It seems to be a regular, often weekly news item to hear of a comic being optioned for adaptation to another medium, mostly film or television. In the last six months or so, we’ve had announcements for Sex Criminals, Southern Bastards, Wic/Div and just a couple of weeks ago, MC Piskor dropped a beat to the tune of Hip-Hop Family Tree becoming an animated show. Now, there’s really nothing inherently good or bad happening here, it’s just remarkable firstly to see how much respect, legitimacy and currency comic books seem to be gaining in the mainstream, and not just the superheroes. Maybe more interestingly, however, these waves of adaptation raise an ongoing series of questions about what it means to be working in comics today, the different avenues opening up to creators (of a certain standing, that is), rights/royalties and much more besides. In the end, where does it leave comics, the medium?
It’s obvious to say, and if you’ve ever heard The Orbiting Pod it might be a slightly tired saying, but like anything, interpretations live and die on the execution. In some cases there are contingent issues which will undoubtedly colour the reception of an adaptation, Alan Moore’s total disavowal of Watchmen, for example. Generally though, it obviously seems fairest to withhold judgement until the work has been seen. The Walking Dead has caught on with international television audiences, not because the comic book is a landmark, long-running series from the hottest publisher in the industry today. It’s struck a chord because on TV it’s a tense soap opera with relatable and hateable characters, resonant individual vs. group survivalist themes, and mystery. And because the make-up is phenomenal.
One decidedly grey area, particularly for those reading and discussing comic books for the pleasure and thrill of doing so (not in a bid to check out ‘the source material’), is the idea of the comic book as a pitch. Models of adaptation are very well established at this point and regardless of the quality of his books, regardless of the offence they might cause [I haven’t seriously read anything he’s done this side of the gang rape scene in Kick-Ass 2], Mark Millar has completely revolutionised the game. With the monstrously successful Millarworld, he has managed to begin securing movie production deals before the comic book has even hit stands in some cases. Crucially, because his artistic collaborators are co-owners of their respective projects, comic book artists are now better able to monetise their work, their ideas and profit from the adaptation lottery, not confined solely to a storyboard capacity. This has been really, really important. It’s still Millarworld by name, but comics and cinema audiences alike are coming to see comic books and their movie versions as the result of a collaborative artistic process. Good stuff. But in the comics world, what does it mean in a critical sense to read and discuss a comic book pre-destined for other things?
Given that it’s implausible to discard context completely, especially in today’s tabloid-transparency climate, it’s becoming easier and easier to see a new series, particularly a first issue, as a pitch of sorts, rather than a finished, final work in and of itself. Thoroughly gorgeous and immersive as it was, the first issue of Lemire and Nguyen’s Descender felt a little like this. Read enough #1s, especially those which fall in the sci-fi genre, and a formula begins to emerge. Sometimes it’s the overtly cinematic layouts, sometimes it’s the snappy dialogue, even the pacing. It doesn’t prevent the book from being good or even satisfying by any means, and Descender is, but if it’s optioned instantly, the comic seems less like the end product, more like a sketch, draft or ‘inspiration’ for another project. As a series continues and its movie counterpart begins production, there’s a question of which version is primary, which is the authority. And again, for example, knowing that there’s more money in the television or Hollywood deal may affect how creative teams work, in addition to how we read their books. It’s really not necessarily about how adaptation affects the quality of the books, because it would be just absurd to suggest that a comic book itself must be ‘bad’ or somehow compromised because it’s been aimed at another medium, as indeed that it must be rather ‘good’ if it’s been deemed worthy of film or television. Nothing’s inherent.
So while execution reigns supreme in this sense too, it can be incredibly difficult to shake the feeling of a powerful, beloved medium serving simply as a conduit for something else. If comics become just the foundations, the original concepts behind movies, are they not in danger of losing the respect and legitimacy they’ve been gaining? It’s a curious loop, and there’s no straightforward answer, but we do need comics that are just comics. Yes, it is slightly ridiculous to be worrying about ‘protecting’ the medium in 2015, when its presence and acceptance have never been more widespread, but with so many publishers focusing on tie-ins to other media (film/TV/video games) and the biggest, noisiest original concepts getting snapped up for adaptation, it can be a little confusing to think about where just-comics fit in this landscape. Perhaps it’ll take something like Staples and Vaughn declining an offer for the adaptation of Saga to restore some balance. In this regard, Palahniuk writing the sequel to Fight Club, the novel, as a comic book is pretty huge, even if it does become another film further down the line.
It’s a beautiful thing to see a ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’, make no mistake. Stan’s dream finally realised, taken seriously, and deservedly so. Where does it leave comics made for the sake of comics? Answers on a postcard.
‘This comic’s great, it would make an awesome movie.’
‘This comic’s great.’
Adam Karenina Sherif