Monthly Archives: May 2010

Tonight's Feature Presentation is …

What is it that makes for poor screen adaptations of books, in general, and comic books, in particular?

I have watched bits and pieces of some comic book based movies over the last few days, and though this sentiment arose in me, yet the answer wasn’t as immediate. The films that formed a part of this survey were ‘Watchmen’, ‘The Spirit’, ‘The Hulk II’ and ‘The Fantastic Four II’.

The first was good, but missing something. The second was just an aberration of the original into the director’s schema. The third and forth were simply Hollywood money-spinners. But none of them appealed to me and I was left with a feeling that somewhere the original cartoons were several notches higher. Another two such cases are ‘Transformers’ and the soon to arrive ‘GI Joe’. Let me admit, that I am keeping a very flexible line between comics and cartoons, it’s like how movies have a director of photography.

Apart from the plain fact that most movie directors cannot share the writer’s vision of the comic/cartoon (and honestly, book adaptations of movies are as weak) there was another realization that was more critical.

Adaptations of characters that are too ‘unreal’ or ‘cartoony’ are doomed to fail. Ta dah!

Compare what works and what doesn’t – Batman, and the Hulk. Batman has always been rooted in the human world, and the recent movies have gone all out to promote that fact, and have the audiences hooked. But the Hulk is now a total CGI disaster, and that just doesn’t click. Even the Bat’s nemesis the Joker has been given a reality check, with runny makeup instead of para-natural pallor and verdant hues. He’s like some manic-depressive John Dillinger. But the Silver Surfer looks like a shop window mannequin and Galactus seems a joke. And it is not that the CGI was bad, or the make up was poor. Like idioms of one language are often untranslatable into another, such is with the comics/cartoons medium and films.

Another obvious reason, and one that is linked with this, is that the differing reality concepts of the two worlds means that even actors often cannot convincingly portray their roles. So within the first ten minutes of the Watchmen movie you have the Comedian being pound to a pulp, pausing to utter: “It’s a joke. It’s all just a joke.” And in those circumstances, I couldn’t agree more.

But this is fatalistic, is it not. Does this mean that no comic/cartoon can ever be made into a movie? Are the twain never to meet? No, not at all. There are so many examples of movies that have done exceedingly well, not just at the box office but also as faithful adaptations. ‘Spiderman’. ‘Sin City’. ‘300’. ‘X-Men’. But, what makes these click? Honestly, if I knew, I’d be a rich man. But to the best of my knowledge these are movies that reconcile themselves with some notions of reality as we know it, and this in turn makes the portrayal more convincing and acceptable. Somewhere the directors have understood the original, with respect, and have spun a story that uses the powers of both media. Some changes have been made for the better, like the story of Spiderman’s origin in the movie, and of his web slinging ability (the former is made more plausible and the latter less so). But somehow the changes lock into place with little clicking sounds and the machine rolls.

But, one thing’s for damn sure, directors and producers, please go easy on the unnecessary CGI.

Enter Sandman

Speaking of brothers and sisters (on today’s day), I though it would be nice to take a look at a recent family of brothers and sisters that has permeated into the collective comics consciousness like a tour de force. Although they aren’t very widely known here yet, but many might still have heard of the series in which they appear.

Sandman.

I was introduced to this comic by friends who were lucky enough to study a short course on comics, and the unanimously accepted importance of this series was enough reason to plunge in. And I saw its face, and I am a believer.

Written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by many excellent artists, it is a series that has won more awards than any other, and has elevated the potential of the medium several notches. It mixes mythology with horror, thrills with philosophy, and innocent belief with the greatest questions about life and death. And it’s a page-turner.

The central character is, of course, Morpheus, the Lord of the Dreaming, or the Sandman in popular legend. He is one of the seven Endless ones (mythology) who are beyond time, beyond fate, greater even than Gods. And I love the alliterative names – Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, Delirium (in reducing order of age), and they are represented as brothers and sisters, each with a beautiful personality.

That this is a series that needs to be carefully peeled, patiently uncovered and thoughtfully understood is a given. Its total length far exceeds any novel and its scope in vast. It originally begun as a monthly magazine running from 1989 to 1996, and has been compiled into a 10 volume set by Vertigo. It is available in India, but at great cost. Initially it was more of a horror generic, like the Tales from the Crypt. But in the writer’s mind it started to grow into an epic. Individual stories started to interlink, characters started to repeat, stories began to be revisited. In a way it is fortunate to find the compiled editions, because it would otherwise not have been possible for one to follow through all of it.

One wonders how to tackle such a vast story as the Sandman’s. It is bigger than even 10 posts, surely. But as and when I discover something I must share, I will. But until then suggestions on what to write about are invited.

A Funny Thing Happened To Me On The Way Here …

Humour and absurdity, both leading to laughter, are often used by writers to disrobe many of the human race’s inmost prejudices and zones of discomfort. It happens all around us, where even in our conversations we resort to a joke or witticism to covertly refer to something that either we are uncomfortable with, or that we feel the other will take offence to. Usually it is more the latter.

So it is in writing that writers like Johnathan Swift (or John Dryden, or Samuel Beckett or G.V. Desani) use humour to outline man’s tendency to often take light things too seriously, or conversely, serious things too lightly. Some writers eventually hit upon the comics medium as one of the most potent forms of expression for non-mainstream views and expressions.

Over the past half-century, comic books have become more mature and more hard-hitting than anything we’ve ever seen. The medium has picked up issues like the Holocaust and Iran’s cultural revolution, teenage drug-abuse and military occupation. In India, extremism and unrest in Kashmir has become a ‘hot’ topic.

There seems to be something about a medium, that is visually piercing and stereotypically perceived as juvenile, that plays a double whammy of sorts for writer-artists with a vision to express something atypical. It seems to find a middle ground between taking something seriously or lightly, that is just to see it as a personal vision.

The only way to understand why a children’s medium suddenly takes on the terrifying aspect of the ‘graphic novel’ is that somehow the child-like way of telling a story is intense and cuts out all the subtexts, notes, strings, orientation, and left-right and gets to the heart of the matter which is surprising and informative, like stories of ghosts whispered into each others ears when we were five.

The first ‘graphic novel’ that plunged me into a world of such abnormalities was a terrific work by Art Speigelman, ‘Maus’. It is a memoir of the Second World War as told by the author’s father and is made fantastical by the use of animal imagery, like if it were an epic fairy tale. A must read. Another discovery was the enchanting ‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi who’s blunt and bare tale of growing up during a great cultural shift in her native Iran is something no one may have bothered to read in word form, for it is the story of a million anonymous others, but here told differently and glaringly.

The trend has such momentum that a giant comics publishing house like DC has it’s own imprint called Vertigo that encourages what would formerly have been underground comics, to make a mark in the mainstream, because the mainstream in comics is much more inclusive that any other medium right now.

That last point alone should be reason enough for the comics blitzkrieg to be given due notice as a medium that has come-of-age. And it is also for readers to note, that while they may never have noticed it, but even familiar comics like Tintin are actually formed by contemporary events from around the world as much as by the need to entertain children.

For, children are smarter than they may seem.

That was bound to happen …

There is something from one of my two previous posts that raised some skepticism. Can there be a sacred bond between the reader of a comic book and the comic book hero? Isn’t that carrying it just a little bit into the “Yeah, right” zone?

I completely agree.

But then again we aren’t dealing with a regular Joe kind of life here are we? We are talking about life-and-death situations around every corner, about choosing between which loved one will live and which has to die, between which girl to date and which girl to be best friends with. These are choices that we’d normally have to make once in our life, at the most. 

So when you get transported into the comic book world (and you do, you see it all happening in motion, not as single panels) you become part of an adrenalin-rushing, deciding-on-the-spot kind of world where your hero is getting into kinds of trouble you would never want to on your own. But by being in this world, reading this comic book, you are in a way right alongside him/her as all the adventure unfolds. You are an invisible presence in their world. Taking one of my favourite action heroes, Spiderman, let me explain how it works, at least in my mind.

In the books, or in the 2nd movie, he is reviled by many, including his own aunt, as a menace. Many people hate him, don’t know who he is or why he indulges in such wanton, paranormal activity. Peter Parker (the boy behind the mask) is limp with helplessness faced with detractors who he cannot defy, loved ones he cannot confide in and an identity that he cannot bear to keep or afford to disown.

But guess what?

I know that. I have been there with him through his every trouble, when the spider bit him, when his uncle died, when his aunt maligned him and so on. And each time I have suffered for him for I see his pain and understand it. I am privy to it all, something that his aunt, best friend, girlfriend are not. And I want to catch him each time he falls or to reassure him each time he fights alone.

I know that that sounds unbelievably corny, but that’s how I feel when I am reading the books. Of course I am spelling it out here, where it may just take a second to go through all these feelings. But that’s just the way the bond works. For when I am a reader, I am in their world and not the other way around.

It is a similar situation with all other comics, and that certainly is the purpose of all good art as well. You must be able, if you allow yourself, to get lost in it. There is a sense of sharing a great outdoors scene with Vincent van Gogh when you see his ‘Starry Night’ just as there is a sigh of relief when you see Archie choose to spend an evening with Betty rather than Veronica.

What is of the essence is that you believe, in your mind, that it’s you and him/her against the world. And that is a special bond.

The Back of Beyond, or, What’s a Hero Without a Past?

The beginning-middle-end structure has often been disregarded in fiction to explore events in a more unfettered and unpredictable manner. Like life, fiction has developed 20-20 hindsight, where events can be understood clearly only once they have occurred.

I’m not making myself clear am I? Let’s go to the beginning (note the point I just made).

I was watching a movie recently that showed the origin of one of the most famous comic book heroes of all time. This got me thinking about the crucial comic book trope of the back-story, or the story of how it all began, how our man became how he is today, what drives him, what makes him so different? It may sound like it is driven by an irrestible curiosity, but in my experience as a long-time reader of comic books I feel it is more about familiarity, an emotional bond between the reader and the character that makes us want to know more and more about him/her (more on this bond in a later post).

Few of us have taken to comic books at a late stage in our lives, and most of us have grown up with our comic book heroes. As children we have read the slim, periodical magazines with rapt attention, devouring with our eyes all the stories about Batman, Donald Duck, Superman and Archie. This bond is almost sacred, though we may not realize it as such, and such must have been the reaction in audiences even half a century ago when the ‘golden era’ of comic books introduced audiences to crimefighters whose entire identity was wrapped in mystery. There was an eagerness to get closer to the hero they worshipped, meaning that writers had to take readers back to the very origins of the men behind the masks like a peepshow.

Oh, and did we love it when they did.

It was lapped hungrily. The back story brought us closer to our heroes than ever before. We became like childhood friends and nothing beats that feeling. These origins became crucial to the point that they have been rehashed many times over, ad infinitum, often ad nauseum. Yet it is those characters that managed a strong back-story, thanks to some unabashedly genius writer, that have sustained themselves in public memory more than others. In a sense they have grown into a life of their own and writers-illustrators just feed the growing ego of the character.

So you have Spiderman, whose quandary of wanting a normal teenage life versus fighting his holy crusade against crime keeps taking us back to the story of Uncle Ben and his dictum that “With great power must come great responsibility”.
Superman is the last son of Krypton, both the unshakable force and immovable power and he too is a man compelled by his childhood as the last remaining survivor of one race who will always fight to defend the other that adopted him.
Wolverine too has his origin, something that is slightly different in the latest movie, as compared the version that I knew. In the world of mutants, Wolverine was actually not a mutant by birth, but a scientific military experiment. A soldier he was, not a mutant and cannot also find himself at ease with the mutants whom he has to now familiarize himself with. This conflict brands him as the unknown soldier, mysterious at the best of times and always haunted by nightmares even he cannot understand.

A task well begun is half done they say, and one can add that it is never too late to be ‘well begun’. The origins of Wolverine, Spiderman, Superman and scores of others are like the first day of the rest of their lives as one keeps revisiting those to understand motivations better, and allows for endless combinations of dilemmas and conflicts.

The Pleasures of a Mature ‘Juvenile’ Art Form

It is very often that I find myself a perpetrator of a curious habit; once a month, to be precise. You see, every month I visit a magazine stall and buy the new issue of Tinkle magazine, a comic magazine that all of us are familiar with but that’s relegated to recycle bins once we cross the age of 16. My dilemma is that I’m 25, and I still buy and immediately devour my Tinkle magazine.
I always fear condemnation by my peers, but at the same time I am proud of being honest about my love for comic books, something that I feel is natural to people of all ages.

Born out of this is a love for comic books of all shapes and sizes, genres and periods, a greater understanding of the medium and a thirst for more works that that will blow my mind. After all, all comic books, as indeed also all cartoons, have been the creations of mature, healthy and otherwise mentally balanced adults. Why not?

All too often the final result is brushed aside as a frivolous run at something entertaining, sometimes wholesome and sometimes vulgar. No self-respecting, evolved individual should waste time on such pursuits. Absolutely juvenile.

But then this is the same criticism that has come to plague all art forms for decades. It is something that seems to me to be a plight of our modern times that we question everything that is without obvious benefits even as we try to evaluate our result-driven lives. It was the twentieth century that elicited the proclamation that art could, and should, be just for art’s sake. In a qualified manner I tend to agree with this.

We question such things as unbeneficial and overlook the tremendous developments made in this form over the last century and the immense level of maturity it has achieved. It is necessary therefore to open one’s eyes to the finer details of the comic book medium without prejudice. I do not say that all must read comic books, just as all needn’t own artworks. But a visit to the museum once in a while is nice to see what greatness lies even on two dimensional canvases on walls, though they don’t cure cancer or make glossier lip colour.

All those interested may follow me, and to all others a good day.

Superlaw – Writ of steel

Sometimes the most unmemorable of events can leave a lasting impression on popular culture. This thought comes from something I read recently that boggled my mind, and is exactly the kind of thing that makes me a lover of Comics History. For this insight I am thankful to the late Jules Feiffer, and his book ‘The Great Comic Book Heroes’.

In 1938 was born one of the most iconic comics characters, the man of steel, Superman. Probably the most enduring character created, the longest running, and which has never been out of print since its inception. He is the savior of our race, belonging to another planet, an alien, but not a foreigner, human yet superhuman, everything a child or flighty adult could want. And he did what comics need to do, sell lots and lots of copies (incidentally, a copy of Superman issue 1 recently sold for USD 1.5 million)

This success spawned dozens of imitators, all of whom sought to replicate the formula of success that they thought was embodied in the character. So we had more and more, more-than-human heroes with awesome powers – Captain Marvel, The Shield, Captain America and so on. But not many know how many of the unique characterizations of these characters were a result of courtrooms and lawsuits, and not just vivid imaginations.

The success of Superman necessitated the protection his identity from copycats. When the protector of the masses needs protection, he gets together with his lawyer. So legally competitors were prohibited from imitating the most obvious features. The mighty man who felt the pinch of this was Captain Marvel. A long legal battle, with judgments and appeals galore, was fought between National Comics Publications and Fawcett Publications over copyright infringement, and eventually National Comics Publications and Superman won sending Captain Marvel spiraling out of print for a long time.

Significant repercussions included the fact that publishers henceforth had the understanding not to dress their new characters with capes, not to import them from faraway planets. The next wave of comics for years thereafter resorted to twisted science labs and radioactive gamma rays to explain the germination of superheroes like Spiderman and the Marvel Comics family.

Normally lawyers embody the spirit of killjoys, but here let us give them credit for making comics more outrageous and more enjoyable for kids of all ages.

A Contractual Definition

I wanted to share an interesting story that I read about the invention of the term ‘Graphic Novel’. Well, it is more of a blurb than a story, but invention is the most apt word, invention born of necessity.

Will Eisner is one of the, if not the, greatest comics artist ever. He has 3 great contributions to the field of comics that come to mind – one, the creation of ‘The Spirit’, two, the creation of instructional books taking close looks at the art and science of the medium, and three, making serious comics a possibility. One of the top industry awards for comics makers is called the ‘Eisner’.

Now a career so illustrious that every future practitioner owes a debt to you should mean that you reach a stage in your life when anything you do is welcomed with respect and given validity. But here comes the story I mentioned.

In 1978, Eisner had readied a collection of stories by the name of ‘A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories’, which were not action or humour or horror stories, but stories of the private lives of residents of a building, the side that no one ever sees of them, not even their own families. These stories were full of pathos, an ingredient which was not the staple of the industry that fed children and teenagers.

After an almost four decades long career, after firmly establishing himself as a marketable artist with landmark works, he was yet not sure that he would be able to sell his new collection to a publisher. His concept seemed just what would be rejected for its unsupportable content. So in a pre-emptive move, the following incident occurred, in Eisner’s own words:

“I called the president of Bantam Books in New York, who I knew had seen my work with The Spirit. Now, this was a very busy guy who didn’t have much time to speak to you. So I called him and said, ‘There’s something I want to show you, something I think is very interesting.’

He said, ‘Yeah, well, what is it?’

A little man in my head popped up and said, ‘For Christ’s sake, stupid, don’t tell him it’s a comic. He’ll hang up on you.’ So, I said, ‘It’s a graphic novel.’

He said, ‘Wow! That sounds interesting. Come on up.’

“Well, I did bring it up and he looked at it and looked at me through his reading glasses and said, ‘This is a comic book, bring it to a smaller publisher,’ which I did. . . . At the time, I thought I had invented the term, but I discovered later that some guy thought about it a few years before I used the term.”

Another list comes to mind now, this one with two items, not three – first, not even Will Eisner knew how to define comics and thought he’d come up with something cleverer than it really was, and two, even a master like him was struggling to redefine something, which shouldn’t have needed such effort.

Is it futile to ask why the definition becomes a limitation too often? And even now we are trying so hard to find a definition, that maybe if we ever find the perfect one we might just loose all ability to redefine.

Source of the River

I don’t know much about Orijit Sen, and I assume you don’t either. The little I do know of him is – part graphic designer, part part of People Tree, and part comic book maker.

The last part is what made me sit up and do a double take, for I know him through common friends, though I have never really met him (except for one time I got a lift from the railway station from him).

The discovery was by pure chance when I was idly googling on Indian comics online. His book ‘The River of Stories’ notched mentions as being one of India’s first graphic novels, composed back in 1994. It is the story of the Narmada Bachao Andolan as seen through the journey of a fledgling reporter on assignment. It is almost impossible to find a copy of this anywhere, and the best I could do is a photocopied version. Thankfully, it would seem that the book is originally in black-and-white and so there isn’t much lost.

The book is a joint venture between an NGO and a government ministry and is more like a pamphlet about the issue (definitely, not to trivialize it), but far more attractive than a pamphlet. The story mixes modern reportage with the folk lore of the river to present a scientific and spiritual denouncement of the river project. The politics of it might not sit easy with everyone, but the value of it as a pioneering work of the serious comics form in India is what is important.

So such as it is, it throws up some very important questions about the nature of the medium – why present such a serious issue through such a lightly perceived medium? Why make a comics-documentary and not just a comics fiction story? And whom does this experiment aim to serve – children or adults? The answers to this I would want to seek from the writer-illustrator himself someday, and all of you will get to see his responses when I do succeed.

The only bit of insight I got from the biography at the back is that Sen is a fan of the Tintin series, and I was struck by one image which serves as a chapter opening, which reminds me of pages from such Tintin adventures as Red Rackham’s Treasure and The Broken Ear, I hope I am not too off.

Meanwhile if anybody is interested then maybe contact the same shop where I got my photocopy copy and see if they have any more.

A lot's in a name

It is one of the offshoots of the fresh focus on the comics medium that many of us are now all wrapped up in trying to assign an appropriate name to it. For years and years, comics were called – Comics! But now with the debt we feel we owe to the hard-working and overlooked comics makers we have started trying to compensate by giving it as heroic names as possible.

Graphic novels … Sequential art … Graphic memoirs…

These are some that I have come across. They are creative, and mostly well-intended, but they carry an obvious flaw. When you read Agatha Christie do you say you’re reading a text-mystery? Or when you read Premchand is it written-short-stories that you are reading?

Why not? Well, because the text/words/written is just the medium, like painting is a medium, singing is a medium and so on. Similarly, the graphic component in a comic book is the medium (not to mention, comics are graphic as well as written, not like paintings). So to start calling every comic book a graphic novel is incorrect. It isn’t necessarily a novel, and it isn’t always only graphic.

But, I know that I am no closer to the perfect definition. Comics are what I usually say, but some of them are so somber and brutal that they are more tragic, or black-humourous than anything else. A story like Berlin, about a loveless relationship in 1920’s Germany is not comic, not at all. So in this case maybe it is certainly more of a graphic novel.

So what’s important is to make the right choice when talking about comics. Not every book is a novel, or a poem, or funny, or sad, and the same needs to be kept in mind for comics. They are as hard to define as any other art.