From the archives: Comics

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Quis custodiet ipsos custodes

Tuesday, 28 October 2003 — 11:58pm | Adaptations, Comics, Film

The big news this weekend – besides the fact that Thailand’s Panupol Sujjayakorn cleaned house at the World Scrabble Championships in Malaysia – was this Aint-It-Cool News rumour about how Revolution Studios has greenlit the David Hayter Watchmen project, and John Cusack might even be attached to play Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl.

If this is true – and that’s a big If at this point – I have some serious concerns.

First of all, if the unmitigated disaster that was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is any indication, people should really think twice before touching something by Alan Moore. Especially when it’s the something by Alan Moore.

What are we toying around with here? It’s not run-of-the-mill comic book material. Even though I am relatively new to the medium, it did not take me very long to realize that Watchmen is the Lord of the Rings of comic books. And as with The Lord of the Rings, although I am concerned with faith to the source material, the top priority is on pulling it off with the artistic, cinematic merit it deserves.

Right now, Watchmen is a wildcard for one reason alone: David Hayter has never directed a movie.

Hayter’s record so far is as the screenwriter behind the two X-Men movies. I do have considerably greater faith in his ability to adapt a working screenplay after seeing X2, but no matter how many chances I give the first film, I still can’t like it. It’s not horrible, but lukewarm at best, and a lot of it was just plain sloppy. However, this is only one concern.

If Hayter is seriously intent on directing the project, my advice would be thus: follow the panels. Watchmen, the book, had a certain mastery of layout worthy of much comprehensive analysis on sites like Watching the Detectives. Follow it. Learn some lessons from the composition and juxtaposition that made it such an exemplar of the graphic novel medium.

It’s a well-known fact that Terry Gilliam wanted the project once, but would only do it if it were in twelve one-hour sections, which no executive in his right mind would consider theatrically releasable – but is a really great idea. Gilliam was the right man for this project, just as he was the right man for Harry Potter and the definitive man for Don Quixote. Lord knows he tried to do Don Quixote. And nobody but Gilliam should be coming within twenty miles of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

As for John Cusack – this is actually a pretty good casting choice. Put him in a big pair of glasses and dress him up in those conservative Dreiberg clothes, and the look is apparent.

Everybody can rattle off their dream cast list for Watchmen, kind of like how people were speculating Sean Connery for every conceivable role in The Lord of the Rings back in the roaring nineties. Everybody recognizes that Dr. Manhattan is the stumbling block. We’re hearing people shout for Sean Penn to play Rorschach, Tom Selleck as the Comedian, Val Kilmer as Ozymandias. At this point, I’m more worried about the script.

But we’ll see. For the time being, I’m going to reclaim my spot in line for The Incredibles.

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Coming to the aid of those who languish in tyranny’s chains

Saturday, 19 July 2003 — 10:31pm | Comics, Literature, Michael Chabon

A bit late in the reporting, but nonetheless, here is the greatest and most exciting piece of literary news I have heard in a fair while:

Pulitzer-prize winning author Michael Chabon has signed on with Dark Horse Comics to publish Michael Chabon Presents…The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist. The quarterly comic anthology will feature characters created by Chabon in his critically acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Set primarily in the late ’30’-s and early ’40’-s at the birth of the comic book industry, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay tells the story of two young men who create a popular comic-book character known as “The Escapist.” The Dark Horse anthology will present tales of the Escapist and his cohorts set in the style of various comic book eras from the 40’s through today. Chabon will guide the direction of the series as well as contribute to writing original stories. Other artists and writers will be announced in coming months.

Read all about it here – there is a nice piece of promotional art there as well.

I am nothing even remotely close to a comic book aficionado, but this announcement has me wetting my pants with anticipation. Why? Well, for starters, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is arguably the best piece of contemporary literature I have ever read, for reasons that would fill several essays. Among the most vividly-written scenes in the piece are the respective origin stories of The Escapist and Luna Moth, comic book sequences inked with words alone; the panels leap off the page, and if they evoke one reaction, it’s exactly what Sammy Clay said upon the genesis of his creation: “I wish he were real.”

Suffice to say, an actual comic book of The Escapist is a dream come true – that is, if handled properly. Considering the extent of Chabon’s direct involvement, it is reasonable to expect it to live up to his grand vision.

And if you haven’t read Kavalier & Clay, then what are you waiting for? Go get it!

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League is 20,000 under the sea

Wednesday, 16 July 2003 — 9:42am | Comics, Film, Full reviews

Director Stephen Norrington must be truly extraordinary: somehow he has managed to make The Pagemaster look like a tour de force of literary studies.

A more appropriate title for Norrington’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen would be Cliff Notes: The Movie, though that hardly does justice to the film’s absurd superhuman ability to take characters out of eighteenth-century literature remembered for the complexity of their tales, and water them down to one-note, one-joke self-parodying caricatures that are more like Pokémon than people. We see Allan Quartermain as the poster-headlining retired adventurer, played by Sean Connery in his best what-kind-of-lines-are-these look. The Invisible Man (Tony Curran) is invisible. Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) is somehow immortal by way of the peculiarity with his portrait. Dr. Jekyll (Jason Flemyng) is the brute strength of the team when in his egregiously outfitted Mr. Hyde form. A certain Special Agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West) inexplicably shows up from America and delivers “witty” wisecracks about the British. When you begin to describe characters by a single trait or ability as if they were merely weapons, you know there’s a problem.

Conceptually, the idea of uniting iconic literary characters and making use of their special powers – the novelty behind the comic book on which this film is based – is something with great cinematic potential. It would ideally play out like a Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure of fiction rather than history, only serious and bullet-ridden. The problem is that James Dale Robinson’s flaccid screenplay acknowledges that the heroes of the piece are pre-established, and uses this as an excuse for forgoing any degree of coherent exposition.

But it was never intended to be anything more than a thrilling adventure movie, right? At least we could expect it to deliver on its promises to be high-octane visceral escapism? Nope. The League wants to be campy fun at every turn, but ends up as merely campy. The fight sequences are for the most part choppily edited; one early conflict switches characters and fights every second, moving from close-up to close-up, lacking any degree of continuity. The way these battles were staged, they must have looked really good live on set; however, they are muffled by poor editorial choices rather than amplified, as they should be.

A similar complaint can be made of the overall look of the film. Given The League‘s comic book roots, the Batman-esque gothic darkness of the sets and costumes is one of its high points. The way the production looks on the screen, however, is a different story. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen seems to misunderstand that the effect of darkness is most expressed with the contrast between light and shadow, and goes solely for the shadow. I suppose this is in line with the movie’s apparent philosophy that the audience should not have any idea what is going on, but this only highlights (pardon the pun) Conrad L. Hall’s superior work in Road to Perdition as the textbook on how to light a dark graphic novel adaptation. Granted, comparing Laustsen’s work in The League to Hall’s pedigree is akin to juxtaposing crab apples and Florida oranges, but that does not change the fact that the commendable design values go to waste.

With more coherent editing and smarter photography, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen could have been great, despite a horrendous screenplay. Add a better script and it could be marvelous, though it would be a completely different movie – namely, a watchable one. It has a lot going for it: the production design, a talented cast that does what it can, and most of all, the concept. There are even some very cinematic moments in the film, the briefest flashes of brilliance, as in a pivotal scene when our heroes listen to a staticky recorded message from the villain, which is shot like a grainy vintage reel. The unveiling of the movie’s Standard Diabolical Plan is the best-edited montage of the entire piece; it is a pity that the rest of the movie never comes close to that level of achievement.

For The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the nail in the coffin is that it is not even a whole lot of fun. It’s a bad movie, but not quite farcical enough in its badness to merit watching in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 way, or disastrous enough to leave permanent and visible scars to show your friends afterwards, à la 1998’s The Avengers. It fails because it is the worst kind of disappointment: one with tremendous promise. Even the League of Nations was a greater success.

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