Comic adaptations of works have grown over time. From the time of Classics Illustrated, comics were used to adapt a work to a format readers would be more familiar with. Adaptations of popular movies allowed readers to re-live the thrills at a time when home video was non-existent. Today, though, the comic format allows creators to continue a work from another medium. It’s not a new phenomenon; DC Comics published a four-part series of graphic novels continuing the story of Village in The Prisoner: Shattered Visage in 1988. Today, though, getting the information out on adaptations is far easier thanks to the Internet and cross-medium works are far more common.
The benefit is that a work can find a format that works best to gather and keep an audience. Movies are expensive to make and market, and even if profitable, they may not have enough of a following to justify a follow up work. Television, while not as expensive as film and able to spread costs over a number of episodes, are still subject to whims of ratings; a niche series may not have the critical mass to survive a season. Comic books don’t have the expense burdens a film would and can be sustained with a far lower number of readers than a TV series can with low audience numbers.
Even series that have had a good run can take advantage of the switch to comics. Fans will want more, especially just after a series has ended, and the series’ creator can explore areas that the show couldn’t, either because of expense or network limitations. Such is the focus of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer continuation comic series. The Buffy TV series, itself an adaptation, ran for seven years, a good run. The series had a definite end, with Sunnydale sinking into a Hellmouth to seal it and an army of Slayers defeating demons trying to overrun the Earth. But Buffy’s story wasn’t done.
Buffy and her friends still had the army of Slayers, and that issue was worth exploring. Creator Joss Whedon continued the story in the comic series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, published by Dark Horse Comics. A new threat hangs over the world, and Buffy and her army need to discover what it is before the Apocalypse happens. Or, the same old same old for the Scoobies. And the series wouldn’t be Buffy if personal issues came up. Not only does Buffy have an army of young girls with supernatural abilities to try corral, her sister Dawn has run into some problems, and her own personal life is falling apart. Again, nothing new for Buffy. The fans, though, expect Buffy and her friends to have to deal with personal issues while saving the world. Skipping that skips the essence of the TV series.
The comic series does deliver. The characters’ behaviour reflects their growth over the run of the TV series, from teenagers in high school to young adults trying to figure out what their place is in the world while dealing with weirdnesses most people never have to worry about. The graphic format allows for effects that would be difficult to achieve on television, either because of time needed, the expense, or because of the laws of physics. Dawn, as part of a curse, grew to be several stories tall; showing this on screen would require green-screening and filming her scenes twice, once with her and once with the regular sized cast. When TV episodes need to be completed within a week, that’s extra time that could be better used, especially if the curse is season long. In another scene, Buffy and Angel wind up changing settings page to page; if filmed, that would mean setting up in multiple locations for only several minutes of film. It’s doable for an episode, but would mean making extensive use of sets instead of location shots to minimize travel time. In a comic, both are easily done. Dawn can be drawn far larger than the rest of the cast without any camera effects or multiple takes and the new settings that Buffy and Angel use are needed in each panel anyway, whether they stay in one location or jump every panel to somewhere new.
Buffy Season Eight picks up after the destruction of Sunnyvale. Buffy and her Slayer army have found a home in Scotland with room for the young women to train. Dawn gets cursed while studying at university. A new threat and old adversaries return. Worse, the threat is one that Buffy herself creates. However, the draw isn’t the situation, it’s the characters. How the Scoobies react to the new threat and old problems is the key, and the comic shines there. The TV series was always more than just being about a student staking vampires, and the comic continues with the idea that the heroes are people, too, even the vampires.
Comic continuations come with their own shortfalls. Page limits mean a comic can be read in five to ten minutes, unlike a forty-two minute television episode. Comics are released monthly, unlike television’s weekly schedule. Artwork may not resemble the characters*, though that was not an issue with the Buffy comics. Sometimes, the limitations of one medium that will force a creator to come up with a work around that results in a better product will be avoided. While the limits of the medium can’t be helped, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight avoids most of the shortfalls, though does get self-indulgent at times. Some subplots linger too long, while others get ignored. However, what one reader finds dragging, another will find enthralling.
Overall, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight works as a continuation. The situation that develops in the comic builds from what was shown in the TV series. The characters grew from their experiences; the Xander of the comic is not the Xander of season one, but the Xander of the end of season seven after everything he went through. The hints of what Buffy was doing as seen on Angel were expanded. Like gravity, continuity is a harsh mistress, but fans have expectations. The continuation comic meets these expectations.
* When creating a comic based on a live-action property, the actors still have control over their likenesses unless there’s a clause in their contracts allowing for comic tie-ins. Marvel Comics ran into the problem in the Eighties with both their Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica comics, where they didn’t have the rights.to the likenesses.
While getting prepped for the The Avengers review*, a small detail kept drawing my attention. It came up in Iron Man, and continued through each entry of the Avengers Initiative. It’s the setting. Not just Tony Stark’s lab or SHIELD’s headquarters, but the entire universe.
Let me backtrack a bit to explain. Most major comic publisher has its own universe where their heroes live, work, and fight crime. DC’s universe includes fictional cities like Metropolis and Gotham City and fictional countries like Qurac. Marvel doesn’t go for the fictional city, but does have its own fictional countries, like Doom’s Latveria and Silver Sable’s Symkaria. This allows the various characters and titles to crossover and guest star as needed, and leads to team books like Justice League of America (bringing together DC’s iconic characters into one book), Teen Titans (for DC’s sidekicks), and The Avengers (Marvel’s Justice League equivalent.) Image, even though each book is its own universe, does allow its published characters to appear in other characters’ titles, in a form of metaverse**. Over time, as storylines grow and wrap up, as characters are introduced and interact, as villains come and go, each title’s history starts getting complex. Add in the various guest appearances by characters from other titles, and the complexity starts looking like the family tree of European Royalty***. It makes for difficulties to jump in on a title. It also makes for difficulties when adapting.
The first problem with a large universe is licensing. Marvel has had this problem more than DC over the past fifteen years. DC has the advantage of being owned by Warner Brothers, with their main universe titles being released by Warner. Since 1998, Marvel has seen their characters and titles licensed out to New Line Cinema (the Blade series), 20th Century Fox (X-Men and related characters, Daredevil, Elektra, the Fantastic Four movies), Columbia (the Spider-Man series including the reboot The Amazing Spider-Man, the Ghost Rider movies), Universal (the 2003 Hulk), Lionsgate (the Punisher series, Man-Thing), and Marvel Studios (all movies leading to The Avengers). Several things stand out. First up, the Punisher. The Punisher first appeared in a Spider-Man book, then guest starred with other Marvel notables such as Captain America (an Avenger) and Nightcrawler (an X-Man), before making regular appearances in Daredevil and then getting his own title. With the licensing, the Punisher isn’t easily available in any movie with the heroes mentioned. Likewise, Daredevil and Spider-Man share a few opponents, notably the Kingpin, and are based in the same city, New York. Fortunately, New York is big enough that it’s feasible to believe they won’t cross paths often. The excuse will work for movies due to the time between releases.
The next problem is the sheer weight of history. Superman has been published continuously since 1938. That’s seventy-five years worth of stories, continuity, characters, situations, and other dross. Batman dates from 1939. Wonder Woman from 1941. Marvel has characters that predate Marvel, coming in from Timely. Even Spider-Man dates from 1962, over forty years. Some characters even have multiple books. While origin stories may get repetitive, they have the benefit of having the audience come in as a blank slate with no prior knowledge of the character. A movie about a team of diverse heroes, like the Justice League or the Avengers, though, doesn’t have the time to show each team member’s origin and still deal with the central plot. Even in a movie where all the characters gained powers through the same source, like X-Men, there’s a good chance of an outlier (in X-Men‘s case, Wolverine) who has something more happening in his backstory. The X-Men franchise also has the anti-mutant hysteria to add in its setup.
What can the adapting studio do? One way is to just focus on the character and ignore everything else in the universe. This approach works best when the character being adapted doesn’t appear in the same circles as the rest of the universe. The approach also works when the character is best known for the type of story being told. Spider-Man is perfect for a story that’s personal, close to home, or deals with problems that are local to New York. Same thing with Daredevil and Batman. At the other end of the scale, dealing with would-be world conquerors is in line with Superman, the Justice League****, and the Avengers.
Another way is to take in everything from the character’s books, then pick and choose what to keep. This is essentially what happened with X-Men and the Avengers Initiative. It doesn’t hurt that Marvel once split the editorial tasks by group, two of which were the X-Titles and the Avenger titles. The areas are, for the most part, self-contained except for the annual all-title crossover events. Need a villain from Thor to menace the Avengers? No problem! Need a classic Wolverine opponent to act as muscle for Magneto? Easy as pie! The adapting studio has access to a broad range of characters and situations and doesn’t have to worry about having to fill in that man-sized spider hole in the cast.
Then there’s branching off from the main universe to create a new one for the medium. The adapting studio gets the details it needs, the characters it needs, and then branches away at some point, creating its own continuity parallel to the main body. There may be events that are shared, events that are similar, but the two continuities are separate entities. The best example is the Dini-verse, also known as the Timm-verse+, which spun off from the main DC comic continuity as cartoons. The Dini-verse is responsible for the creation of a tragic background for the Bat-villain, Mr. Freeze, and the introduction of Renee Montoya and Harley Quinn into the regular continuity. The Avengers Initiative is doing something similar. In the main Marvel continuity, Iron Man is seen as Tony Stark’s employee and bodyguard. In the movie, Stark just came out and said it; his ego wouldn’t let a lie steal the spotlight.
And there’s the reason for this long aside. The Avengers Initiative are wonderfully done movies, getting the feel of the characters right, but getting some minor but critical details (like Iron Man having a secret identity) wrong. I don’t want to deal with the, “Wait, no, that’s not accurate!” moments while watching an amazing scene. There’s enough small details to show that Marvel’s movie continuity is separate from the main comic line’s. I am acknowledging it here so I can properly watch the movies without having to note discrepancies that don’t make a difference to the scene but do when it comes to continuity.
Next time, the penultimate Avengers Adaptation entry.
Correction: Last week’s Lost in Translation was listed as number 52 when it should have been number 53 instead.
* That is, watching the movies and reading the comics.
** The authors maintain control of their books, and discrepancies are written off as how the character perceived the crossover.
*** Not so much a family tree as a family tumbleweed.
**** Especially if people forget that Batman is a member.
***** My argument really breaks down when people remember that Spider-Man is an Avenger, too. But teamwork can let even the weakest heroes combine to defeat the worst villain around.
+ Named after Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, the showrunners for the DC animated universe starting from Batman: The Aninated Series through to Justice League Unlimited.
Superman, the superhero who started the entire genre, the Man of Steel who has been adapted many times to radio, television, and film, is returning to the silver screen in a reboot movie. Part of the movie will cover Superman’s origin. Which is great, except, well, if there’s one superhero whose origin is widely known to audiences, it’s Superman. The last son of Krypton, sent away by his parents as an infant as his homeworld exploded, landed on Earth on a farm in Kansas, raised by the Kents, then moved to Metropolis to become a mild-mannered reporter. The quick version can be, he was raised well by adoptive parents. How much time is going to be spent on Superman’s background? How do you show “raised well” when you have a limited time in the film. Spend too long, and you run into the problem Battleship did and lose a lot of energy, especially if the destruction of Krypton appears on screen. At the same time, Clark’s early years could be delved for great drama. In fact, Smallville was all about that delving. Why cover that same ground?
It may sound like I’m harping on origin stories, and I am. It feels like every reboot, remake, and adaptation of a superhero story has to spend time showing the hero getting his abilities. Lately, superhero movies have been focusing on the origin. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Some heroes, such as Iron Man and Thor have compelling beginning stories. With others, such as Batman and Spider-Man, the compelling feature isn’t getting powers (or, in Batman’s case, his wonderful toys), but why they turned to being heroes. Tony Stark created a suit of power armour to escape captors. Peter Parker failed to stop a robber who wound up killing Peter’s uncle. Bruce Wayne wanted revenge on the criminals who killed his parents in front of his young eyes. Clark Kent . . . was raised well. Something just doesn’t fit.
Don’t get me wrong. If a, say, Cloak & Dagger TV series were to be made, I’d expect the pilot to show how they got their powers.* Same with other characters like the Punisher, Zatanna, and Speedball. Not to mention, with television, there’s more time to set up longer arcs. In a movie, though, very few last longer than three hours, with most run times being under two.
Superman, though, isn’t known to just comic readers. He is arguably the best known superhero character around.** He’s been around since 1938. He’s been adapted to radio, serials, television, and movies. The most recent television adaptation, Smallville, was a ten season long origin story. Before that, Lois and Clark, the New Adventures of Superman*** managed to remind viewers of Clark’s humble beginnings by including Jonathan and Martha Kent as regular characters, even if they only appeared when Clark phoned home. The 1978 Superman movie with Christopher Reeve, the definitive Superman film for a generation, did spend time with Clark’s upbringing, but not in depth. However, remaking that movie shot for shot will leave people wondering why they just didn’t pop the 1978 film into the DVD player instead.
My hopes for the Superman reboot is that, if the director really needs to show the origin, then Clark’s background is done as a montage, quick enough to not lose energy, but long enough to show where Clark is from. The movie then should get to the heart of the plot.
Next week, despite the above, the Avengers Adaptation continues.
* In fact, how they got their powers – forcibly injected with synthetic drugs triggering their latent mutant abilities – is key to most of their comic runs, as they took the War on Drugs down to the pushers.
** Definitely in the top three, with Batman and Wonder Woman. Marvel’s Spider-Man and X-Men (as a group) fill out the top five.
*** Lois and Clark also took a different approach to Superman stories by examining the relationship between Lois Lane, Clark Kent, and Superman.
Marvel Comics has always had a wide range of superheroes. From the patriotic Captain America to the anti-hero Hulk to the Spectacular and Amazing Spider-Man to the outcast X-Men, each hero was more than just the costume, just the hero fighting crime. Iron Man, first appearing in Tales of Suspense in 1963, is no different in that respect. Unlike the heroes mentioned, though, Tony Stark has no innate super powers*. His origin story, first seen in the above mentioned comic, showed how the Iron Man suit developed.** Over time, Tony takes charge of his company, develops more Iron Man suit variants, becomes a playboy, and develops alcoholism. Many of Iron Man’s foes reflect his origins, either being technical (such as AIM and Hydra), Communist (Titanium Man, the Unicorn), or corporate (Iron Monger, Roxxon Oil, Justin Hammer).
Fast forward to 2008. Marvel’s luck with movies based on their properties had a rough go with 1986’s Howard the Duck, 1989’s The Punisher, and 1994’s The Fantastic Four***. Things started to turn around with 1998’s Blade, but the character wasn’t one of Marvel’s A-listers. X-Men in 2000 marks the turning point for Marvel’s big names, though, at this point, the company had different lines licensed to a number of studios. The successful Spider-Man movie in 2002 further marked the turnaround of Marvel’s cinematic foibles, though not completely. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Ghost Rider, both from 2007, underperformed. However, waiting in the wings, was Iron Man.
There are times when casting directors find just the perfect person for a role. Iron Man‘s trumped all others when Robert Downey Jr. was cast as Tony Stark. Downey had gone through a rough patch between 1996 and 2001, getting arrested for various drug charges. His appearance as Stark capped a career revival. Downey brought forth all of Tony Stark, from his larger than life public persona to the uncertain man wanting to right what he messed up in private. Even when he was in the Iron Man suit, Stark was still himself, still the showboat who was trying to make up for past mistakes.
The movie itself could be divided into two parts. The first part was Iron Man’s origin,** updated for the modern era. Gone was the Viet Nam War and the Communists. This time around, Stark visited the troops in Afghanistan when he ran into the trap. The second part of the film showed Tony improving beyond the original grey suit to the gleaming red and gold and returning to Afghanistan to help free his fellow prisoner. Also linking the two parts of the movie was the villain. With the update to the modern era, elements from the Cold War, including the Vietnam War, were lost; Stark was at most old enough to have seen news reports of the Vietnam War as a young child. That left the main foe to be either technical or corporate. Obadiah Stane fell into both. His machinations behind the scenes while still acting as Stark’s mentor provided a chilling look into executive backstabbing, with the addition of taking Tony’s prototype and updating it for his own ends.
The movie, simply put, was a huge success, allowing Marvel to continue the Avengers Initiative with follow ups Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger, capped with The Avengers. However, financial success isn’t always an indication of a successful adaptation. First, I’ll begin with the changes made. The big one was keeping the story in the now. Most superhero comics are set Today, that is, when the reader reads it.**** However, 2008 was not 1963. The world has changed greatly in those forty-three years. The Vietnam War ended. The Cold War ended. The Soviet Union ended. Iron Man’s origin needed to be updated to reflect the march of history but, at the same time, remain true to the source. Thus, the trap in Viet Nam became a trap in Afghanistan. However, the Stark-Stane rivalry comes straight from the comics, as does SHIELD. The update in the origins doesn’t affect the characters. The other major change is the identity of Iron Man himself. In the comics, Iron Man is Stark’s bodyguard. In the movie, Stark comes out and admits it. However, the movie Tony would have problems allowing someone else, even if that someone is a complete fabrication, to take credit for Stark’s own work. The change made sense in character.
Summary, the movie is a very good adaptation of one of Marvel’s lesser-known A-list heroes. The combination of casting, directing, script, and acting pull together to make Iron Man enjoyable and accessible. As a major plus, Iron Man is one of the few superhero movies where the villain doesn’t upstage the hero. Although it helps that Stark is larger than life, the main reason is that Iron Man is not just the hero, but the protagonist, the character trying to change the status quo.***** Stane is trying to keep things as they are, without Tony making wide-sweeping changes to Stark International.
Next week, still with superheroes.
* His intelligence might qualify, but his background includes being a teen genius, which is possible, but rare.
** Quick version – after getting caught in a trap in Viet Nam and being taken prisoner, Stark and another prisoner build a device to keep shrapnel from reaching Tony’s heart. Tony then works on a prototype suit of powered armour using the power source of the device to break out of the prison.
*** Involving Roger Corman, known for low-budget films.
**** Exceptions being specific days, usually holidays, but even those are implied to be the one most recently past.
***** In the vast majority of superhero movies, the villain is trying to inflict change with the hero trying to prevent it.