Friday, February 22, 2008

The Cross Pollination of Comics and Movies

The recent news that Warner Bros. is fast tracking a live-action remake of the Japanese anime Akira, with Leonardo DiCaprio producing and starring in, got me to thinking about several points. First, I will say that I was disappointed in the news, why mess with a movie that is already a standout in its own right, and has an audience devoted to it that has been building for years? Then again, from a studio perspective, why NOT mess with a movie like a Akira, which has a large audience, guaranteeing big ticket sales and widespread interest?

So, it seems I've found an answer to these questions right off the bat, which is money (who knows, maybe DiCaprio has a strong passion for this project. Maybe he'll bring something insightful to the American version.) But I think there are some larger issues at work, especially when it comes to comics and their cultural standing in America today. For several years now, (and for the foreseeable future) Hollywood has been adapting comics into movies, with varying degrees of success. For every Spider-Man and Batman Begins, there is Catwoman and the new version of The Punisher. A movie like Ghost World embellishes and deepens its source material, while a movie like V for Vendetta seems to cheapen its source material. For the studios, each movie is a chance to take advantage of the built in audiences for the comics, while for the comics and creators, its the hope that an audience for a comic (or comics in general) will grow. The economics of this whole thing have been widely debated, but what I'm wondering is how these movies affect the cultural standing of comics.

Look at it from this perspective; long before comic adaptations, Hollywood was adapting literary novels and plays. Shakepeare, Austen, Dickens, to name a few. But how long were these literary works in existence before the adaptations? This of course would depend upon its year of creation, and its relation to the invention of film and cinema. In the case of Dickens, this is a span of almost 100 years. For Shakspeare, almost 400. Regardless, long before their adaptations, each work had a good, long opportunity to establish itself for what it was. So, no matter how many adaptations of Hamlet there are, the original play will still be regarded as the real deal.

Comics, however, have not had this benefit. Almost from its popular inception in the first half of the twentieth century, comics became plucking grounds for companies to use for cartoons, movies, tv shows, and merchandise. In some cases, the creators of the comics had a hand in this, but in many more cases the creators saw their hands tied, and their rightful fortunes kept from them. Needless to say, the medium never really had a chance to establish itself in its own right. It was no matter that Superman began in the comics, soon his image was seen in a diverse array of media, so that the original comic source became in some sense inconsequential.

Jump ahead to the present day, and the standing of comics has admittedly improved. Independent creators have grown and thrived (although not economically in many cases), and have more control over the work they've done. Even the Big Two, DC and Marvel, have learned some lessons and have given creators more leeway and control (but not rights necessarily). And comics themselves, thanks to the work of R. Crumb, Chris Ware, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Scott McCloud, and many others, have gained a certain academic cache. But with the trend of cross pollination between media still strong, it seems difficult to ascertain when and how comics will be given its due in its own right, on its own terms. How many creators are there who can resist a film adaptation of their work, or for some, is this the actual goal? Is this necessarily wrong? What is the creator forsaking in her/his original comic work? Is economics the big factor, that an adaptation means more money, which means the creator can keep making comics, possibly making even better comics?

I wish I had answers to these questions, and I will admit, many of these ideas are fairly general. But I think it's all worth chewing over as comics moves ahead in the world, caught in the maelstorm with every other medium of art.

* Of course, it needs to be acknowledged that the creator of Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo, made both the comic and the anime version, with differences between both, and is serving as a producer on the American version. And the cross pollination of ideas within film between Japan and America, East and West, is nothing new. John Ford influenced Akira Kurosawa, as Kurosawa influenced George Lucas and Sergio Leone. Perhaps this new Akira will be one of those cases. Here's hoping, at the very least.

*Something dawned on me as I wrote this: perhaps this cross pollination of media is the future of a work of art. Perhaps there's no other way for a work to exist except to be a book and a movie, to be a comic and a cartoon and a live action film. Perhaps the walls between these media are becoming transparent and fluid, and the only way to exist is to exist as a multiple.

1 comment:

Eli Edmundson said...

Some good thoughts in here! It seems that new versions of anything will always offend hard core traditionalists. I think it's also hard to imagine other people touching characters that have a long history of one creator, Schulz's Peanuts for example, but characters such as Spiderman have already been interpreted by so many artists and writers it seems easy to accept him in a new media.