Notes from a letter to a friend:
The trouble with graphic novels and comics that get to the BIG SCREEN is the universe of information we’ve missed out on. After the first Iron Man film, I was inspired to hit my friendly, neighborhood Marvel vendor for access to the papertrail containing all the stuff that didn’t get into the movie. I bought three thick, juicy Iron Man graphic novels that barely scratched the surface of Iron Man lore. It turns out the same is true of the X-Men, Daredevil, Spider-Man papertrails…and that just means that comics are very like soap operas – there are character-complexities, esoteric references and oblique subtleties that regular folks (who haven’t been addicted to monthly installments of stories that have been churned out since 1966) will simply miss, unlike the junkies whose lives have (for decades) been built around that addictive stuff. Frank Miller’s Sin City is probably a little bit less like the bottomless content icebergs involving characters (like Superman) that go all the way back to the 30s.
I checked out of Marvel-land in high school, but whole armies of writers and artists have woven wonderful, complicated narratives while I wasn’t looking, and tracing the work of Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller or Brian K. Vaughan…, for insight into Coraline, Sin City, 300…is one hell of a daunting task – because those motherfuckers have been astonishingly prolific. Thor, The Avengers and Captain America? Forgetaboutit!
Then, there’s the other thing you mentioned – that the stories that make the screen are going to be jam-packed with CGI, crowd-pleasing, gratuitous violence, and they’re totally based in narratives that were castrated by The Comics Code that strenuously attempted to eliminate truth in sex, truth in violence, truth in crime and truth in humanity in publications aimed at the theoretical “sensibilities” of 12-year-old boys.
Now the kicker.
DisneyPixarMarvel-ESPN-ABC is now one company. I can’t suggest you take a look at the first Iron Man movie without ignoring your resolve to-never-line-the-pockets-of-Disney-executives-with-your-hard-earned-cash. The thing is that that first Iron Man film was built by its director, Jon Favreau, on a slightly different model than all the superhero/comics movies that preceded it. Favreau’s explicit intention was to build the incredibly-costly CGI bullshit around the performance of the actors, afterward, rather than moulding the actors’ performances to suit and fit the computer graphics. It’s an interesting, subtle difference, which (I think) made that film eminenty worth watching for the creative contrast; lead with the cart or the horse. But the second Iron Man movie is significantly less focused on the moral dilemmas intrinsic in the character expressed by the fascinatingly-quirky actor (Robert Downey, Jr.) than the first one was. Go figure. Gwyneth Paltrow has very little to do in either film. Mickey Rourke (in Iron Man 2) is also underserved.
Graphic novels and comics that become movies aren’t necessarily exploitative bullshit, but most of them were far better/richer and more completely interesting in the original medium which Hollywood has optioned, bought and stolen (solely to make huge piles of money).
Brian Kellar Vaughan (in my experience) is the only graphic novel author whose creations (in the paper form) are invariably golden. Hollywood keeps releasing rumors that Vaugahn’s stuff will be SOON APPEARING AT A THEATER NEAR YOU, but none of them have made the leap – even though Vaughan spent a few years recently in the writers’ room for LOST. Vaughan’s bigger stories (Runaways/Y, The Last Man/Ex Machina) run to multiple volumes, but Pride of Bagdad and The Hood: Blood from Stones are brief and inexpensive examples of superior storytelling. Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore get press and movies, but I’ve generally been disappointed in the ultimate on-screen result.
As you know, I’m a sucker for the stuff Joss Whedon wrote. If I see his name on a product, I’m more likely than not to want a look. I’m branded. Well, here’s an interesting thing I learned. After I’d gone nuts (in 2006) for his long-cancelled 2002-3 television series, Firefly, I picked up the DVDs for Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel, got immersed in Dollhouse and Dr. Horrible, and flung small chunks of money at the X-Men graphic novels Whedon wrote. I found constant, bewildering gaps in the continuity of his graphic novel stories, as though Whedon really requires talented, human actors to round-out his scripts and narratives. The X-Men graphic novels and Buffy/Angel comics lacked something vitally important that was always present-in-abundance in his television shows. This discovery leads me to suspect that Joss Whedon’s talents aren’t best expressed in comic books and graphic novels (translated through graphic artists), but his wild-ass, intricate, off-the-wall ideas need gifted actors and technicians to whom he can explain them after assembling the right people into a cast&crew he can charm and persuade to realize his work – which doesn’t speak well for The Avengers movie (due in theaters next May), because the cast of expensive “stars” (like Downey, Jackson…) was assembled by other (more mercenary) people long before he got the job to write and direct this potential fiasco.
Conversely, Brian K. Vaughan writes stories (particularly the Ex Machina series of comic books) that work amazing magic in exactly the opposite way. The narrative and static panels of art feel (after I’ve read them) at least as real and plausible and fluidly-continuous as though I’d seen its moments in a beautifully-executed movie, if not in real life. Unlike Whedon, Vaughan’s stories pulse with a dramatic vitality he imparts to them
- without being present on-set,
- without the creative control of an executive producer, and
- without a significant cult-following that hangs on his every word.
Big money butchers Philip K. Dick, hammers Richard Matheson, runs from Harlan Ellison. Movies made from their science fiction and comics work only-vaguely resemble the originals, but even with the handicaps Hollywood inflicts, the movies that flow from the pens they used still generally kick the crap out of vehicles rewritten for ridiculously-expensive talent (Will Smith, Ben Affleck, Bruce Willis, Matt Damon…) by less-legendary individuals.