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Archive for the ‘Comics on Page and Screen’ Category

By Bob Clark

Though it came out in the same summer as the critically lauded box-office smash of The Dark Knight, the  first Iron Man film has come to be one of the most important and influential of the past decade or so’s worth of blockbuster entertainment, the opening volley in Marvel’s steady domination of the summer season with one series of hit-fest superhero flicks after another. Even if it weren’t literally the lynchpin of an evolving brand of tentpole franchise filmmaking– setting up the dominoes for subsequent Hulk, Thor and Captain America films to topple over in the lead-up to the almost chemical inevitability of The Avengers‘ chain-reaction climax– the upbeat and colorful movie would’ve easily been one of the stand-out comic-book based movies in recent memory, if for no other reason than the fact that it was able to deliver a super-powered hero who could be taken at least nominally seriously without any aggressive layers of angst or camp. The fact that it was bouyed by Robert Downey, Jr.’s cocky, pleasure-seeking performance as Tony Stark and so effectively relaunched his career into the stratosphere after more than a decade of being a tabloid punchline and occasional art-house redemption story at best helped lend a patina of reality to all of the histrionic explosiveness on-screen. We’ll probably never see Marvel or Disney let Demon in a Bottle out and unfurl the hero’s struggle with alcoholism onto the screen, but thanks to casting any viewer old enough to appreciate that aspect of the character can pretty much fill in the blanks themselves.

And though Downey does as good a job of carrying this blockbuster franchise, and to a certain extent all of the films connected to it, the way that director Jon Favreau built the visual world and terms that Iron Man and the surrounding Marvel films on cannot be underestimated– between all of the shared designs, action set-piece mechanics and even camera angles (nobody’s come up with a better solution to show Tony in the suit than cutting to those holographic-HUD filled close-ups, and probably nobody will), he practically seems owed a co-director credit on Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. Perhaps the very best thing that can be said of Iron Man 3 is that, despite all that it owes to the past films in its and sibling franchises, it feels as close as you’re going to get to somebody deviating from the Marvel house-style, at least until the studio gets X-Men and Spider-Man back into its corporate cinematic fold. As co-scripted and directed by Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang bad-boy Shane Black, there’s a genuine sense of novelty to be seen in somebody outside the fold of the typical choices for superhero-film directors– even Captain America‘s Joe Johnston and Thor‘s Kenneth Branagh seemed to fit all-too easily into the genre forms they were handed in those films, with all the gee-whiz razzle-dazzle of the former’s The Rocketeer and even the high-speech and visual spectacle seen the latter’s Shakespeare movies comfortable precursors to the mantle of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

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By Bob Clark

It’s almost peculiar to see just how much emotional investment there is paid to a franchise of cartoons, comics and now movies that have, for all intents and purposes, been based on a line of cheap action-figures from the 1980’s, but there you have it. To be sure there’s no shortage of big blockbusters for film and television that capitalize on the merchandizing potential of their stories and characters as a way of boosting sales– Star Wars, My Neighbor Totoro and Neon Genesis Evangelion might not’ve existed on public awareness if it weren’t for how “toyetic” they could become (the last one having heavily sexualized fetish-objects branded in its image that nearly wound up driving the series’ creator nuts). It’s not even terribly surprising nowadays to see the tail start wagging the dog and see the toys and merchandise be created before the multi-media franchising– in truth it’s something we’ve seen happen at least since the 80’s, with the Transformers line and other Japanese-imports. But there’s something even more bizarre with the myriad of creative turns that some franchises have taken over the decades,  primarily for how they sometimes exceed the boundaries of mere generational nostalgia. What stands out about GI Joe, for instance, is just how seriously it can be taken.

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By Bob Clark

Over the course of this column, I’ve largely been covering the by now standardized track of comics-to-movies adaptations, usually centering on sequential stories both mainstream and niche that find themselves treated with big budgeted, high-profile motion picture productions, the likes of which audiences have grown increasingly accustomed to since the special-effects assisted advents of the Superman, Batman and Spider-Man features (all three of them by now in some manner of franchise reboot or another). Occasionally we’ve seen different cultural paths in a more or less equivalent vein– Japanese manga like Nausicaa, Ghost in the Shell or Appleseed finding themselves converted to all manner of animated iterations, hand-drawn or otherwise, sometimes with varying levels of direct involvement from the original illustrators who created the initial works in the first place. Less frequently, we’ve even looked at comics subject less to direct adaptations and instead siring off loose inspirations, such as Mark Beyer’s Amy and Jordan comics or Jodorowsky & Moebius’ The Incal sparking all manner of fires in blockbusters and indie-productions alike. But for the most part, the path from comics to film or television (in the case of the Timm & Dini Batman: The Animated Series) has been a uniform and straightforward one, always headed in the same direction. But if anything, there’s probably more examples of the opposite flow in terms of sheer volume.

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By Bob Clark

The old saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words, but I wonder if that really covers the full breadth of data it can store. When we stare at a painting or glance at a photograph in the newspaper, how much information do we absorb and process at any given moment, ranging from the aesthetics of the piece, the social circumstances surrounding it, and our own personal emotional response? Could you fit the human reaction to any given piece of art onto a solid-state hard drive? How many bytes would you need to unravel the myriad of feelings any work of expression can produce, even in a broken, snapshot state? And what about the intellectual reactions– can artificial computations match the speed of human thought, unconsciously criss-crossing all sorts of impressions and considerations in order to decode the various possibilities inherent in a single image? Could that computer then synthesize inspiration? If you fed a single screen-cap into a powerful enough computer, what are the chances that it could backwards engineer something like motion-picture it sprang from? If that computer’s name was Osamu Tezuka, at least it would be on the right track.

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By Bob Clark

Studio Ghibli is known, above all, for the far-flung fantasy films they’ve released over the past 25 years under the direction of esteemed animator Hayao Miyazaki, but even from their very beginning it was only one aspect to their output. The dominant aspect, yes, but along with Miyazaki you had the work of the studio’s co-founder Isao Takahata, whose acclaimed features have mostly dealt with real-world concerns. Most obvious are the bleak portrayal of WWII squalor in Grave of the Fireflies or the dispiritingly nostalgic look at a lonely single woman’s life in Only Yesterday, but even the boistrous comic fantasy of Pom Poko is more grounded in the real world than his colleague’s work, portraying rowdy tanuki in their prankster’s war against the onslaught of human civilization destroying their forest homes in contemporary Japan. There, and in the domestic family comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas, Takahata got a lot of mileage out of the contrast between the fantastic and the mundane, employing a range of caricature and over-the-top gag cartooning that wouldn’t be out of place in a madcap Looney Tune fiasco. Other animators under the Ghibli aegis have either focused on the real world (the little-seen Ocean Waves– little seen for good reason, I’ll add), but apart from the work of its founders, the studio’s greatest success again lay in the combination of the real and the fantastical, albeit in far more grounded terms, in the late Yoshifumo Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart, adapted by Miyazaki himself from the shojo manga by Aoi Hiragi.

That film has quietly become one of the most heralded classics from the Studio Ghibli canon since its release in 1995, a picture of youths in the midst of discovering their potential inside themselves at the same time that they discover it in one another, providing a canny portrait not only of young love but the journey of self-love. The demands and challenges of the real world are never quite as convincing and real as they are here, as they stand in the way of not only a young girl’s burgeoning crush with a boy about to move away to find himself, but also her own slowly gestating personal ambitions to become a writer. In that film, the brief glimpses we see of the fantasy novel she pens as a means to prove herself and test her talent are less moments of freedom from the narrative of the mundane, as they are peeks into the pressure-cooker that world makes of her inner world. The stakes for the successful completion and quality of her writing are so well defined that we can’t merely be washed away by the beauty of the imagery Kondo puts to the screen (though it’s certainly beautiful enough to do so on its own), because we’re so keenly aware of what it represents for her personal goals. As such, the moments of Miyazaki fantasy throughout the film serve self-conscious expressions of the real-world concerns permeating throughout the film, and the self-consciousness helps serve both the way that the film treats the authoring of fantasy writing and the ways in which a young person’s personality comes to blossom in discovering itself. For a somewhat more conventional expression of pure fantasy/real-world combinations, we can look to that film’s spin-off sequel, The Cat Returns.

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By Bob Clark

Where did I first learn the origin story of Batman, who he is, and how he came to be? It certainly wouldn’t have been from reruns of the old Adam West show, which I watched enthusiastically when I was growing up, which all but ignored the dark foundations that writer Bill Finger laid down for the character created by artist Bob Kane in the pages of Detective Comics in favor of bright, primary colored fights and stale, flat one-liners that would give a bad reputation to the term “comic book story” for years to come. I can more or less place where I first discovered the stories that outlined the beginnings of other superheroes from my childhood. As a young tyke I watched Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie almost as religiously as I viewed the Star Wars films, and even had a tape of the old Fleischer cartoon shorts that would probably be unwatchable if you put it in a VCR today, thanks to how often I played it– either way, I’d have been well exposed to the doomed planet Krypton and the infant Kal-El’s arrival in Kansas like baby Moses in the reeds. When I was in grade school I was lucky enough for Marvel to reprint the first appearance of Spider-Man from Amazing Fantasy, allowing me to discover my favorite hero’s humble roots as Peter Parker, and the tragic way that he grapples with power and responsibility.

But for Batman, I have no concrete memory of where I first heard about his beginnings. Yet like a prime Jungian archetype, he was always there in some corner of my mind, such that when I first saw Tim Burton’s 1989 film, opening on a back-alley mugging in Gotham City, I was bewildered to see the Caped Crusader show up to foil it, at first assuming we were watching young Bruce Wayne being orphaned.  Somehow I’d just always known that his wealthy parents had been gunned down when he was just a boy, and that he then channeled his rage and riches into becoming the Dark Knight savior of Gotham City and it’s rogue’s gallery of gangsters and psychopaths. Obviously somebody must’ve told me the story when I was too small to remember, but there’s something appealing in the idea that one could simply uncconsciously intuit where this shadowy avenger in the night came from. There’ve been countless retellings of Batman and his origins in all manner of media in the past few decades, some of which I’ve absorbed gregariously– definitive work from Frank Miller, Dave Mazzuchelli and the team of Loeb & Sale in graphic novels; further films following the Burton years from the likes of Joel Shumacher and especially Christopher Nolan; even the video games of the Arkham Asylum series, pitting the Dark Knight against whole open-world sandboxes of crime. But none have been quite so celebrated or as influential as Batman: The Animated Series as spearheaded by artist Bruce Timm and writer Paul Dini, this week marking the 20th anniversary of its debut on television.

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By Bob Clark

Japanese manga amounts to a sub-genre of comics in the west, albeit one of increasing popularity and devotion among younger and younger readers, enough to the point that it’s more and more common to see western artists and writers imitate the form as little more than a commercial trick to lure new readers in. But within manga itself there are at least a dozen or so genres for the form to be subdivided into, ranging into all kinds of different creative directions based on the content, style and intended audience. Most visible and popular in the United States tend to be the shonen series, aimed chiefly for young boys and filled with action-packed stories ranging from the martial-arts fantasy of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball, the magical adventure of Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist and any number of works from groundbreaking creator Osamu Tezuka. Skewing towards an older, college-male audience are seinen series, typically filled with far more mature content in terms of sex and violence, and at the best of times created with a more mature artistic sensibility as well– it’s here that we get the root of classics like Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and the whole creative output of Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed creator Masamune Shirow.

At the same time, there are josei works aimed at college-age and adult women, mostly focusing on day-to-day realism and emotional stories ranging from romance to simply finding a place in a busy world, a fine example being Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone’s Only Yesterday, later made into a film by Isao Takahata. As the co-founder of the storied Studio Ghibli, Takahata’s creative output has helped make him one of the defining voices of anime, and even a defining voice within the studio itself, even as it is defined by the influence of his colleague, Hayao Miyazaki. Takahata’s stories tend to center more on realism and emotional drama, as opposed to the adventure and fantasy prevalent in Miyazaki’s work, and as such his decision to adapt a josei makes a kind of sense. More surprising, however, may be his colleague’s decision to adapt a piece of pure shojo– one of the most popular manga forms, aimed traditionally at young girls, mostly concerned with school-crushes and romance– the resulting work being the modest classic Whisper of the Heart.

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