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July 1, 2004

Literature... with Pictures; Better than the Best

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With a backhanded compliment to the Spider-Man 2 movie (as the best film in the worst genre), John Podhoretz has kicked off the inevitable discussion. In the post that introduced the topic to the Corner, Jonah Goldberg suggests that reading comics helped to form his love of reading more generally. He subsequently posted an email lamenting that the subject matter of comics has followed our culture down the gutter in the past fifteen years, leaving parents to introduce their children to the classics of a supposedly un-classic medium.

Now, anybody who's ever read my novel — or even asked what it's about — will know that few surpass me in literary pretension. With that being said, I won't hesitate to confess that I'd list some of my boyhood-favorite mini-series and limited plot lines from running comics alongside the best of child and young-adult literature. Many of these comics have proven to have a quarter-century staying power and have been collected into books. Moreover, some of their stories could yield record-breaking movies.

The first that comes to mind is the book version of the first four-issue Wolverine mini-series from the early '80s (which I still have stored away at my parents' house). This series set the standard for the loner superhero — the roadhouse samurai, torn between a wild nature and the draw of discipline.

But the most compelling series involved a number of issues of the regular X-Men comics culminating in 1980: The Dark Phoenix Saga. By the time I discovered it, in the mid-'80s, it was already in paperback form, and I remember climbing up in a tree, where I could see over the apartment buildings to New York City, to the Twin Towers, and wedging myself between some branches just to read the story over and over. The emotions evoked by the last few pages still echo through the years, and I can't help but think there's a lesson for Hollywood in that fact.

In all the back and forth about comic book movies, a central point seems to have been missed. Movie makers, TV writers, and cartoon drawers tend to take merely the characters and general themes of the comics and write new stories using them, a practice that usually disappoints both the avid fans and the newcomers. Imagine if Peter Jackson had just collected the hobbits and friends from Tolkien's work and presumed to pen a new plot.

One would think that comic books, being both literary and visual, would be better suited for translation into movies. Why, then, don't those producers (or whoever it would be) who sniff around the library and who make a 1,000th version of Camelot look to the stories that have helped to make comic books such a phenomenon? Perhaps it's a bit of the lingering conceit, among moviefolk, that they can outdo lowly scribblers. I think that's a mistake, and one that will bring rewards to the first bigwig not to make it.

If done right, a movie version of the Wolverine mini-series could stand against Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and The Last Samurai. In fact, I'll go so far as to make a statement so bold that it will surely draw readers' ire: given proper care and appreciating treatment, the Dark Phoenix series could be transformed into a movie trilogy to rival The Lord of the Rings.

(N.B. — As a movie!)

Posted by Justin Katz at July 1, 2004 4:17 PM

I wish I had grown up with comics. I wasn't allowed them, however, and I feel somewhat distant from these things as a result.

Posted by: Jeremiah at July 1, 2004 4:29 PM

I haven't read the Dark Phoenix series, so I can't say you've drawn my ire, but I'd be surprised if it had the depth to it (both moral and imaginative) that Lord of the Rings does. But I think your general point is valid - it is interesting that Jackson was, for the most part, able to be faithful to Tolkien's vision, even though their worldviews are so divergent. If moviemakers took the comics seriously, rather than just as a marketing tool, they could probably make very good movies, rather than simply special-effects showcases. I think there is something of this in the Spiderman movies.

Posted by: Mike S. at July 1, 2004 4:36 PM

Jonah was kind enough to post my comment.

I agree with your sentiments, but I think a successful transition is harder than you give credit for. As Bryan Singer remarked when making X-Men, yellow spandex is fine for comic books, but it doesn't translate too well on the big screen.

I will be interested to see Singer's translation of the Dark Phoenix saga in X3, but you can't blame him if he doesn't hit every element of the story. Something tells me we will not see the Shi'ar Empire or the X-Men battling it out on the surface of the Moon. Movies provide a lot of latitude, but comics provide infinitely more.

My point to Jonah was that I cherish my comic experience, but bemoan the fact that the genre has succumbed to left-wing politics these days. I will not be letting my kid pick and choose the comics he wants without some serious parental censorship. In fact, he may just have to live with reading my vintage X-Men, Spidey, FF, and Thor comics. That would be fine by me.

Posted by: Andy Adams at July 1, 2004 5:42 PM

I've always felt that comics were actuallly probably a better medium to tranfer to film than regular books, provided the "creative" folks can keep their hands off the story line. But then again, you can say the same for lots of movie adaptations of books.

And Mike S., while the "Dark Phoenix" saga doesn't have the detail of LoTR,like whole invented languages(which isn't always a bad thing), as far as moral and imaginative depth, it's every bit the equal.

XMen-2 started to hint at that path of the Phoenix storyline. Let's see if they make any more...

Posted by: Dougslash at July 1, 2004 5:54 PM


Well, I haven't heard anything about future X-Men movies, but it seems to me that the Dark Phoenix story can't be told properly in one movie. I guess it's all about what can be left in or taken out.

The spandex is a case in point. That's the sort of detail for which modification will only upset the true purists. Make the colors a little less bold; put a little effort into casting the right actors; cheat a little on the muscles.

At any rate, movies are all about taking the material seriously enough that the audience forgets the silliness of actors in spandex. Audiences ignored the tufts on top of the hobbits' feet.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 1, 2004 5:58 PM

Some aspect of the Phoenix saga will be dealt with in X3, given X2's ending. I guess we will see how it goes, but wouldn't you agree that Singer has done an outstanding job with the X-Men movies evoking the emotions from the X-Men story lines he has drawn from. I thought X2 was a wonderful adaptation (albeit, very loose) of the graphic novel "God Loves, Man Kills." The fact is that some storylines would translate great directly to film (e.g., the Wolverine title you mention or even the Hellfire club saga) and others would not (e.g., who wants to see the X-Men go to The Lost World to battle the Brotherhood).

The LOTR analogy just doesn't work because you are dealing with Middle Earth, not New York City. You can get away with a lot more if your story is based in a fantasy world. Marvel Comics are based, at least partially, in a reality that looks and acts just like the one we inhabit. I think that is the source of reasonable constraints when translating them into film.

Anyway, my point is that you can do it well without being too literal. Bryan Singer has proven that point.

Posted by: Andy Adams at July 1, 2004 6:18 PM

Two things:

1) "With great power comes ...a great chance to pick up chicks." Unfortunately, that's becoming a motto in both the DC and the Marvel Universes. Sex and gratuitous violence are on the rise. My recommendation for parents: go back to the classics that combine a powerful story with fine artwork: The Return of the Dark Knight, The Dark Phoenix Saga, the Marvel Onslaught Books, quite a few Daredevil storylines, and several years worth of the Bruce David Incredible Hulk series. This is quality fiction--period.

And 2) If movie producers/directors are faithful to the spirit of these characters as portrayed in their finest storylines, the movies will succeed. Batman--yes. Batman II-IV--no. Spider-Man--yes. X-Men & X-Men II--yes. Hulk--no. Daredevil-yes.

Comic books are not Shakespeare or Aristophanes, but they also never claimed to be. As to Podhoretz calling comic book adaptations the lowest form of art: I must agree and disagree. Yes, it is a lower form of art than Shakespeare or Aristophanes. But after that, everyone's fighting for second. And recently (to include both Spider-Man pictures, Daredevil & X-Men I and II), I believe comics are putting up a good fight (and I will concede there isn't much competition; Hollywood is bereft of good ideas).

PS> Last year, I donated approximately 3200 comics (mostly from 1989-2003 with some from the Silver Age) to the Ripken Reads charity in Baltimore, MD. The assistant from the charity was ecstatic; she believed the comic book form would attract many illiterate young adult adults into their program.

Posted by: Mike Lagana at July 1, 2004 6:52 PM

Oops. That's "The Dark Knight Returns". Sorry.

Posted by: Mike Lagana at July 1, 2004 6:57 PM

I'm not comic book aficionado, but I'll point out that one of the most popular computer games right now is called City of Heroes. It's a MMORPG in which you play a hero ridding a massive city of its many, many villains. As it's an online game, you can team up with other people playing heroes, combine complementary powers, plan tactics, etc.

IMHO, the retro appeal of comic books is their lack of moral ambiguity. There isn't any question about what the good guys should be doing. And most of the time it's very easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. They reflect a WWII/Cold War mentality: The bad guys want us dead, and the good guys want to stop the bad guys. We started losing that somewhere in the late Vietnam War. After 9/11, I suspect we're getting it back.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at July 1, 2004 7:26 PM

Bruce David?

Do you mean Peter?

Posted by: Eric Pobirs at July 2, 2004 12:47 AM

Roger; Bruce is an artist. I need an editor. mal.

Posted by: Mike Lagana at July 2, 2004 8:56 AM


Well, what about Harry Potter? That's our world/not our world.

Being a young father, I haven't had a chance to watch X2, yet, although I intend to. The movies can be done without being overly literal, but I think that movie-makers tend to underestimate the degree to which the specific stories and writing of the comics contributed to their success.

In large part, it might be that they don't want to mix genres and put superheroes in an international espionage story, for example. (I'm thinking of a one-issue Wolverine and Spider-Man team-up that I loved as a teenager.)



You're right about the desire for unambiguous morality, and I can only hope that you're correct about its return, although I think there's fighting to do, even after 9/11... and for what are superheroes needed if not fighting?

Perhaps the difficulty with the movies indicates that the cultural struggle is going on within the comic book industry itself, between the strong of vision and those who prefer to obscure truth. (Wasn't there a controversy over Captain America post-9/11?)

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 2, 2004 9:35 AM

I almost always believe that it's about the stories. Our contemporary world, Middle Earth, a galaxy far, far away: it doesn't matter. Comic book, sci-fi, cops and robbers, cowboys and indians; it doesn't matter--it's the story. And...character development is part of a good story.

If a great character (in comics, anyone from Captain America to Wolverine) is trapped in an awful plot, I wonder why I'm reading or watching. "Hulk smash" is pretty boring. I don't want to hear "I'm the best at what I do, bub" from Wolverine every story.

The best movies, regardless of the medium from which they come, will always provide a good story where the director creates a world that is imaginable--not exactly ours, or necessarily even close, but just imaginable. mal.

For crying out loud, millions bought into "Babe."

Posted by: Mike Lagana at July 2, 2004 11:57 AM