By Michael Peterson
(With thanks to The Ephemerist)
Well, here's hoping three months makes the heart grow fonder, eh?
With regards to my absence from this website, I can only offer my heartfelt apologies and a list of excuses, only some of which would be of interest to the readership which had been so supportive of this column in the past: impending nuptials and subsequent change of residence, a possible comic project of my own since put on brief hiatus (artists wanted—apply below!), the effects of the economic climate on my day job, and repeated consultations on my upcoming oral surgery (really, don't ask). It's been something of a "restructuring period" around the homestead of late and I can't yet imagine how the next few months will affect my planned return to regular column-writing. My lovely wife-to-be is a teacher with a particular eye to comics in the classroom, and our discussions have meant this site has rarely been far from my mind. I believe it was the great Albert Swearengen who said that announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh. That said, with an event of some notice occurring this week amongst the "comics to film" crowd, I'd be remiss in not peeking out from my self-imposed gopher hole and taking a glance at the landscape.
Quick notes of thanks that I'd planned to make before I vanished from God's green Internet last: To Journalista's Dirk Deppey and to Savage Critic Abhay Khosala, who both had kind words for this column, as well as to Top Shelf's Leigh Walton (also very kind), and to each of the readers who made the comments threads such an enjoyable follow-up to these over-labored writings. Though to those who were troubled by my tendency to meander, this might not be the best entry to rejoin my scattered thought processes...
And of course thank you to Keith Uhlich for his never-ending fount of patience and goodwill. One of these days I promise to get around to earning it, I swear.
XVIII. "...Somewhat self indulgent."
The world's greatest heroes are being picked off one by one, and a troubled detective meets with each in kind to warn them of the danger. It's the beginning of a classic work by a beloved author, one that deconstructs the long-running comic characters on which it is based, most notably in relating these children's characters and their narrative to contemporary, real world politics. While it is a striking work in its own right, much of its inspiration lies within the science-fiction stories which preceded it, particularly those of film and television. With an upcoming film renewing interest, the Internet is ablaze with discussion of this classic work of sequential art.
Clearly, I'm talking about Naoki Urasawa's Pluto.
I'm being overly cheeky, of course. The narrative similarity between Watchmen and what some are calling its Manga counterpart are superficial, and limited solely to its opening pages. That said, as America reacts to what media buzz would have be the movie event of the season, it's worth noting that the first volume of Pluto (as well as one of Urasawa's other great works, 20th Century Boys) has finally been released in an English translation.
Pluto is Urasawa's take on Osamu "God of Manga" Tezuka's most beloved Astro Boy story, "The Greatest Robot on Earth." Written to coincide with Astro Boy's "birth date," it takes Tezuka's book-length fable and constructs a whole (projected eight-volume) series about the nature of war and humanity.
"The Greatest Robot on Earth" tells the story of a robot named (wait for it) Pluto, which was built under orders of a deposed sultan for the express purpose of destroying the seven greatest and most powerful robots in the world, an international group which counts Astro Boy himself as Japan's contribution. The robots, many of which embody broad-stroke national characteristics (Greece's "Hercules" is proud, Germany's "Gesicht"—Gerhardt in the English translation—is an agent of order), are destroyed by the unstoppable Pluto, who takes no enjoyment in the actions for which he was programmed. He strikes up a friendship with Astro Boy's sister, Uran, and views Astro Boy himself as an honorable match. With his guardian captive, the return of the father who spurned him, and another agent with a grudge against the sultan pulling everyone's strings, Astro Boy must navigate the chaos and try to find a way to defeat Pluto without destroying him—a mission which he fails.
The story, which Tezuka penned in 1965, is a condemnation of the arms race: Astro Boy is convinced the key to stopping Pluto is to be supercharged from his "100,000 horsepower" to one million horsepower and the climax features two robots unable to save their creators from a volcano because they weren't designed to do anything but battle. It was released during the height of the original Astro Boy television program in Japan, and quickly became the most remembered tale of the character—from its simple message to its exciting battle sequences to the sympathetic portrayal of the "villain" Pluto, it contained everything that readers could ask for. Tezuka received more letters about "The Greatest Robot on Earth" than perhaps anything he's ever written, an impressive feat for the creator of Buddha, Phoenix, Adolf, and Kimba the White Lion—among a thousand-odd other works.
Into this stepped Urasawa, whose early classic Monster currently has screenwriter Josh Olsen (A History of Violence) attached. In talks with Tezuka's son, the filmmaker Macoto Tezka, it was agreed that if someone was going to "take on" manga's godfather, it had to be an all-or-nothing effort. Tezka, for his part, has been nothing but supportive. As he says in a post-volume interview:
"Well, directors are often evaluated by how unreasonable they are ... so what you need to do is express your needs in as humble a way as possible, without using the command voice so often associated with directors... When the crew is naturally motivated to do their best possible work, the quality of the film improves... So I'm happy to give Naoki Urasawa a free hand, even if it means he's going to be somewhat self indulgent."
Of course, the act of adaptation is by nature self-indulgent, isn't it? The idea that one has a "better" way of telling the story than the original creator? Infamous producer Don Murphy recently gifted the Internet with a tirade on Watchmen writer Alan Moore, who is notorious for dismissing film adaptations of his work—a number of which were produced by Murphy to ... varying degrees of success. In the wake of the attention-bait, which is largely beside the point of this article, Internet discussions re-ensued over Moore's various eccentricities, and one particular comment tended to re-appear again and again: How is what Moore does different than the act of adapting his work to film? Doesn't he base many or most of his well-known works (Swamp Thing, Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, to say nothing of pastiches like Supreme) on other people's work?
XIX. "Did we ever talk like normal people?"
It's interesting that, in a year in which Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are collaborating on a Tintin trilogy and a CGI film of the aforementioned Astro Boy is due to release soon—that is to say, upcoming film projects will star two of the most well-known comic book characters worldwide, characters representing the style and grace of their respect national comic cultures—that the most anticipated post-Watchmen project in the realm of "comic book movies" may instead be a comedy based on an independent cult hit comic book called Scott Pilgrim.
Scott Pilgrim is a love-it or loathe-it sort of book, and one of the more frustrating aspects of its audience reception has been the dismissal of the book's thematic core based on the atmosphere of its early acts. And in adapting it to the screen, Edgar Wright (who is as sharp an eye as the not-really-indie crowd has turned out in the last few years) runs the same risks that Zack Snyder does in his self-proclaimed "visionary" retelling of Watchmen. It's a surface/substance problem, which of course is the core problem of any adaptation whatsoever—bringing the substance to light in a new way is what separates one's work from the "self indulgent."
The book, then, in short: Scott Pilgrim is a 23-year-old arrested adolescent from Toronto who splits his time hanging out and playing with his amateur band. On the rebound from a bad break-up, Scott dates a sixteen year-old (in the most chaste way he can manage) until he meets the woman from his literal dreams in American courier girl Ramona Flowers. But to get with Ramona, he has to battle her seven evil exes in video game-style combat, and maybe become an adult in the process. The battles, of course, may be framed in the pop culture language of the kids who grew up in the 80s on a steady diet of the games and comics and music that Scott Pilgrim references, but they're also an obvious symbol for the need to deal with the history and baggage that any new companion brings to a relationship—as well as one's own.
I have already defended Scott Pilgrim as a narrative at The House Next Door: Notably, I took a half-formed swing at the esteemed John Lichman in the comments thread of Vadim Rizov's incisive review of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. It is only in the most recent, penultimate volume of the book that creator Bryan Lee O'Malley's point become fully explicit. For some reviewers, this marked a departure, if not an unwelcome one, but the seeds have always been there, quietly sprouting. From the first volume, there have been little comments and asides from the book's supporting characters that maybe Scott needs to grow up and wake up, that maybe he's not a role model or an emblem for a generation (or a demographic) but just a jerk. And in this past volume, it all comes together.
As reviewer Sean T. Collins notes:
"The greatest trick Scott Pilgrim ever pulled was convincing you its conscience didn't exist. For a long time, the series' skeptics criticized the shortcomings of the characters as though their existence was a shortcoming of their creator—as though writer/artist O'Malley was unaware that Scott was kind of shiftless and feckless, or that Ramona Flowers was a little bit cruel and aloof, or that their group of friends was cliquey and catty. I definitely see where such critics are coming from, for a couple of reasons: first, that was pretty much my line of attack when I first read Jaime Hernandez's Locas material (newsflash: Hopey's a jerk and Maggie's a mess!); second, I am now a 30-year-old married homeowner in Levittown, and the further I get from Scott's situation, the harder it gets to relate to, or even in some ways really care about, his plight.
"But over the past three volumes, O'Malley has slowly pulled back the operating curtain to reveal the beating heart of the series; if you'll allow me to mix metaphors, what this means is that the chickens have been coming home to roost. It turns out that all those evil ex-boyfriends aren't just plot devices, but people who've had a lasting effect on how Ramona lives. It turns out that Scott's glibness both hurts his relationship(s) and enables him to see their potential when others can no longer do so. It turns out that Knives's lasting crush on Scott isn't just a funny recurring gag, but something that's screwing up her life and causing her to screw up the lives of those around her. It turns out that all the "we suck"isms the band indulges in actually have power in a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way. It turns out that supporting players have lives of their own and that they can really grow to dislike how oblivious the main characters are to that fact. And so on and so forth."
What makes Scott Pilgrim work—what enabled me to hand it to a coworker who did not match its apparent "target demographic" of white hipster without comment (and I've found that telling one of the book's detractors that a middle-aged African American single mother of two found the book delightful tends to cause a bit of cognitive dissonance)—is the moments that would work in any story, moments that are if anything more pronounced for being bookended by pop culture references and silly action sequences. The moment that I used when responding to John is a personal favorite: Scott, confronted by his own "evil ex" Envy Adams, drops his "awesome" veneer and plaintively asks her "Did we ever talk like normal people?" It's a moment that I've lived, in a more substantial way than Scott's deadbeat mooching lifestyle of the early volumes, which also echoed a period in my own life. The latest volume presented another favorite, as Scott finally understands himself enough to treat the "girl who once was" Kim Pine with a measure of forgiveness.
[Aside: For more on Scott Pilgrim's latest volume and its relation to the real world, I recommend Abhay Khosla's own column on the subject.]
When it comes to comparing O'Malley's opus with another work of fiction, many people turn to the BBC comedy Spaced—which is directly relevant, with creator Edgar Wright at the helm of Scott Pilgrim the film. But to me, the closest in spirit is a bit farther afield, in the absurdist GAINAX anime FLCL.
XX. "Every day we spend here is like a whole lifetime of dying slowly."
FLCL is quintessential GAINAX. The studio behind Neon Genesis Evangelion, GAINAX is well-known for producing anime that garner a certain sort of reputation—something like the one David Lynch carries with him to every project. Evangelion, for its part, reminds me of nothing so much as Alan Moore's Promethea, a traditional genre pastiche that serves, in short order, as the character and plot foundation for an exploration of larger ideas (though where Promethea is a polemic for Moore's views of magic and the Kabbalah, Hideaki Anno's divisive filmic conclusion to his anime allows, at least in its last moments, a small degree of ambiguity). FLCL was the studio's follow-up piece, a six-episode shot of adrenaline designed at least in part as a way to experiment with various animation techniques and special effect shots.
Writer Y?ji Enokido's story of the alien Haruko Haruhara and her relationship with a Shinji-like school boy named Naota Nandaba is typically viewed as a degree of excess above that of End of Evangelion—madcap, silly, and filled-to-bursting with parodies of animation both Eastern and Western, a term I often see used is "nonsensical." Part of the problem is that some of the humor is lost in translation—a thick layer of puns and other wordplay left the English localization staff with a mess on their hands, even with the creator's full participation. A joke about similar-sounding words from the fifth episode became half-muttered arguments over the difference between robots and cyborgs, the title card that supplanted the original joke remains, becoming a Pythonesque non sequiter about fish. What remains, however, is the throughline that gives FLCL its lasting appeal and power.
Naota's brother has left his small town to play baseball in America—the anime is, at its core, about dealing with loss, and living in someone's shadow. His absurd family and his brother's ex-girlfriend all behave over-the-top, but do so out of an expectation that Naota will replace his older brother, that he'll grow up fast and be the man who left. The only person who treats him as an equal, classmate Eri Ninomori (the ultimate love interest), is the only character to reassert Naota's childhood. Hyperactive Haruko, the alien rockstar secret agent pirate queen, is—as an alien—representative of the world outside of his town, and thus a proxy for the brother who abandoned him. The show, for all of its absurd robot battling, peels back its layers in the final episode, when Naota breaks down in her arms and tells her that she "left without saying anything"—speaking to his brother and reverting to the child that he is supposed to be.
What FLCL and Scott Pilgrim share in common is that they use their pop culture references as a language to communicate emotion, rather than as punctuation or as replacement for legitimate content. In FLCL's fifth episode, one sequence featuring man-in-black-type Amarao is drawn in a South Park style, which initially serves as a funny, if unnecessary effect—but Amarao represents a possible future for Naota (their similarity is highlighted over and over), and later, when Naota is confronted by his brother's ex-girlfriend Mamimi Samejima over how he has begun to assert himself, he withdraws by pulling his hoodie tight around his eyes, resembling death-prone Kenny. This is when Mamimi impotently shoots at him with a toy pistol, unable to harm him anymore. In the fifth and latest volume of Scott Pilgrim, a similar event occurs towards the book's close. That Scott's life has been portrayed in the grammar of video games has long been a running joke, and so when Ramona Flowers is whisked away, we all expect the "Game Over" that displays above his head. But as we continue over the next dozen pages, we are reminded just how much of Scott's life has been ruled and ruined by his "all a game" approach—he's locked out of his home, his friends want little to do with him, and his band has collapsed in on itself. Scott is unable to do so much as care for Ramona's abandoned cat, a cat named after the man that she's returned to. And so Scott attempts to lure the cat back to him with increasingly pitiful offerings, with the implication that if he can just do this one thing right, maybe it'll all be okay. And of course, he can't. So when the second arcade text appears, asking if he wants to "Continue?", it's a question of life in general, a refutation of a "hipster slacker" lifestyle that seemed so funny and charming when the story began.
When FLCL was adapted into manga format, it was somewhat striking just how different the two-volume series was from its source material. Whereas an adaptation like the Evangelion manga contained occasional plot changes but was largely faithful (as one might expect), FLCL in comic form is so wildly different that it all but comprises a separate work. Drawn in a graffiti-inspired style that distinguishes itself from most other manga (which, for all of their variance and sophistication in writing, tend to stray less from Tezuka's inspiration than Western comics do from their own forebears), the book is an odd animal by any measure. In the case of some plot and character elements, it serves as the stronger work—Naota's grandfather is given more to do, for instance, and the Naota/Ninamori relationship is given more time to breathe and a deeper exploration. Indeed, one of the most heartbreaking moments from either iteration of the work is in the manga, in which Naota excuses himself from the women who have been torturing him and sits alone on the porch with the robot Canti (the symbolism of whom would require another essay entirely) and speaks aloud about how desperately he misses his life before the "comedy" began.
Where the manga fails, however, is that it lacks the thematic core that the anime, the original work, possesses. The superficial elements, the sexual atmosphere, the rampant violence, they are ramped up, but for all its strengths the book does not reward the revisits that the anime series has and still does. If anything, the manga is a closer project to how many critics view the anime: a fun, if disjointed look at the horrors of puberty through the deconstruction of the "boy and his robot" manga trope. A series of good ideas that don't quite hold a whole story together.
Now Scott Pilgrim takes its turn at adaptation, and Edgar Wright faces the same challenge that manga author Hajime Ueda faced. Wright is smart and his previous work is tonally appropriate (Spaced shows an understanding of how modern pop culture serves as a language that we frame our experiences in, not just as the source of our running jokes), but in compressing a six-volume manga into a two hour (or less?) romantic comedy, will Wright be able to capture the small interstitial moments that give the book its thematic weight and thus its relevance? Without those moments, Scott Pilgrim is, in fact, an expendable hipster fantasy.
If comics, as Scott McCloud attests, gain their power in the moments that happen between panels, it's also true that comics (as in all fiction) gain their power in the moments that happen between events. It isn't the superhero battles that have left X-Men as a catch-all representation of prejudice in its varied forms, but the quiet character moments that its various writers have used (with varying skill) to string those battles together. In Will Eisner's veiled autobiography, The Dreamer, it's the loving portraits of the other cartoonists of his generation and the weight of the individual stories that brought them to comic books that resounds—the first thing that you'd have to cut in a streamlining.
XXI. "...we may at least simplify it to easily digestible bits that we might at least entreat..."
Sometimes, adaptations go the other way. Usually, this is the when the dread beast postmodernism rears its head and fixes its deadly gaze on the original property, licking its lips. When "The British Invasion" came to comics, they created such a significant sea change because in their desire to elevate comic writing, as well as in their desire to be both noticed and taken seriously, they began picking at whatever characters they could get close to, looking under their tights to see what was still moving. In my third column, I discussed the series Planetary, which took apart various well-known genre pieces and reflected, among other things, the writer's conflicted view towards the superhero genre. That book could be viewed as the middle ground between the two great deconstructionist geniuses of genre comics—Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.
Watchmen has been read by so many people now in the wake of the film's first trailer (and very secondarily, Time's elevating the book to one of the "greatest novels" of the contemporary era) that to discuss its deconstruction of the idea of the superhero, its grounding of that concept in the real world, is hardly necessary here. Moore's creedo might as well be "What does that mean?" for the ways in which he takes stories and extrapolates them to conclusions that often seem logical in hindsight, despite their sea-changing nature. When Moore took over the Swamp Thing book in the 1980s, already viewed as (at best) a camp icon for its silly feature film, he stunned the comic industry by turning it into the most serious book DC was publishing not by adding violence or sex—although those were both present as it was the first mainstream book to eschew the Comics Code Authority—but in his dissection of the very idea of a "Swamp Thing." A plant that was a man. The groundbreaking story "The Anatomy Lesson"—the second story for the title that Moore wrote, and the first not tying up plot threads left by the previous writer—is still used as an example for how to change or "retcon" a story while paying full respect to the original, and Moore went on from there to tell a series of story-appropriate horror tales that commented on various aspects of American society before taking the character into space and challenging the nature of existence—a theme that he would return to time and again.
"The Anatomy Lesson" tells its story through the protagonist's autopsy, a fitting metaphor for Moore's usual technique. Not to say that he's cold and clinical—there are too many examples to counter that, but I'll point to Rorschach's final moments and move on—but rather, he opens up the character to find the source of life. In contrast, Grant Morrison is less concerned with pulling apart the stories than he is reveling in them. Morrison, who began as a counterculture icon with titles like Doom Patrol and The Invisibles, seems to have left his dissection tools on the table after (the infuriatingly out of print) Flex Mentallo, a book which did as vicious an amount of damage to the superhero idea as anything Moore has attempted. The last decade has been full of Morrison taking on the most popular characters from each of the two major superhero publishers, and while he tends to have the same effect on the characters as Moore, his technique has changed considerably (perhaps in reaction to Moore, with whom he apparently has something of an unspoken rivalry—though Moore is far kinder to his characters and their worlds these days, as well).
In an examination of Morrison's publisher-handicapped "event book" Final Crisis, comic scribe and columnist Steven Grant challenged the idea of superheroes as mythology (and I beg his pardon as I quote him over-liberally here):
"For a long time, the temptation has been strong among comics creators to treat superheroes as the equivalent of gods for the new age. This has been strong in Morrison's work, at least since Zenith, which posited the marginally more mundane superhero-as-rock-idol... The problem here is that most of us misunderstand the nature of myths... Mythology—it's important to differentiate between its nature and its artifacts; the stories are the artifacts—is a civilization's environment. It's a means by which members of that civilization make sense of the world and the times they exist in... Commonly, mythologies evolve in civilizations where stories are passed down via oral, not written, transmission, which neuters all concepts of "authorship" and their content and meanings shift with the demands of the times. The civilization is the author.
"But superheroes are not good vehicles for addressing our times. By their nature they stand outside our reality, and holding them up as an evolutionary goal is a basic (again, very '30s-'50s science fiction) misunderstanding of evolution, which has no "goals." Comics stories aren't the joint creation of our civilization but the products of individual minds, even when those minds work in consort (and just as frequently at cross-purposes) in a "shared universe," a rather pathetic, puny shadow of mythology. They're just stories, they don't function as myths function. It's not reflexive; myths are stories but stories aren't myths... Not that our civilization doesn't have myths, but the authors of those myths are Karl Marx and Milton Friedman, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, not Camus or Isaac Asimov or Stephen Cannell or even Grant Morrison. And we no longer live in a world where magical/fantasy/mythological/religious constructs are required, or even useful, to make sense of it. Those are "comfort" constructs, ultimately reductionist to give us the consolation that even if we are unable to control our world in any strict sense of the word, we may at least simplify it to easily digestible bits that we might at least entreat...
"Reducing our philosophical world to good and evil seems at great odds with everything else Morrison tries to accomplish in FINAL CRISIS and his other work (except for The Invisibles, where he struggled to break down the barriers, and is arguably the closest thing to a contemporary mythology Morrison has yet produced)."
I think Grant is being somewhat unfair on at least one count: superhero comic stories aren't failed mythology created by one author—they're the oral tradition that precedes mythology. The story of Superman began with two Jewish boys in Cleveland telling a story, but that story has been handed to hundreds of writers since then, has been told in every media, has been parodied, has been ripped off, has been diluted and then refreshed depending on the telling. If you ask the infamous "guy on the street" (always a great resource) about Superman, he's going to tell you the most important details; the ones that he remembers not from writer Elliot S! Maggin, not from director Richard Donner, and not from that atrocious last-gen videogame where Superman handled like a brick—but the ones that he remembers from all of them, to say nothing of the "Death of Superman" event of the 90s and Smallville and Lois and Clark and the action figures where Superman carries missile launchers for some reason, and the Superman logo on bath towels and worn as Halloween masks and ... The story's been retold in so many ways and, like in the oral tradition, only the best details, the most important ones, float to the surface. Those are the ones that endure the test of time, that become mythology.
Superman's origin to that guy could be summed up in the four phrases that begin All-Star Superman, which I noted in this column's third installment: "Doomed planet, Desperate Scientists, Last Hope, Kindly Couple." Morrison's best work (which Final Crisis certainly is not) is about distilling, rather than dissecting. His recent run on Batman (which has its flaws) was an experiment in which he postulated that all versions of Batman were true and the same person, from goofy 60s hero to brooding 80s fascist, and a look at what sort of character that would be—would the character endure and still be relevant? His New X-Men story brought the mutants to the modern day, but recognized each of the elements (school, Phoenix, Sentinels, Bad Xavier) that have resonated with the audience over the years. Morrison is looking for the mythology that is slowly forming from the superhero oral tradition, which is why it's difficult to return to the characters after he's left his mark—stories of the "Justice League" are still compared to his run from ten years ago.
And as for the larger argument, as to whether these stories have anything to say about the world we live in now... All-Star Superman, for one, is about mortality and the capacity to do good, which are very viable lessons in 2009. Many of the Greek and Roman myths are, to us now, stories of fantasy without their context, as Grant points out. The context for "Superman" as a character is the 1930s; the Nazi ubermensch, the immigrant culture of the United States, a very uncertain global future. Those ideas, as well, still have their relevance in different forms today. And while we might not need gods to understand the world in the way that Grant points out, we still, it seems, need stories that explain our need for gods. That isn't just a metafiction, and it isn't even an existentialist pondering—it's a dangerous political reality.
That All-Star Superman shares a number of superficial similarities to Bryan Singer's Superman Returns points to an important point: when it comes to adapting, it's more approachable, and easier to pace, when you distill rather than dissect. Dissection storytelling requires a lot of little things strewn about and wriggling on the table—in the comparatively-simple The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Moore heaps on detail from sources well-known and obscure in equal measure, in order to give his work a sense of verisimilitude. When translated into LXG, Moore's charming story collapsed in part because that level of detail was going to be inherently absent from a film adaptation.
It's not to say that one approach is better than the other, when it comes to comics. And indeed, when it comes to comparing the work of the two comic giants here, there isn't a one-to-one that fits. Seven Soldiers of Victory to 1963? Not even their done-in-one Batman tales (The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth) are similar enough to be comparable. But they speak to two very different schools of bringing a story or a set of characters to a new audience that still hold two things in common: a respect for the original work and its audience, and an understanding of why the original property resonated in the first place. In adapting comic books into films of all stripes, screenwriters are having to make choices with regards to how to shape these tales, and the two paths should be well contemplated before the writing begins.
XXII. "...You're Atom, aren't you?"
Pluto follows the robot Gesicht as its protagonist and the events of Tezuka's original story dance around the margins. Pluto's destruction of the other robots is viewed as a mystery that Gesicht must solve, but it soon becomes clear that there is a political motivation for the attacks—the robots under attack (save one) were part of a recent war in the Middle East, waged after UN inspectors (including Astro Boy's creator) search for an all-powerful robot, that is a "weapon of mass destruction." They don't find it, but the United States (of Thracia, that is) decide to invade anyway, provoking a massive destablization of the area...
As Watchmen was a commentary on the politics of the 1980s, and as the original "The Greatest Robot on Earth" was about the arms race of the 1960s, Pluto is a none-too-subtle look at the world of the last few years. But subtlety is not the point here when it comes to the politics—to be too understated would betray the spirit of Tezuka's original work (the man was a brilliant cartoonist but tended to wear everything on his sleeve—Buddha may stand as his best work because the overt messages fit the nature of the sort-of biographical story of the Siddhartha better than any of his other works) and, if anything, the political element was a necessary context to get at Urasawa's real interests.
The original Astro Boy was frequently a screed against prejudice aimed at children, one that always sat uneasily because the distrust of robots displayed by the occasional character always seemed unearned in Tezuka's retro-sci-fi utopia. In Urasawa's retelling, some robots are clearly so (and bear Tezuka's unmistakable hand in their designs), and some are downright human, including Gesicht himself, as well as the reimagined Astro Boy (here bearing his original Japanese name of "Atom"—the Atom/Adam wordplay has always had more heft than America's superhero version). Volume One of Pluto ends with a full-page splash of "Atom" appearing as a human boy, an image which can't help but inspire chills, for its sheer audacity if nothing else. It is only appropriate, however, given Urasawa's true interest, in picking at the nature of humanity through Tezuka's robot characters. The juxtaposition of "human" robots and more traditional ones explains the distrust simply, and a hate group has been introduced to the plot to add to the idea, but more interesting are the robots themselves, who often can't determine themselves how truly "human" they are. They are able to transfer memories via chip, but their deaths are permanent. They gravitate towards human affectations like drinking tea and having family dinners. They are capable of dreaming, in a throughline which invites comparisons to Blade Runner (down to its detective protagonist)—another interesting case study in adaptation—but Urasawa's book doesn't suffer for it.
Urasawa's more realistic artwork places it in a smaller subspecies of manga, at least with regards to what is translated and available in the West. Like Koushun Takami and Masayuki Taguchi's manga adaptation of Battle Royale, many of the more emphatic and malleable traits of manga artwork are held in check. What makes manga so interesting in its differences from local comics is the way the art from panel to panel can shift so wildly in style to match the emotional tenor of the sequence. Exaggeration is prevalent, but in service to the moment itself—this is a significant reason why shoujo manga has succeeded with young girls in America, because manga wears its heart on its sleeve. A vision of romantic love is a fully rendered and soft-lit portrait, while a sudden pratfall can put Chuck Jones to shame.
It's something of a stereotype now to compare the comic art of Japan to its internalized culture—it's the sort of remark easily laid out when dismissing anime and manga on the merits of its pornography—but there's a kernel of truth to it. The superhero comics of the early 90s come to mind, largely those drawn by the artists who would later form Image Comics—Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, et al. They were lauded for their dynamism, even when, in varying cases, that dynamism sacrificed realism or even (in the case of one or two artists in particular) basic human anatomy. This is a trait that originated, in manga, with Tezuka himself. Tezuka, who was inspired by Walt Disney's early work (the origin, as has been told again and again, of those "big eyes"), tended to play fast and loose with realism, particularly in pursuit of a joke. Even his highest-minded works like Phoenix and Buddha are rife with deliberate anachronisms, recurring "actors" in differing roles, and elastically-delivered slapstick.
I recently read a few remarks that helped to better place the context—with Tezuka, these show-stoppers are a Brechtian device—keeping the reader from identifying too strongly with the work (a lesson I sometimes wish could be conveyed to the creators of manga that has become American mainstream like Naruto or the admittedly-superlative Death Note), reminding the reader that it is a fiction in order to keep the focus on the ideas, which for Tezuka were always of paramount importance. That this concept has been copied and re-copied without the same intent should no more fall on Tezuka's shoulders than the violence and cruelty of American comics should rest on Alan Moore's, whose work (even lesser cruelties like Batman: The Killing Joke) always carried full consideration of consequence and causation, the same of which cannot be said of his imitators.
Urasawa's work, though, in contrast to Tezuka's, is almost Western in style—not only in its down-to-earth portrayal, but in its adherence to a traditional panel grid, something that manga has often eschewed (at least in part due, I think, to the size of reprinted volumes). While an action sequence in the air in the book's first volume floats back towards shonen manga's barreling-forward vertical breaks, an early scene of mourning by a faceless widow robot, repeating a close-up shot again and again within a 90-degree grid feels as though it could have come from the pen of a particularly gifted Western creator as easily as an Eastern one. This is one of Urasawa's gifts—not that he is somehow trying to distance himself from the manga of his fellow Japanese creators, but that he considers carefully the application of all styles in order to suit his story. The early installments of his current Japan-only serial King Bat are done in a fully-Western cartoon style, in fact, only to return to a traditional manga appearance when we meet the comic-in-a-comic's creator. Urasawa's work is often about building bridges, which is ironic given his narrative fixation on isolation and identity.
Proximity to Tezuka's humanism, however, has heightened Urasawa's taste for melodrama—but then, Alan Moore's purple prose has always teetered on the brink, as well. In the most forceful bit of the book's first volume, the robot North No. 2 is the butler for a film composer with an overly tragic backstory, but the melodramatic tale, which has little connection to the main plot until the robot's sad but inevitable end, serves as thesis statement for the work and conveys what Tezuka was never able to—why the robots are hated. For the composer Paul Duncan, it's a case of self-loathing; in the end, he and North No. 2 aren't much different at all. Urasawa's interest in what Tezuka's story says about humanity is why Atom doesn't display his powers or enter battle for much of the story—like Moore, Urasawa is interested "in what Atom means."
I've kept far away from "spoilers" for the volumes of Pluto to follow, something I rarely do when it comes to comics (Scott Pilgrim is another notable exception). For me, personally, it's one of the most exciting comics in ages. And part of that comes back to the reaction to seeing the human-looking Atom. I know how the story "ends," as I've read the original Astro Boy tale. And this is, of course, why people still get excited by film adaptations of comics, by remakes, by re-imaginings and retcons, dissections and distillations. We want to see what they're going to do with these ideas, what they're going to bring to the original.
The argument for filmic adaptation has been going on far longer than I've been alive, and will continue through as long as cinema exists. For every Godfather there is an Alone in the Dark, and so on, into infinity. In the end, the argument is tiresome. When it comes to a question of "self-indulgence," one must hasten to point out that all art is self-indulgence on some level, and let that be the end of it. Urasawa spent some time after having his idea for Pluto finding someone else to do it, to take on the "God of Manga," but in the end, of course, he had to do it himself.
The problem is with motivation, and with understanding. Having a story that has to be told is a motivation—most of the rest aren't, though you can also make a case for getting someone else's worthy story to as large an audience as you can gather. As for understanding...
XXIII. "...perception is reality."
Back when I was capable of updating my site, I ran a half-formed screed in response to the first released Watchmen trailer, which I didn't consider to be hopeful. I was tired and irritated, but I was also reacting to a number of recent audience backlashes that frustrated me. What I saw (from the trailer alone) seemed overly glossed, sexed-up, and distant from the sad sack group of failures that Watchmen the book is about—the sort of frustration I feel when Rorschach, as he is in the original text, is viewed by the audience as a "badass hero."
"It's all right to like or not like any given thing, but do so for what it is, not what nostalgia tints it as, or what you'd expect it to be. [Considering "Transformers"], I can see aspects of this up and down the line. Many people remember their old toys as being, say, more posable and better designed than they really were, remember the cartoon as being less embarrassing (though its strengths and weaknesses are an article for another time)—an image is built up in their mind of what a "Transformer" is supposed to be, and they're never happy—and certainly never publicly happy—with what they get instead."
I was rightly called out for a very obvious point—my reaction to the Watchmen trailer is based on my own expectations for what that story is and entails. Friend of The House The Culture Snob put it best:
"But you expect/want it to be faithful, so you're bringing expectations, too. And an unfaithful adaptation is no less valid than a faithful one in your formulation, because you just want objects to be outside of their cultural or individual contexts... The best case of this is the Star Wars prequels, which were arguably no less awful than many elements of the original trilogy; the difference was that the audience was a few decades older. Like it or not, perception is reality. You can fight it, but you ain't gonna change it."
He's right, of course. And I've gone 'round on fandom's "sense of entitlement" and authorial intent before—it's too long a debate to go near in a column like this.
My final pre-movie comment on the trailer, which is recorded for posterity:
"But moreover—speaking specifically here—with many projects, adaptations being more or less faithful have merits and drawbacks, but we're speaking of Watchmen here. Watchmen is not memorable for its literal plot. The finale is known more for its rip-off of an Outer Limits episode than anything else. What it's famous for is the clockwork structure of how every image interconnects with every other—that's the point. This is why Terry Gilliam told Moore that the book was "unfilmable" and dropped the project. Gilliam is a talented director and has a keen visual eye. If it was a question of dropping some dead weight, slicking up the costumes, and picking different angles, then Gilliam could have done it (assuming that one of his famous curses didn't strike the set down). If you're not utilizing the structure, and you're severing the backstory (whether out of necessity due to length or not), and you're pointedly not telling the story of how pathetic these individuals all are—which, indeed, is part of the plot in the sense that it partially fuels Adrian Veidt's motivations for doing what he does—then what is left of the story?"
It's rather a lot of froth for someone who hasn't seen the film. But I humiliate myself here in service of a point: Watchmen is one of the most difficult adaptations that will likely ever see a film screen. Difficult adaptations have generated great returns in the past (like, say, The Orchid Thief). What makes Watchmen special is its construction, its thematic weight, and the small moments that make the characters so full-bodied. The plot, and the look at superheroes, are so far and away from what make it special ... to me. The mystery plot has always interested me the least when it comes to this confounding, fascinating text, and if that is all that exists on the screen, it can't hold my personal interest, though it may hold other people's.
The adaptations that last are the ones that add something to the source that they've drawn from. And be it Moore, or Morrison, or Urasawa—or Coppola, for that matter, or hell, Uwe Boll—what will be remembered, for better or for worse, is the interpretation. Interpretation is usually the audience's department, and when a creator steps in, the dialog extends in new, further ways. When I first began this column, I said that my favorite comics-to-film adaptation was American Splendor. That film was able to find something new and fresh to say about comics in general and the life and work of a creator I'd respected, something that I myself had never seen in his work. And in some ways that was a "dissection" sort of adaptation, which is not the sort of thing that anyone would have expected at all.
The reviews for the Watchmen film are already coming in from all over as I write this, and they're mixed (as one would certainly "expect"). And now apparently, Hollywood has set its sights on Pluto—everything comes full circle. When it comes time for Urasawa's take on Tezuka to be abstracted even further into an American film, what will it have to say? What will be left out? And how much arguing will it provoke before it arrives?
...Anyway, succeed or fail, how crazy is it that Scott Pilgrim will be battling Superman in a live action movie?
XXIV. "I wish all the scum of the Earth had one throat and I had my hands about it."
I went to the theater with five other people. Of them, the first opinion I solicited was from my friend Richard Carbonneau, who is a talented comic writer in his own right. "I'm pissed," he said, "because I really liked it. I thought it was brilliant satire." As he would have it, Snyder's filmic work contained everything that people claim to enjoy about superhero movies but wind up disliking, that wind up looking terrible on film—that the film's empty-eggshell design was a conscious choice that worked as a deconstruction of superhero films (which, I suppose, was the supposed intent of the costume nipples, yes?).
I disagreed with him, but Walter Chaw's review of the film helped me see Richard's point:
"No, the conundrum of Watchmen is that it's a commentary on idol-making in our culture, the near-instant transformation of any atrocity and cause into buzzwords and ad art—and yet, armed with all that mainframe memory and truckloads of cash, the temptation is to turn Watchmen into an exercise in idolatry... A piffle, a pittance, and everything of which critics of comic-book movies accuse the genre, it's faithful in every way except the poetry and philosophy. It's sleek when it should be ugly and its darkness is a child's impression of nihilism."
Chaw I agree with. But as I've said, I was perhaps too overly biased to review the film.
I was a sophomore in high school when I got my first job—at a local, terrible comic book retailer, but, of course, I didn't have a work permit. I accepted half of my pay in store credit just so I could work there—and I was only going to funnel the pay back to my employer anyway (oh, in these times, how I long for the days when my greatest financial responsibility was keeping up with the latest issue of Generation X). It was, really, a terrible job. I was too immature to be responsible and too young for the manager to bother teaching me anything. And I bought so many awful, awful comic books. Yes, I was the worst, most stereotypical of all fanboys in my earliest teen years, and I had a stack of polybagged #1 issues to establish my geeky street cred.
Any longtime comic fan has a similar story to this, to where it goes; picking up one of those true "classics" that opened their eyes to wider possibilities within the medium. It's why so many girlfriends have had to choke down volumes of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's Preacher or some other just-above-average "growth spurt" book as though it was going to awaken in them a four-color world of like-minded obsession. My problem, though, was in pushing off too hard on my first hit. Being surrounded by my drug of choice, I just about overdosed before I could even feel the rush. In the span of about a week, I read McCloud's Understanding Comics, I read my first two volumes of Sim and Gerhard's Cerebus, and I of course read Watchmen.
I wonder, sometimes, if I had read Watchmen on its own, would I view it the same way? My critical vocabulary exploded over night, and I analysed the damned thing to death—my study periods in school were spent poring over the pre-wiki analysis site "Watching the Detectives," hosted by Professor Stuart Moulthrop, whose analysis of comics and video games as "interstitial fiction" I have spoken of in the past. In some ways, I am only just recovering as a casual reader and as a critic. When Chaw says in his review that he "more admires the Moore source than loves it," I consider myself in 2009 fully sympatico—the original text is brilliant, but also so often joyless and exhausting by deliberate nature. It wears one down over time. But oh, how I do admire it.
It should be stated as a matter of eternal record: Patton Oswalt is, unfortunately, absolutely correct. He wrote recently on the Watchmen mixed-reaction:
"Tell you what—before you go and see THE WATCHMEN, plunk down and watch CATWOMAN, GHOST RIDER and DAREDEVIL. And use those seven hours (and don't pretend like you don't have seven free hours in your day) to get out all of your disgust and the-world-owes-me-my-daydreams-made-real attitude you strut around with.
"Because Zack Snyder STEPPED UP, motherfuckers. THE WATCHMEN was going to get made, one way or another. And instead of bleating on his Facebook status updates or Tweeting about how shitty the upcoming adaptation's going to be, he TOOK THE BULLET and tried to do it right. Yes, THE WATCHMEN should be a limited series on HBO and blah blah blah IT WAS NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN THAT WAY. Zack delivered a 2 1/2 hour, honest attempt, and broke his ass cranking out tons of free extras. Hell, he even animated The Tales of The Black Freighter for you chumps."
I am, as I've said, of the personal opinion that this was an adaptation that didn't have to be made at all. But it's true that, with DC Comics in control of the property, a film was inevitable. I've read the Sam Hamm-penned version of the screenplay, and this was not it. Snyder attempted to pay full tribute to a work that he obviously cared about, tried to do the book justice as he understood it. I would allege, in my own point of view, that he didn't understand it well enough, but in some sense it comes down to your particular definition of the term "faithful."
To get into the differences between book and film is largely an exercise in pedantry, if only because Tasha Robinson of The Onion AV Club has already done a yeoman's job of it. In particular, she made an effort to point out why many changes mattered with regards to not only the original work's context, but the film operating as its own product. When Robinson points out an added line about Rorschach's "mask," it's not a case of a fan requiring slavish devotion—it's a case of the line undercutting two key scenes in the film's portrayal of Rorschach's psychosis.
I've been reading a lot of reactions by people in the comic business in the week following the film's release. Some of them are people I know, but mostly from following blogs and having a pretty hefty Twitter feed. It seems as though, in my estimation, the "faithful" line is pretty shakily drawn down the middle of a particular divide. Speaking generally, of course, not discounting anyone's hard-fought opinion, but I see a lot of artists calling the film "reverently faithful" and a lot of writers calling the film "a travesty." This speaks, I think, to something fundamental about Snyder's adaptation and how it was made.
Artist Dave Gibbons, fresh off a career-making turn on Green Lantern, did not have an easy time with Watchmen—the legend goes that Moore, not owning a fax, had to send script pages to Gibbons in a cab, as they were so dangerously close to losing schedule. There were script pages by the hundreds, as Moore's scripts are infamously novelistic (the only way that one could convey the piles of recurring motifs, parallelism, and layered metaphor). Gibbons turned out work of the highest caliber, conveying all of what Moore was attempting—and generally making it look easy. But his style works in the book because it is often muted and static, which fits the downtrodden and defeated world of Moore's broken heroes. The artwork is rightly acclaimed, but since its release Gibbons hasn't really struck hard a second time. His recent graphic novel, The Originals, is solid but largely unmemorable. Snyder's vision of adaptation, which captures many of the same images from Gibbons's work, is certainly a "faithful" treatment of the book in visual terms, though in three dimensions that muted quality is often lost. Comparing image to image, the book is all there onscreen. It's in the words, or rather, in how words and images relate, where much of the damage has been done.
XXV. "I'm not a comic book villain."
I want to damage my credibility further by sticking up for "the squid." No, no, I don't think it would have worked in the film, either. Removing the climactic monster construct from Moore's text was one of the most necessary changes the film had to make. But I want to point out why it worked in the book.
The commonly-raised question is how we can be expected to believe that one monster corpse can unite the world in common purpose. The answer to that is, the corpse is almost beside the point. Adrian Veidt's masterstroke is the cloning of a psychic brain, stolen fro