Armagideon Time

It was recently announced that DC plans of releasing a way-after-the-fact funnybook version of the American remake of the Swedish film based on Stieg Larsson’s best-selling novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. While I’m sure there’s a audience for the comic — namely folks looking for some literary pretense to mask their burning desire to see anatomically impossible T&A shots of punk rock pin-up girl — the silliness got me thinking about the waning phenomenon of licensed film adaptations.

There was a time, ambulance not terribly long ago, that such cross-media repackaging efforts constituted a huge industry. Mall bookstore shelves groaned under the weight of prose distillations of such enduring cinematic classics as April Fools Day and Solarbabies, and publishers like Dell and Gold Key cranked out off-model funnybook iterations of films both blockbuster and bottom-tier.

The business model for this niche of the publishing biz rested upon the limited distibution channels of the era. Prior to the days of streaming video, back when cable television and VCRs were expensive novelties (or before they even existed, period), film audiences were subject to the scheduling whims of local movie theater or small cluster of regional market TV stations when it came to viewing a given flick.

This was especially true among the younger set, who lacked the funding and access of the adult crowd. If you were a kid who really loved The Magic Sword or Star Wars or Hatari and wanted to prolong or revisit the experience, prose and comic adaptations were one of the few reliable and afforable ways to score one’s fix on a user-controllable basis.

Even better, retailers’ and parents’ less stringent gatekeeping for such works made it possible to get one’s grubby mitts on once-removed works whose R-rated cinematic source material would have been absolutely verboten. The usher at the cineplex might have buster your for sneaking into see Halloween III, but the half-stoned teen working the register at Booksmith didn’t give a rat’s ass if you plunked down two bucks for the flick’s paperback transcription.

Prose adaptations seldom — if ever — rose above the level of pulpy workmanship. Artistry was never the intended pupose nor part of the formula for quick and dirty profit. Tap some journeyman writer or past-prime hack to crank out a luridly accessible narrative, toss in a collection of briefly annotated stills in the book’s midsection, and throw that sucker up onto the shelf. Deviations from the source were fairly common, stemming either from the author working outside the loop of script revisions and late-stage edits or asserting some atrophied form of artistic license as rebellion against his of her work-for-hire thralldom…which is how you ended up with sex scenes in the book versions of Tron (former scenario) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (the latter one).

Funnybook adaptations tended to be more straightforward in nature, reverse-engineered storyboards sanitized and exposition-ified in accordance with the standards of the mass medium and its perceived audience (i.e. “kids”). The creation of the MPAA rating system and the subsequent embrace of more “adult” themes in cinema (along with the Gold Key/Dell split, which upended the major licensing powerhouse in comics publishing) slowed the comics adaptation trend through most of the 1970s (Marvel’s spins on Planet of the Apes and, uh, Killdozer nothwithstanding).

And then came a little film called Star Wars. Not only did Marvel’s comic book version of George Lucas’s space opera epic save the publisher from looming insolvency, its success was enough to drive a popular monthly series while encouraging the powers-that-be to recapture that oh-so-profitable lightning in a bottle.

The bulk of these efforts were released “Super Specials,” a magazine-sized format which combined the comics adaptation with “making of” articles and related backmatter. While a logical move in theory, the execution was muddled by Marvel’s choice of material. Don’t get me wrong — I was thrilled to be able to add funnybook versions of Xanadu and Rock and Rule to my collection of comics oddities. I just that I have a hard time believing that “some popculture historian is going to buy uncirculated single copies of these from a quarter bin fifteen years from now” is a viable business model.

Marvel’s embrace of the “limited series” format in the early 1980s led to the publisher splitting the difference with a number of its film adaptations from that era, where multi-issue installments hit the spinner racks in slightly staggered tandem with the collected Super Special editions. Again, the theory was sound, but the notion of reaching a wider audience was kind of rendered moot when the material in question was mediocre comic book version of The Last Starfighter.

Even when the source material and the creative team was top notch, the results tended to be far less than the sum of the parts…

…as was the case with Marvel’s 1982 attempt to do funnybook justice to Blade Runner.

The comic version of Blade Runner was — along with a Twilight Zone Magazine photo feature and film review — my initial point of exposure to Ridley Scott’s seminal cyberpunk classic. I was ten years old when the movie hit theaters and while my parents wouldn’t have cared about their fair-haired eldest boy catching a R-rated film, the pimply teenage usher at the local multiplex was not as progressively minded…especially after my friends and I dumped all the illicit brew out of the giant cooler so we could use it as an improvised sled-slash-boat.

As much as Blade Runner perfectly encapsulates the grimly stylish wonder of its era for me, I didn’t actually see the film until a heavily edited version popped up on a local UHF station a few years later. My early impressions were gleaned from the comic…

…and, boy, what skewed impressions they were.

Writer Archie Goodwin and artist Al Williamson are two creators I have an immense respect for, but they had a tough row to hoe when it came to capturing even a fraction of what made the Blade Runner such a spectacular bit of cinema.

The film’s strengths are so firmly rooted in the medium that they defy easy translation. More than the adequate plot and (mostly) adequate acting of its principles, its a work that derives its power from spectacle — the syncretic arrangement of lighting, art direction, set design, and music. In short, it’s the type of film (along with Speed Racer or Apocalypse Now) that you use to break in a new home theater system.

While comics are also a visual medium that draws from a related palette of techniques, they also have a different aesthetic hierarchy when it comes to presentation. Wide sweeping shots and two-page spreads may be employed to similar ends, but the equivalency can’t be measured by a simple mathematic ratio.

Williamson was a master at depicting sci-fi scenes in comics and did a solid job translating Syd Mead’s visuals and Ridley Scott’s shadowplay of Blade Runner to the printed page, but the results are superficial echoes limited by the medium itself.

Goodwin, on the other hand, latched onto the much despised narration (which works better if you imagine Harrison Ford rolling his eyes in disgust as he recites each soporific line) of the film’s original cut, a point of approach where the Blade Runner most closely approached traditionally exposition-heavy conventions of comic book writing…

…and then he magnified it by a factor of ten, letting it bleed into the dialogue and the most self-evident sequences imaginable.

In the film, it’s possible to overlook the wooden verbiosity amidst the visually arresting spectacle. That’s not the case with the comic book version, where it is overembellished and nigh inescapable.

It’s hard to hate too much on the Blade Runner comic adaptation, given its creative pedigree, the part it played as a stopgap popcult touchstone of my childhood, and the realization that it was never intended to rise above the level of an ephemeral grab for licensed revenue.

That said, there’s no denying that it is a profoundly lousy comic that failed miserably at the task it set out to accomplish…which is why I’ve “retired” this soulless simulacrum to the off-world colony known as Nobody’s Favorites.

Related posts:

  1. Nobody’s Favorites: Be somebody’s fool
  2. Nobody’s Favorites: Go forth and putrify
  3. Nobody’s Favorites: Fitful prose

6 Responses to “Nobody’s Favorites: Time to sigh”

  1. Jeff

    Back in the pre-VHS days, I loved Marvel’s adaptions and picked up every one whether I’d seen the movie or not. I tended to overlook just how much the got “wrong” for the films I had seen (though I was annoyed how comic Yoda differed from the film Yoda in the Empire movie special but not the monthly adaption).

    Some of Marvel’s adaptions carried over into a monthly series; 2001, Planet of the Apes, Man from Atlantis, Star Trek, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, with varying degrees of success. I do wonder how a monthly Blade Runner comic would have turned out – would it have been a gonzo attempt to take the concept of the film off into a radically different direction like Kirby’s 2001/Machine Man, or quick-to-be-cancelled trek into mediocrity like Star Trek?

  2. bitterandrew

    There was a monthly Blade Runner series…only it was published by First Comics and titled American Flagg.

  3. Sol B

    American Flagg during Chaykin’s first run anyway ;-)

    And nice to know I am not alone in having Apocalypse Now test out the sound on any new tv I buy

  4. David Simpson

    Re: “…the author working outside the loop of script revisions and late-stage edits or asserting some atrophied form of artistic license…”

    An extreme example of this was the novelisation of The Great Rock And Roll Swindle, written by Michael Moorcock as a Jerry Cornelius novel based, if I remember rightly, on one viewing of the film.

    Not much to do with the film, but great fun for Sex Pistols/Moorcock fans, plus published in a newspaper format, so that was kind of fun, though later reissued as a standard paperback.

  5. Kris

    I gotta call bullshit on this one since the BR adaptation has been one of my favorites since it was published. In fact at one point I owned it in 3 different formats. The above mentioned 2 issue mini, a b/w paperback novel reprint and the marvel super special printed on heavier brighter paper with the sweet ass Steranko cover. Is it semi unreadable? ….. yeah. But boy howdy, does the work of Williamson, Garzon & Reese shine in the super special. The heavier paper really shows the amount of work the put into trying to capture the mood & detail of the film. Combined with a smattering of material in the back about the production of the movie made it a holy grail of my collection in those pre VCR days. I still pull it out from time to time to check out the art.

  6. Jeff

    Speaking of adaptions, I was just reading Marvel’s Man From Atlantis series after watching the pilot movie and found it to be fairly well done. The Frank Robbins/Frank Springer art was difficult for me to enjoy back in the 1970′s/80′s, but it’s really grown on me and I can see how well Robbins was able to show action and quite like it now, though there are some letters in the back complaining on the character’s lack of resemblance to Patrick Duffy.

    The series itself draws complaints due to the conceptual resemblance with Marvel’s own Sub-Mariner, but the story was going in some interesting directions before its cancellation with issue #7. It’s rather sad reading the letter column, with the early issues praising the series to the later issues moving from complaining about the cancellation of the TV series and the final issue ending abruptly mid-story.

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