The Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s Leading Genre by Liam Burke

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fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s Leading Genre by Liam Burke

THE COMIC BOOK FILM ADAPTATIONThe Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s Leading Genre, by Liam Burke, is a scholarly look at the comic book movie genre, examining why these movies became so popular since the turn of the new century as well as the various elements than can be said to constitute the genre. Burke also discusses the question of fidelity to the original source material and how that fidelity has lately been affected by the rise of mass fan culture. It’s a learned, well-documented, highly informative exploration and highly recommended for anyone interested in comics books, either their film or print versions.

After a brief introduction, the book moves through five relatively lengthy sections, each focused on a different area. I’ll address each chapter separately.

One: Burke opens his examination with the simple question of what is it that led to first the rise of comic book movies and then their utter dominance at the box office in what is called “The Golden Age of Comic Book Film Making.” Generally speaking, he breaks the reasons down into three categories of culture, technology, and business economics. More precisely: the impact of 9/11 on the US population, creating a need/desire for heroes in the face of national trauma; the technological progress, especially in CGI, which allowed filmmakers to present on screen comic book action that previously would have been either impossible or terrible looking; and finally, the fact that comic books brought to their producers a built-in audience, a multitude of stories allowing for serial or franchise films, and a built-in iconography for ease of merchandising. Each of these areas is further subdivided and examined in thoughtful detail, as for instance when the cultural aspect is sub-divided into nostalgia, wish fulfillment, escapism, and ideology.

Two: Here, Burke explores the elements of the comic book genre, placing comic book heroes in a larger context alongside Western heroes and 1970s/1980s action heroes. He makes clear early on as well that “a comic book movie does not need to actually be based on a comic book to be included in this genre; it simply needs to adopt elements synonymous with the comic book movie (he places The Matrix, for example, in this genre despite it having no comic source). Amongst the elements examined are protagonists, and a heightened reality, and a “comic aesthetic.” In this chapter he does an in-depth comparison of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Watchmen films, which he places on the opposite ends of the “Fidelity” spectrum in terms of how faithful they were to the source material.

Three: The discussion at the end of chapter two leads into a much more extensive look at the idea of fidelity, in particular the connection between fans and fidelity. Burke charts this connection from the early days of the Marvel “Bullpen” where Stan Lee would respond to fan’s letters in the comic books to the current rise in fandom on the net and the web’s ability to create a ripple effect, whereby fan reaction emanates outward through the general population, thus magnifying its impact. As an example, he points to how dismissive the creators of the original Batman were of fan reaction to the film, saying “This is too big a budget movie to worry about what a fan of a comic would say: or referring to fans as “a small cult.” He contrasts that to the current relationship between fans and comic book movie creators, with those creators now engaging in back and forths on the web, attending conferences, offering pre-screenings to fans, etc.

Four: In this section Burke takes a much more detailed look at the “comic aesthetic,” diving into the ways in which comic books have informed the look of films and vice versa. He begins by looking at what would be the base comparison points: a comic book’s panel versus a film’s shot. The chapter then looks in detail at various elements both film and comic books employ and how they are similar or different. Included are aspects such as transitions, angles, conveyance of motion, framing, passage of time, economy of detail, color, and the like. One specific comparison is for instance how the notorious “bullet time” slo-mo in The Matrix can approximate the time a film viewer has to look at an individual panel.

Five: In the final chapter (excepting the general conclusion), Burke looks at how “the Marvel Way” has been adapted from comic books to film, a stylistic flourish and exaggeration that “once might have been dismissed as ‘comic-booky,’ but are today among Hollywood’s most relied-on convention.” He leans heavily on the guidebook How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way by Stan Lee and John Buscema, moving back and forth from their advice (often shown pictorially) on illustrating in the print medium to how that advice has been translated into film. A few categories in this chapter are “framing and composition,” “Performance,” and selecting the “chosen moment” to illustrate (or film).

The Comic Book Film Adaptation is extremely well sourced throughout, calling upon experts in a host of fields either through quotations/citations or through interviews. As one might (should) expect, Scott McCloud is heavily quoted when Burke examines the elements of the comic book. But he also has interviews with directors and actors, quotes from a host of theorists/critics working in the fields of film theory, literary theory, popular culture, semiotics, and others. And as one would hope, but as I’ve found is not always the case, the book, which after all is focused on two visual mediums, is liberally dotted with illustrations, photographs, and movie stills. Burke himself is a levelheaded, thoughtful, and clarifying guide throughout, never letting the sometimes-esoteric vocabulary of some theory to overshadow or confuse whatever point he is elucidating. This is a fantastic look a the comic book movie — clear, insightful, authoritative, timely, well documented and sourced, and highly readable. And thus highly recommended.


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. Bill, your review is fantastic. Thanks for letting me know about this book. I’ll send a link to the students in my current course on Comics and Visual Literacy at Oxford College of Emory University. They’ll be interested in seeing the summary of Burke’s arguments, which sound intelligent and compelling. We just finished discussing The Watchmen this week, and part of our discussion was of the high quality of the film adaptation even though there were some significant changes. We discussed the difference between fidelity to plot versus fidelity to theme. I’m very curious to read his section on The Watchmen movie.

    He seems like the best kind of scholar: He makes points that I hadn’t articulated for myself, but once I read them, I realize how undeniably accurate they are. I can’t wait to read the book. I’m pleased to hear that he uses theory and terminology to clarify without letting them obscure his ideas, which would otherwise lead to a jargon-laden book (the downfall of too much scholarship over the past thirty years, I think many of us in academia would agree).

    I’ll also be requesting that the Oxford College library order a copy as soon as it becomes available later in the month. What a timely and wonderful addition to this field! Thanks for taking the time to review it.

    -Brad

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