So this is that time of year when I might be planning a tie-in with my "high season" of film journalism, where I'm off to award shows and
such (my tux is in for its annual dry cleaning, as we speak), and would generally speak of the increasing overlap and tie-in between
the comics and film worlds.
Those overlaps mostly come with what Hollywood likes to call "tentpoles" -- those summer and Christmas studio blockbusters that pay
for all those studio salaries, and in the old days, also paid for all the interesting/off-beat/disturbing/political "art" films
and such that would come out at other times of the year.
Except, of course, studios don't make those films anymore. Unless, perhaps, Ben Affleck is directing. Then again, if you want
intimate complex drama, well, there's always cable TV.
Disclosure-wise, I have my own relationship with the studios -- or, at least one of them in particular. I teach writing classes
in-house, on a recurring basis, for a certain entertainment company that recently bought a renowned comics publisher. There,
tentpoles go into financing more infrastructure, among other things.
A whole new building has gone up on the "campus" where I teach, completed since I was last there this past summer, teaching a
brief course on comics writing. All the iconic superheroes they own now festoon some of the walls in brand new murals. In fact,
there is a rather lively display of this comic imprint's "timeline," on one walls, moving from from its "Golden Age," with
its first two watery/fiery heroes, all the way to its box-office bustin', everything-in-development present moment.
Normally, I would tie all this in to my annual "high season" of showbiz freelancing, where I'm dispatched to cover various award shows.
Last year, for example, I covered the Visual Effects Society Awards, and wrote about Stan Lee's Lifetime Achievement Award,
and what that signalled about the role comics play in the Hollywood development process now.
Indeed, my eldest son's theory (He just got his first Comic-Con media badge under his own name! A proud moment from
a Geek/Fannish dad perspective.) is that studios like to own comics imprints because comics represent an even cheaper way to develop IPs.
In other words, the comics don't really have to make a lot of money on their own, anymore, just as long as the film versions do.
But this is being several days before my tux comes back from the cleaners, let alone before the award shows in question, I have no
statue-wielding winners to write about, to provide additional clues about where film land trends are heading.
But there are still things we can glean from the nominations themselves, including the idea that superhero movies may be losing their
automatic "razzle dazzle" factor.
The VES' signature category ("Outstanding Visual Effects in a Visual Effects-Driven Feature Motion Picture") echoes the Oscar
nominations for visual effects (with the sole exception of the "dark horse" slot -- no, I don't mean the publisher -- which goes
to Battleship on the VES side and Snow White and the Huntsman on the Academy side). Otherwise, the four major contenders are the
same: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Life of Pi, Prometheus, and The Avengers.
What do you notice about that list?
Right -- only one superhero movie. No Batman finale (Word on the street is that the horrific violence associated with the film's
premiere may have unfairly jinxed it at nomination time.), no Spider-Man reboot -- just that particular film by Mr. Whedon, in the
Now, it may be too soon to say that superhero films have lost their novelty -- this year and next will be rich in comic-derived
releases, and the genre could return to dominate the FX awards. But we seem to have left the era where the mere execution of
convincing superhero visuals usually meant you'd at least get nominated for some kind of technical achievement.
Why the shift? Well, one clue might come in an interview I had recently with Jeff White, ILM's visual FX supervisor on
The Avengers. In a wide-ranging talk about how he worked with the overall FX supe, Janek Sirrs (who did Chris Nolan's first Batman
film, V for Vendetta, and many other notable works), mentioned
to me that ""there's nothing better than getting to do great character work."
He was talking about the process of working on actor Mark Ruffalo's transformations into The Hulk (and Ruffalo's patience
for all the motion-capture involved in those transformations). But that observation -- from someone who helped oversee such
an FX-laden film -- provides a clue to this year's nominee list: Most of them boast breakthroughs in digital characters: Life of Pi's
utterly convincing Tiger, an even more real-seeming Gollum, the best movie Hulk yet -- even the life-sowing "Engineers" of Prometheus.
Somehow, then, it's no longer novel to make the mere image of a screen superhero seem real ("Hey! Those filmed costumes no longer
look automatically ridiculous!"). Now, it seems, you need to make them believable as characters, too.
All of which is to the good.
We'll see if these trendlines hold, and by the time my next column rolls around, all the glittering gold statuettes will have been handed out.
Meanwhile, between getting my tux together for the dry cleaners, I've been doing some reading.
Fittingly, the book that struck me most this month was written by a screenwriter/director. It was Boaz Yakin's Jerusalem, with
art by Nick Bertozzi -- whose work I dug so much in the earlier Lewis & Clark opus from the same publisher, First Second. Here,
Bertozzi's not writing, and his artwork seems even more assured in the service of Yakin's mutli-generational epic about the
founding of modern Jerusalem, as it passes from British hands to Jordan, and finally, to Israel.
A whole column could be written on this book alone, in how Yakin -- working off of stories passed down in his own family -- shows
the various "splinters" in Jewish culture, from the rightwing Irgun and Haganah factions (guerrilla groups that were forebears
of today's ruling Likud party) to the left-leaning Marxists with dreams of Jewish and Arab equality in a worker's utopia, to
the effects that World War II, and the Holocaust, had on everyone's view of what was possible, and what was necessary.
He also tackles the range of Jewish responses to Judaism itself -- from non-believers to pious hypocrites, to devote
worshippers willing to risk their lives for Zion, and everyone in between.
I was sorry to see the book end, and Yakin has taken what is, in many ways, an "epic historical script" -- one can see how this
could easily make a TV mini-series, given its structure -- and put it in Bertozzi's capable hands.
The other book I just finished was part of a stack o' comics given me by eldest son for the holidays: Ron Wimberly's Prince of
Cats, from DC's Vertigo. It is, per the description, a "remix" of Romeo and Juliet, focusing on the rivalry between Mercutio
and Tybalt and their Montague and Capulet coteries.
Except this is an alternate-universe version of Brooklyn in the 1980's, where primarily African-American gangs wield swords and
speak in Iambic pentameter.
I really loved the sections where I couldn't tell which lines were the Bard's, and which were Wimberly's. More exciting still
were the sections where he was able to lift Shakespeare's repartee verbatim, and make it work over his artwork and plotting.
I just hope someone is letting him do remixes of Macbeth and King Lear.
And speaking of new takes on existing material: my pal and collaborator in this space, Rick Klaw, has one of the great
close-to-his-heart anthologies of his editing career just out, even as we speak: Of course I refer to The Apes of Wrath,
where Rick has gathered mostly previously published simian tales, along with some new essays to give it all fresh
context. It's already gotten a star from Publisher's Weekly!
What can I say but: Get your hands on it, you damn dirty readers!
See you post-Oscars, compadres.