September 2009

Martyn Pedler


Comic Adaptation

We live in an age obsessed with adaptation. Why make a new screenplay when you can adapt a book with a built-in fanbase already lining up for tickets? Why write a new hit when you can do a punkish cover of a disco classic? And why write your own comic when you can take a previously existing story and, hey, presto -- just add art?

It's the latter that caused Sarah Boxer's recent implosion about Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 being turned into a graphic novel. Her hilarious complaint that "…the text is almost always shortened to make way for pictures" suggests that she either doesn't understand the difference between an illustrated book and sequential art, or doesn't understand the concept of 'redundancy'. It pains me to admit that buried under her snitty rant, there's a sliver of truth. She quotes Bradbury's original Fahrenheit 451 about the kind of art that's apparently awaiting us after our intellectual decline:

"Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests, Tabloids. … Classics cut … to fill a two-minute book column. … Speed up the film, Montag, quick. […] More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less."

It's sad but true. For decades, comic book adaptations have mostly been terrible, and more or less for Captain Beatty's reasons given above. There are exceptions, sure, like David Mazzucchelli's take on Auster's City Of Glass, or Peter Kuper's striking version of Kafka's Metamorphosis. Many comic book adaptations of classic novels, though, seem less like genuine art and more like a cheap way to lure kids into reading the 'real thing' -- dumbed-down versions with pretty pictures taking away the sting of any archaic language. These comics clunk. They're curiosities at best, with too much story crammed onto every page and narration plastered all over the art to compensate. Adaptations of more modern stories are usually worse. The inevitable comic versions of summer blockbusters tend to be barely successful even as storyboards, existing only to eke extra cash out of the collector's gotta-catch-them-all mentality.

What makes for a successful comic book adaptation? Ask Darwyn Cooke. His latest graphic novel, Parker: The Hunter, exhibits a firm grasp of the alchemy required to transmute a story from one medium to another. Cooke might be best known for matching his retro-style to early appearances of DC Comics' superheroes in the New Frontier miniseries. (Any superhero story is an adaptation of sorts; the moment you're writing Superman, you're adapting the work of dozens upon dozens of creators who've gone before you.) More recently, Cooke took the reigns of rebooting Will Eisner's The Spirit, managing the tightrope-walk of remaining respectful to Eisner's work without falling into slavish nostalgia. While he's expressed disappointment that he didn't begin his work on The Spirit until after Eisner had passed away, his long-distance collaboration with author Donald Westlake allowed the self-confessed fan to strike up a friendship before Westlake's death in 2008. Speaking at San Diego's Comic-Con this year, Cooke choked up when speaking about his mentor, and quickly changed the subject to a girl he'd seen outside in an outlandish Pokémon outfit.

Westlake wrote these novels -- starring the ever-cool criminal Parker -- under the pseudonym 'Richard Stark.' The surname is deliberate. It suggests The Hunter's stripped-back style that refuses almost any insight into the interior life of his protagonist. According to Cooke, Westlake said that Parker approaches his work "…like a carpenter." He doesn't like to kill unless he has to, but if he does he won't think twice. He's a man of action, not reflection -- and that's what makes his story an ideal fit for sequential art. Cooke catalogues these deeds with only minimal narration. (Yes, this means you have to pay close attention.) We're offered few glimpses into what drives Parker; barrelling towards the book's conclusion, he himself wonders, and guesses it might just be blind momentum. Cooke allows himself a creative flourish to pry open the novel's lone emotional fissure. When the narrator admits (even if Parker himself won't) that he's afraid of the feelings he still has for his ex-wife, Cooke adds a quick dream sequence to drive the moment home.

Cooke mostly plays his version as close to the original as he can. It begins with Parker stalking the streets, snapping at strangers, out of jail and ready for revenge. He's been double-crossed during an out-of-town heist, and he wants both blood and the money he's owed. He'll use and abuse anyone in his way to get what he's owed, beginning with his ex-wife and ending with a country-wide collection of criminals Parker calls the Syndicate -- even though he's told that word became "square" while he was out of commission. Raymond Chandler's definition of a hero in The Simple Art of Murder was someone who walks the mean streets but who "…is not himself mean." Parker is mean. He's cities away from your usual antihero-with-heart-of-gold. The fact that he was already planning on double-crossing the man who double-crossed him? It doesn't seem to affect his bloody moral imperative.

It's impossible to compare two versions of the same story without performing the mathematical equation of what's been gained versus what's been lost. Cooke's obviously thought long and hard about every technique in every panel, eschewing tricks and gimmicks. "Just a straight line through it," Cooke explained. "Bang bang bang." But there are some things that sequential art can't capture. Read the following description from the original novel:

"The office women looked at him and shivered. They knew he was a bastard, they knew his big hands were born to slap with, they knew his face would never break into a smile when he looked at a woman. They knew what he was, they thanked God for their husbands, and still they shivered. Because they knew how he would fall on a woman in the night. Like a tree."

In Cooke's nearly wordless first dozen pages, he draws a woman seeing Parker and turning away, frightened. He draws it well, too -- but how can it possibly add up to that paragraph? Similarly, Parker's face seems too smooth, too generic, for the character, no matter how much shadow sits around his eyes. His body can be more effective than in prose, however. When we see Parker, lost in memory and small in the frame while riding the subway, we feel his exhaustion. Cooke also runs with the book's obsession with describing Parker's hands. (When a mook he's threatening says "I don't see no weapon!" Parker replies, "You see two of them. They're all I need.") Cooke sometimes places us behind Parker's eyes, or close enough to it, watching his hands stretch out before us -- echoing 1947's first-person noir Lady In The Lake.

The presentation here is immaculate. The book is designed to look like it could have been plucked off a shelf back in 1963, with paper so thick my fingertips kept telling me I'd turned two pages at once, and art washed with dark blue tones so you feel like you're reading through heavy-lidded eyes. The flashbacks come with big, soft dots and text down the side. And not to get all Scott McCloud semiotic on you, but what an adaptation can provide is more than just pictures. It also offers a new sense of space and time. There's a double-page spread, about half way through The Hunter, illustrating just two sentences. We see Parker's shadow, climbing in through the window. His target, here captured mid-leap for his gun, has "…got himself the best hotel suite and the best professional lay. And he got them just in time." It's more than just a dramatic splash. It's a perfect short story, embedded in the middle of the book. This is the true testament to Cooke's skill: the story in his version of The Hunter doesn't feel folded, crunched, or flattened to fit its new medium. Sure, the story runs out of narrative tension about two-thirds through, but that's true of the novel, too. Parker's particular skills as a 'carpenter' means the ending is never in doubt. Who'd be mean enough to kill him?

Adapting a cult novel is one thing, but you'd think doing the same to the Bible would give people pause. The first comic book I hazily remember owning was a series of stories from the Old Testament. They featured the adventures of smiling, pastel-robed, inevitably Caucasian-looking prophets. There's nothing new about these books. They're meant to be a first-hit's-for-free introduction that will drive young readers straight to Sunday School. They sidestep the bloodier, stranger parts of the Bible: the demons and massacres, the murdered babies and fevered dreams. I always think of Laurie Anderson's piece 'The Salesman,' and her baffled wonderment that her everyday neighbours accept the most bizarre Bible stories without batting an eyelid. "So in a way," she says, "I was introduced to a special local form of surrealism at an early age..."

Enter Basil Wolverton. Recently described as the "Michelangelo of Mad magazine" by the New York Times, Wolverton's bizarre and grotesque artwork won him legions of adolescent fans from the 1940s onwards. (And prizes, too: the fact that his drawing of 'Lena the Hyena' won a Li'l Abner competition in 1946 is always worth repeating when you hear that the three judges were the pop-culture Holy Trinity of Frank Sinatra, Boris Karloff and Salvador Dalí.) You can still see his influence in many of today's alt-indie cartoonists. Wolverton's hyper-dense images can give you the same uneasy feeling you get when wading through Charles Burns' Black Hole: the sense that you're staring directly into someone else's subconscious. Wolverton, however, didn't want to be remembered for his work for Mad, or Plop!, or Life, or his creations for Topps' "ugly stickers."He said he'd prefer to be remembered for his Bible illustrations.

These newly-collected stories aren't the least bit ironic; they're genuine works of faith created for the Worldwide Church of God and Ambassador College corporations from 1953 to 1974. They cover the Old Testament's greatest hits and then skip forward to the Book of Revelation. (Wolverton's partner in these books, the millennial preacher Herbert W. Armstrong, believed that picturing Jesus in any form was a violation of the Second Commandment.) Beginning with Genesis -- where else? -- Wolverton provides all the cosmic grandeur you'd expect. It's when Adam and Eve are evicted from paradise that things become disquieting. He draws them running for their lives from an Angel's sword hanging ominously in the foreground. They're terrified. A quick flick through the book shows that the cast of Wolverton's Bible stories are all terrified. With good reason, too. When Noah's flood arrives, the artist is less interested in the animals queuing politely to enter the ark; he spends page after page on those that are left behind, scrabbling desperately against the sides of the boat, begging for mercy from their watery deaths. (In fact, some of these images were originally deemed too disturbing for publication.)

Wolverton takes his time with these early Old Testament stories, and provides enough pictures that anyone with the leftovers of a religious childhood can follow along without the captions. Soon after, the time consumed by the insane detail of his artwork forced him to encapsulate more narrative with fewer images. The illustrations immediately become less concrete, more expressionistic. Faces float on white backgrounds. Cities rise and fall with barely a page-turn. Suddenly, this new economy provides easy insight into the aspects of bible stories that most capture Wolverton's heart. For example, he chooses only three panels to illustrate the story of poor old Job: a lightning strike destroying his livestock; his house -- family still inside -- whisked away in a whirlwind; and Job, sitting alone, hopeless and diseased. There's no hint of the pact between God and the Devil that caused all this, or the (sort of) happy ending where his prosperity is restored. Just three panels of misery. Despite these decisions, I couldn't describe the reading experience of The Wolverton Bible as a bleak one. Underneath the screaming and plagues, the giddy joy that he seems to take in his art radiates off the page, just like it does in his secular work. Who else would draw a sharp-toothed sea-monster in the Red Sea, crashing down after Moses parts the water? (LOOK OUT, EGYPTIAN SLAVE-LORDS!)

Wolverton saw no conflict between his Christian ministry and his freelance work beloved by teenage boys and underground artists. He and Armstrong set out to provide something more accurate than those pastel bible books I mentioned above, and -- according to his son's introduction -- Wolverton "...saw that the biblical account was full of conflict, pathos, tragedy, violence, bloodshed, and horror." It's his Book of Revelation that lets these elements seamlessly combine with Wolverton's artistic obsessions. (Fantagraphics bow to chronology and put his end of the world at the end of their collection, despite the fact that Revelation was the first of Wolverton's bible illustrations from the 1950s.) His creatures from sci-fi and horror, his fascination with grotesque bodily exaggeration, his devout Christian faith -- here it all comes together into an operatic and apocalyptic peak. The very first page? It's captioned: "Hydrogen Bomb Over The City". It only gets worse from there.

Firestorms knock airplanes from the sky. Earthquakes shatter cities. Volcanos boil up from the earth. Hailstones crush bodies beneath them. No matter what disaster is taking place, Wolverton remembers to include mutated survivors, leering out of the darkness, all rotting teeth and hideous skin. He draws mass graves in exquisite detail. Then -- with no transition -- we're suddenly in paradise (Phew.) Smiling faces! The blind can see! Children, patting once dangerous beasts! Here the pictures are sparse and small: just a few quick sketches of heaven and a final image of a glowing city, impenetrable to the human eye. Coming from a man who happily spent all that time and ink on diseased corpses, this eternal paradise obviously wasn't all that artistically tempting. It's certainly much less convincing than the horrors that came before. Everything else in the book, though, manages to look as strange and frightening as I thought Bible stories should be when I was ten years old.

Both Parker: The Hunter and The Wolverton Bible are odd, hybrid beasts. Parker is designed to sit in a bookstore's crime section, not with its graphic novels. Cooke admits that he hopes both his fans and Westlake's fans can agree on its worth and "broaden the reach of this wonderful medium." The Wolverton Bible might seem like a paradox to its religious audience and its alt-comics fans -- even if Wolverton himself never saw the contradiction. In the end, these books don't just provide idiosyncratic retellings and revisions of their originals; they're also both shamelessly evangelical.

Parker: The Hunter by Darwyn Cooke
Idea and Design Works
ISBN: 1600104932
144 pages

The Wolverton Bible by Basil Wolverton
ISBN: 156097964X
Fantagraphics Books
320 pages