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5th April 2017 | Ink issue #6

Ink issue #6: The Adaptation Game

Welcome back. Or maybe forward. It’s been a little while, so thank you for your patience while we put ourselves back together again.

As promised in our calling-in-sick Tweet last week, we have a bumper edition for you this time, with three extended essays on various aspects of comics adaptation, PLUS a brand new website with some extra content on the themes we’ve broached in earlier issues.

First up this week, the feature “With great power: adaptations to and from comics” addresses the creative possibilities of adaptation and the problem of audience expectation. Including insightful conversations with creator of Filmish, Edward Ross, and comic bookseller and podcast hero, Steve Walsh, we’ve discovered this is a really huge topic so I hope you’ll share your thoughts with us too.

Next, we turn our attention to DC with a review of The Ages of the Justice League: Essays on America's Greatest Superheroes in Changing Times. The length of the title may give some indication to the depth of this book, which dissects the entire history of the Justice League of America canon in comics and gives us some context on what we might expect from Zack Snyder’s film this November.

And last and definitely best, Josh takes on the mammoth task of analysing all that is good about the recent adaptation of Marvel’s Legion. Innovative in its narrative and visual techniques, and superb presentation of mental ill-health, the show is a masterwork that proves that the book isn’t always better.

If you’ve downed that and still craving more, head over to ink-mag.co.uk for reviews of Logan and Iron Fist, plus interviews with creator of Soviet Daughter, Julia Alekseyeva and webcomic genius and creator of Pantheon, Hamish Steele.

Of all the social media options we have to talk about these topics and everything else comics throw our way, I’ve discovered that Goodreads is the place I can scroll through the longest before needing a snack break. We’ve set up an Ink-specific account to talk about everything we’re reading so come on over, be our friend, and share your recommendations and bookish feels with us.

Next week we’ll be picking up our publishing schedule from before the break so keep an eye on your inbox and have an incredible seven days.

Steff

Editor-in-Chief

In this issue...

    
Adaptation
Feature
The Ages of the Justice League
Review
Legion season 1
Review
 

With great power: adaptations to and from comics

Remodelling stories for a new audience comes with all sorts of problems for fans and creators, but what is it we really want from comics adaptations?

When we talk about adaptations being “faithful” to their source material we rely on pre-existing interpretations of what that really means. As an audience our tastes are obviously as varied as we are, but there is also the canon of previous adaptations that sets our expectations, as well as the specific iconography within a text that becomes symbolic when compared to our own personal history and experience.

One of the more contentious subjects that has come up around adaptation recently, particularly when moving from comics to screen, is that of character appearance, and more specifically, race. In director Josh Trank’s 2015 interpretation of Fantastic Four there was backlash from some fans for casting black actor Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch.

Defending this decision, as well as his choice to have Ben Grimm/The Thing played by smaller-built actor Jamie Bell, Trank told the LA Times Magazine ahead of the film’s release that he “gets it”, but that “you can’t just keep telling it the same way over and over again.”

The discussion returned the following year when Ruth Negga became the TV incarnation of Tulip in the AMC adaptation of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher. Although less heated, remembering this portion of the debate it seems far more insidious because, not only was Negga seen by some as “wrong” for the previously white and blonde character because of her skin colour, she was somehow considered unable to portray the sexual appeal of an overly-sexualised character for the same reason.

Due to the social climate that is the set piece for discussions of these examples, it’s easy to dismiss the points of the miffed fans by calling them bigotry. But, given the culture of fandom that has its own long history and even extends into realms of its own “faithful” recreations in arts like cosplay, it seems unlikely that racism is the real reason for such dissatisfaction.

Edward Ross, creator of Filmish, a comic examining the history and technical theory of film, believes that carrying over the essence of the original is more important than any specific detail:

“I think being too faithful can be as bad as being too blasé with the source material. For me, the most important thing is that those doing the adaptation dig down to the stuff under the surface that makes something work - the spirit of the story, the core motivations that drive the characters, the themes at the heart of the work.

“Considering how often Hollywood messes up adaptations due to their lack of respect for the source material, I can see why a lot of these fans are expressing their concern. But really, the physical appearance of these characters shouldn’t be what we’re worrying about.”

The idea of new creators not handling the source material with respect may get closer to the heart of the adaptation problem. There seems little reason beyond pure capitalism to take the lead in reproducing a work of art that you don’t love and admire in its original form.

Ross’s own work is a good example of this. Although not an adaptation of any one film, he reproduces iconic frames from significant titles - such as Die Hard, Taxi Driver and even the "simple spectacle" of the 1896 piece Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat - to explore the possibilities of the medium. His clear love of film and creative use of its parts lead to an analysis that is engaging as a text but also promotes understanding through empathy when he inserts himself into a famous movie.

“At its most simple,” he says, “An adaptation of any story should involve staying true to what makes the original piece special, while bringing something new to the story that couldn’t be achieved in its original form.”
 

From page to screen

From a marketing point of view, turning superhero comics into blockbusters and addictive Netflix series is a lucrative idea, but there are many reasons why it’s exciting to put these characters into a different set of boundaries.

At a very basic level, there’s a distinct thrill in seeing beloved fictional people come to life. To be able to see and hear their experiences in a closer-to-life setting creates a new relationship, a new level of empathy with those characters and the text. The most important thing perhaps is seeing them represented in brand new situations, and see things that only seemed possible in the seemingly limitless world of comics be transposed into something familiar but really very different.

This works to great effect in the Netflix adaptation of Marvel hero Jessica Jones. The character of Jessica is faithful to her portrayal in Brian Michael BendisAlias in that she has the same values and underlying flaws, and suffers from the same mental health issues caused by the same trauma. However, because director Melissa Rosenberg acknowledged that a great deal of Alias is unadaptable she drew smaller character arcs and themes from the source material and amplified them to create the dramatic tension necessary for a TV series.

In contrast, many fans deride Zack Snyder’s film adaptation of Watchmen as being a series of poorly-connected tableaux straight from the panels of Alan Moore's comic.

There are limits on the length of a story in any medium, but film probably suffers the most for not having room for the nuance of a comic that inspires it. Steve Walsh, expert comics seller at London’s Gosh! Comics acknowledges that losing detail in transit upsets people but thinks that film has found a happy medium:

“If you are aiming for a mainstream audience, you will sometimes have to sacrifice some continuity-dependent stuff that will chew up screen time while you establish and explain it for people new to a story. For me, that's the beauty of easter eggs in the current wave of superhero films. If you get it, there’s a little treat for you, but if you don't, it washes over you and you're not distracted from the story at hand.”


Franchising through comics

Working the other way, films that are adapted into comics get less buzz, but their responsibilities are the same. In 1976 Jack Kirby and Frank Giacoia’s published a comic book adaptation of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, itself an adaptation of a short story by Arthur C. Clarke (which Clarke and Kubrick novelised together and published the same year as the film was released).

Kirby’s take certainly doesn’t mimic any of Kubrick’s subtlety. Words are abundant, filling up much of each panel so that we get our information through dialogue and description rather than by interpreting the space between them and the colossal vastness that Kubrick exposes us to in the film. Because all of Kirby’s busy contrasts so obliquely with Kubrick’s silence, we might argue that, in both narrative style and atmosphere, the comic is not a faithful adaptation. But the story does get told and, if you happen to like Jack Kirby, it gets told well. Although aesthetically different, it carries the spirit of the original, which, as Ross and Walsh both point out, is what’s essential.

“You can see that very well with examples like Deadpool and Batman V Superman,” says Walsh. “One is true to the spirit of the original material and one very pointedly isn't. There are other strengths and flaws in those films but for me the relative faithfulness they have to the spirit of the source material is key.”

Joss Whedon’s Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse comics are a natural extension of his TV series because of the episodic nature of their narratives, and they succeed because the majority of his projects for television ended before they had the chance to explore the full range of potential stories. Here, we see accurate visual representations of the actors for consistency - although even Whedon points out the gratuitous expansion of some body parts - which is obviously necessary in a continuation of a series. Other franchises like Alien, Transformers and even the cult Jim Henson movie Labyrinth, have transitioned to comics for sequels because they are more cost-effective for the niche markets they attract. An added advantage to catering for cult is that the pressures of mainstream entertainment discussed above are no longer an issue.


Understanding adaptation

Comics adapted from prose succeed when they take advantage of the room they have to tell the same story with all the description removed. As well as the obvious visual advantages of having a character revealed with all their body language and facial expressions available, the medium of comics has unique ways of approaching time, space and the motion between those things.

As Scott McCloud explains in Understanding Comics, “Our perception of ‘reality’ is an act of faith, based on mere fragments.” The diverse methods of handling of those fragments allow comics creators to propel us through a story and direct our brains in ways they might resist against in film or TV.

Unfortunately, weak-minded humans that we are, change is something that we struggle to deal with, no matter how inevitable. If we return to Josh Trank’s LA Times Magazine interview, he explains:

“I have a lot of friends older than me who are comic fans and it’s really hard for them to be on board with a change. Fantastic Four has been theirs for longer than I’ve been alive. It hasn’t been mine.”

This idea of fan ownership is interesting. And it’s true. A project, even one as small as a tweet, is only yours until you put it out into the world. After that the ideas and interpretations of them become public domain.

All of these elements make it difficult to judge a new incarnation of a story, especially within a different medium, because until we see it we may not even know what we’re looking for. Ultimately, it seems to be about trust in the creator and the strength of the source material. At the very worst, we’ll always have the original to return to.

Steff Humm

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The Ages of the Justice League

This collection of essays on the Justice League highlights the need for more diversity in superhero team-ups.

Editor: Joseph Darowski
Publisher: McFarland & Co Inc

Created as hopeful propaganda in a period of real-world conflict, comic book superheroes have always been inherently reactive; a highly visible representation of, or challenge to, the personal and political issues of the American people.

This sociological mirror is the primary thread between the essays that make up The Ages of the Justice League: Essays on America’s Greatest Superheroes in Changing Times. Covering much of the 20th century and its ever-breaking waves of audience expectation and censorship by social narrative, the book breaks down the evolution of some of the genre’s most enduring members according to public need, perhaps even protesting too much for their relevance in the more mainstream space currently heated by the shine of their competitors from Marvel.

The essays are arranged in a loosely linear fashion, beginning with some origin info on the disparate “Golden” and “Silver Ages” of comic books before marching through the Cold War and beyond, jumping back and forth in time as parallel universes allow, towards 2011’s New 52.

In “The Brave and the Bold Beginning of the Silver Age Superteam” John Darowski explains how the group of supers fighting against Second World War evils as the Justice Society of America “morphed from agents of change into agents of the state”. Essentially rebranding to keep up with public perceptions of their usefulness, the Justice League of America rose from the Justice Society’s ashes to promote new American values like the nuclear family and the opportunistic American dream, before changing tone again for the grimdark trends of the 80s and 90s set by Frank Miller and Alan Moore.

Many of the contributions to The Ages of the Justice League repeat this history, using it as a framing device to talk about DC’s management of the social upheaval that dominated the 1960s. Pieces like Thomas C. Donaldson’s critique on the “domestic containment of Black Canary” try to show DC as a frontrunner in “attempting to navigate the complexities of gender politics” but the available evidence often seems circumstantial and idealistic on the part of the writer’s interpretation.

While the individual essays don’t necessarily have the space or source material to justify weighty issues of gender and race in today’s terms, the book as a whole does succeed - in varying quality - in its goal to “demonstrate connections between the time period when these stories were being produced and the themes found in the comic books”.

Given the social difficulties and inequalities that stand out in the 21st century, we perhaps expect for all the cultural analysis we see right now to solely consist of deconstructions of race and gender, particularly when considering American history and the “make America great again” narrative. But the theme that is prominent in each of these analyses of the Justice League is actually the exploration of a wider identity; an examination of American values and the US’s claim to heroes that are often international or extra-terrestrial.

Darowski raises the point in his introductory paragraph, saying:

"Bringing together a team of superheroes during the height of the Cold War could have been a superheroic representation of the United Nations or NATO individuals coming together for a common purpose. But… the team is an explicit American endeavour despite a roster that includes a Martian, a Kryptonian, an Amazon, and an Atlantean."

Although the book barely even mentions adaptations of the Justice League’s characters to other media, the timing of its release is more-than-convenient for the upcoming film later this year. Set in motion by the clunky events of 2016’s Batman v Superman, Justice League will likely take up the themes of its predecessor, combining the current trend of grizzled sort-of-realism with questions of global responsibility.

Superman’s latest actions on film have raised the subject of his identity as a citizen of both the US and Earth, and so the trend seen throughout these essays of the American battle for personal identity - which in the realm of comic books is regularly re-written to complement reality - remains consistent across pop culture.

This focus on the cultural identity of a world superpower also accounts for the rotating lineup of the various Justice Leagues, including the forthcoming film. If innocuous teenager Snapper Carr can become an official team member simply to dampen the public dread of teenagers and provide an entry perspective for younger readers, then the world is open to any number of new and diverse heroes, even while it enjoys the regurgitated symbols of the old favourites.

However, because of the successes of stories such as the adventures of the Justice League, as well as prominent exposure across other media and some real world stuff as well, the US is the global leader for entertainment output, and the source of many cultural messages soaked up in other areas of the world.

DC has had some genius writers creating characters that question their own identities - many of whom are honoured in The Ages of the Justice League - but even the most open-minded of them cannot record and explore beyond their own experience and ideas. One of the benefits of academic study on all areas of culture is to show us where the gaps are, and, alongside its detailed unpicking of American comics in relation to American history, this text reveals that superhero teams could use more international voices expressing their own suped-up version of identity and justice.

Steff Humm

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Legion season 1

Fargo creator Noah Hawley's superhero series is unlike any other on TV right now.

Creator: Noah Hawley
Starring: Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza, Jean Smart, Katie Aselton, Bill Irwin, Amber Midthunder, Jemaine Clement

The critical maligning of Netflix’s Iron Fist adaptation has shaken the confidence many had in Marvel Television’s ability to produce consistently high quality series. But over the last two months, US network FX has shown viewers that Marvel no longer need to rely on the streaming giant or Disney to find new ways of bringing their multitude of characters to screen.

The annual talk of “superhero fatigue” has been taking over the press again, meanwhile Legion has quietly been redefining how the genre could be depicted via longform storytelling. The person responsible for this is Noah Hawley, creator and head writer of the superb TV adaptation/continuation of Fargo, and he brings the same creative touch to this show.

Set in the X-Men universe - and therefore free from the trappings and tropes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) - Legion follows David Haller (Dan Stevens), an extraordinary man whose life has been plagued by mental illness. Now in his 30s and living in a mental hospital, it is becoming clearer to David and those around him that his illness may actually be latent psychic powers.

Diagnosed, at varying times, with schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder (DID) and manic depression, it is never completely clear whether the things David is experiencing - and the audience is seeing - are real or in his head. Is he a mutant with incredible abilities, or does he belong in a hospital where he needs to receive round-the-clock care?

It’s this constant misdirection and the duality of experience that make Legion such an original superhero series. Hawley focuses primarily on character, presenting the defining events in David’s life out of chronological order, showing the confusion of his perspective, but adding answers to questions about his circumstances each time. Using musical numbers, changing aspect ratio, distorted images, light and sound - this is far removed from the standard origins story we’ve seen before.

This focus on character keeps the story grounded while Legion explores more surreal, metaphysical elements. As a psychic, David is seemingly capable of creating and imagining worlds within his head, traveling through memories and time, and even controlling the world around him. And he is not the only mutant. The series is filled with supporting characters that have similarly impressive powers.

David’s girlfriend, Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), reveals herself early on to be a fellow mutant and subsequently becomes his tether to the corporeal world. Unlike in the X-Men film series, where powers were often a poetic manifestation of a character’s issues, Syd and the other mutants’ abilities are extensions of themselves. They’re fully realised characters that happen to be able to do amazing things.

The same is true for Legion’s depiction of mental health. David’s life has been full of trauma, and Hawley never shies away from showing it with empathy and sensitivity. He depicts David as a survivor and not a victim; despite everything he has suffered, internally and externally, he is as strong and capable as he is vulnerable. His powers manifest out of fear and necessity, and the more he knows himself, the better he can control them.

The same cannot be said for the comics. In X-Men Legacy vol.1: Prodigal, David freely proclaims he is “fucking insane”, yet shows no real signs of imbalance. Instead of having DID, he has hundreds of powered personalities living inside his head that he can conjure whenever deus ex machina demands it. He merely seems misunderstood rather than insane, which feels more like an excuse for writers to be edgy instead of an exploration of how mental illness can affect a person with psychic abilities.

Legion’s more realistic storytelling approach imbues it with an originality not yet seen in any Marvel adaptation. Its mix of genres, including drama, comedy, sci-fi and even elements of horror, requires equally unique performances. David is the role of a lifetime for Stevens, and Jemaine Clement’s appearances as a man stranded in the Astral plane are brief but memorable. Particular praise, though, must go to Aubrey Plaza as Lenny.

Lecherous, rude and prone to fits of hyperactivity and jazz dancing, Lenny was initially supposed to be played by a middle-aged man. As David’s best friend at Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, she is perhaps the closest thing to a comic book character in the series. Plaza gives a larger-than-life performance that is delightfully unhinged and completely transcends the restrictions of whatever gender she chooses for Lenny.

With any comic-book-to-screen adaptation, there is a responsibility on the part of the writer to create something that is respectful of its origins but also works as a singular piece of art. It would be impossible to do a straight adaptation of Legion as he is seen in the comics. The alternate dimensions, David’s limitless powers - and, of course, the interactions with characters whose film rights belong to different companies - would be far too distracting.

Hawley strikes a careful tonal balance that the comics don’t even come close to acknowledging, achieving more in eight episodes than most series do in 13. He appreciates the responsibility of exploring the effects that mental illness can have on a person, while delivering a hugely entertaining and original TV series about a superhero that innovates all conventions of the genre we have seen to date.

Josh Franks

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Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox, Marvel, Netflix, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, McFarland & Co Inc, FX.

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