Django Unchained is quite possibly the finest example of an adapted-from-film comicbook, except of course, it's really not, not entirely…
Much has happened, as they say. Already by the second page, it feels like we've been pulled in by a great and secret gravity; a gravity of time and meaning and drama. There are no words, but no words are needed for this sheer inhuman drudgery that unfolds in the opening pages of Django Unchained, the comicbook based on the most recent Tarantino movie.
Our only clue to the opening scene is a solitary, near-anonymous caption that reads: "Somewhere in Texas…". The rest? Walking, whipping, bleeding, chains, the rain and the sun apportioned in equally unpleasant and equally endless measures. By the time we get 10 panels into the story, by the time the words actually begin to flow, much has happened.
The value of being under that sheer weight of happening lies in a kind of rite of return to the stark visuals of the cover. Imagine if you will, or simply google for it, Django and Dr. King (yes, Dr. King!) in silhouette walking into a red backdrop. Above them hangs the iconic image of Django's past, the inescapable thing that binds these two men together--Django's chain. The last link in the chain is snapped open and dangles perilously above the two men walking off into their own cowboy movie. It's a chain poised like a sword, waiting to drop.
The core tension of book is evolved elegantly in those first few glancing blows of the book. It's the idea that Django Unchained, the comicbook, is the fuller version of narrative unfolded in the movie. Tarantino himself is as clear as the light of day in his foreword. "What's really cool about doing the Django Unchained comic book", he writes, "is that it's the ENTIRE SCRIPT" (his own emphasis). This comes on the heels of a paragraph about Tarantino having long ago made peace with the devil's duty of need to contract his scripts so that they conform to movie format.
"'Django Unchained' is a big epic western", Tarantino reminds us earlier in the foreword, "When I write my big, epic scripts like this or 'Kill Bill,' there's a lot of stuff that doesn't make it into the movies because they are just too f-ing big. If I were to do everything that's in the scripts, they would be four-hour movies. So there's always this aspect that the script is a big literary piece, and I'm always changing it and conforming it to fit into a movie".
Django Unchained is a work of rare passion, and rare precision, not at all unlike watching one of the great ballets or MacArthur's landing at Inchon. But as MacArthur himself was found of saying (repeating a famous adage of Clausewitz), "No plan survives contact with the enemy". It's a saying that might be retooled in this case to read, "No script survives contact with its execution". It's maybe overly romantic and maybe even a little naïve on Tarantino's part to believe that even if the comicbook does play out the full version of the script, that it comes without compromise.
For one thing, you won't recognize any of the actors, at least not visually. And because the dialogue wasn't written directly for the sublimely talented Christoph Waltz, you won't necessarily "hear" him in the dialogue either. Or any of the other actors in their roles for that matter. Artist and Adapter-In-Chief, R. M. Guéra (of Scalped fame), made the express creative choice to ensure that the comicbook was visually distinct from the film.
For another thing, the comicbook struggles with the filmic text. Not "struggles" in the sense of lags behind, or darts ahead or finds itself lost on the waves in relation to, but rather "struggles" in the sense of wrestles with, or meditates on, or leverages against the world. "Struggles with" like Beethoven struggled with his loss of hearing, like Kafka struggled with his father, like Batman "struggles" with Catwoman in exactly the same way as the Riddler or the Mad Hatter might be no struggle at all. Struggles with, in the same sense the philosopher and the poet struggle with.
It's this skirmishing and re-skirmishing of filmic text and comicbook storytelling conventions, this ongoing guerilla warfare of narrative, that lends a weight and an import and a gravitas to Django Unchained beyond which even the film on which it's based can lay claim to. It certainly does make of Django Unchained, the comicbook, somewhat more literary than just the epic nature of the script. And this choice of the endless tango of narrative does make Django Unchained much more layered, and more sophisticated than other "based-on-the-movie" books.
In every real and credible way, Django Unchained isn't based on Django Unchained at all, but is a parallel work to, another, different, equally primary branching out of the same germ that was the genesis for the movie. You get exactly the same tension, the same tragedy, the same waywardness and suffering of simply being "somewhere in Texas", at that time, as the movie does. You just get at that emotional canvas by a different road, through a different medium.
In truth, it's that waywardness and suffering that's really at the heart of this book. You never lose those powerful initial images that open the book so hauntingly. And when the tension around shooting the sheriff in Daughtrey re-evokes those initial images, you begin slowly to realize that those powerful, opening images themselves say just about as much about Guéra and his grand project of adaptation, as they do about Dr. King and Django.
There simply is no better visual signature for this than that sublime cover--two anonymous, silhouetted figures walking away, with their peril still suspended above them. A chain of Damocles, something even a sword cannot cut.
* * *
After just two weeks, Django Unchained has already gone into a second print.