the borders between comic-book panels and flat-panel screens
disintegrate, writers are joining their fictional stars in
making a successful crossover
Frankenstein, the latest project from Matrix creators
Andy and Larry Wachowski, has been receiving a heap of praise
lately. Just like its predecessor, Doc blends wild
combat scenes, philosophical pondering and ultra-hip characters
into a final product that’s as much eye candy as it is food
for thought. The difference between Doc and the brothers’
last reality-bending extravaganza, however, is that you aren’t
likely to catch this production on the big—or small—screen
anytime soon. That’s because the adventures of Doc Frankenstein’s
bolt-headed hero don’t unfold in front of Hollywood cameras
or effect-churning computer screens—they occur in the pages
of a comic book.
in recent years, the Wachowskis have been far from alone in
having their big-screen names grace the covers of comic-store
fare. Joss Whedon, whose writing on the Buffy the Vampire
Slayer television series garnered multiple Emmy nominations
during the series’ six-year run, currently scripts the adventures
of Marvel Comics’ mutant supergroup, The Astonishing X-Men,
while Joseph Loeb III, screenwriter for Commando and
each of the Teen Wolf films, is celebrated as one of
Superman’s and Batman’s greatest authors.
So, why all the multitasking from comic-book, film and television
scribes? Well, a quick look at the evolution of comics as
a medium shows that such an overlap isn’t really all that
new or unlikely of a notion; it’s simply taken a while to
earn its time in the spotlight.
Looking back, the borders between comics, film, television
and other popular forms of entertainment were—from the writing
perspective, at least—pretty blurred from the start. In the
1940s, before television gained a foothold in American culture,
many notable pop-culture authors cut their teeth in the world
of comics. Writers like Mickey Spillane, author of numerous
hardboiled detective stories (and also author of many of the
early adventures of National Periodical Publications’ Captain
America and Captain Marvel), routinely supplemented
their earnings by churning out comic-book copy alongside their
other endeavors. The demand for comics was high during this,
the industry’s “golden age,” and companies like NPP (which
eventually became known as DC Comics) were more than happy
to pay any writers willing to dabble in capes and criminals
to produce content for the publisher’s massive print runs
(around a half-million per year for some titles). Though the
largely superhero-based stories published during this period
were aimed at children, this booming industry provided ample
opportunities for all types of writers to earn their chops—and
a paycheck—while the nation dealt with the economic implications
of World War II.
Flash forward to the present, and the barriers between the
worlds of comics, film and television have all but dissolved.
Hit television series and films like Alias, C.S.I.
and Aliens are finding their way onto comic-book pages
at a pace that would give superhero speedster the Flash whiplash,
while the screen rights to both recognizable and little-known
comics titles such as Ghost World and Road to Perdition
are being snatched up with reckless abandon by television
and film studios. And in much the same fashion, the writing
talent behind these stories has become similarly mobile.
brought an issue of Ecto-Kid to the booth and [the
Wachowskis] called it the Rosetta Stone for the Matrix,”
wrote one member of the matrixfans.net online forum, referring
to the early-1990s series written by Larry Wachowski. The
series’ hero was a teenage boy who could cross back and forth
between this world and the “ectosphere,” a ghostly plane where
he had mystical abilities.
Along with the Wachowskis, screen scribes such as Clerks’
Kevin Smith, Babylon 5’s J. Michael Straczynski and
even Monty Python’s John Cleese (who speculated on the possibilities
of a British Superman in his series True Brit)
have all found their writing efforts well-received in the
world of comics. And recently, Reginald Hudlin, who penned
the screenplays for the House Party films and works
as cowriter for both the upcoming Boondocks television
series and its newspaper counterpart, began chronicling the
page-borne exploits of Marvel Comics’ Black Panther.
In some ways, this overlap of writing talent in comics, film
and television is really a product of the power wielded by
each of the two latter forms of media in popular culture.
While screen deals with big-time producers are often accompanied
by budgets that dwarf the gross national product of several
countries, convincing a producer to part with such copious
sums of money—no matter how promising the project—is a notoriously
difficult process. As many media professionals will tell you,
the difference between success and failure in the entertainment
industry is often just a matter of effectively translating
the story from the creator’s mind to that of the producer’s.
And it’s in that aspect of communication that comic-book writers
with screen aspirations have developed an edge.
comic serves as a physical representation of the idea,” explained
Matt Hawkins, president of indie comic-book publisher Top
Cow Productions, in a 2004 interview with Variety.
Hawkins added that his company regularly evaluates new comics’
potential in other media before agreeing to publication. “Executives
can look at [a comic book] and visualize a completed film.”
Brian Michael Bendis, one of the busiest writers in the comics
industry, echoed this sentiment in his 2000 graphic novel
Fortune and Glory, an autobiographical account of his
own attempts at selling an original comic-book story to Hollywood.
While the screenwriters he met along the way struggled to
condense 120-page scripts into two-minute presentations, Bendis
was able to provide cautious producers with the complete story,
including character designs, dialogue and scene structure,
in a 20-page book.
For Sin City, another upcoming film pulled from the
pages of comics, director Robert Rodriguez felt so strongly
about preserving the feel of the movie’s source that he shot
the entire film according to the book’s panel-by-panel layout.
Frank Miller, Sin City’s author, was given codirector
credit on the film for this reason.
And that’s not the only reason these medium-crossing writers
have enjoyed a smooth transition in recent years, either.
Besides having an almost identical script structure (most
comic-book writers use the same script format as television
or film writers), television, film and comics have also begun
to resemble one another in pace and overall story length.
Globally, sales of single-issue comics have fallen in each
of the last few years, with the sales of multi-issue compilations
(containing both the beginning and end of long storylines)
rising at a comparable rate. This trend has allowed comic-book
writers familiar with the multi-issue format to convert their
stories to television series or full-length movies with few
structural changes—and has saved television and film writers
looking to try their hand at comics the same set of rewrite-inspired
headaches. Gareb Shamus, chairman of Wizard Entertainment
(whose publication, Wizard, covers the comics industry),
described the growing fondness of television and film writers
for the medium of comics later in the same Variety
piece. When screenwriters have trouble convincing financiers
of a project’s merit, he explained, they often turn to comics
as a “cost-effective litmus test” for stories that require
expensive special effects or long periods of filming.
J.C. Glindmyer, owner of Albany’s Earthworld Comics shop,
points to the large Sin City posters hanging in his
store’s windows as proof of Hollywood’s changing attitude
toward comics, their creators and their audience. While the
familiar masks of Spider-Man and Batman can
be seen amid advertisements for various card games and toys
on Earthworld’s walls, it’s often the printed version of their
exploits that are being advertised, and not their big- or
received those [Sin City] posters from the film company,”
said Glindmyer. “That’s actually a pretty recent phenomenon,
even though they’ve been making movies based on comics for
a long time. Years ago that would have never happened.”
And leafing through the Ultimate Spider-Man Script Book,
a collection of Bendis’ work from the hit series, all it takes
is a simple change in terminology—from “panel one” to “shot
one,” perhaps—to see how similar these media, in their rawest
form, have truly become.