A Year Called Comics, part 4: Comics Go to Hollywood*
* Alternative Title: Hollywood's People Will Call Comics' People . . .
(The fourth of an eight-part year-end analysis of the A Comic A Day project!)
Before I dive into this week’s retrospective topic, I would like to join the fan community and offer my condolences to Mike Wieringo’s family. Wieringo’s passing was untimely and unfortunate considering the talent he offered the industry and the connection he maintained with his readers, both evident through his frequently updated website and consistent contributions on various message boards. I was already reading Robin when he became the regular penciller, but his dynamic style breathed new life into that book and truly captured the essence of a youth-oriented title, bordering on cartoony while still maintaining a sense of realistic motion and emotion. His work on Ex Parte #1 was an unexpected treat during the A Comic A Day challenge and still stands as one of the few first issues that stirred me to find the ones that followed. ‘Ringo had that effect on people – his work and personality inspired fans to enjoy the intricacies of any single sketch, panel, or page, while simultaneously eagerly anticipating what came next. The only good thing that can come from his early passing is more artists wanting to be the kind of gentleman he was.
Transitions truly fail in cases like this; so, here comes my regularly scheduled essay, already in progress . . .
This year’s Comic Con is almost a month old, but headlines and analyses are still breaking like the press is still in San Diego. Orange County’s free liberal newspaper OC Weekly just published an extensive article on their reporter’s Con experience, and my NBC affiliate aired a half-hour special last Sunday morning “from the convention floor” as a thinly veiled promotion for their upcoming fall line up, including the heavily hyped Chuck and the return of The Bionic Woman. Thanks to its plunge into the mainstream, Comic Con coverage has become schizophrenic at best, reinforcing the show’s “nerd prom” status with montages of attendees’ freakiest costumes while boasting the venue as “the next Cannes” for science fiction film. When Nic Cage and Dane Cook squeeze the Con into their respective promotional tours, San Diego is the cat’s pajamas; when friends march around the Gaslamp District as the Emperor’s Imperial Guard, it’s a dog and pony show. Either way, this collision of subcultures speaks to the current state of comics.
Bruce Campbell. Rosario Dawson. Leonard Nimoy. Mr. T. No, this isn’t a casting call for a straight-to-video sci-fi thriller about mutated vegetation versus the military (though I’m still fleshing out my screenplay, The Roots of All Evil, coming to a dusty video bin near you). These are some of the celebrities that have contributed to comic books that I reviewed during the A Comic A Day challenge. Now, despite Hollywood’s recent cannibalization of all things comic book lately (including, as I explained, Comic Con), the line between comics and the silver screen has been blurred for some time, most notably since a certain George Lucas set up shop in a certain San Diego convention center some thirty years ago. The sign on his simple table, proclaiming, “Star Wars: Novel – December, Ballantine Books; Comic Book Series – February, Marvel Comics; Movie – April, 20th Century Fox,” was a prophetic look at the state of print entertainment, evolving from mere words on the printed page to their interface with sequential illustration in comics, then to their inevitable reinterpretation on film. Actually, I can understand Hollywood’s inherent connection to sequential art – most movies essentially begin as a comic strip anyway, more popularly dubbed “a storyboard.”
The real question is, why has the door swung the other way? What compels actors and directors to consider comics as a creative outlet, when they have all the machinations of Hollywood at their disposal?
Considering the examples I’ve already cited, and a few more from the A Comic A Day canon, I can think of three engrained answers: (1.) clouting creativity, (2.) eliciting exposure, and (3.) laboring legacy. When I first read Man With the Screaming Brain, published by Dark Horse Comics, I knew that the miniseries was based on a screenplay co-written by Bruce Campbell, but I didn’t know the screenplay was shot as a Sci-Fi Channel original movie that aired a few months after the comics’ release. Such ignorance sparked the following comment from my review of Screaming Brain #3: “Maybe the real benefit of filtering a screenplay through this graphic format is to visually study what would translate into reality, and what’s best left on the page. If Bruce Campbell tested this process at the beginning of his career, something tells me he’d have plenty of comics to his credit today.” Thankfully I visited Campbell’s on-line resume before biting my cyber tongue, where the actor/director himself commented, “The comic is closer to what the original intent was – dark and noir-like.” Therein lies my first point; some natives to Hollywood may have discovered and utilized comics as an outlet for the creativity they couldn’t express via cinema. Based on my haphazard point, sometimes the restrictions of reality filter our otherwise boundless imaginations, and sometimes a capable artist is simply more capable of capturing our ideas than a camera can!
While some actors are keen to express their creative sides, I wonder if some perceive the comic book industry as merely another medium to conquer. When I saw Rosario Dawson’s name and likeness on the cover of Occult Crimes Task Force #1, I assumed that her role in the series was just that – a name and a likeness shared for mutual benefit. However, after saying as much in my initial review of O.C.T. #1, an angry comment encouraged me to do some research, and I found the following statement by Dawson: “O.C.T. – Occult Crimes Task Force . . . It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done in my career. I get to be creatively outspoken. I have total say on the look and sound of it. As an actor, I usually show up for my part of the movie, but I don’t get to talk about the edit or how they sell it. With this, though, I really get to be involved.” So, Dawson contributes a look and some character development – just like an actress would with any other script. As I’ve mentioned before, though her name follows the writer’s credit with an ambiguous “with,” I’d feel more comfortable with it after the artist’s listing. She contributed a visual, just like an illustrator, to a story that used the first act of Men in Black as a plot template. I’m not ungrateful for the attention garnered by her participation, or other actors that volunteer their ravishing good looks, but I’m also not willing to let her reputation overshadow the medium by exaggerating her role or input. What’s the point of using a comic book as some celebrity’s vehicle if it only drives you back to her?
Yes, I know this sounds like I’m a “hater” (or so that angry comment said), but I’m not above calling out my own heroes for similar funnybook follies. Mr. T has appeared in at least two comic books of his own (excluding Marvel’s The A-Team series), contributing little else than his likeness and his love for his momma. While his comics portray the morals he tried to instill in his other projects, I’m not too naïve not to realize that these titles were the graphic equivalent of Mr. T’s famous cereal – just one more thing to thrust him into the spotlight. Well, I pity the fool that doesn’t enjoy him there!
Finally, since some comic book companies pander to Hollywood types for their involvement, the industry has inadvertently become a refuge to those seeking to cement a legacy. The screenwriter for Tim Burton’s Batman, Sam Hamm, penned a few Detective comics after his cinematic success to secure his Caped Crusader cred, and Back to the Future scribe Bob Gale provided the first Batman “No Man’s Land” arc to remind fans that he could write urban plight better than the rest of ‘em. (Come on, like “Alternate Hill Valley” wasn’t your favorite part of the BTTF trilogy, too!) Specifically, though, Richard Donner’s recent “Last Son” story arc in Action Comics strikes me as the most legacy-grabbing move of all, as if the nostalgia kicked up by Bryan Singer’s cinematic homage granted Donner’s direct involvement (pun intended) in one more Superman adventure. “Don’t forget what I did for the Man of Steel,” Donner subversively shouts from his co-writer credit, “because Warner Brothers certainly hasn’t!” (Seriously, Singer’s last shot of Brandon Routh’s Superman soaring over Earth was the film equivalent of an artist’s swipe; if he could’ve signed it “After Donner & Reeve” he should have.) Embittered sentiments aside, Donner’s name on any given Superman comic book is an unquestionable example of corporate synergy – and my question is, in that case, who is the real star of the show. Just look at the latest Justice League hardcover compilations; New York Times bestselling author Brad Metzler’s credit is larger than the title, Justice League of America! Able to leap a forty-year legacy in a single bound, eh?
Unfortunately, comics are to blame for this phenomenon, whether it’s really damaging or not. When the artist became more acclaimed than their subject matter, “celebrity” became a contending concept in the industry. Look at how far comic book contributors have come, from blatant anonymity in the Golden Age (unless they hid their signature on a splash page) to above-title cover credits today. Who wouldn’t want that kind of artistic acclaim, and how easy can one acquire if he is already in the performing arts business. Heck, how many actors are simply acting like they dig comics just to explore that avenue of success? Is publishing-a-comic-book Hollywood’s new starting-a-clothing-line?
Then I saw Raw Studios’ Bad Planet. Yes, Thomas Jane’s name is first in the list of contributors’ credentials, but if I hadn’t read the press releases and known to look for it, Lewis Larosa and Tim Bradstreet’s striking cover and interiors would’ve struck me first. In fact, Jane’s name is completely unimposing, even on ads for the series. Nowhere have I seen, “Thomas Jane from The Punisher fame dabbles in horror comics with Steve Niles!” He does not “star” in the book, nor is his name attached with an ambiguous preposition (because “and” seems more straightforward to me than “with,” thank you very much). Further, I saw him lurking behind the Raw Studios’ booth at Comic Con, and while he might’ve joined a panel, his name was emblazoned on promotional material like the Cages, whose love for the medium apparently deserved a ballroom-sized forum for one-sided discussion. I haven’t seen Jane in the post-Con press that still plagues blogs and local cred-seeking newspapers, either. Perhaps some celebrities do want to write for writing’s sake. Perhaps, no matter how famous, everybody’s inner child still just wants to make comics! Perhaps, as more comics break into film, more Hollywood types will simply remember their first crush on storytelling and finally decide to make the first move. That’s a special effect to which anyone can relate.