Sunday, October 24, 2004

Graphic Arts As Literature

A scene from Image Comics' "Hawaiian Dick" comic-book.

Is he right for the role
when it’s paper-thin?

WHEN he first started pushing ink across bristol board, comic artist Jack Kirby would get frazzled. He'd run out of visual ideas and dramatic angles. The writers seemed to think all there was to graphic storytelling was a couple of heads talking. So Kirby would pop down the street and see a movie for a nickel -- this was World War II -- and recharge his imagination.

Fast-forward a few decades and filmmakers are reading comic books for inspiration. Why not? Most of the time they're better written than movies and TV shows, and visually, they're limited only by the size of the page. The movies and comic books have had a symbiotic relationship since the days of Windsor McKay, and the only question is -- who's the remora and who's the shark?

No question, these days of digital animation have made comic-book-like movies easier than ever. You don't sit in the theater looking for strings or iguanas shot from low angles. The basics of comics and films remain the same as it has always been for storytelling. That is, no matter how wild the story is, do you care about the characters?

Which leads us to the problem of casting. A well-written and illustrated book makes the characters come alive for the reader. The graphic novel "Road to Perdition," made into a successful film, was so thoroughly drawn, researched and influenced that it appeared to be a tracing of real life. It made filmmaker's job both easier and less fun, as there was no room for creative wiggling. In the film, Tom Hanks often seemed straitjacketed.

Casting Ellen DeGeneres simply as the voice of a fish in "Finding Nemo" was inspired casting, as it created the character. But it was a new character, and we had no latent preconceptions.

Casting the right person in a comic-book role is tricky. Will they make the familiar character breathe? Or will they bury it in technique or squash it out of actorly hubris?

Probably no piece of comic-book casting was more closely examined than Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker the Spider-Man, a character who is an icon of American mythology. But there were sighs of relief when Maguire was brilliant in the role. But casting grave Kirstin Dunst as hedonist Mary Jane Parker was bothersome. As for villains, Willem Dafoe was ticcy as the Green Goblin, but Alfred Molina was perfect as the conflicted Doctor Octopus.

"Jackass" star Johnny Knoxville looks the part of seedy detective Byrd in the "Hawaiian Dick" comic book, but can he act the part? Casting can make or break a comic-book film.

Casting is vital. The second pair of "Batman" movies stunk because the roles were regarded as dress-up exercises. Christopher Reeve's bemused humanity made Superman seem even more lonesome and alien, a key part of the hero's personality.

Can we forget Arnold Schwarzenegger as "Conan"? There's another Conan movie in pre-production but can we handle it if Arnold isn't aboard?

A fine actress and visual stunner like Halle Berry was a good-looking Catwoman, but the movie reeked. In exactly the same part, Michelle Pfeiffer created one of the most memorable roles of the last couple of decades, but she had the aid of a very talented director and excellent writing.

Actors are just putty in movie roles. No wonder many talk about going back to the stage, where they are masters of their own talent.

Although there are too many things that can go wrong with a film, from the initial pitch meeting to the premiere, it generally boils down to writing. Add to that the cultural investment fans have made into well-loved characters, and making movies out of comic books gets sticky.

Here's some of the casting for comic-book movies now in production: In "Fantastic Four," it's Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm/ The Thing, Ioan Gruffudd as Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic, Chris Evans as Johnny Storm/ Human Torch, Jessica Alba as Susan Storm/Invisible Woman and Julian McMahon as Dr. Doom; Wesley Snipes will continue in a third "Blade" movie; Nicholas Cage is "Ghost Rider"; Ben Affleck returns as "Daredevil" and Jennifer Garner returns as "Elektra": the whole cast of "X-Men" return for a third film; Drew Barrymore is "Barbarella"; Vincent Cassel is Lt. Mike "Blueberry"; Ray Park as "Iron Fist"; and Brandon Routh (who?) as Superman, after Nicholas Cage (what?) took a pass.

Going into production, apparently quite soon, is a film based on the "Hawaiian Dick" three-volume comic book. Cast in the lead role of Byrd, a down-on-his-luck private eye, is jokester Johnny Knoxville, not really an actor but certainly comfortable before the camera. He also looks the part.

For a comic book, "Hawaiian Dick" is fairly modest, an atmospheric comic-noir based on equal parts hard-boiled B-movie, "Hawaiian Eye" and retro-'50s kitsch. The creators for Image Comics were Steven Griffin and B. Clay Moore. The production company is New Line, and the filmmaker are Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, who previously did "Jason vs. Freddy."

It will probably do OK. Lucky for the filmmakers, there won't be any expectations. Few people have any preconceptions about the hero, whoever he is.

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