The Basement Tapes: Issue #37

Tue, April 26th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Joe Casey & Matt Fraction, Columnist

Sometimes, this is what happens when two writers e-mail each other:

An ongoing conversation behind closed doors, equal parts experience, opinion, critique, and outright rambling, THE BASEMENT TAPES are an attempt to present somewhat serious discussion about the somewhat serious business of comicbooks between two writers waist-deep in the perplexing and ever-evolving morass of their own careers.

So, what's black, white, and green all over?

No, wait, that's a shitty way to start off a Tapes about the success of Frank Miller's SIN CITY being brought to the silver screen, isn't it? Robert Rodriguez quit the DGA to make the movie happen with Frank Miller as co-director. With a stack of SIN CITY books as storyboards-- and so faithful is his "translation" that there's not even a screenwriting credit-- the movie's taken more than 65 million at the box office as of this writing. As Hollywood and comic books keep playing footsie, what does the success of an rated-R, non-superhero, and plain out strange movie like SIN CITY mean?

FRACTION: First off, massive, massive congratulations are in order: what a piece of work Miller and Robert Rodriguez have made, and what a blast they must've had making it. What a thrill it must be to see your panels up there, 30 feet tall. It is, as more than one review has said, the most faithful comics movie ever-- for good and bad, I reckon, but more on that later.

I'll be the first to say that its opening weekend and critical success makes me pretty psyched for the future of comic-based movies in genres other than superheroes-- imagine what could come next, if Hollywood starts looking at the other racks in the comics shop. POP GUN WAR? Tell me the Polish Brothers couldn't make a hell of a movie out of it. ORBITER? NASA's prepping to get back into space, they're finding ice on the moon, and some time this year everyone's going to be thinking about space travel again. BILLY DOGMA? I saw that A SCANNER DARKLY trailer and immediately started wondering what a manic and cartoony approach to that live action/animation hybrid might mean for comics leaping to film. Or what about RENT GIRL, or QUEEN & COUNTRY, or... I mean, the mind reels. Arthouse comics exploding out of the arthouse theater and making a massive footprint in the national pop consciousness is just too much.

And-- well, what did you think of the movie? I thought it interesting to see Miller's work SO literally translated in a way that spoke to how much comics and film have in common, and, at the same time, how much they differ.

And and-- where does Frank go now?

CASEY: Hell... wherever he wants, I would think.

I think the main difference between Miller and all the other possibilities you cited was really the obvious... Miller had a hand in directing the goddamn movie! Not a minor detail, y'know. That, to me, is the biggest part about this whole thing. How many comicbook professionals could really step up to the plate and direct...? For me, it's one of those things that truly separates the men from the boys...

I was talking to my oldest childhood friend about SIN CITY... how, when we were stupid kids, we'd say to ourselves, "Why don't they just use the comicbook as a storyboard for the movie?! That way, they'd get it right!" And, here it is, decades later, and I'm seeing exactly that up on the screen. It was almost too much to process.

Now, with a bit of perspective, my few, minor gripes with the finished flick have everything to do with the strict adherence to the original material. Not everything translates so well from one medium to another. But, goddammit, I can live with those gripes. I'm just so psyched they actually did it, y'know...?

FRACTION: It's a pretty astonishing achievement, no doubt. I was most taken by how balls-out literal a translation it was. I've read interviews with Miller where he speaks rather disparagingly about comparing comics to film, in that comics are capable of so many different things that I suppose I found it odd that this was, in fact, so goddamn literal. For me, that was the film's biggest failing-- in simply never quite becoming a film, you know?

Thumbs up/thumbs down shit aside, I wonder what comes next? Has the playing field changed? Is Miller gonna try and direct again? How great is it that a non-superhero comic movie has been as talked about as this?

CASEY: I can't imagine Miller not directing again. It seems like he's got the bug now. Hell, I kinda wonder why he'd even bother writing something like ALL-STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN, which I would imagine is a creative step sideways (if not backwards) when compared to helming another film.

What's really cool about SIN CITY is the minimum of "comic book film" lip service that's going down. Sure, they report on the movie and mention that it's based on a graphic novel series (as a few American journalists still ponder exactly what that means), but it really does exist mainly as a movie in most people's minds. Which is as it should be.

I don't know if the playing field has changed significantly because, let's face it, there's only one Frank Miller. If every other comicbook creator is lining up thinking they'll be next to sit in the co-director chair, they'd better exhale right now. What he's achieved in his career in both comics and film is pretty damned significant, not to mention completely unique. SIN CITY's existence as a film proves that.

FRACTION: Well, I don't know the guy, but it sure seems to me like he's got ink in his blood to just hang up the brush and go Hollywood-- and, besides, let's not forget that SIN CITY was anything but a Hollywood movie, shot entirely in Austin, on Rodriguez's own greenscreen at his house, and all that noise... still, I mean-- I see your point. If only that ALL-STAR isn't, uh... his.

I did catch a lot of attention being brought to the faithfulness of the adaptation-- that, I think, stuck with people, with non-SIN CITY reader people, I mean. I heard folks coming out of the screening I was at talking about it to one another, so... I mean, it registered on some level that this was something different. Which, really, it was-- it certainly FELT like a comic, even more so than that stupid multi-screen thing in the HULK movie did.

Hell, I watched people go straight from the theater at Union Square and right across the street to Forbidden Planet to buy the goddamn books...!

CASEY: Oh, I have no doubt that Miller loves the medium... it's whether or not he can stomach the business side of it that I'm curious about. After all, if you're creative and you feel like getting ass raped, better to get ass raped for millions of dollars, right? And, at this point, he's even been able to sidestep that. SIN CITY -- the movie -- is Miller's triumph as much as it's Robert Rodriguez's. And, again, not just because it came from his comicbook.

The weird thing that might come from all this is, as you point out, the perception issue. SIN CITY... is it a movie or is it a comicbook? Well, at this point, I'd say it's both... and neither. That's what's exciting. It's more than, as you say, "something different." To me, it's a brand new beast. I'm not sure what kind of beast, but the blurred lines between mediums alone warrants its uniqueness.

And, y'know, if the movie had sucked... it's "faithfulness" would've been used as, I dunno, some kind of excuse, an argument against that kind of respect to the source material. That was the main hurdle, and man, they really pulled it off.

FRACTION: Actually... I kinda think paralytic faithfulness to the comic was SIN CITY's biggest problem; that clipped tough guy shit reads just fine in your head but when you gotta get Michael Madsen on a greenscreen and make him bark some out at Bruce Willis it falls apart. There are lines where we're absolutely meant to be laughing-- I mean, one of my favorite Miller jokes and biggest personal laughs for me in the movie is "Don't move or I'll plug you." At the same time, refusing to let go of the comic's hand strangled it-- there was an awful lot of laughing AT the movie, too. Honestly I thought it was really pretty terrible-- I was squriming there towards the end, ready to get on with it. Stylistic firepower aside, which it had in admirable spades, I wasn't... I dunno, man, I just wasn't into it.

It kind of reminded me of, like, THE FIFTH ELEMENT. Or CASHERN, to be more recent. Utterly boggling and bizarre and quite the spectacle to behold but, jesus lord god what a lousy movie. If only Rosario Dawson had killed the crooked cops with a love-ray that shot out of her mouth... or turned into a giant genocide robot...

I kinda sense I'm in the minority here-- and, honestly, my personal problems with the film seem like I'm diminishing the achievement and I don't mean to-- fuck, I'll probably go see it again even because it's SUCH a weird-ass spectacle.

It'll be nice if residual attention can spill out from H'wood and not just onto the idea of adapting non-superhero comics but actually onto the pages themselves. Will Hollywood start respecting comics as a visual and not just a toy-line friendly popcorn movie idea gimmick? Will we start seeing more literal page-to-screen images?

CASEY: Y'know, I can imagine that for anyone who read the SIN CITY books as they came out, when they were just comicbooks, watching the movie has to be a surreal experience. That's why I call it a different beast. I can't judge it just as a movie. There's too much subtext for me on a personal level to even take a step back and rate the movie on a cinematic level. Having said that, I am surprised that the critical community -- Ebert and all those cats -- took to the movie like they did. I wonder what their criteria was...

But, ultimately, I'm glad they did. Better this than another CATWOMAN.

And, yeah, I'm with you on Madsen. That was painful...

To answer your question... Hollywood respects nothing but the almighty dollar. And that's cool. At least you know where you stand there. I would hope that, if anything spills back onto comicbook pages hither and yon, it would be the sense of possibility that exists now, more than ever. Frank Miller took one clear path... idea to comicbook to movie. But that's just one path out of a potential thousand. We may be back to the strength of the idea, the strength of someone's vision. And, in comicbooks, it can be one man's vision...

...and that's where the true power lies.

FRACTION: I hope "Better this than another CATWOMAN" is a pull-quote featured on the SIN CITY DVD cover.

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