When Words Collide: Three Movies That Made Comics What They Are Today

Mon, September 17th, 2012 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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Movies and comic books share a connection that runs pretty deep. Whether it's the overabundance of comic book blockbusters at the cinema over the past decade or the direct influence certain milestone movies have had on specific comic book series -- like Chris Claremont's "Alien" swipes in "Uncanny X-Men" or Christopher Priest's "Pulp Fiction" fascination on display in the early issues of "Black Panther" or the way "The Matrix" defined the look of the entire Ultimate Universe -- or even the customary movie adaptations in comic book format, it's a relationship that's impossible to ignore.

Any kind of close look at the creation of Batman (and the Joker) and their connection to the cinema -- among other direct "influences" -- helps to reinforce that film and comics are inextricably linked.

So that's what I'll talk about this week.

Only I'm not going to talk about the way "Citizen Kane" influenced Will Eisner's "The Spirit" or how "Star Wars" provided the basis for Bill Mantlo's "Micronauts" or "The Terminator" begat Cable in "The New Mutants." Those are direct and obvious and if the writers and artists of those comics involved could have blasted the covers with "Inspired by the movie ____________" they just might have. Well, Will Eisner wouldn't have, but the rest? Maybe. If they could have gotten away with it. Just look at "Micronauts" #1 and tell me that Baron Karza doesn't look more like Darth Vader than Marvel's Darth Vader does.

But I'm not going to talk about those kind of direct parallels -- at least not entirely. Instead, I'd like to highlight three movies that cinephiles know well, and some of you have probably seen. In the case of these three films, not a lot has been written about their influence on comic books, even though the influence is exceedingly deep and meaningful.

These are three films that have helped to change the course of the comic book industry by influencing pivotal creators on early and important projects and as their work has rippled through the direct market mainstream over the decades, those early film influences triggered other second-and-third-generation homages by later writers and artists, many of which may not even have been aware of the films that started it all.

So here we go, in exaggerated fashion suitable for a comic book rackā€¦

THREE MONUMENTALLY INFLUENTIAL MOVIES THAT CHANGED THE DIRECTION OF THE COMIC BOOK INDUSTRY FOREVER, SORT OF

Movie #1: "Mary Poppins" (1964), Directed by Robert Stevenson

Disney's "Mary Poppins" deals with fiction vs. reality and rebellious poverty vs. fascistic wealth, much like Grant Morrison's work.

Grant Morrison would have been four years old when the film version of "Mary Poppins" hit theaters, and I don't recall him ever talking about his experiences watching the film at a young age, but there's little doubt that not only did he see the movie, it formed a kind of fundamental substructure of his views on fiction and reality.

Look, when Morrison first launched the American leg of his career -- the kind of stuff I once wrote a book about, if you'll recall -- one of the exciting things about his arrival was that he didn't bring a traditional set of influences to the superhero comics he was beginning to write. He'd cite the Brothers Quay and Maya Deren and William Burroughs and Jorge Luis Borges and all of that was thrilling and new to American comic book readers who had experienced infinite riffs on "Star Trek" plots and retreads of comic book stories retold a million times in the same basic ways.

But here's the thing: if you peel away all the artsy and pseudo-esoteric and literary influences Morrison brandished about -- and I do think he was fascinated with all that stuff for real at the time, so it wasn't just a pose -- you can still get to the essence of his work from one simple point of origin: "Mary Poppins."

Does that seem ridiculous? Or that I'm mocking his work?

Because it's not ridiculous, nor is intended as any kind of mockery.

"Mary Poppins" is no great movie, though it is beloved -- I actually think it's almost unbearable to sit through as an adult, with its rambling narrative, almost arbitrary stakes and too-long musical numbers as it nears and then passes its second hour -- but it is a movie that deals directly with two of Morrison's most dominant obsessions: fiction vs. reality and rebellious poverty vs. fascistic wealth.

Bert, played by Dick Van Dyke, is the trickster character who holds the most interest for those seeking Morrison's creative roots. He's the gateway between worlds -- he can travel to the realm of fiction with Mary Poppins and he also acts as a kind of conduit between the chimney sweeps and the upper crust. He also talks directly to the audience, in another bit of gateway guidance.

He's such a quintessential Morrisonian character that I simply can't imagine that the young Grant Morrison wasn't deeply influenced by this film at an early age. Many of the unusual techniques -- and much of the thematic focus -- that Morrison would bring to "Animal Man," "Doom Patrol" and "The Invisibles" trace back to elements of "Mary Poppins" quite directly.

And, of course, there's that recent volume of Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" with a deus ex Mary Poppins of its own.

Still, it's the Morrison connection that's more influential, since we're now reading comics written by an entire generation of creators who grew up on Morrison's work. But it's "Mary Poppins," I think, that's underneath so much of it.

Movie #2: "Charley Varrick" (1973), Directed by Don Siegel


"Charley Varrick," directed by Don Siegel, was an influence on Matt Fractions "Last of the Independents" graphic novel.

Once upon a time, long ago, I studied film with a kind of serious intensity. And I taught a few film classes. In film studies circles, Don Siegel was rarely a name that was spoken with any kind of reverence at all.

At worst, he was a hack director who made a bunch of popular movies for the masses. At best he was a journeyman director who later tried to do an American version of Sergio Leone and almost pulled it off, in his clumsy way.

But I always thought Don Siegel was a lot better than his reputation would have led you to believe, during the 1980s and 1990s. Based on the conversations I've had in the last ten years, and what I've seen online, I think Don Siegel has gotten his due. He may not be widely revered, but he's far more deeply appreciated than he was during the latter part of his life.

"Charley Varrick" is his masterpiece.

If you read a plot synopsis of the movie, it will sound like a dozen other crime films -- bad guys steal some money that belongs to the mob, and the mob wants it back -- but it's the telling of the story that matters most and Don Siegel's version of events, and the brilliantly confident lead performance by Walter Matteau, that makes this movie special.

Quentin Tarantino has cited the film as an influence -- and lifted the "pair of pliers and a blowtorch" line directly from "Charley Varrick" -- and it plays like an ur-Coen brothers film during much of its running time.

But what's its influence on comics, besides being a precursor to other directors who would surely influence writers and artists of the 1990s and 2000s?

Well, there are probably a dozen writers working for Marvel and DC right now who would rave about the greatness of "Charley Varrick" -- just mention the movie to the next writer you see at a convention and let the conversation begin -- but while the Jason Aarons and Ed Brubakers of the world are no doubt in debt to "Charley Varrick" for their gritty crime sensibilities, it's Matt Fraction who has made his affection for the film more than a little public.

Fraction's first graphic novel -- the thing that brought him to the attention of Marvel even before "Casanova" began at Image -- was "Last of the Independents," a crime story that was a classic old man western noir kind of tale, one that was practically an adaptation of "Charley Varrick" from beginning to end.

"Last of the Independents," a name taken from Charley Varrick's crop-dusting operation in the film, doesn't tread all the same ground as the movie. It has less plot and a bit more meditation to it, paying tribute to the idea of the aged warrior and days gone by a bit more directly than its cinematic predecessor. But there's little doubt that "Charley Varrick" is a film that significantly influenced Matt Fraction's sensibilities as a creator. And he's not alone.

Movie #3: "Insignificance" (1985), Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Nicholas Roeg's "Insignificance" bears a striking resemblance to Alan Moore's "Watchmen."

I've written about Alan Moore's use of Nicolas Roeg-like techniques in the excellent graphic novel, "A Small Killing," and Moore used the movie "Performance" as the foundation of one of the "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" books.

But when I recently talked to Joey Aulisio of the Chemical Box podcast -- I have a guest appearance on their show coming up soon, and you can hear him educate me on all things Roeg -- he pointed out that I had to go deeper into the Roeg catalog, beyond "Don't Look Now" and "The Man Who Fell to Earth" to see the biggest influence on Alan Moore.

It's "Insignificance," Aulisio says, that was surely on Alan Moore's mind when he was writing "Watchmen."

And, after watching "Insignificance" for the first time last weekend, I can see what Aulisio was talking about.

Roeg's "Insignificance," based on a play by Terry Johnson, throws characters called "The Professor," "The Actress," "The Senator," and "The Ballplayer" into a conflict-laden mix. The characters are clear analogues for Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joseph McCarthy, and Joe DiMaggio, and their lives and ideas and relationship between private lives and public displays. Had that been the only relationship between the film and "Watchmen," I still would have said that it's clearly related to what Moore was doing with his exploration of superhero analogues in his famous graphic novel.

But the relationship between the film and Moore's graphic novel runs even deeper.

Like "Watchmen," Roeg places flashbacks and -- in the manner of Dr. Manhattan -- flash-forwards into his cinematic text. That was the director's major addition to the narrative as originally presented in Johnson's play. And that helps to pair the film and comic all the closer together.

But it's really the film's primary motif that connects it most closely with Moore's work.

It's the face of a watch, or a clock, that dominates the visual symbolism of "Insignificance." And that's more than just a superficial connection to "Watchmen."

In Roeg's film, the Einstein analogue is obsessed with time -- as a scientific concept, working on the near-endless piles of paper as he maps the known universe -- but he also flashes ahead to an apocalyptic image of a city destroyed, and a clock lying in rubble, aflame.

The Monroe analogue covets her driver's watch, not for what it is, but for what it represents. Because to her it represents her youth, and the dignity that she had given up in exchange for leering glances and the perception of popularity.

Time, the watch, the clock, these are all symbols that stream through Roeg's narrative and provide transitions between scenes and omens of what's to come. Moore directs Dave Gibbons to use the clock motif in almost exactly the same way.

Yet beneath that symbolism, "Insignificance," like "Watchmen" is about the hidden lives of public personas. It shatters the illusion of fame and offers a portrait that shows the deeply flawed humanity beneath.

So are all the weak attempts at replicating "Watchmen" that have followed in the past two and a half decades simply watered down, misguided attempts at "Insignificance." Yes, in more ways than one.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  when words collide, watchmen, matt fraction, alan moore, grant morrison

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