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Guttersnipe update

I keep forgetting to do this. These are some of the comics columns I wrote for HT over the last few months. Earliest first, in case you wonder why they seem to have no connections with current events

 

***

As a rabid comics/graphic novels fan, I’m happy whenever I see a
comic-book adaptation, regardless of its quality, in a box-office
toppers list. Currently on top of the world you will find the
Fantastic Four/Silver Surfer movie, not one I intend to spend
hard-earned money on even though I love the characters it stars.

There’s this prevalent assumption that comics are a stepping-stone on
the road to a movie, that any successful comic, because it combines
visuals and words and has a huge fan-base behind it, must necessarily
be turned into a film. Of course, the comic-to-film transition is
often very successful; for every Daredevil, Batman and Robin or LXG
you have a Sin City, Road to Perdition or Spiderman.

But if there is a trend where large comics publishers see their books
primarily as gateways to film/merchandising/video-game glory, it’s a
dangerous one; it might put pressure on comics writers and artists to
not exploit some of the unique opportunities comics as a medium
offers. In a comic, you are the master of both time and space; you can
spend as much time as you want taking in one moment, and return to
pages you’d read before to make almost anything make sense. Thinking
of comics as baby films imposes more linear structures capable of
being processed within two hours and robs comics’ power, just as
writing books with film options in mind limits their scope.

I’ve been following Internet rumours about casting for the forthcoming
Watchmen film, based on the comics written by Alan Moore and drawn by
Dave Gibbons. Watchmen, in case you haven’t read it, is one of the
finest, darkest, most complex and beautifully told stories you’ll ever
experience; set in an alternate America, Antarctica, a pulp pirate
novel and Mars, it follows a group of very real and extremely
dysfunctional superheroes in a world threatened by nuclear Armageddon.
And like most other masterpieces, it’s going to be very difficult to
adapt.

In an interview with Variety, Alan Moore once said, ‘You get people
saying, ‘Oh, yes, Watchmen is very cinematic, when actually it’s not.
It’s almost the exact opposite of cinematic,’ and ‘I didn’t think it
was filmable. I didn’t design it to show off the similarities between
cinema and comics, which are there, but in my opinion are fairly
unremarkable.’ You can’t blame Moore for thinking so; Watchmen, like
Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, is probably just too big an idea to capture on
film. Besides, the film versions of Moore’s comics From Hell,
Constantine and LXG have been utter disasters. Moore doesn’t even
watch the films based on his books, but even that hasn’t saved him
from controversy. He was involved in a plagiarism suit where elements
in LXG the film that hadn’t been there in his League of Extraordinary
Gentlemen comics at all were alleged to be similar to those in another
script.

Watchmen the film is to be directed by Zack Snyder, whose last project
was the flawed but comic-faithful 300, and many Hollywood stars from
Shwarzenegger and Cruise to Law and Cusack have been previously
associated with it in Internet rumours. The current (alleged) cast is
short on star power, which according to the director is a good thing,
because there’s a chance the people in it might actually act. Snyder
also plans to try and incorporate as much as he can of the graphic
novel’s level of detail.

Given the beauty, depth and scale of the subject matter, it’s going
to be incredibly difficult to pull off – but then again, no Lord of
the Rings fan ever thought the books could be turned into good films,
and Peter Jackson proved them wrong.

***

Next week, one of the weirdest and most wonderful events in the world
will take place in San Diego, USA – the annual Comic-Con, or comics
convention, a gathering of fans of comics and related media, probably
the largest comics convention in the world. It’s supposedly about
comics, but over the years it’s become a celebration of pop culture in
the larger sense –films, animation, video games, TV shows, card games,
manga, collectibles and various other well-loved things that don’t
really get too much attention at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Along with various book-fair-y things like readings, signings,
academic conferences and panel discussions, there are a range of other
events – exhibitions, film screenings including a segment for films
that don’t have distributors, trade fairs, gaming events, awards
ceremonies and even a huge costume ball. This is where you’ll find
top-notch writers and artists, celebrated filmmakers and designers,
actors and musicians meeting huge legions of fans, many of whom are
dressed up as their favourite comics/ film/TV show characters. In
other words, insane amounts of fun, glamour and weirdness all around.
To make it even worse, this year, three of the people I most want to
meet in this life – Scarlett Johansson, Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis –
are among the guests.

Why do I wax eloquent about the San Diego Comic-Con, you ask,
especially when I’m not even going (though my editors are, damn them)
and probably won’t get to go until I’m old and grey? Because I think
fan conventions are exactly what we need in this country if we are
ever to have a thriving domestic creative industry, as opposed to
ending up doing outsourced work for developed creative industries
abroad. Because when you have huge numbers of fans eager for new
things to love gathered in one place, that’s where you go simply to
inform people that you, a creator of art or entertainment or both,
exist.

Creative fields in India tend to exist in almost completely exclusive
circles. People in film and TV usually have no idea what Indian
writers are writing, most writers don’t even watch TV or contemporary
Indian films, and the same example holds true for any two separate
artistic/creative fields in this country. We have film festivals and
book fairs and music conferences, but there’s no single umbrella, no
Kumbh-mela-scale insane extravaganza where artists from various fields
can come together, where marketers in any field can find interesting
ideas to bring into their own. The numbers of people interested and
engaged enough to pursue their interests on information-rich places
like the Internet are staggeringly small.

Over the last few years, I’ve met a number of animation directors who
are forced into rehashing old ideas or remaking foreign animation
films simply because they don’t know that we have quite a few
children’s writers perfectly capable of creating compelling stories,
but whose publishers’ marketing departments couldn’t care less about
them. I’ve met talented artists, screenwriters, actors who can’t make
it simply because they don’t know the right people, or because they
can’t get through to industry types who’d be extremely interested in
their work – if they knew they existed. Clearly this situation has to
change.

What we need, for a start, is one massive festival of inter-field
talent, one grand asylum where marketers forced to sell awful films to
large and hungry audiences and creators in various fields whose work
these same audiences would love can come together. A fan convention
would be an ideal place to start – even though it might degenerate, in
its early years, into all-out brawls between supporters of Kkusum and
Kkksomething else. But if you want good things to watch, read and
listen to, you’ll have to bring about a change. You’ll have to let
comics show you the way.

***

In case you didn’t know this already, 2007 is the Year of Gaiman. Neil
Gaiman, writer of comics, novels, short stories, screenplays, one of
the world’s most popular blogs and many other things, probably needs
no introduction; if you’re interested in comics at all, you read
Sandman years ago. In case you haven’t yet, abandon whatever you’re
doing now and get to it.
Anyway, so Neil Gaiman has at least three movies out this year;
Stardust, a suitably star-studded fantasy movie based on the book
written by Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess; Beowulf, a
stop-motion animation film starring Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins
and John Malkovich co-written by Gaiman and Roger Avary based on, you
guessed it, Beowulf, and Coraline, based on his bestselling children’s
book about a little girl who crosses over to a scary otherworld where
her ‘other mother’, a truly scary villainess with buttons for eyes,
wants her to stay. Recent articles in Time magazine and USA Today
agreed that Gaiman had crossed over to mainstream stardom; at the
recent Eisner awards, where he won two prizes, he also had the dubious
privilege of being kissed on stage by BBC presenter Jonathan Ross in
what Ross called a re-enactment of the Britney Spears-Madonna kiss. At
the same event, he met Simpsons creator Matt Groening, who agreed to
have him guest star in Futurama as a head in a jar.
The more I read about hugely popular cult comics stars like Gaiman and
Warren Ellis, the clearer it becomes: People working in comics have
more fun than those in any other field. I can think of any number of
reasons for this.
Comics, even the highest-nosed literary graphic novels, are at some
level unpretentious; despite the ever-increasing scale and visibility
of the industry, they retain something of their old underground charm.
Sure, there are massive egos in comics, as anywhere else, but nothing
near the Mount Rushmore-scale obnoxiousness you see in film or in
books.
Comics are collaborative projects, usually driven by the editors, not
the creators (unless you’re Gaiman or someone on that level, of
course). Compromise, cooperation and communication are inbuilt. This,
again, means that comics creators, even the most popular ones, are
likely to be less megalomaniacal than great minds in cinema or books
(there are always exceptions, of course, the Internet is full of
horror stories about Godzilla-like comics people). All things
considered, though, there seems to be a genuine sense of community;
most famous comics people run websites, let readers into their
personal lives, answer questions and have active presences on online
forums. Most importantly, they seem to have a sense of humour, a
connection to reality that a lot of A-list authors and film directors
lose.
This is not to say that all really big authors and directors are
maniacs, of course; but they are usually compelled by their fame to
build walls around themselves, to hide from public view, to maintain
an otherworldly image. Comics stars, on the other hand, are still by
and large people you can relate too, even if they’re sometimes deeply
weird people.
We’re a long way from acquiring global A-list comics creators in
India, of course; but even at this nascent stage you’re likelier to
find nicer people in comics than in any other field. Perhaps this is
because you can’t become a comics star overnight; it takes years, even
decades of work before you rise to superstar status, no matter how
talented you are. The media has a role to play in this; by avoiding
the medium entirely, they keep its heroes sane.

***

One question I get asked all the time – wait. No. I’m lying. One
question I’ve been asked more than once is ‘What is/are Indian
comics?’ The answer? Usually something along the lines of ‘I have no
idea. What is Indian literature?’ It’s an interesting question,
though, and hopefully one there will be some kind of half-acceptable
made-up answer to a decade or two down the line.
Now, though, there really isn’t. And why should there be? We haven’t
got a real comics industry here. Most people are still reading comics
as cutting-edge as, what, Archie? The simple answer is that there
won’t be anything you could definitely call an Indian, or an
Indian-style comic, until we’ve been into the business for a
significantly long amount of time, allowing tropes to develop
organically, allowing for some kind of unique common ground to develop
on its own. Same thing with Indian-style commodes, really, but let’s
not get into that.
The Europeans and Americans have been making comics for a while, you
know. They started around the same time that printing was invented,
and meandered and crystallized over the centuries into the form that
we see today. The Japanese have been at it for at least three
centuries. If you consider forms such as Egyptian hieroglyphics,
European tapestries and stained-glass windows, Chinese and Japanese
picture-stories on paper, or even the various forms of pictorial
storytelling unique to India, you’ll realize it’s a process that takes
time to develop.
But if you look at comics in their present form, that process started
worldwide sometime in the 1930s, both in Japan with the beginnings of
modern manga, and in America with the beginning of really popular
superhero comics. Almost a century later, both these countries have
multi-million dollar comics industries, and whole subcultures
consisting of people whose lives really revolve around comicbooks. Why
didn’t some sort of parallel process happen in India, given its rich
history of traditional pictorial story-telling and innumerable hordes
of creative people? Who knows? We were busy doing other things, like
people in the other hundred countries without distinctive comic-book
styles. Shit happens. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t. We have more
kinds of food than anyone else, anyway. That should mean something to
you.
Now global entertainment companies have just started realizing that
India is a huge market, and are beginning to try to figure out how to
capture it in the future, how to develop distinctive Indian comics
that Indians will fall in love with. Unfortunately, there’s no magic
formula to this; it’ll take years, and lots of money, and lots of
hiccups, and lots of adapting foreign styles to Indian contexts and
seeing what works, seeing what it’s possible to build a domestic
industry and a potential global craze out of. The exact same thing
applies to both books and films, if you think about it. The process
has begun, which I for one find hugely exciting.
Over the next few years, we’re going to see a lot of Indian
superheroes, a fair amount of Indian fantasy and science fiction in
comics, and more myth and Amar Chitra Katha retellings than you can
shake a stick at. And more kinds of comics as well – serious graphic
novels, hopefully journalism in comics, crime, horror, romance, the
works. Perhaps one day we, too, will be like the manga industry, with
well-established comics genres ranging from maho shojo (magical girl)
to Robot/Mecha (giant robots) to Moe (fetishes) to Tentacle Hentai
(pornography involving monsters with, you know, many tentacles). The
possibilities are endless. But you have to give it time and patience.
And if you can sit through three and a half hours of a Bollywood
movie, or watch half-hour-long soaps with every scene (where nothing
happens in the first place) re-enacted in slow motion, thrice, you
clearly have both.

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About Samit Basu

Writes books, comics, films, other stuff.

Discussion

4 thoughts on “Guttersnipe update

  1. You might know this already.
    Eddie Campbell says in his blog,
    “I think the American comic book is trying too hard to be like a movie and the movies are trying too hard to be like comic books. I think they’re interchangeable now. It’s no surprise to me that they would do 300 exactly like the book. The movies and comic books have met at 300. You can no longer talk about the strengths of either medium, they are now identical.”

    Posted by Space Boy | August 30, 2007, 5:56 pm
  2. Excellent articles on one of my most favorite genres. San Diego will have to wait as I am yet to feed my wallet.

    Posted by Vishal Pipraiya | August 31, 2007, 1:29 am
  3. Sorry.

    I’m gonna be nitpicky about this, but Beowulf is motion-capture, not stop-motion animation.

    Here’s a great article describing the process and the innovations that this movie’s making to top what’s been done in motion capture previously (Polar Express, Monster House, King Kong, Gollum, Happy Feet).

    http://www.aintitcool.com/node/22409

    Not that I liked the trailer, though. As much as they’ve tried to fix it, it still has the dead eye thing happening.

    Cheers,
    Rohit

    Posted by Rohit Iyer | September 15, 2007, 11:45 pm

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