Hero Whipped: From Film to Comics (Part 1)

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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Thankful for World Cinema- La Cage aux Folles

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

La Cage aux folles

It is impossible for me, having been exposed to The Birdcage first, to not compare the original and the remake. Almost from the word go I sensed a great disparity between the two films even though the remake ended up being and uninspired copy and paste writing job. The first thing that lends itself to creating a different tone is the music composed by Ennio Morricone. The music in The Birdcage by Mark Mothersbaugh and Jonathan Tunick is forgettable seeing as I’ve seen the remake three or four times and can’t remember a single note while I’ve seen the original once and can still remember Morricone’s score.

Ennio Morricone’s gentle music takes us into a world that we shouldn’t be afraid of. The key word to thinking about his music is sensitive. It exudes softness, tenderness which is aped by the action and the actors who are not ridiculous characterizations but with real people and real emotions. Due to the fact that all scenes include practically the same dialogue it is a huge complement to Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault that they made their characters more three-dimensional and real than Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.

The American interpretation of this film is also vastly different than the French. Due to the fact that this film deals with homosexuality, which is a topic that still is tinged with taboo here Americans have to turn the film into a farce of a farce. In other words the movie has to be ridiculously over-the-top to be accepted. The pathetic part of the remake is that it perpetuates stereotypes and while the stereotypes do exist (for how do stereotypes come into being?) by merely making them more human we can see beyond a stereotype to the person portrayed. A perfect example of this is the opening scene. They are the same in both films. Renato (Armand in the American version) tries to get Albin (Albert) onto the stage to perform his act. In the American version Nathan Lane makes his character seem like a whining melodramatic pain-in-the-you-know-what because of this the scene is very funny but emotionally superficial. In the French version practically the same dialogue is spoken but because of the way Michel Serrault delivers his lines and because of the more subdued expression he has on his face the words take on weight. They have meaning they come across as real concerns for the relationship as opposed to a paranoid delusion and an excuse not to go on stage. It made me believe the affair was a possibility all over again and made me forget about the son and his impending marriage.

The deception of the possibility that Renato is having an affair is aided by the son’s appearance. In the American version he was clean-cut and Ivy League here the son in full 1970s look, long hair included.

 La Cage aux folles in 1978, even in France, was a more progressive film depicting a gay relationship, a gay couple who had raised a son and how the couple still had to pretend in certain social situations while longing to be completely honest. By 1996 in the United States homosexuality was not such a hot topic of controversy yet a slapstick-esque context is the only way the mainstream will be able to accept gay characters. Dramas about homosexuals are sole dominion of the art houses.

This is a film that does something very difficult to do. It takes a situation that is rich with comedy and imbues it with humanity and warmth. Making this a layered comedy which is something rare regardless of the country the film is made in. La Cage aux folles is a really fun film which takes a serious look at human relationships and society’s perception of people’s lifestyles without putting any one down or getting preachy. It’s a lot of fun.

10/10

Thankful for World Cinema- The Vanishing

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

The Vanishing

Johanna ter Steege and Gene Bervoets in The Vanishing (Meteor Film Productions)

This film exemplifies many things I like to see in films but rarely get enough of. Often times in Hollywood films we get interesting concepts that never live up to their full potential. In The Vanishing we get a film that forgoes cheap thrills and pace to examine the characters involved in a very thought-provoking way and it manages to achieve a greater level of creepiness than most American films would. After having first watched this film I was looking around in all directions as I walked around and here’s why: One of the first things that strikes you is the music. There’s a deep bass and it doesn’t overly-anticipate the moment but still highlights the film with an overtone of foreboding which is just magnificent. And as this word could apply to the film as a whole it is especially significant in the antagonist; subtlety. Played by Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Raymond Lemorne is a great villain because he’s believable, well defined and most frighteningly in the end we even understand him and worse yet he seems real.

Another thing this film has going for it is the way the film isn’t told chronologically. We first see the vanishing and the desperate search in the first few hours, then we are introduced to Lemorne, peg him as the man, see his routine and see that three years have gone by. All throughout the film we will skip through time for large periods. The disappearance of Saskia will be filled in over and over again until the actual events are seen through their entirety. And the last piece only falls into place at the very end.

Amazingly, with this unusual structure the film is not hard to follow in the least and certainly much more intriguing then the conventional linear plot we’re used to seeing in the United States. The ‘reality’ of these events are set up in many way by director George Sluizer. Firstly, there was great used of subjective camera and the ‘Zero Degree Style’ common in the States is completely abandoned.

The other touches of reality come as we delve into the two main characters: Rex and Raymond. Raymond, the criminal, is first only seen in a very one-dimensional manner. We see him as a fraud who seems to be scoping out the store for possible victims. Then later in the story we see him begin to formulate his plan, to perfect it over and over again. The one scene where we see him as a biology teacher is just enough to show us that these people could be anyone and can fool you so easily. There is also the scene where Rex is waiting for him at the restaurant. Rex says he’s waiting for Mr. Montmejan and that happens to the waiter’s name. The commonness of the name adds profound statement about the plausibility of the plot.

The tension of the film is also aided by McGuffins, or botched attempts by the professor. In one scene we see him pick up a young girl, we know already that him locking the door is where he makes his move and poisons the girl but it’s his daughter. He also runs into a former student of his and tried to get her in his car and we see a chilling example of how he may have escaped justice for so long for even when someone calls him on it their content to just get away. There’s also the scene where Raymond is out of focus in the background as Rex looks around for him. This is also another great scene of anticipation.

Rex’s relationship with Lieneke and also his quest are also quite believable. He reaches a point where all he seeks to know is the truth. The Vanishing is also greatly helped by some really good dialogue. The image of the Golden Egg as related by Saskia through her dream sort of predestines the film in a way as we’ll see they both have the same fate, however, that is not a fault of the film. I firmly believe that there are only so many ways a story can end and it’s not how it ends that always matters but how you get there. The Vanishing is a toned down psychological thriller that’ll get under your skin. It’s a film that’s had my imagination captive for a week. It’s not only a prime example of a psycho-thriller but also of well-structured and executed character studies. It’s a great achievement.

8/10

Thankful for World Cinema- Bicycle Thieves

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

Bicycle Thieves

Enzo Staiola and Lamberto Maggiorani in Bicycle Thieves (Produzioni de Sica)

Firstly, it must be said that as simple as it is a test of the greatness of Bicycle Thieves is how much can and has been written about it. This piece, however, is meant as an introductory piece to the film in hopes that more people will discover this cinematic gem. This is not an in depth examination or an in depth film theory piece. For that kind of examination I could not do better than to direct you to the companion booklet that comes with the Criterion release.

 Bicycle Thieves is all that is good about Neorealist cinema in one tidy story. It is naturalistic acting, practical locations and a simple yet utterly compelling storyline.

The film sets up its dramatic problem instantly. Antonio is assigned work but needs a bicycle or he won’t get the job. He does manage to get it out of hock but his troubles aren’t nearly over.

What is most effective in this film is that in following Antonio on his quest we become fully immersed in it. We identify with him because we know the significance of the bike and why he needs it.

What’s more is that we can see the extremes he goes through and can relate when he is pushed past his breaking point. In his failing we can see why he has reached his last resort.

In this way Bicycle Thieves becomes the perfect tragedy because our protagonist can see how far he fell and can wonder what he could’ve been thinking without ruining his entire life.

The tragedy is ultimately left for us to examine. As we know there are many more stories like it playing themselves out everyday. By making the tale small and not grandiose it’s easier to see how it could be you.

10/10