Comic Book Movies Revisited

by on Aug.16, 2011, under Comics, Movies

Back when he crapped all over comic book movies Josh K-Sky and (and I, in the comments) neglected to mention A History of Violence, David Cronenberg’s brooding gangster film. I only recently got around to reading the graphic novel by John Wagner (recently reissued by Vertigo), and it’s one of many examples of what was apparently once called Bluestone’s Law (after pioneering film critic George Bluestone): only bad books make good movies; good books make bad movies.

In general, Bluestone’s Law as I understand it secondhand is based on the idea that deviation from the original is more respected when the original is not beloved. We’ve largely gotten past that whole problem of “deviation” when it comes to novels, but we haven’t with comics, and I think it might be instructive to consider why.

Most people, I think, still see comics and movies as really pretty similar. Comics are the closest one can get to a movie on the page, goes the subconscious expectation. Both tell stories with dialogue supported by visual depictions of action, and comic book authors have adopted many visual storytelling tricks from movies. Comic book scripts and movie scripts even look a lot alike, and many TV screenwriters have dabbled in comic book writing.

The fact that their comics have not generally been very good should give a hint, though, that the visual support to dialogue works pretty differently in movies and in comics.

Art in comics must be very simple. It has to convey an action in a space maybe two inches tall by two inches wide. Artists will pack only as much into those small spaces as can be intelligible.

But within those limitations it can be extremely evocative. It activates the imagination when done well, leading us right into the  “vivid and continuous dream” that John Gardner names as the action of all good fiction. We see movement and emotion in our heads.

Because that movement and emotion is linked to specific visual cues, however, we believe mistakenly that it’s all there on the page. Beloved comics get transferred to the screen by directors who want nothing more than to reproduce what everyone loved so much in print, and they sit there, visually dead.

When comics do work on the big screen it’s usually because directors find ways to make them look great there. Vince Locke’s art in A History of Violence the book is forgettable, so Cronenberg was free to go his own way. Harvey Pekar works with different artists in every story, so Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini were similarly free in American Splendor.

Which brings me to James Gunn’s Super, just out on DVD, and its contrast with last year’s Kick-Ass. Like Kick-Ass, Super is based on the idea of an ordinary guy dressing up as a superhero.* Unlike Kick-Ass it was not preceded by a comic, and when I try to imagine it as a comic I can’t see it translating well.

Rainn Wilson plays The Crimson Bolt, aka Frank D’Arbo, a guy who finds himself adrift when his wife abandons him and returns to heroin. A vision from God and some late-night Christian superhero TV convince him to become a costumed hero, and when he visits a comic book store to do research on heroes without superpowers he accidentally picks up Ellen Page as a sidekick, Boltie. Because he doesn’t have powers he settles on hitting his villains with a wrench. Or shooting them when necessary.

All the way to the bloody climax Gunn rides the line between comedy and despair. He lets the actors play their roles with absolute seriousness, and doesn’t ever try to undercut how messed-up and deluded Frank is supposed to be. He and Boltie are crazy people, and when he bashes a guy in the head for cutting in line at the movies, it’s appropriately horrifying.

In the same moment, though, the violence is undercut by a slapstick visual tone. Not Three Stooges slapstick where the violence doesn’t hurt, Troma slapstick, where the gore is extreme and doesn’t feel quite real.

That specific tone simply wouldn’t work in a comic. I’ve tried to imagine some of the most arresting images in Super as comic panels, and I think they’d either be unleavened horror, or else that nasty, mean-spirited visual slapstick that characterizes most of Mark Millar’s work (including Kick-Ass) and Garth Ennis titles like Crossed. There simply isn’t enough space in a panel for most artists to enact that uncomfortable middle ground where Super lives. All of which means that while Super may be a far better movie than Kick-Ass, I’m not sure it’d be half as good a comic.

 

*It’s weird that in neither of these movies do the protagonists bother to learn about the Real-Life Superhero movement. The Kick-Ass 2 comic book series offers something along these lines, but in this day and age it’s hard to fathom anyone doing non-Internet-based research, as Rainn Wilson’s character does in Super, and when they did wouldn’t they immediately stumble on the RLS phenomenon? Plus both movies assume RLS’s would be vigilantes, whereas in truth they seem to be motivated more by an endearing concept of heroism. Less crimefighting, more soup-kitchen fundraising.

 

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2 Comments for this entry

  • Josh K-sky

    I finally watched Kick-Ass last week, and I liked it a lot. One of the things I learned from this summer’s spate (well, X-Men in particular) was that I get bored by world-high stakes, and the stakes in Kick-Ass were comparatively local. I also like how the movie separated out Hit-Girl’s and Kick-Ass’s stakes, allowing Hit-Girl to be responsible for most of the hyper-real derring-do and allowing Kick-Ass to have an arc that was about courage emotional and physical but stay within pretty basic human capabilities (the resistance to pain without exceptional strength was a good, grounded way in to heroics.)

    As far as the RLS — Kick-Ass opens with the line “I don’t know why nobody ever thought to do this before” and I think the film depends on erasing other attempts (save the unfortunate falling Armenian at the beginning).

    A History of Violence — right on. There’s just no emotional weight to the book, and the art doesn’t help.

    Having not read the Kick-Ass book, I’m interested in hearing more about the opinion I’ve heard — I think from you included — that the movie saved the best parts of Millar’s work from his sickening violence. The violence in Kick-Ass is surprising and provocative, but it never struck me as sickeningly comic. Having seen the movie, the offense taken by some to Hit-Girl struck me as precious.

  • Joshua Malbin

    Here’s the quote I quoted from John Rogers about Millar before. I stand by quoting it.

    Wow, turns out when you pull the racism, misogyny and nihilism out of a Mark Millar story*, you get a pretty fun movie.

    *Or, in short, when you pull Mark Millar’s writing out of a Mark Millar story

    I don’t know that we were saved from the sickening violence, per se. I remember there being a lot of gore in the movie. I think the movie steps back from the general air of dickishness that accompanies everything Millar does, so the violence feels less icky.

    In general I think Super was closer to the story I wanted Kick-Ass to be.

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