Remediating Comics for Cinema: An Interview with Drew Morton (Part One)

Shortly after I arrived in Los Angeles, I was asked to serve on her dissertation committee at UCLA for promising graduate student named Drew Morton. Morton was putting together a committee that included that only myself but also Janet Bergstrom,  John Caldwell and Denise Mann. This committee tells you something about this range of methodologies and perspectives Morton was trying to bridge through his work. Morton’s project was trying to understand the kinds of stylistic and narrative remediation taking place as more and more comic books and graphic novels were being adopted for the cinema.

Mortin’s work was bold, original and rock solid, adding real insight to our understanding of the significant intertwining of the film and comics industries in recent years. He approached this topic with consideration of industry trends and developments but also with the formalist eye towards its impact on cinematic language, genre evolution, and authorship questions. He moved forward through a series of compelling case studies, exploring particular formal practices as they were deployed in specific films and comics. In the process, he developed a much larger framework for thinking about the remediation process more generally. In some cases he dealt with adaptations  such as Watchmen or Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World but  he also dealt with more implicit influences such as the way to the comic book version of The Dark Tower may been informed by the wide-screen practices of Sergio Leone. His closing discussion of motion comics represented perhaps the most thoughtful discussion I’ve read of this new set of digital production practices which remain highly controversial among comic book enthusiast because of the way that they overwrite core aspects of the sequential art.

Morton represents a new breed of comparative media scholars who are as comfortable describing the panel breakdown or comics page as they are discussing  camera work and editing in contemporary blockbusters.  His work is deeply grounded in contemporary film and media theory and it has also been shaped by his success at reaching out key practitioners and decision-makers within the two industries. His interests are at once historical spanning back to early cinema in contemporary dealing with films of the past few seasons. He seems equally at home on the floor of the San Diego comic con as he is at the podium at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. As such he’s been able to build a solid network around his work and his emerges a major advocate for the video essay as an emerging form of scholarly discourse.

Late last year, Morton published Panel to the Screen: Style, American Film and Comic Books During the Blockbuster Era, a book which built on an extended his dissertation research. I was asked to write a blurb for the book which sums up my assessment of its contributions to the field:

“At a time when superhero blockbusters dominate the box office, we need to know much more than we do about the formal and institutional factors shaping these films. In Panel to the Screen, Drew Morton provides a nuanced account of why these films look the ways they do as producers adopt a range of strategies for the cinematic remediation and translation of comics, and in turn, he considers how comic artists absorb devices from Hollywood which make their books seem that much more screen-ready when read by studio executives. This groundbreaking book moves from one rich and compelling case study to the next and will be essential reading for anyone interested in comics, films, and the relationship between them.”

Today, I am proud to share the first installment of an interview with Drew Morton about comics and film, one that is far-reaching in its scope, touching on many of the case studies from the book but also updating the argument to describe more recent developments such as the Deadpool movie and the revitalization of Batman 66. Enjoy!

You begin the book with a basic distinction between adaptation and remediation, noting that many more superhero movies, say, are adaptations and extensions of comic book sources than seek to perform the kinds of stylistic remediation that is central to your book. Explain this distinction more.

 

First off Henry, thanks for asking me to do this. I really appreciate the mentorship you’ve provided me with while I was working on this project.

 

This is a great question – given its centrality to the book and its ambiguity. Whenever I teach remediation and adaptation in my courses, I find that it takes my students quite a while to work through the difference. If I remember correctly? It was a hard concept for me to grasp the first time I read through it. Needless to say, examples tend to help.

 

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is a loose adaptation that lacks remediation. If we look at the narrative borrowings of his films, we can easily find correspondences between Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One in Batman Begins. The film focuses on Bruce’s training, why he wants to protect Gotham City, and his relationship with the officer who will become Commissioner Gordon. The Dark Knight borrows from The Killing Joke and The Long Halloween while Rises takes its central conflict from Knightfall. As I said, these are loose adaptations that broadly take plot points, characters, and themes from the original books. Most comic book adaptations do this – the “faithful” adaptation seems to be incredibly rare.

Yet, Nolan’s films owe more stylistically to film noir than they do to comic books. He does not remediate – re-represent – the comic in the film. Unlike say Ang Lee’s Hulk, Nolan doesn’t fracture the frame into a bunch of panels. He does not use speed ramping like Zack Snyder does to capture the subjective temporality of reading. His film, unlike Dick Tracy or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, does not highlight the representational artifice of cartooning. Nolan borrows the iconography and some narrative pieces, but his films owe relatively little to their original medium.

 

As we think about the emergence of the comic book movie as a major factor in film production, one could argue that comics and film needed to be ready for each other. Comics had to gain a certain stylistic self-consciousness, thematic maturity, and cultural status and films had to acquire the technical capacity to make us believe a man could fly. Would you agree with this broad strokes analysis of the factors which led to the rise of the comic book movie?

 

I would agree with this to a certain extent. If we look back at how Hollywood treated comic book properties in the 1970s and 1980s, on the cusp of the cultural renaissance that came with the graphic novel, we can see a certain amount of dismissal. In today’s climate, it seems insane that DC Comics and Warner Brothers would sell off the rights to Superman for an independent film and yet, in the 1970s, it seemed perfectly reasonable for a number of reasons. First, as you mention, the special effects technology wasn’t there yet. The Christopher Reeves Superman films went horribly over budget. Secondly, Hollywood wasn’t sure if there was a large enough audience to cover the budgets of such costly films. The Comics Code of the 1950s had recast the American comic as a medium almost exclusively made for children.

 

The irony, of course, is that comic book sales peaked in America in the 1940s and – because of competition from television, video games, and other media – have never come close to recouping. So while comic book films are incredibly financially successful, those dollars do not necessarily migrate back to the comics. Whenever I talk about comic book movies in my classes, it astounds me to find how few of my students have actually read the comics. For most consumers, the films seem to be enough for them to call themselves DC or Marvel fans.

 

Your chapter on Scott Pilgrim begin life as a video essay, a form you have been deeply invested in cultivating and promoting. So, what did you learn through this process of, in effect, adapting this essay between two different delivery platforms? What could you convey through the video essay that was hard to achieve in print and vice-versa?

 

The Scott Pilgrim chapter was a bit of an odd beast. When I planned on including Scott Pilgrim, I was in the midst of the first draft of the book and I thought it was just strictly going to be another formal analysis case study. Then I was asked to cover the film for a entertainment outlet that summer and I was given behind the scenes access. Thanks to that, it evolved from what I initially thought was going to be a forgettable chapter to one of the centerpieces.

Thanks to the interviews I was able to conduct with the creators, the chapter was really exciting to write but it was not, as I found when I initially tried to turn it into an article, terribly exciting to read. Sure, the insights from Edgar Wright and the behind the scenes anecdotes gave the chapter some life, but formal and stylistic analysis can be really hard to write well due to the confines of prose and academic publishing in general. A picture can do a lot, but we deal in moving images and texts that are – to borrow from Raymond Bellour – “unattainable.” We cannot quote a film in an academic monograph the same way a English lit scholar can quote Shakespeare or an Art Historian can duplicate a Pollock painting. So I thought I would roll the dice and take an important section of my book and turn it into a video essay, which allowed me to provide a commentary over moving images. The end result allowed me to compare and contrast the book with the comic in a way that was much more dynamic (a little music can go a long way) and I was pleasantly surprised by the reactions of the large audience that was drawn to the piece (thanks to the social media savvy of Edgar Wright, Matt Zoller Seitz, and yourself!).

 

That being said, the process of adaptation was much more complicated now that I have the benefit of hindsight. The Scott Pilgrim video essay was the third or fourth video piece I had made and came after a long sabbatical from video editing, so I look back at it now and wish I had made certain adjustments. Primarily, the voice over is too dense and I talk way too fast for some of the more complicated ideas (like the adaptation vs. remediation distinction) to take root in non-academic viewers.

 

Yet, the process of making the video essay also taught me how to hone my voice in prose in ways I had not expected. I think a lot of young academics think that scholarship needs to read intelligently – there is a certain vocabulary and toolbox of jargon that comes with academia – and I found I was hiding fairly uncomplicated concepts behind complicated prose in order to sound Professorial. That type of voice doesn’t tend to fly when it comes to video essays; it’s too stilted and dominates the argument. The ideal video essay should let both the audio and the video deliver the argument (which is why I’ve experimented with text only videos in the past); it’s not a conference paper.

 

I tell colleagues and students that a good video essay owes more to a journalistic or broadcasting style. Sentences should be concise, clear, and should roll off the tongue easily (the video essay voice over is a form of performance, after all!). I also tell them that the best “first step” to take is to take the blueprint for your video (which might be an article or a conference paper), throw it away, and ask yourself how you might explain your subject to your mom or dad – someone uninitiated in the language and concepts of Media Studies. That does not mean the ideas articulated are simple or lacking in scholarly rigor – they’re accessible. Fittingly, I have always thought of your voice as being a prime example of this model. I believe, if I remember correctly, that you once practiced journalism and I think that tends to be a really productive background for academics to have because it helps us produce work that can be approached by folks outside the Ivory Tower. So the video essay ended up helping me re-write the prose version into something much more dynamic.

Dr. Drew Morton is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at Texas A&M University-Texarkana and the co-editor of [in]Transition, the first peer-reviewed journal focused on videographic criticism.  He is also the author of the  book Panel to the Frame: Style, American Comics, and Blockbuster Film.