Ancillary merchandising for films can certainly run to the ridiculous. Just the other day I saw a Darth Vader lawn sprinkler for sale at Wal-Mart. I almost bought it, for reasons of irony and kitsch, but then stopped myself when I realized how depressing it would be to buy a Darth Vader lawn sprinkler from Wal-Mart. There are some consumer acts that even irony can’t cut.
Film merchandising projects can certainly be worthwhile, of course, especially when the publishing market gets involved. Books attached to films are indeed a kind of merchandising, but they need not be so overtly crass. The hardcover edition of MirrorMask, The Illustrated Film Script of the Motion Picture from The Jim Henson Company is an example of a companion book that makes sense. After all, the film’s creators, Neil Gaiman (screenwriter) and Dave McKean (director), are two of the most celebrated graphic novel artists of all time. It seems entirely proper to see a book from these two. What’s weird is that there’s a movie attached.
Due to the vagaries of the film distribution business, it turns out that the book MirrorMask will be on shelves for several months before the movie hits theaters. (Although the film has screened at a few festivals, it’s not expected to see wide distribution in the US and Europe until later this fall). And so we have the strange situation in which we can peruse at length the full script and storyboards, along with production stills and written material by Gaiman and McKean, well before we have any chance of seeing the movie itself. It’s the ultimate spoiler.
The story of MirrorMask is vintage Gaiman, and I mean that with all the slight exasperation and ultimate affection it implies. Helena, troubled and dreamy teenage heiress to the family circus, is drawn into a strange alternate reality that may or may not be all in her head. There she embarks upon the hero’s quest, complete with scary villains, dubious allies, weird and marvelous locales, and the requisite evil queen. Most involving is the presence of a doppelganger Helena, a changeling mirrorself who wants a life of her own here on our side of the fence.
In its essentials, the story of MirrorMask is evocative of many older stories—Alice in Wonderland presents itself pretty readily. But Gaiman will be the first to tell you that all stories are just resonant amplifications. From a handful of ancient myths, we tell ourselves these same stories over and over again. Gaiman typically wears his voluble inspirations on his sleeve, but what’s surprising here is the specifically similarity to ground Gaiman covered himself in his groundbreaking comics series Sandman, particularly the “Game of You” story arc. And Helena must be Gaiman’s 100th iteration of dangerously imaginative, slightly punked-out teenage heroine.
That said, MirrorMask is populated with fantastic and inspired moments: monkeybirds and flying giants, sentient cities and temporal “soft places” where the space-time continuum maintains a refreshingly informal attitude. The character of Valentine, Helena’s companion for much of the journey, is one of the story’s richest creations—a charismatic rogue whom, due to his ambiguous reality, Freud would find vastly compelling.
As to the book itself, each page has six sketches by McKean, in the 1.85:1 storyboard aspect ratio, running vertically down the page alongside Gaiman’s script, which is formatted in the usual commercial screenplay style. In a rather roundabout way, it seems Gaiman and McKean are once again working together in their field of specialty—comics. Juxtaposed words and images in deliberate sequential order.
The publisher has made a tremendous effort to package this thing nicely. The hardcover book is printed in big prestige 11” x 9” format, with a full-color dust jacket illustrated by McKean, and 32 pages of color production stills inside. The various introductions and appendices provide “making of” details and a lot of back and forth on the creative process between Gaiman and McKean.
But none of this can prevent the book from feeling more than a little thin. Gaiman and McKean’s previous comics work together, particularly on Sandman, had one distinguishing characteristic—density. Gaiman’s writing is famously packed with mythic and literary allusions, both in the text and the artwork. McKean’s busy compositions are incredibly heavy, in terms of visual complexity. (He did the covers for all the Sandman issues and, later, the graphic novel collections).
But the screenplay-and-storyboard format here reduces the work to, literally, sketches. McKean’s images are greyscale line drawings, and Gaiman’s text is pared down dramatically to the necessarily spartan style of the screenplay—dialogue and short “stage” directions. The pages have a kind of sparse simplicity, pleasing initially until you realize that’s all you’re going to get. I don’t think I’ve ever moved through 336 pages so quickly in my life. There’s simply nothing to linger on.
From what I’ve seen in the production stills and the trailer (available online here [[http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0366780/trailers]]), this certainly isn’t going to be a problem in the finished film itself. The movie is immediately recognizable as McKean’s vision—all freak show darkness and intensity.
Collectors and those who like to peek behind the curtain will certainly enjoy this book, and Lord knows it looks handsome sitting there on the coffee table. But as an aesthetic item in and of itself, as a cultural artifact borne of film merchandising, MirrorMask is little more than a buffed-up scrapbook.