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Celluloid Superheroes
By Rick Marshall

As the borders between comic-book panels and flat-panel screens disintegrate, writers are joining their fictional stars in making a successful crossover

Doc 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.

And 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.

“I 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.

“The 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 small-screen adventures.

“We 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.

rmarshall@metroland.net

 

 


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