but not forgotten pile… Looking back I did blog a lot early on, I’ll try one a week if I can but no promises!
Having said that the following rant will take some people back to my first posts because it is about:
Comics and the movies


I was pondering something today, I haven’t been to the cinema for ages and I have been out of touch with movie news but I gather there is a new Judge Dredd movie in development. I don’t have high hopes for it to be honest, the last one was dire…

So, is it so hard to make a good comic book based movie?
To answer that question I need to make something clear, what I mean by good may not be what you mean. I suspect there will be some crossover as if you’ve read this far you are at least as geeky as me about comics but fandom is full of cliques…

Cards on the table, examples of good comic book movies (that I have seen):
Spiderman (with reservations)
X-men 1&2 (with reservations)
Superman
Barbarella
Akira
Hellboy

Bad comic book movies:
Batman and Robin
The Punisher (80s vintage I think)
Judge Dredd
Barb Wire
Catwoman

So what makes a good comic movie and why do almost all my “good” list have caveats? I have a few ideas, feel free to disagree :*)

First, why is a comic attractive to film makers?
1) they have an existing fanbase/audience
2) comics are a visual medium
3) they’re for kids right?
4) merchandise
5) merchandise
6) did I mention merchandise?

Looking at these in turn, yes there is a fanbase but is that really an advantage? Most comics with a large fanbase have been around for a very long time and are mired in continuity (not always consistent continuity but continuity nonetheless) and fans are very vocal in expressing their opinions (especially in the anonymity of the internet) and a film can be poisoned before it is released. If you are making a mainstream film you can’t pander to just fans otherwise you won’t make much money, it’s only mainstream viewers that will do that. This will often annoy fans but frankly does that really matter?

Comics as a visual medium- Well you can’t argue that but does that necessarily translate into a cinematic visual medium? Lets be honest here, comics are a static medium, the time between panels is imagined and we make all sorts of links and leaps that just look silly when you try to translate them into live action. Spiderman swinging between buildings for example, looks great on a static page, looks a bit daft on film (especially when it’s an obvious CGI model). And how visual are comics really? I’ve just pulled out Watchmen and The Dark Night Returns (chosen because they were seen in my peer group/age group as seminal works) and the amount of text per page is phenomenal, they are very textually driven (I will talk about Watchmen a bit more in a while). Just in case that was because they are “worthy” comics I have dug out the Amazing Spider-Man annual 19 (1985 with MJ as spider-man on the front) and what do you know, monologue, internal speech bubbles, words words words everywhere (and it’s an action packed episode let me tell you!). Uncanny X-men 204 – words everywhere, I will concede that more recent comics have been lighter on the dialogue per page/panel but it looks to me like the panel size has got bigger so the artwork is more prominent. So, are comics a visual medium per se? I would suggest that they are a literary medium with illustration so the translation to film will be more similar to adaptations of novels with the added complication of a clear visual cue as to what the characters look like.

For kids… Ah yes, comics are for children, they are easy to read have lots of pictures, they must be for children surely. Well, until you try to replicate the sheer amount of violence, blood and guts on the page. Hard to be accurate to the comic and avoid a 15/18 rating

Merchandising, not really much to say, if you want to sell any old tat just brand it with the latest film, especially with a ready made logo and watch profits roll in.

So what makes a good movie based on a comic?

  1. Fairly obvious this one but you need the film to be a good film in it’s own right. Will someone who knows nothing about the comic enjoy the film. This is why The Punisher and Barb Wire fail in a major way.
  2. You should be faithful to the spirit of the comic rather than the letter. The parts of Spiderman that work well are the small intimate parts, the soap opera bits (which frankly is what most long running comics are , X Men, Spiderman, Batman), and the bits that don’t work so well are the money shots, especially the Green Goblin (works on paper but ludicrous live action). Watchmen from everything I have read is very faithful to the source material but as a result is not as engrossing a film as it should.
  3. erm, that’s it. Not hard is it?

So, as a thought experiment, how could Watchmen have worked as a film? I don’t think it can. Textually it has dated, the themes of the deconstruction of the “hero” myth has been done already so it’s not as fresh as it was when the comic came out.

Having said that I think it could work in new media. The joys about reading Watchmen for me was in the way the different forms of written media were intermingled, the juxtaposition of the narrative we are reading in comic book form with the comic book in the comic (tales of the black freighter), the “scrapbook” feel of old newspaper cuttings and the excerpts from the original Night Owl’s book. So you would need a combination of media perhaps with the following strands: “faux documentary”, “narrative”, News media, “crowdsourced”, blogs etc. Would it be comercially viable? Hell no, would it have the character of the original work? I don’t know but it would be better than trying to force it into something it really isn’t.

All of this blathering can be summarised thus:

Are comics easy movie fodder? No

What non-paper medium are they most adaptable to? I would suggest audio, the images are in the public eye already, audio fleshes out the characters and fits with the wordiness of the comic oeuvre.

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5 Responses to “And now for something completely different”

  1. badsciencemonk said

    I can think of three other things that interest

    1) Capacity for crossover shared universe movies like the upcoming Thor, Captain America leading to The Avengers. This will probably extend the current craze for superheromovies for quite some time

    2) The fact that a lot of popular fantasy movies are based on comic books but nobody seems to realise – Men In Black, Timecop, The Mask, 30 Days of Night etc

    3) Good movies which most people would be shocked are based on comic books – Road To Perdition, History Of Violence, American Splendor

    I sometimes wonder when we are going to get the first great video game adaptation but that may be some time off!

  2. Adam Kwak said

    Master Chiun also reminds us that at one point he featured in a comic book but it was unable to capture the perfection of Sinanju.

    As he often says “my hip is giving me trouble – it must be by acquired metabolic dyslexia”

    Bright Blessings

  3. badsciencemonk said

    I just left an incredibly insightful post and now I can’t see it. Is Lex Luthor responsible?

    • soveda said

      I’m just not that quick at approving comments ;*)
      Good points about the whole comic book movies that people don’t know are from comics.

      I’d forgotten the readymade sequel/spinoffs too!

  4. Badsciencemonk said

    I see Captain America is to be filmed in South Wales

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