Master Of The Obvious: Issue #69

Wed, November 22nd, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

For much of the 80s, the editor in charge at First Comics was Rick Oliver. Rick had been more or less forced into the job by the abrupt departure of founding editor Mike Gold for DC Comics. I don't think he ever really wanted it; Rick's a writer by nature, not an editor. Though he's a good guy, and has a great sense of humor and good editorial instincts, his most memorable trait in the First days was an apparent world-weariness that I had an awful lot of fun playing with. When Rick spoke, he usually sounded like he expected a grand piano to imminently fall on his head.

[Classics Illustrated]So one day I get an excited call from Rick. He says, "Keep this to yourself, but we're closing a deal to get the rights to Classics Illustrated. Pick a book you've always wanted to adapt."

He had barely finished speaking when I blurted out "Gravity's Rainbow!" (For those who've never read it, Thomas Pynchon's GRAVITY'S RAINBOW is a 1000+ page surrealistic novel retelling World War II as a prurient metaphysical head trip.)

Dead silence. When Rick starts speaking again, I've successfully beaten the excitement from his voice. "I was thinking of something a little more commonly considered a classic."

So I thought about it a few seconds, and said, "Naked Lunch?"

More silence. Finally: "I'll talk to you later, Steve."

A HUCKLEBERRY FINN kind of guy I'm not.

First latched onto Classics Illustrated as a liferaft for their sinking ship. The initial wave of enthusiasm over independent comics companies had waned by the late 80s as DC and Marvel, with their greater resources, absorbed the breakthrough talent and took the lead in developing new formats and gimmickry. Already wounded, as most independent companies were, by distributor defaults on payments after the collapse of the brief black-and-white comics craze, First became aware, possibly before anyone else, that the direct sales market that had been such a boon to comics in the early 80s would quickly turn into the restrictive deathtrap it is today. Classics Illustrated, though out of print for years, was a familiar trademark that would give First entre into bookstores, and publisher Rick Obadiah (an ad man who had masterminded "Meow Mix" and sunk money into regional theater, including the superhero play WARP that became the first title in First's nascent line that eventually included AMERICAN FLAGG!, JON SABLE FREELANCE and NEXUS) reasoned comics had become acceptable enough to create an audience for "great books" retold in a comics format. He bought rights to the CI name and set up a distribution deal with Berkley Books, with the promise that the adaptations would be clean and faithful (and the source material would be public domain, voiding any rights issues).

Obadiah's instincts were, briefly, dead on. Unlike the grubby, fairly unremarkable four color messes of the original Classics Illustrated of the 40s and 50s, the First versions had slick production and prestige formats, and used the best talent the company could muster. The line became their calling card. Berkley popped CI displays in chain stores like WaldenBooks with much success. The initial dozen or so books in the line were widely reviewed and generally well received. After the first wave, First pumped out two CIs a month, and, for a time, it looked like the company was saved, while drastically shifting direction.

[The Count of Monte Cristo]I ended up writing three CI titles: HAMLET, art by Tom Mandrake; THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, art by Dan Spiegle; and THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, art by Eric Vincent. The last was the only one I actually wanted to write. It was the scariest book I read as a kid and I'd never seen an adaptation, in comics or any other medium, that kept the original ending, which, for me, was the scariest part. As Shakespeare goes, I'd rather have done MACBETH, but that was assigned to John Ostrander (and, if I remember correctly, contrary to the avowed intent of the line was being updated to a Roaring 20s mob story set in Chicago). I did COUNT to work with Dan, one of those great artists in our business whose work is generally loved by pros but whose praises are rarely sung by fans. While working with Dan lived up to its promise, otherwise the job was pretty much a mistake.

Adaptation is an underappreciated art. Hollywood figured out how to do it a long time ago: use the absolute minimum amount of the source material you can get away with. This has two downsides: aficionados of the source material are almost certain to hate you, and once you get the cutting fever it's hard to know when to quit. With rare exceptions like L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, brilliantly condensed and adapted from James Ellroy's novel, Hollywood in particular has developed a nasty habit of treating source material as a nuisance. (The reason, aside from brand identification, Hollywood loves turning lousy old TV shows like CHARLIE'S ANGELS into movies is audiences are less likely to vocally complain about liberties taken.)

Comics would probably be the same way if we did more adaptations. Take HAMLET. In theory, this medium is perfect for adaptation of stage plays. The operative unstated theory in our culture is: fiction is fiction is fiction. We presume a good novel will make a good play will make a good movie will make a good comic will make a good TV show, etc. because, after all, it's all fiction, innit? There's a small coterie of comics fans who believe comics can be made attractive to a wider audience is to bring in outside writers to create them, like Tom Clancy or John Grisham. The "fiction is fiction" theory underlies that presumption.

Why would an author capable of generating millions in novel sales work in the comics medium unless they, like Andrew Vachss or Harlan Ellison, had a personal fascination with it? (And even Vachss and Ellison generally left it to others to do the actual writing on their comics work.) James Ellroy once told me he was asked to do comics work but didn't want to, since novels were his mtier. It's a Catch-22: novelists popular enough to be of promotional use to the comics medium are priced out of our reach, while novelists who'd be willing to work for the money probably don't have names enough to bring anything to the table - and they likely wouldn't be familiar enough with the comics form to make their ideas work in the medium. (When she worked at Epic, Jo Duffy often told how Mario Puzo, author of THE GODFATHER and other novels, had tried writing for Marvel in the 60s and just couldn't cope with the form.) A correspondent once suggested someone like me could co-write with novelists so their work would work as comics, but why would we want to do that when we have our own ideas to explore?

"Why would an author capable of generating millions in novel sales work in the comics medium unless they … had a personal fascination with it?"

Each medium demands a specific discipline. Writing a novel requires different skills from writing a comic book; it isn't even the same as writing a short story. The list of successful novelists who've found the screenplay form impenetrable is formidable (and that's not including those who've found the Hollywood business structure repellent). Many screenwriters I know have trouble putting a prose story together, and while the comics form often excites them in its similarities to their chosen medium, the process of breaking stories down into panels and pages often strikes them as stilted and grueling.

This isn't mental deficiency. Novelists and screenwriters are generally smart guys and skilled writers. Novels, comics, screenplays and theatrical plays are all fiction, but each demands different skills and different mindsets, and each medium has different strengths and limitations. The main limit of the play is physical space; playwrights are limited to the action that can be presented on a single stage, which, over the years, has prompted many of them to stress dialogue as action. Novels have more breadth of technique and scope than most other media but are limited (and liberated!) by their non-visual nature. They require active interpretation from the reader, and, not surprisingly, those novels that are usually most commercially successful are those that place the fewest demands on readers. Movies and television are trapped by their need to keep moving, to avoid static imagery. Comics are limited by their dependence on static imagery, and, as practiced in America, by length. How much of this is heredity and how much environment is open to debate. What's usually meant by "art" when we refer to fiction in media is generally how well the practitioners of these media either bypass their limitations or directly play to them. You can either figure out cheats that give the impression of something going on that isn't - using speed lines to connote movement in comics, for instance - and successfully draw your audience into playing along, or you can craft your creation to turn your limitations into strengths and hope the audience sees it the same way.

This sounds like smoke and mirrors that has little to do with the actual fiction, but it's not. As much as people in all media talk about the importance of character, we tend to think of fiction in terms of plot. It's like discussing a coat by talking about the hanger it's on. Which is why adaptation is generally not even questioned. Why not turn a popular novel into a movie or a comic book? Why not adapt a popular comic into movie form? Why not Classics Illustrated?

It's traditional, in our culture, to speak of form and content as dichotomous. I've done it myself here. But Marshall McLuhan had it right: form is content. Coping with the strictures of a chosen medium will invariably force decisions that affect the style, direction and, ultimately, meaning of the work. Let me repeat: form is content. This doesn't mean work can't be transliterated between media - obviously, it can, since it happens all the time. It means the resultant transliteration is a new work distinct from its source.

The main problem of adapting other media to comics, whether novels or movies, is available length. Simple action in movies or TV isn't so simple when it has to be broken down into essentially a coherent string of snapshot. In terms of action, comics can be viewed as flipbooks that don't flip. (My classic example, from pro wrestling, is a move called a hurucanrana, or Frankensteiner. In this move, wrestler 1 grabs wrester 2's wrist and flings him into the ring rope so that wrestler 2 hits the ring rope with his back and ricochets back toward wrestler 1. In the meantime, wrestler 1 does a handstand so that his back is now facing wrestler 2 and his knees are bent at a right angle. Wrestler 2 collides with wrestler 1, who grabs wrestler 2 around the head with his legs, locking his ankles together. Wrestler 1 then goes into a forward role, carrying wrestler 2 along with him, so that when the roll is over, wrestler 2 is flat on his back on the mat and wrestler 1 is sitting on wrestler 2's chest for the win. On TV, this entire move takes about three seconds, and is spectacular. Want to try showing that coherently and spectacularly in a comic book?) It's not surprising that arguably the best movie adaptation of the last quarter century - Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson's ALIEN - was not only an extended piece, one of the earliest modern graphic novels, but used far more than the common number of panels per page to capture the film as faithfully as possible. (Stylistically, it also enabled Walt and Archie to suggest the film's claustrophobia in the comics medium.) It's also not surprising that movie spinoff comics, like Dark Horse's ROBOCOP VS. TERMINATOR (also drawn by Walt Simonson, working then with Frank Miller), are more satisfying than movie adaptations. They're built for comics from the ground up. Adaptations are, by nature, cut and paste jobs.

The restrictions on Classics Illustrated were simple: 44 pages, stick to the source. 44 pages sounds like a lot in a world of 22 page stories. But fitting HAMLET into that space required whittling out about two-thirds of the play, dumping many speeches and, perhaps injudiciously, selecting those that remained. Plot had to be my main concern, though I did interpret Shakespeare's intent in uncustomary ways and incorporated that as well. THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU required similar cutting, particularly the collapsing of several characters into a single character and likewise collapsing the action. (I adapted several movies for Dark Horse and the same pattern emerged there. My attitude was that people buying the adaptations probably wanted something as close to the movie as possible and not a spotlight for me, so wherever possible I used dialogue straight from the film and kept the action intact. But the same problem constantly arose: the most exciting sequences just ate up too damn many panels.)

Then there was THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO.

For those who've never read it, the French original of the Victor Hugo classic runs something like 800+ pages. The better English translations run over 600. The story is solid plot, a hodgepodge of interrelated storylines that feed off and resolve each other. It's next to impossible to cut.

I had 44 pages to tell that story.

When I wrote THE LIFE OF POPE JOHN PAUL II for Marvel, I was given a few pages of an abortive script done by the father of one of the dealmakers. I'm not trying to make fun of him. He wasn't a professional writer, he was unfamiliar with comics form, and I don't think English was his native tongue, so, all things considered, that first attempt wasn't terrible. Two panels covered the Pope's experience in WWII. In the first, the young Pope-to-be scurries down a ladder into a cellar, thinking "World War II is coming. I must go into hiding." The second had the young Pope emerging from the cellar, thinking, "World War II is over. I can come out now."

This is how THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO read. A wag at THE COMICS JOURNAL said it read like a runaway train, and that's pretty much dead on. It's a miracle it's readable at all. Dan Spiegle's art's spectacular, though.

So I'm not a big fan of adaptation. It's usually a commercial enterprise, not a creative one. Classics Illustrated paid off briefly for First, but, like most comics publishers weaned on the sweetheart direct market system that eliminates such things, they weren't prepared to deal with returns from bookstores that cut deeply into their profit margin. Accustomed to the "put up a poster and buy a page in PREVIEWS" style of marketing prevalent in the comics business, they weren't dedicated to the continual promotional expenses such unusual departures demand. The novelty of Classics Illustrated was good for initial attention, but novelty dies quickly and hard. If you put out a burst of adaptations, it's novel. If you put out a line, it's commonplace.

One cold Chicago day First Comics quietly changed their name to Classics Illustrated something or other and even more quietly faded away. Rick Oliver was long gone by then - he's now a successful writer in Chicago, and no longer connected to comics - and Rick Obadiah, moved to Wisconsin to raise horses. And the myth still lingers on that if only we can put the right names on the covers, if we can just get rub off other figures literary or filmic, if we can capitalize on the right existing properties from other media, a new wide audience will come running to comics. But, like Classics Illustrated, those are just novelty acts. As with most media, what's best in comics isn't imported from somewhere else. If we truly believe our medium has potential, we should create new material specifically designed to realize it.

As it turns out, X-MAN #71 arrives today. Go buy it. Supposedly Marvel announces today what's cancelled and what's not, so we'll see…

To those few who ordered comics from me (particularly the buyer from Germany) and haven't yet received them, that's because I finally got unpacked enough to get to your packages. They'll be going out this weekend.

I'm also giving the @VENTURE site a redesign. Moving the past couple of months has forced me to neglect it again, but I'll have the new version up by next week, along with new material like another Adi Tantamedh Anna Passenger story. Be here next week for more info.

I wish all my American readers a happy Thanksgiving, and hope my foreign readers can also enjoy their choice of dead bird this week.

Finally, the question of the week: how much are you personally willing to spend for what length graphic novel, and how many would you be willing to buy per month? (All other things, like content, being equal. We're presuming for the sake of the question these are graphic novels you'd want.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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