Epic Ideas, Epic Images: Adapting Comics to Film

The S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier from The Avengers (2012)

Superhero comics have become eminently exploitable resources for filmmakers seeking images, characters, and concepts that can be matched to the scale of the theater screen.

American superhero comics traffic in the epic. Ending the world. Saving the world. Giant robots. Massive monsters. The word "superhero", by itself, connotes someone who is outsized, literally, figuratively, or both.

One of the attractions of seeing comics adapted to film, for both filmmakers and audiences, is the opportunity to see super-human characters and concepts from print rescaled for the screen.

Comics is a humanly scaled medium. Most books can be held in one hand or in a lap. Figures and objects are, typically, smaller than they would be out in the world. In surveying the pages of a comic, it is easy for a reader to feel a sense of mastery or control over what they see.

Films, by contrast, are made to be projected at a scale that renders figures and many objects larger than life. Film images are meant to be viewed at a distance, and from the beginning, filmmakers have turned the medium towards spectacle, from space ships to natural disasters.

The S.H.I.E.L.D helicarrier from House of M #6 (2005)

That comics is also used for pop spectacle is by virtue of the economics of their production and not the scale of their composition. In simple terms, with pencil and paper, you can realize whatever larger than life vision you have at minimal cost. As a consequence, superhero comics have become eminently exploitable resources for filmmakers seeking images, characters, and concepts that can be matched to the scale of the theater screen.

Making that adaptation work, however, is more complicated than simply making things bigger. Scale is only one aspect of how the two media work differently in terms of time and space.

With comics, an artist can visually suggest the passage of time at different rates, by, for example, providing visual cues as to time of day in different panels, or as Scott McCloud has noted, by playing with the size and shape of panels to encourage readers to move quickly from image to image or to linger. However, ultimately, the reader is in control of their reading experience and how slowly or quickly, or even in what order, they read (see Understanding Comics, HarperPerennial, 1993, chapter 4).

In film, transitions between images and how long to hold on an individual image are decisions made by the filmmakers. Here, viewers are more reactive and less active. Even when viewing a film out of context, at home, with the ability to pause, rewind and fast forward through frames, the film image is still meant to be viewed at the pace set by the filmmakers.

These differences in time and space have implications for the presentation, or re-presentation, of the outsized heroes, villains, technologies and creatures that populate the narratives employed in both media.

One example of this distinction is in the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, a long-standing part of the Marvel Universe recently shown on screen in The Avengers.

Modeled after aircraft carriers, but with the ability to travel on water and in the air, the helicarrier is a classic comics invention, where physics and engineering are bent to the will of the artist, but is also the kind of spectacle that many filmmakers strive to bring to audiences. Seeing this technology scaled for movie screens is something that many a Marvel reader was looking forward to with The Avengers, while also being a concept that non-readers could relate to in the context of other massive movie machines.

In the film, the helicarrier is introduced via an extended sequence, reminiscent of the (re)introduction of the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) or the Titanic in James Cameron's 1997 film. Here the time taken to show audiences the helicarrier turns the conveyance into a spectacle, something to be gawked at (which is what Tony Stark and Bruce Banner do when brought to the landing deck). Shown from multiple angles, and in an extended lift-off sequence that culminates in a shot of the vehicle while cloaking is engaged, the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier is framed and displayed as, suitably, a visual marvel, a sight to behold.

In the more human-scaled pages of a comic, the helicarrier does not function as pure spectacle. A similar effect to the one in the film can be achieved in a single panel, possibly a splash page, where the reader, if they want, can study the design and appearance of the vehicle in their own way and on their own time.

The S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier Strange Tales #135 (1965)

However, in a typical Marvel comic, a sequence like the one in the film, adapted to print, would be a narrative dead-end. Most readers would be likely to skim past that series of panels to get back to the story; a few may pause to gawk, but the opening panel would have already efficiently and effectively introduced the helicarrier into the narrative.

On the page, as opposed to on a 30-by-70 foot movie screen, the helicarrier as spectacle is more an idea than an experience. More significant is what the helicarrier signifies in terms of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s power and purpose. Jack Kirby's concept is a useful signifier for an agency charged with planetary surveillance and protection, and that symbolic function is more important within a comics narrative than is its role as a technological wonder.

Both comics and film are employed for visual storytelling, but the two media work with different configurations of space and time, both in terms of internal structure -- moving frames, static panels, giant screens, handheld pages -- and in their relationship to readers and viewers. Managing those differences, of translating the epic ideas of comics to the epic scales of film, is where much of the art of adapting superhero comics lies.

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