Hero Whipped: From Film to Comics (Part 1)

Posted on November 23, 2011


Michael Fassbender in X-Men: First Class

This has been a year in films which has been replete, or perhaps over-saturated (depending on your stance), with comic book films. Now for all you fans of semantics (and believe me I am one) I won’t get into the whole “Is that really a genre in and of itself?” discussion as what I am seeking to discuss will be much broader than that one sub-topic. Never the less films based on comics have been plentiful and that is not the only way in which the two art forms have become linked.

In spite of the symbiosis that exists the two industries face very disparate overriding issues at current. While in film one of the many concerns are echoed in the recent statements of Universal Studios chief Ronald Mayer. To be stated succinctly: He said we’ve made a lot of “bad” movies. That statement is rather obvious and questions like what lead you to make project X over project Y and do you plan to change that mechanism any time soon are being largely ignored because we kind of know what that answer is.

Even with a purer decision making process film, like all the arts, is a sort of alchemy wherein the results and impact of a piece can not be guaranteed.

So that’s one of the big bugaboos the film industry is currently contending with, comics has a rather big one also and its underscored by the overwhelming (thus far) success of the New DC Universe, they’ve said don’t call it a reboot so many times they’re starting to sound like a poor excuse for LL Cool J.

While DC has just regained the market share for the first time since 2002 many, more knowledgeable than I, know that the market itself can and needs to grow and initiatives such as this one are what will do it. However, it’s not merely enough to slap a new number on the front of a book and alter the chronology somewhat to appeal to the masses.

I say that speaking as one who in comic book parlance am much closer to being the masses than I am to being an insider.

Due to the fact that I like to think I will be doubted and that I, at times, enjoy explaining things, let me tell you a little story to illustrate my noobness:

I consider myself a comics born again of sorts. It’s been a little more than a year since I started reading them anew and as such I’ve gotten more into them than I ever had before. However, it’s been a little slow. First, I do have many interests that consume time and money that I can’t necessarily dedicate all to comics.

That’s true of most and not that unique. Even avid fans need to prioritize which books to buy at a cost $3-$4 a month each, which to drop, which to trade-wait, etc. I stopped reading before the interwebs really became a part of everyday life. Had I held out I would’ve found more titles of all styles that I like much sooner. However, that was not the case so I’d peg the end of my serious reading round about 1994. Of course, there was the occasional exception but that’s a good a year as any to pick.

Part of the reason was at the time I was getting much more into film and other arts but there was also an intimidation factor with comic books. They were all, in my mind at the time, superhero books. Each book had its own history, a knowledge base was necessary to read one and it was impossible to jump in cold and if you did hard to navigate (I still struggle some there but I digress for now).

Calvin & Hobbes (Universal Press Syndicate)

Whereas a comic strip has a basic premise, some detailed knowledge of the world contained therein was a boon but not essential. They were also there all the time; daily in newspapers. However, I was reaching that age where I knew them all and all but a few fatigued me so they lost some of their luster for a time.

So in comes the hiatus and while being young and not necessarily that well-informed I wasn’t that far off from being right. You needed, and in some case still need, a lot more information going into a comic than you did an episode of a TV series and most definitely a film. There I tenuously linked this back to the point of my whole blog for a sentence, happy?

Anyway, just to give you a sense of where I started I knew there was a DC and Marvel as the two major names. I knew who the characters that pertained to each were. I had no concept of the Universes that each created.

Now before I go on I am not about to belittle the universe concept. I love it. As a long-time Constant Reader of Stephen King I love dovetailing and crossovers. However, the greatness of how King does it is that the intersections in his tales are more like Easter Eggs than vital information. You will be able to comprehend the Dark Tower series even if the revelation that The Man in Black has been referred to as Randall Flagg in other worlds and times means nothing to you. Whereas in comics at times your appreciation rests on the fact that you are familiar with previous Events or continuities or retcons.

That is friggin’ daunting for a newcomer. Putting it another way: I grew up with two very different perceptions of Batman. There was the Adam West Batman and the Michael Keaton Batman. Both I still enjoy for what they are. So I always had an understanding that different interpretations of the same character and/or stories can exist and it’s no big deal. Even with a bad experience with a Batman graphic novel as a kid (The Untold Legend of the Batman) that would seem like one of the perfect crossover titles right? Pick up Batman, get back into comics.

Only it didn’t happen that way. In the end I had to do research. Homework in essence just to find out what the hell was going on with Batman. Batman is one of the handful of origins that almost anyone can tell you. Knowing that there were several titles I figured just get plain old Batman that’s easiest, right? Only then I found that Bruce Wayne wasn’t Batman anymore and Dick Grayson wasn’t Robin. Finding that out after being away for so long, and never being entrenched to begin with, is like learning that two and two aren’t four anymore. It’s like New Math.

But I learned the New Math and now with a grasp of the current “Bat World” I can enjoy and appreciate it, however it took a while to get there.

And here’s where some of the disconnect will lie for the average fan. I did a lot of legwork to be able to pick up the kind of comic I never did in the past. I was literally just reading the occasional review Joey Esposito would post on Crave Online for months before I decided to take advantage of Free Comic Book Day and start reading again.

Granted there are issues with moviegoing these days: price, etiquette and so on but even people who walk into a theatre knowing nothing will have the gist of what they’re watching in a few minutes, no homework necessary. Of course, film can be a very different artform and at times being a blank slate is the best way to watch a film, however, the accessibility that exists in most films is what makes it such a force to be reckoned with and its that accessibility that comics at times struggles with.

I now have read enough that I get and appreciate the nuance and the interconnectivity of certain events and say nine times out of 10 can pick up any issue, of a series I know, and read it no problem. Ah, but there’s the rub again. A series I know. It takes some time to get to know a series.

Power Pack (Marvel)

And that statement while true seems so odd. For me to say “Only if I really know a movie…” usually only applies to writing a paper about it or doing some other kind of in depth analysis. Picking up a random issue shouldn’t be that involved. Since I started reading again two of the series I’ve gotten familiar with are the now defunct (but hopefully born-again someday [wink, wink, nudge, nudge] hey, Marvel this one’s for you) Power Pack and The Fantastic Four. As fate would have it I found Power Pack and many of the single issues stood on their own so I could read them randomly before getting trades and discovering the link they have to The Fantastic Four. Links again a double-edged sword interesting but I may not get both. I’m pondering if I should get the FF/X-Men issues when they trade it.

Yet even reading several issues of both I did do a little web-research to augment my knowledge. A prime example of how precarious the jumping off point would be my most recent trip to my local comic book shop. I decided I’d scour the imminently more affordable bargain bins of back issues. I was able to pick up quite a few such that I decided to search through them A to Z. Certain letters, such as Q will make you wonder what’s even in there besides the one you know, others while not littered with titles will have the one stand out. Take the letter X for example. What comes to mind first? X-Men. I attested in my review of First Class that I love the X-Men and I do. However, that was love that was built in through television and the films. I knew enough follow each of the first three films to know who the characters were on sight and in many cases gauge the casting choices made. However, in the lead up to the release of First Class I picked up an issue of Uncanny X-Men and was lost. Now while that is slightly hyperbolic it’s not far off. I eventually more of less figured the issue out but I was unimpressed and still at a loss for context.

Now do not confuse what I’m saying here with a desire for complete and total synergy. What I’m talking about is complete and total accessibility. I’m talking being able to pick out any back issue and follow along. Granted there are arcs and tie-ins and events but there also has to be some level of a hook that can draw any and all comers in. I have since found out that the X-Men family is going through quite a bit of changes which would be fascinating to examine in a trade but people newer to them than I am would likely be confused. In the end I chose an X-Men issue from a series that was a tie-in to the TV show.

Whether one arc can be read independently from all others is a series-by-series kind of a question but the fact of the matter remains there’s no renumbering in trades. Volume one of a series will collect issues 1 thru X and you can start at the very begging.

On Twitter you see writers and other creators answer questions to fans quite regularly about a “Jumping on point.” Meaning clearly that the person posing the question has yet to read the series but has always been curious to, so he wonders could I start on this issue and figure out what’s going on?

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Posted in: Hero Whipped