Book Review: The Comic Book Film Adaptation by Liam Burke

cover58950-mediumDid you know the very first comic adaptation was in 1895?!? That’s amazing.

With my love for comics, film, and comic book adaptations, this is the perfect book for me.

The author notes early on that Film and Comic Books is the only dedicated book to the analysis of comic book adaptations. At first I thought that was unlikely – but reading this book, it’s not just about comic book movies, it’s a true analysis.

It’s really written as an academic text. Which surprised me a bit, considering the subject matter – but it makes sense. And though makes it not quite a simple read, the author does a decent job, I think, I’m making it accessible to a wide audience.

At first, I was a bit disappointed that the scope of this book was limited to Hollywood films post 2000 – but I understand that there’s a trade off between the depth of research and the scope. The author does explain this in the introduction and mentions acclaimed foreign films such as Oldboy, Persepolis, and Blue is the Warmest Color.

And it kind of makes sense to start in what has been called “The Golden Age of Comic Book Filmmaking.” (The first decade-and-a-half of the 21st Century.)

In the first chapter, the author explores possible reasons for this, including 9/11, the maturation of special effects, the advent of media conglomerates, the new generation of filmmakers being comic fans, and the increased respectability of comics. All of these exist culminating the perfect storm for the creation of the Golden Age of Comic Book Movies.

In on sense, the conglomerate aspect makes me worried about the future of movies and storytelling. The author quotes one of his sources (Convergence Culture) as saying,

”When I first started, you would pitch a story because without a good story, you didn’t really have a film. Later, once sequels started to take off, you pitched a character because a good character could support multiple stories. And now, you pitch a world because a world can support multiple characters and multiple stories across multiple media.”

But in another sense, as long as good stories are still being told, and I believe they are, what does it matter how they come to fruition?

(It’s fascinating how merchandising really started with Star Wars, and mass production of merchandising tie-ins started with Batman. I remember this – in 1989, when the film was released, and I was in my first year of college, a friend joked that Batman merchandising was so bad, they were making Batman sex toys.)

Chapter 2 discusses the Comic Book Movies as a genre. And I totally relate to the idea of comic book movies as a genre that includes films not necessarily based on comic books. The first example they give – Creepshow – is perfect. Besides original superhero movies (not adapted from comics), I put movies like Ultraviolet in this genre. (Popular culture news sites tend to put any big effects-laden blockbuster – especially with larger than life heroes – in this genre, but I don’t think that makes sense.)

Ooh! But what defines the Comic Book Movie? Of course, if the film is based on a comic. But what else? Of course, a lot of people point at superheroes. But this book takes it a little further, pointing out that “comic book movies generally involve an outsider, with heightened abilities.” This allows us to include movies like Jumper and Push.

Comic book movies are also often defined by a sense of heightened reality, setting them apart from films that are purely realistic.

The author uses these to summarize a definition of the genre:

“The comic book movie genre follows an vigilante or outsider character engaged in a form of revenge narrative, and is pitched with a heightened reality with a visual style marked by distinctly comic book imagery.”

And I love the way the author models the development of genres based on his growth of bacteria! Fitting, indeed!

2008 was the year the comic book movie “came of age” with 3 successful films that specifically took comic book (and comic book movie tropes) and turned them upside down: Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and Hancock. That year, 7 additional comic book films were also released.

One of the sections in the discussion of the comic book movie as genre has one of my favorite quotes – he summarizes a section, which concludes “with a focus on adaptations from the work of Alan Moore, in which this genre collided with source fidelity.” Ha! That’s an amazing way to describe it. (I assumed that he was talking about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). This ends up being a discussion of fidelity, leading into the next section. The author doesn’t seem to reach a conclusion here, so I will suggest that the main reason LXG did poorly had nothing to do with fidelity, but because it was, as the author suggests, an “exploitation” film made as quickly as possible to merely cash in on other comic book movie success. So it was poor, poor quality, IMO, that killed LXG.

Chapter 3 is a study of the fidelity of these movies to the source material, as well as the importance of fans – both of the comics and just of the characters – generating word-of-mouth. An interesting addition is how this might make the future of these movies suffer.

Chapter 4 covers the Comic Book Aesthetic. It discusses “how many codes and conventions pass back and forth” between the graphic narratives of comics and film.

And it’s interesting – I’m going to have to come down on the side against Scott McCloud when he suggests that a single panel cannot count as sequential art or indeed, comics – since a single panel can, in fact show a sequence of events.

And I never realized how Ghost World subtly used this aesthetic – in its information of simple things like window frames.

I also never realized how well the Matrix’s bullet-time captured the aesthetic of the static comic book panel.

I’m a little disappointed that the movie Ultraviolet wasn’t mentioned in this section. But yay for a shout-out to Josie and the Pussycats!

The fifth and last chapter is about the more “comic-booky” flourishes that have become Hollywood standard.

I’ve always loved comic book movies. And I highly recommend this academic analysis of the genre to anyone who has any interest in the subject.

Thanks to NetGalley and University Press of Mississippi for a copy in return for an honest review.

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