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Archive for July 28th, 2012

By Bob Clark

In one of those now perennial summer seasons during which the theaters suffer a surplus of big-budgeted movies derived from superhero stories and other narratives originating in the sequential arts, it seems an apt time to reevaluate and consider what most people really mean when they talk, usually with some matter of condescension, of the so-called “comic book movie”. Whenever one’s talking about something that’s literally based on a comic book, like any of the myriad of Marvel or DC properties that have found themselves transformed into blockbuster entertainment in the past few months (to say nothing of the film franchises that have spawned them over the past twenty or thirty years), the term feels correct, but mostly superficial. Yes, characters like Batman or the Avengers first made their debut in the pages of comics, but we don’t ordinarily define stories or characters from other sources by the medium they originated from– we don’t label Branagh’s or Olivier’s Shakespeare adaptations “theater movies” or Coppola’s Godfather trilogy “novels on film” (though he himself did label a chronological recut of them a “novel for television”). And there’s plenty more films that find themselves slapped with the “comic book movie” label despite being based on something from another source (the perfectly cast but horribly directed The Shadow, jumping to movie screens from the radio) or even being an original work altogether that merely shares the same genre elements (one could call the Flash Gordon film a “comic book” movie and almost be correct, but not so with other, more successful space operas).

For the most part, “comic book movie” is really nothing more than a term of shallow genre disparagement, looking only for the most base similarities between the stories and visual deliveries and sufficing to end the comparison there before deeper looks can even be attempted. And though that line of thinking very often results in the unjust writing off of great, unlikely seeming works both derived from comics (most could watch Road to Perdition and History of Violence and be none the wiser of their origins) and within the medium itself, I can’t help but wonder if the critics who rely upon treading water with that term may occasionally stumble on a more interesting truth that goes beyond the base genre similarities and further into the ways that the two mediums are linked, and more importantly separated. For as many have observed as the two art forms have developed over the course of the past century, both cinema and comics share a great deal in common as embodiments of visual storytelling. More than any other expressive forms, one is able to express the emotions and communicate the substance of a narrative above and beyond the boundaries of language to a larger audience in these mediums– it helps to be able to understand the language any given work is created in, or at the very least have a reliable translation provided, but even without that there’s something about the sheer visual language of comics and cinema that can allow one to follow any given sequence of moving or still imagery and keep up with it, somewhat. It’s that difference between moving and still imagery, however, that makes the creative opportunities offered by the two mediums so distinct, yet also what can create frustration when those opportunities aren’t taken full advantage of. In that regard, though it’s based on Junji Ito’s jaw-dropping manga, Takayuki Hirao’s animated film of Gyo is one of those comic-book inspired works that deserves better than to be called a mere “comic book movie”.

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