And we're BACK....Comics and Movies (cont).
In praise of moving pictures
Once, it was too expensive to turn the lavish fantasies of comic-book writers into movies. Not any more, writes renowned graphic novelist Neil Gaiman.
Neil Gaiman ... filming comics is "an awful lot of fun".
Photo: Marina Oliphant
I CAN STILL remember how excited everyone was, 17 years ago, by the arrival of the Batman film. Frank Miller's story of an ageing Batman coming out of retirement, The Dark Knight Returns, had, along with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen and Art Spiegelman's Maus, spearheaded the first, abortive, graphic novel explosion, and I believed that a good, serious Batman film was all that was needed to put it over the top, legitimise comics and change the world.
Two decades later, we live in a world in which comics have spawned a generation of blockbusters. This season it's a Marvel v DC face-off, X-Men v Superman, with Spider-Man 3 waiting in the wings for 2007.
Comics and movies have always been a two-way street. Back in the 1940s, Will Eisner's seminal The Spirit took from Orson Welles and the films noir as much as it borrowed from radio or Broadway, and there have been movies made from comics pretty much as long as either medium has existed.
An interviewer asked me whether I thought that the recent success of superhero movies meant that we might see a world in which comics that don't include the capes-and-tights brigade might also have a chance at making it onto the silver screen.
"You mean comics like Road to Perdition, Ghost World, Men in Black, A History of Violence, Sin City, From Hell, American Splendor...?"
I started to suspect that there might be a cultural sea change occurring a few years ago, when The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was released. EDITOR'S NOTE: MAY IT REST IN PEACE. (AND I'M STILL WAITING FOR THAT REFUND FROM SEAN CONNERY). It was not the first time that a bad film had been made from a good comic, not by a long shot, but it was the first time that the world at large seemed aware of this. Review after review pointed out that the film had none of the wit or brilliance, or even coherence, of the comic it was taken from.
Like many of my co-workers in the world of comics, I'm also involved in making films these days. This is seen, I realise from talking to acquaintances and journalists, as a step up, signalling that I've finally left the gutter. (Still, filmic legitimacy goes only so far: opera seems to be the cultural front-runner, while books, with or without pictures, trail some way behind.)
I like film. I am not very good at writing for film yet, which is what keeps me interested in it. Most of all I like the astonishing process - it's hard to get near a film set without remembering Orson Welles's description of a film studio as "the biggest electric train set any boy could ever have".
There was a time when those of us who made comics would try to explain what advantages comics had over film.
"Comics have an infinite special-effects budget," we'd say.
But we missed the point, now that movies have, for all intents, an infinite special-effects budget. (I was writing a script for Beowulf last year and, worried that a climactic airborne dragon battle was going a little over the top, I called the director, Robert Zemeckis, to warn him. "Don't worry," he said. "There is nothing you could write that will cost me more than a million dollars a minute to film.") EDITOR'S NOTE: NOT THAT A MILLION DOLLARS IS REAL MONEY, OR ANYTHING? (WHIMPER).
Still, the "unlimited special effects" nonsense hides a truth or two. Ink is cheaper than film. Film, especially big-budget film, often needs to compromise in order to be liked by the biggest possible number of people around the world. A comic tends to be a small enough, personal enough medium that a creator can just make art, tell stories, and see if anyone wants to read them. Not having to be liked is enormously liberating. EDITOR'S NOTE: AIN'T IT THOUGH!?
The comic is, joyfully, a bastard medium that has borrowed its vocabulary and ideas from literature, science fiction, poetry, fine art, diaries, film and illustration. It would be nice to think that comics, and those of us who come from a comics background, bring something special to film. An insouciance, perhaps, or a willingness to do our learning and experimenting in public.
That was certainly how it was making MirrorMask, a film released in December which I wrote and which artist and director Dave McKean designed and directed for the Jim Henson Company. As long as we gave Sony something "in the tradition of Labyrinth", Dave could make his film (it's my script, but in service of Dave's story and vision). It didn't have an unlimited special effects budget, or any kind of unlimited budget at all, but Dave still managed to put things on screen that hadn't been seen before - huge stone giants floating in the sky, a librarian made of books and voiced by Stephen Fry, a horde of monkeybirds all called Bob (except for one, called Malcolm).
Whether you're making comics or film, much of what you're doing is done for dollars and for US-based multinational corporations.
Alan Moore, tired of bad films made from good comics he had written, and of the accompanying Hollywood-associated irritants (including a legal suit over The League of Extraordinary Gentleman), recently removed his name from the adaptation of his graphic novel V For Vendetta, dissociated himself from his previous films and, in the kind of definitive grand gesture that indicates that you really mean business, also declined his share of the money that came with them. EDITOR'S NOTE: OK, NOW THAT'S JUST SILLY. FIRST OF ALL, YOU SHOULD TAKE EXTRA MONEY FOR "LEAGUE"...PAIN AND SUFFERING AND SUCH. AND SECONDLY, WHILE THE FILM OF "V FOR VENDETTA" TAKES A SOMEWHAT DIVERSIONARY TRACK FROM ITS ORIGINS, IT'S STILL A VERY GOOD MOVIE, AND HEWS CLOSE ENOUGH TO THE SOURCE TO BE SOMETHING MOORE SHOULD HAVE BEEN ABLE TO STOMACH.
Even knowing that Moore has renounced it, I want to see V For Vendetta. V and I go back almost 25 years, to the first time I picked up a copy of Warrior magazine and saw those wonderful black-and-white, David Lloyd-drawn people staring hopelessly back at me. (I find it hard enough to adjust to a world in which the graphic novel is coloured; a coloured V for Vendetta seems as pointless as colourising Citizen Kane.) Moore's story of one lone anarchist up against a fascist British state meant something important to me and to a handful of other comics readers, when it was first published, and the film trailer, composed primarily of images taken from Warrior covers, hooks into that.
Moore himself is resigned, amused and wryly bitter about the process of turning comics into film.
"Comics are one step in the digestive process of Hollywood eating itself," he told me. "Are there any films made from the comics that are better than the original comics? Hollywood needs material to make into films as part of an economic process. It could be a Broadway play or a book, or a French film or a good TV series from the 1960s that people want to see on the big screen, or a bad TV series from the 1960s that nobody cares about but still has a name, or a computer game or a theme park ride. I expect that the next subject of films will be breakfast-cereal mascots - a film that chronicles how Snap, Crackle and Pop met and explores their relationship. Or the Tony the Tiger movie. EDITOR'S NOTE: OR TONY THE TIGER EATS SNAP, CRACKLE AND POP!
"Films are no friend to comics," he concluded. "I think they actually impoverish the comic landscape. Turning it into a sort of pumpkin patch for movie studios to come picking."
At my most cynical I also wonder whether the world of comics might simply become a cheap R&D lab for Hollywood. EDITOR'S NOTE: THEN AGAIN, WHILE I KNOW THE ARTSY PURISTS FROWN ON ANY CHANCE OF COMMERCIAL SUCCESS, FILM HAS THE POTENTIAL TO OPEN THE COMICS UP TO A VASTLY WIDER AUDIENCE. I WOULD NEVER HAVE READ THE GRAPHIC NOVEL OF "V FOR VENDETTA"...IN FACT, BEING A CHICK AND RATHER OLD, HAD NEVER HEARD OF IT....UNTIL IT GOT INTO THE MOVIE PIPELINE. IS THE MOVIE IDENTICAL TO THE NOVEL? NO, OF COURSE NOT. DID I ENJOY BOTH, EACH IN THEIR OWN WAY? ABSOLUTELY.
The San Diego comics convention, once a summer gathering of a few thousand comics readers and creators, has in recent years become a Sundance-style event with more than 100,000 people in attendance and where the year's major SF, fantasy and horror movies are announced and previewed.
I confess that I am always relieved when another year passes without anybody making a bad film based on Sandman, the comic on which most of my reputation within the medium rests.
But I remain optimistic. While Frank Miller's film of Sin City isn't as powerful as his comics, it was still his vision up there on the screen in the film he made with Robert Rodriguez, uncompromised by the change from one medium to another.
MirrorMask is Dave McKean's film from first frame to last, visually and musically. Nearly 20 years after the first Batman film, I realise that film doesn't confer legitimacy on comics. But it's still an awful lot of fun.