Freeze Frame: How Best to Capture Film in a Comic Book?

When comics try to be specific movies or novels, they are indeed unsuccessful. Comics adaptations of movies are pointless cash-ins at best – movies that don’t move, with inaccurate drawings of the actors and scenery. Why would anyone but an obsessive want to look at that?

— Douglas Wolk, Reading Comics

I think about this passage a lot. It jumped out at me because Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight (Dark Horse Comics) is the series that brought me back to monthly comics. Not long after starting my subscription I read Reading Comics for the first time.

While Wolk’s commentary focuses on movies and prose works, the logic, and what I have heard and read from him since (see, for example, “Emanata: Eight Questions for Comics Creators”, Techland, 21 May 2010) also applies to TV and, more broadly, to the realm of ‘licensed comics’ or books made from titles and characters originally on film or television and owned by rights holders outside of the comics industry.

The implication of the quoted passage is that comics based on other media are almost always, ‘bad’ or, at least, pointless. If nothing else, such works do little to contribute to the development of comics as a medium, positioning it as a subsidiary form and a cheap means to derive additional profit from a selected property or properties.

As much I find myself able to agree with the basic critique, I also buy and read licensed comics on a regular basis. In addition to the aforementioned Buffy, I also subscribe to IDW’s Angel (and Spike when available). I not only had the first Fringe mini-series from Wildstorm pulled, but bought the trade collection just so I could get the first issue, which I missed. I have already pre-ordered the second series. My recent purchases also include the Star Trek movie prequel (IDW, 2009), and the last X-Files series (Wildstorm, 2009).

From Angel #18. Pencils & inks: Dave Ross. Colors: Charlie Kirchoff

If the catalogs of publishers like Dark Horse, IDW, and BOOM! are any indication, I am hardly alone in my licensed sins against comics art. The prevalence of titles based on stories and characters from other media implies that, whatever their merits in absolute terms, there must still be an art and craft to making these books.

In looking for that art, I think it is important to acknowledge that there are few comics that are simply direct adaptations of movies or TV shows. These exist, and I think that Wolk has a point when he wonders at who, and why, someone would want to read such a thing, but more commonly licensed comics take characters, and settings, from other media and place them in new stories.

Elisabeth Rohm as Kate Lockley

While motion is a quality that comics do not share with film and television, all three are visual media and are, most often, used for storytelling. The primary appeal of licensed comics lies here: fans want to see and read more about characters to which they have become attached. From that perspective, a ‘good’ adapted comic is one that takes TV and movie characters and makes creative, but authentic, use of them in the new form.

One of the best uses of licensed comics is to fill in narrative gaps left in the original story or stories. The main purpose of the first Fringe series is to offer a backstory to Walter Bishop and William Bell’s relationship, something only hinted at on TV. In the same vein, among the most interesting and innovative of the Angel comics are those that look at ‘lost’ periods in Angel’s history. The current Barbary Coast mini-series is a good example of this.

Fans, particularly Wolk’s ‘obsessives’, can and will argue about whether the stories told in comics, as opposed to those told on television or in film, should be considered ‘canon’ or not, and on what basis they should or should not be considered one or the other, but regardless of that debate, there is pleasure to be found in well crafted speculations on what may have happened to a character at this or that time or in this or that place. This is more or less the reason for fan fiction.

Comics do not carry the same budgetary constraints as exist in film or, especially, television on what kinds of stories can be told. For example, the Buffy Season Eight storyworld is much grander than the TV series was able to be (the four issue arc featuring slayer-of-the-future Melaka Fray, set in a dystopic urban landscape, would have likely busted the budget for all of Buffy‘s seven seasons on television; I exaggerate, but only a little). This is not always a good thing, sometimes bigger is just bigger and not better, but taking thoughtful advantage of the opportunities afforded by the economics of comics is another mark of a ‘good’ adaption from film or television.

From Angel #18. Pencils & inks: Dave Ross. Colors. Charlie Kirchoff

On its own, the Fray (Dark Horse, 2003) mini-series is a good example of how comics can be used to extend a narrative begun in another medium. Not strictly a Buffy adaptation, the book nonetheless only makes sense in reference to the TV series. It takes the history and rules of the Buffyverse and places them in a new context, with new characters. The series is a particularly good example of how narratives can fruitfully stretch across different media.

David Boreanaz as Angel

Arguably one reason why Fray works is because its particular setting and characters are original to comics. There is no question of ‘ inaccurate drawings of the actors and scenery’. However, this is not the case for the mainstream of licensed comics, which do feature places and characters with cinematic or televisual referents. And here is where comics adapted from moving image media often have the greatest chance of failing artistically, or, at least, is a point at which the differences between forms creates significant challenges for adaptation.

Comics art necessarily entails abstraction. Not all of the details that an artist can notice in ‘real life’ can or should be reflected in the panels of a comic. Too much information can distract from the narrative. Similarly, art that approaches photography in look and feel may succeed in rendering the appearance of people and places, actors and scenery, in ways that appear ‘real’, but in so doing they may also be overly static, connoting stills from a movie or TV production more than panels in a comic, their narrative function suborned to the ‘realism’ of the individual figure or scene.

Nonetheless, successfully evoking the characters and settings from the original media is a necessary part of a licensed comic. If readers are unable to recognize their beloved characters on the page, then a book truly does become pointless.

There isn’t any right way to meet this requirement, but there are many ways to make a wrong turn. Characters original to the comics can be drawn in an almost infinite variety of ways. Characters with histories, most superheroes, for example, have a context in which they are made that needs to be addressed, but the limits inherent in being based on a ‘real person’ do not exist as they do with characters who are based on actors.

Having written that, while some artists are able to comfortably render TV and film characters with strong likenesses to their three dimensional counterparts, consistency is always an issue. A panel featuring a close-up on a face provides more opportunity for photographic levels of detail than does a panel showing multiple figures or from a wider perspective.

Of course in comics, there is text, as well as images, to let a reader know who is supposed to be who. Drawings are anchored by dialogue or captions. For me, what is even more important than the ‘realism’ of the artwork in a licensed comic is getting a character’s voice right, which is to say, does the character do and say things that are consistent with what the reader knows about them from film or TV. If the voice is right, then artists can be afforded more freedom to draw in ways that they see fit, working with only basic details, like eye and hair color.

Writers who work on established comics series also need to write with their characters’ voices in mind, and in that sense the difference between a licensed title and one that is an original comics serial is minimal. However, on film and television the actor who plays a character is also an important custodian of how that character speaks and acts. That perspective is, far more often than not, missing in comics.

For both writers and artists working on adaptations of movies and TV shows the challenge is to find a working space wherein one’s own sensibilities can be effectively meshed with the look and feel of the original text and into a book that works for readers. As Wolk implies, this may not be the highest or best expression of art and craft in comics, but doing it well is, in its own way, still an achievement, perhaps even more so because of the mixed reputation of such books.

In a world where characters and stories, and tropes and archetypes, are routinely told and shared across different media, there isn’t any reason to think that comics made from television and movies are inherently bad anymore than there is reason to think films and TV shows made from comics are intrinsically inferior to ones made from other sources. The best adapted comics will take on lives of their own as comics, but if one of the worst things you can say about a book is, “That would have made a great episode of the show (or a movie)”, that’s not so bad either. If it takes a fan to have that reaction, that is perhaps as it should be.