American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2003)
A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
The collection’s 19 contributors deftly sidestep the ‘Are superhero movies cinema?’ debate – which usually leads to pointless semantic hair-splitting – and instead focus on diverse examples (from American Splendor, to Modesty Blaise and Scott Pilgrim) to illustrate the two mediums’ complex intersections.”
Thanks to recent discourse on the deluge of Marvel/DC films flooding pre-COVID cinemas, the label “comic book adaptation” has become synonymous with these companies’ oligarchic franchises. Readers may be forgiven, then, for approaching editors Barry Keith Grant and Scott Henderson’s Comics and Pop Culture: Adaptation from Panel to Frame (University of Texas Press, 2019) with some wariness. Do we really need another diatribe on superhero movies’ artistic merit? Although they reference the caped (or masked) crusaders with which the genre is most often associated, the collection’s 19 contributors deftly sidestep the “Are superhero movies cinema?” debate – which usually leads to pointless semantic hair-splitting – and instead focus on diverse examples (from American Splendor, to Modesty Blaise and Scott Pilgrim) to illustrate the two mediums’ complex intersections.
Grant and Henderson quickly do away with the notion that comic book movies are a contemporary phenomenon, citing Liam Burke’s suggestion “that Louis Lumière’s L’arroseur arosé (1895), ‘often celebrated as the first narrative film…is also cinema’s first adaptation of a comic’” (6). Scott Bukatman’s “The Crossroads of Infinity, or Universum Incognitum,” the first and in many ways strongest of the essays, explores the visual and narrative parallels both mediums share. By juxtaposing Jack Kirby’s depiction of a surreal cosmic journey in Fantastic Four #51 (1966) with the Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Bukatman notes how both “speak to – perform, actually – altered conditions of existence, perception, cognition, and corporeality” (33). Whether Kirby’s experimental tableaus directly inspired Kubrick is unknown, but Bukatman associates the artists’ shared impulses with efforts to visually render the sublime.
Bukatman’s standout analysis aside, the first section’s remaining chapters are admirably far-ranging but lacking in thematic cohesion. Blair Davis’ “From Adaptation to Extension: A History of Comics Adapting Films, 1974-2015” succinctly maps the emergence of comics which expand – rather than merely adapt – franchises like Star Wars, thus allowing fans to follow their favorite characters on new adventures beyond the screen (42). Elsewhere, Miriam Kent’s “Destroying the Rainbow Bridge: Representations of Heterosexuality in Marvel Superhero Narratives” explores how LGBTQ audiences sometimes embrace releases which promote “traditional” gender roles due to their narratives’ homoerotic undertones of superheroes struggling to “come out” (122). Though interesting in its own right, Julian Hoxter’s “‘We Roller Coaster Through’: Screenwriting, Narrative Economy, and the Inscription of the Haptic in Tentpole Comic Book Movies” – which addresses collaborative screenwriting – feels out of place for a text ostensibly aimed at a general audience.
Part Two offers a more focused collection of essays, most of which concern “authenticity” in film adaptations. Again, the authors look beyond the Marvel/DC franchises; more precisely, they look at a time before these companies saturated all facets of pop culture. In “Felix in – and out of – Space” J.P. Telotte presents the eponymous character’s portrayal in ‘20s-era cartoons as a decidedly modernist amalgam of space and character, a borderline-surrealist figure which “was so vaguely defined, so much a part of whatever fragmentary world was conjured up for each story – just as open or ‘unwalled’ as the vaguely drawn spaces in which he was set down” (172). James Chapman and J. Mark Percival turn their attention to oft-overlooked UK comics in “The Extraordinary Career of Modesty Blaise” and “Authenticity and Judge Dredd on Film,” respectively. Percival illustrates how an “authentic comic book film adaptation” is a contradiction in terms, since most heroes have been represented and reimagined in any number of publications. On the other hand, “There is no real question about which version of War and Peace or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to adapt; there is just the original, published text” (218).
The authors make frequent reference to transmedia, or media convergence, in which fans must “seek out more of the narrative in subsequent products, not only the next film but also DVD and Blu-ray extras, videogames and ARGs (alternate reality games), and comic books themselves” (152). Nowhere is this convergence more evident than in John Bodner’s wonderful “Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Texts: Adaptation, Form, and Transmedia Co-creation”; Bryan Lee O’Malley’s beloved series drew inspiration not only from prior media sources (arcade games, manga, kung fu movies, etc.) but also from fan feedback and even Edgar Wright’s 2010 film, which was already in production before the final installment’s publication (246, 249). The result is a comic inspired by a movie that is based on the same comic. Other such brain-twisting examples of intertextuality include Max Allan Collins’ novelization of Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition (2002), which was, in turn, based on Collins’ original 1998 graphic novel (58).
The book concludes with “Black Panther: Aspiration, Identification, and Appropriation,” writer Jeffrey A. Brown’s assessment of the most socially significant superhero film in years. Though broadly applauding Ryan Coogler and company’s “concern with crafting progressive representations of black people” (298), Brown is not afraid to cast a critical eye toward Marvel’s overarching goal to deliver “a commercial blockbuster meant for the broadest audience possible” (304). This bottom-line mindset – or, to put it bluntly, appeal to white audiences fearful of so-called black “extremism” – is perhaps why villain Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), though depicted in a fairly-sympathetic light, is killed in order to paradoxically “champion a peaceful resolution as the best hope for progress” (304). The critical community needs more analyses like Brown’s: ones which recognize a work’s remarkable qualities without ignoring the many constraints imposed on tentpole blockbusters.
Comics and Pop Culture already feels like something of a time capsule, since the future of mega-budget releases is, to put it mildly, uncertain. But to say that comic adaptations may go by the wayside is to ignore the likes of Ghost World (2001), American Splendor (2003), Persepolis (2007), or even Tank Girl (1995). Indeed, the age of transmedia studies may very well have collapsed the film/comic dichotomy altogether. Hopefully, puerile arguments over these films’ intrinsic value (or lack thereof) will collapse as well.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.