Comic books, cultural catastrophes, and juggled balls.

by Marie Marshall

All images shown under ‘fair use’ provisions.

V for vendettaI own only one graphic novel, Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta. Of course I do – why wouldn’t I own a book in which an anarchist superhero goes mano a mano with a fascist government in Britain? I notice that Alan Moore distanced himself from the film version, exciting though that was (and it starred the wonderful Hugo Weaving!), saying that it had been ‘turned into a Bush-era parable by people too timid to set a political satire in their own country’. Having read the script, he said,

It’s a thwarted and frustrated and largely impotent American liberal fantasy of someone with American liberal values standing up against a state run by neoconservatives – which is not what the comic V for Vendetta was about. It was about fascism, it was about anarchy, it was about England.

If this does nothing else, it points up the difficulty in adapting a work of art in one medium for another. Perhaps the greatest irony about both the graphic novel and the film of V For Vendetta, is that whilst the Guy Fawkes mask of the protagonist has become instantly recognized worldwide as a symbol of radical protest, it must be making a pretty good profit for someone.

I own three DVDs that are adaptations of graphic novels or comics (if you don’t count assorted Batman flicks in the back of the drawer). These are 300, based on Frank Miller’s and Lynn Varley’s fictionalization of the Battle of Thermopylae, and Kick Ass and Kick Ass 2, based on the comics of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.

Kick AssKick Ass is fun. It came in for a lot of abuse on account of the bad language, less for the violence – with the exception of one teenager, no bad guy is left alive by the end of the film. Its killing-spree violence is in the tradition of Peckinpah and Tarantino, subverting the bloodless wrong-righting of The Lone Ranger and Batman. I think people missed the point that it is highly satirical of the superhero genre, and simply spares no effort to de-bunk its ‘zap’ and ‘pow’ fisticuffs. It is, as the cover of the comic book says ‘Sickening violence, just the way you like it’, signaling that it does not take itself seriously and shouldn’t be taken too seriously by readers and movie-goers. The satire of the film is taken further by the character Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) adopting the phrasing of Adam West, one of the film’s Batman references along with the parting Jack Nicholson quote from Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) “Wait till they get a load of me”, and Hit-Girl’s (Chloë Grace Moretz) “Just contact the mayor’s office. He’s got this giant light he shines in the sky. It’s in the shape of a giant cock” (the bird! the bird! Omnia munda mundis!).

Alan Moore is, I guess, entitled to take pot shots at the genre from his position as an insider. If anyone knows the genre he does. In his latest diatribe, possibly his public farewell, he not only curses the modern craze for superheroes, but also tackles such issues as the depiction of rape, and the right of an author to use characters of a different race, class, or gender from his or her own. Specifically on superheroes he says:

To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence. It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.

Angels Amazon coverHaving fallen almost by accident into writing for young adults, I find myself skirting superhero territory. The teenagers in my novel The Everywhen Angels have powers that they don’t quite understand, and the protagonist in my recently-completed teen-vampire novella, From My Cold, Undead Hand, is a girl who has been trained to hunt and destroy vampires. Consciously or unconsciously, however, I seem to have made these characters break a mould, or break out of a strait-jacket. Unlike traditional heroes, they don’t necessarily win, they don’t necessarily triumph over a force bigger than they are, their tales do not have a clear resolution where all is explained in a neat and tidy way. Good does not necessarily triumph over evil, and where it does it may well be by accident rather than design. Why?

I guess it is because so many action adventures in any medium, where makers justify their violence in terms of the triumph of good over evil, are little more than morality plays and wish-fulfillment fantasies. If I’m to get readers close to the characters, and the characters close to the danger, everyone is going to have to realise that kids don’t get to be kings and queens of Narnia, and they do get to screw up. I mention all this because one of the balls I’m currently juggling is scripting From My Cold, Undead Hand for adaptation into a graphic novel. It isn’t all that easy. As I was writing it I never had anything in my mind apart from painting pictures with text. In order to script it, I have to take a huge step back, almost throw out the entire manuscript, and re-tell the story a totally different way. I have to imagine how it might look on the page. Take the following note I have made about the initial image:

Exceptionally, this should be a full-page picture, opening on the right-hand page. Chevonne is striding towards us, sword strapped to her back, carbon-pistol in her hand. Her face is rather grim and determined. The angle is fairly low – we’re slightly looking up at her. She’s striding between the stacks of a library. Text in a rectangular box, or maybe two, says something like: ‘The time is a little way into the future. This is Chevonne Kustnetsov – by day a student at PS#401, New York, by night a vampire hunter. Here she is, pursuing a vampire through the University Club Library, tracking it down to destroy it…’ Perhaps change that to 1st person speech, as the text novel is in 1st. Maybe not. We can take that final decision later.

Compare that with the opening paragraph of the novella:

There’s an art to this. When a vamp de-korps I only have a split second to guess where it’s going to re-korp. This one’s tricky, clever, powerful. As I just beaded my carbon-gat at it, it blew into a thousand-thousand little bits in front of me. Thought it could fool me, but that de-korp happened too quick to be the result of my bullet.

In that opening there is no detail of who the character is, where she is, or when the story is set. Such detail is revealed within the text when it needs to be – her school, for example, is not referred to until the second chapter, and the time in which the story is set is implied by things such as the technology depicted. You can easily see that this is a total departure for me. It’s quite a challenge and I think I’ll have to put other projects on hold while I tackle it. But you know me – I’m liable to pick up and put down my writing projects in a rather haphazard way. Wish me luck.