Friday, July 20, 2012
Comics: Movies and Myths
Between the “Avengers,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” there has been constant discussion on comics and superheroes in my life. I cannot avoid it between Facebook, Twitter, or in my daily life. Almost daily, I discuss comics, superheroes, current culture, the history of it all, and mythology. Constant bickering and arguing over the theory behind comics. I felt that, perhaps, it is time to write a new blog entry.
For a bit of background, I thought I ought to explain about my history with comics (or, you know, perhaps I just like to talk about myself). Obviously, I did not tie you to the chair and if you want, go ahead and skip this paragraph, however I generally find position and history important on how to judge one's opinions. Most of my childhood was made of Peanuts and Charles Addams. I had no experience with comics in the slightest. No cartoons (based from comics, that is, I wasn't completely devoid of proper child entertainment), no comics books, no radio dramas, no movies, no... Anything of the superhero or modern comic book culture variety. It was in high school when one of my best friends, HW, gave me “Murder Mysteries” by Neil Gaiman, which I think was a rather interesting and unusual first comic to read. I enjoyed it and she gave me a copy of “Sandman”, vol. 2, because she believed that was the best place to start. (Whether I agree with her or not, I cannot decide. I deeply enjoyed vol. 1, but at the same time, vol. 2 gave me an idea of what to expect of the entire story—who Dream really is, his “powers,” his realm, the comic in general.) I dabbled in a little Batman, of course watched the Nolan/Bale movies, and I felt, most importantly, wrote two papers on comics. One was the history of comics from its general start in the US (with the Katzenjammer Kids to the 1980's—I wasn't supposed to go past the '60s, but I did it anyways, I felt it damaging to the history), and the second one was on mythology and fairy tales in comics. I know, high school papers, big deal (if you knew my high school, they weren't completely light-hearted; my school had a penchant for college level English lit classes), but it was to me. I loved it, researching their history and looking behind the flashy skin-tight suits. Through most of college, I dropped off of the comic book interest, which I still curse. I wish I was never influenced to ignore comics because now, I realize that I've missed 5 years of research. Through the “Avengers,” I was excited to research it again (and now I own a few more Loki-centric Thor comics).
So it makes sense that when I see “superhero,” I read it as “modern mythological figure.” In my more current research, I am deeply pleased that Thor was created because Stan Lee felt that if superheroes were going to be treated like gods, like mythologies, then why not include literal gods? It's very clever. In high school, I viewed comics as what our culture desires—Captain America punching Adolf Hitler (the USA winning against Nazi Germany), or an above average man battling the evil corporations (that was Superman vs. Lex Luther). Now, I see that they have also become our modern myths. Spiderman is the protector of New York! He saves the day against the evil Green Goblin and co! Like myths, he may not always reign completely supreme, after all, Gwen does die, but still, he is our teenage Hercules. He isn't human. He's a demi-god. He can die and come back. We can reimagine him as we desire. He must have his spider abilities, but he can become a spy in the past, or what have you. He isn't tied in the same way that other characters from books are. He has been in comics, countless story forms, and in movies. The same goes for all of these superheroes. There was a wonderful speech in Fear Itself: Black Widow #1 (annoying, I lent out my copy of Fear Itself: Secret Avengers, but if you can, look it up. Hell, just flip through it in a Barnes & Noble or something for all I care. It was an accidental purchase—I ran around B&N, pressed for time, and whoops, instead of Fear Itself: Journey into Mystery, bought Secret Avengers. Admittedly, I am not unhappy, but it did mean I didn't get to reread one of my current favorite events being published right now). They discuss about how and why it hurts when a superhero dies, why they can come back, time and time again, and why, essentially, we have so many variations on their tales. They're avatars. They're not just people, but they are also ideas. They're something larger than just characters. I just rewatched “Batman Begins” tonight and again, Ra's al Ghul mentions how “You cannot kill an idea.” Batman is more than just Batman, he's larger than that. Ra's al Ghul is more than that. That's why you can't kill any of them. They're not basic human beings. They're mythological beings. They're demi-gods (or real gods). We feel (hopefully) when they act as base human beings, but we also expect something inhuman from them. That is how Batman and Superman have been around since the late '30s ('39 and '38, respectfully). Thor has been around since bloody arse knows when (at starting in the 11th century; I honestly do not know much about Norse mythology, Vikings and history, but I will research it now) and he's a Norse god! A real one! He doesn't just play one on TV.
I don't mean to sound pedantic. I don't mean to say that we should look at what each comic issue says about our culture and all that. I mean, it may be really nice to, and there's certainly worth some looks (between the treatment of women, men, the beliefs of the characters, and such, it's actually rather good fun), but I mean to treat comics as we do with books. In starting with Charles Addams and Neil Gaiman, I like to believe that I saw a specific side of the general comic realm—a rather intellectual side, before seeing all of the fluffy fun. (Again, I'm not trying to say that the fluff and fun are lower than the intellectual. Personally, I enjoy both. My first and favorite film was “Jurassic Park” and that is an equal amount of both. I will always desire both.)
But what I think is the most fascinating is how many faceted views there are on comics. Most of it appears to be “they're fun” with variations on that view (“I want to be Spiderman, so I want to read about him” or “It's big and silly and hugely fantasy, I want big explosions”), but I've also met some very realistic desires, too, “I don't want people to die and pop back up,” and of course, I've met some who view comics like I do. I don't think that any one viewpoint is specifically the best (that would be a little rude), but I do find this zoning off as a major factor to many problems.
The one I find most pertinent to right now is: comic book adaptions into film. The problem with all movie adaptions is that people do not know what a proper one is. We can often love a proper adaption, but half the time, most people don't. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is forever my go-to movie adaption for discussion (to the point that I feel rather bad about it, honestly). A movie adaption is not the book; it by definition cannot be—it's a movie. (I feel like I ought to write another entry on this, because I will most certainly lose track of my main point of this entire one—to talk about comics.) With comics, the logic works the same. The movie is never the comic. It can't be. And much like with book-adapted movies, where what most audiences (or what the producers think the audiences) want is to see their favorite scenes. Honestly, that's rather true, but at the same time, just pandering to the mass desires does not make a good movie. In part, it could be that books are very long, they carry a lot of material in them, and movies cannot contain it all as easily. Comics, on the other hand, come in nice little issues. Now, each issue is certainly too short to provide enough material for one full movie (they're more like chapters in a book, I'd say, which, for an off-handed note, a chapter can easily be turned into an episode for a tv series, hence: “Game of Thrones”), but you cannot use too many issues to make a good and proper movie.
One of the largest problems with comic-adapted movies and one of the things that perhaps most comic fans need to remember, is that they're not just for the fans. The book-adapted movies aren't either. They're for movie-goers, be they fans or not. This is a very important distinction. A movie is like a bottle in a sea. We may know some rough details about what is contained inside the bottle, but in the end, we only have the bottle. Kindly note, if its a movie series, that's a different story. (Actually, movie series are extremely hard to do properly. Each movie has to be good on its own, yet if there is a consecutive plot between them all, then it must also incorporate that without relying too much on “this is what happened before, so if you didn't see it, you'll be totally lost.” This is where I felt “Avengers” did well—my dad, who had never seen any of the previous superhero movies and has not read the comics, enjoyed it and understood what was happening. There were small things he didn't catch, but that was because they were there for people who watched the rest of the Phase One movies.)
One adapted movie series that did not do well was the Harry Potter ones. They're for fans, for people who have read the books, enjoyed them, and wanted to, for some reason, see Hermoine flounce around in a dress and cry because so-and-so didn't love her. Yea, nice. But the problem? The movies made no sense. They made sense if you're relying on the books, but as stories, you were left with many questions, like “Who the hell is this?” (Cho Chang, anyone?) or “Why the hell did that happen?” (lack of explanations for magical things and integral points of plot). Yes, so many people have read the Harry Potter books, but actually, I know a fair amount of people who haven't. It was a testament to how much they left out, information-wise, whenever I spoke to Michael. After every movie (we did a marathon once), we sat around for a Q and A. He would grill me on various Harry Potter facts, and often, not on little things, but on something like why did the wands have problems in the 4th movie/book. In the end, I often would tell him “read the books.” (I didn't mind explaining it all, but sometimes, I couldn't remember the answer. Plus, I thought he would enjoy them.) And he wasn't the only one with questions. I had a few teachers and professors who didn't read the books either. (Perhaps an annoying attribute of mine is that if I know you when I go to the theater, I WILL grill you on your opinions afterwards. Sorry.)
Now, that's still book-troubles, but it applies to the comics as well. As a writer, you cannot just include something, no matter how much it works in the comics, just because it was there. In the comics, you might have the added bonus of a yellow text box or seeing a scene we didn't get to see in the movie, for whatever fucking reason, but it MUST. WORK. There cannot be assumptions or explanations from reading the comics. That's moronic. I really don't want to have to do research before going to a movie. It's not laziness. It's that the movie should do perform certain functions. I am not like those English folk who demanded a refund because they went to see “The Artist” and didn't realize that it was a silent, black and white film. (Side note: Never ask for a refund for a movie because you hated it. It was your bleeding choice. Deal with it, motherfucker. If the theater messed up, and my local one often has, and the quality of the film is bad because of THEIR mistakes—such as the projector off center, then you may ask for a refund. Otherwise, you're an asshole. An ignorant, rude asshole.)
I don't mean to say that we need everything spelled out for us. I mean, I don't want that. I love movies in which I have to puzzle things out, etc. I loved “Inception,” but that's philosophical, not ill story-telling. (There's probably a rant about “Prometheus” in here somewhere, but I feel like better writers have already spoken on it for me. Bottom line: It wasn't a good movie, writer-wise.) Proper facts need to be there.
So when we get into comics and movies, there's a lot at play. There's the mythological, the cultural, and the historical aspect (that Captain America was a product of the '40s and that he will constantly be re-imaged because we need these heroes, even when Steve Rogers talks off the shield and suit and is not longer CAPTAIN AMERICA, but some new identity, we still have these heroes around); there's the fact that when comics are adapted, the adaptions need to follow the proper adaption procedure. In making a comic, it does not require many people (I really do not mean to make it sound too simple and easy, but bear with me)--ultimately, you have the writer, the artist, and the editor. Depending on the artist, you may have more than one. If you want to do something, like sneak in images in the background, or maybe, after you sent in a lot of the work, but find you want to change something, you can do that easier than if it was a movie. With a movie, you have many, many individuals involved (as well as a lot of money). Make too many changes, never have any sure footing, and people will lose interest or refuse to participate. One of the beautiful things about art is that you can (in theory) draw what you want. A man in tights zipping around in the air with Norse gods and winged horses and a planet exploding? One can draw that. Most people can. (The matter of how well is different.) But what about filming that? Now you're stepping into difficult territory. That's one of the major issues. How movies work is not the same how comics and books work. Movies are primarily visual (you don't get as much internal dialogue like you do with books or comics—you can't. The actors must SHOW what they feel. Yes, voice overs or narrations can occur, but there are a lot of things you can't really just throw into a voice-over and make it work well.) It's tough. You can never expect a movie to be literally a comic (or a book). It's an ADAPTION. Superheroes are modern myths or folk tales in how they function—a superhero isn't just a person, they're an avatar. Saying that a movie must be just like the comic is to wholly misunderstand movies, adaptions, and, frankly, comics themselves.
So that's the rant, folks. Lizard signing off.