Friday, May 9, 2014

What effect do movies have on the comics they adapt–and vice versa?

Poor Steve Gerber...
 If somebody had told teenage me that Marvel Comics would be entering a renaissance of quality entertainment production within my lifetime, I would have scoffed and I would have been justified.

The film and TV adaptations up to that point were unremarkable. The Spider-Man television show was pretty bad, and the bizarre version of Spidey on The Electric Company was befuddling. The rarely screened Dr. Strange is so for a very good reason, and while The Incredible Hulk television show was actually quite good for a season, it rapidly devolved to pure schlock. The mask-less Captain America made-for-TV movies make the 1990 straight-to-video film seem like a masterpiece and while I have a certain affection for both Howard the Duck and the so-bad-it's-almost-good Dolph Lundgren version of The Punisher, I am not so much a fanboy that I don't recognize them as, well, awful.

Almost ten years later, it seemed like they were getting the hang of things, and starting in 1998, the track record was much better. Blade was a lot of fun (as was Blade II). Bryan Singer's X-Men seemed to draw from the best of the Chris Claremont scripts and perfectly set up the characters for the Grant Morrison comic run that would follow. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man remains one of the best comic book adaptations to date.

But there were also incredibly misguided versions of Daredevil and Hulk, a piss-poor reboot of The Punisher, a superfluous spin-off for Elektra, a Man-Thing dud, fairly worthless Fantastic Four films, Ghost Rider and three part-threes that mangled the formula by way of Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man, which is a shame considering how great the second films in each of those series were.

The First Marvel Studios release
And along came Iron Man.

The first Marvel Studios production was a perfect coup of brilliant casting and smart writing, and set the stage for an emerging Marvel Universe that could bring future intellectual properties together in a thoughtfully planned continuity. Instead of producing comic book movies, they produced great movies based on comic books and the effect on the medium that inspired them was astounding. The Iron Man comic book written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Salvador Larocca shot straight to number one on newsstands and comic shop racks. Marvel Comics finally got to experience legitimate buzz as the zeitgeist embraced their product–primarily because it was a good one. As succesful as the Spider-Man movies had been, the carryover was more pronounced via licensed product than the comics themselves, which saw only a slight boost. It's been said that miscommunication between the Sony studio and Marvel Comics left a chasm that the marketing departments in the publishing wing couldn't fill. This wasn't much of an issue with the X-men titles because they had long been the most successful monthly books, and there were so damn many of them that overall sales remained high across multiple sku's. With Iron Man, it was Marvel calling the shots in-house and rather than alienate comic creators, the folks working on the monthly title were brought into the creative process with the entertainment company execs and a long term plan was hatched based around multiple flagpole titles in a series of platform releases.

The rest, as they say, is history. Avengers is one of the most successful films in history, and even a lackluster Hulk reboot didn't hurt the brand. Thor captured a huge female audience, and Captain America followed suit. The formula works, and it pays dividends back into the source. Avengers comic books and the many spin-offs have usurped the mutant throne, and the writing on the monthly titles that have been adapted as films have won awards for the writers and artists. The heightened profile of the story lines adapted have led to repackaged releases of those stories, and a sharp increase not only in the value of the comic books, but also the original comic art from the series that were adapted. Added desirability is reserved for original art pages that are panel-literal in their translation from comic book board to movie screen. 

Here are a few examples of those literal examples.

First up: Thor.
THOR (2009)
by J. Michael Straczynski & Olivier Coipel
Issue #10, Page 9: Splash Page
Balder Confronts Thor in the Throne Room
Graphite and ink on board
Signed by Olivier Coipel
17" x 11"

The Olivier Coipel page on the left shows Balder entering the Asguardian Throne Room, with Thor seated as the ruler of the Norse gods. The right image shows the movie version of Thor (as portrayed by Chris Hemsworth) entering the same room, but with Odin (Anthony Hopkins) atop the great steps. This shows how the art direction of the comic has been adapted for a new medium, and while elements of J. Michael Straczynski's story arc were preserved in the two Thor films thus far, they haven't quite caught up to where the comic book is now. Dr. Doom was an important character in JMS' run on the title following his prior scripting duties on Fantastic Four, but FF and all supporting characters are currently licensed to 20th Century Fox, who also currently control the X-Men franchise. With character rights tied up at several other studios, Marvel has to accommodate the best they can. Notice I didn't say "improvise," as it seems everything has been painstakingly thought out.

by Matt Fraction & Salvador Larroca
Issue #18, Page 22: Splash
First Appearance of The Iron Patriot
Graphite and ink on board
Signed by Salvador Larroca
11" x 17"
In this Iron Man panel comparison, you've got the first printed appearance of The Iron Patriot below a screen grab from Iron Man 3. In the comic series, Spider-Man villain Norman Osbourne dons the Iron patriot suit in a plot that crossed from Brian Michael Bendis back over to Matt Fraction. Since the Spider-Man universe is currently licensed to Sony, an alternate backstory had to be written for the Iron Patriot of the 3rd Iron Man film. Since Bendis is the architect of the Marvel continuity, he was central to the conversations at Marvel Studios and an excellent replacement story entered the script for the film. The armor design is identical, and both the comic and the film are top notch.

by Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting & Jackson "Butch" Guice
Issue #33, page 23: Origin of Bucky as New Cap
(Featuring Tony Stark & Black Widow)
Graphite and ink on board
Signed by Steve Epting
11" x 17"
 Very recently, Captain America: The Winter Soldier hit theaters, and so far it is perhaps my favorite of the Marvel films. Much more so than the first film (Captain America: The First Avenger) the sequel captured the intrigue that epitomizes Ed Brubaker's take on the character. America's Cold War secrets come home to roost in spectacular fashion, and The Winter Soldier is brought in to the Marvel movie universe. As anyone who reads this column should be aware (spoiler alert) Bucky Barnes is the Winter Soldier and following the death of Steve Rogers assumes the identity of Captain America. In the panel comparison, I found it interesting that the origin given in the film for The Winter Soldier borrows visually from that same character's origin as Captain America in the comics. The Death of Captain America series by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting is as intelligent as it is heartbreaking, and it seems that Brubaker is well versed in the literature of alternative historians like Peter Levenda and Joseph P. Farrell, as his Hydra organization seems heavily based on the Odessa file post-war Nazi conspiracy and the ratlines that pop-up on History Channel programming from time to time.

NEW X MEN (2001)
by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely & Tim Townsend
Issue #114, Page 23: E is for Extinction
Sentinel Reveal Splash Page
Graphite and ink on board
Signed by Grant Morrison
11" x 17"
While X-Men: Days of Future Past is not yet released, the key art depicting Sentinels is everywhere already. This side-by-side comparison shows how much has been kept the same and how much has been changed from the Frank Quitely version of Sentinels from the Grant Morrison run on New X-Men. The panel on the right is the last page of their first issue together, and is the first appearance of a sentinel in that continuity.  The new movie is based primarily on the two issue story of the same name penned by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne and Terry Austin as published in Uncanny X-Men #141 & 142 back in 1981. This has been a perennial favorite among comic fans since it was brand new, and has both set and disrupted multiple marvel universe continuities over the years. But just as the first Bryan Singer foray into mutant movies set the stage for the work  of Grant Morrison, this latest film seems to borrow a bit from the latter's X for Extinction storyline as well.

POWERS (2010)
by Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming
Issue #3, Page 32-33: Double Page Splash
Detective Walker Car Crash
Graphite and ink on board
11" x 17" (x 2)
The best part of all of this is that each of the original art pages referenced in this article are still available for sale, and have the added provenance of being reprinted in omnibus format, as well as in the Pop Sequentialism Exhibition catalog (also still available–signed, even!). Each page represents pivotal moments not just in print but immortalized in film. I've kept the pricing consistent with each artist's current page rates, which allows new collectors and investors to get into the hobby affordably–and with important pieces. Another page to keep in mind is this great Powers splash page (right), which has been revived as a live-action television series after a false start a few years ago. On March 19, 2014, it was announced that Powers would become the first original television series on the PlayStation Network, to stream exclusively on PlayStation consoles. The Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming series could very well be the next Walking Dead.

For more info and more original comic book art, go to:

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