Comics are Not Animated Movies

Look, animation and comic books (let’s be honest and say “superhero comics”) have a great relationship. We’re talking years and years of great relationship, as far back as the Fleischer Superman animated serials of the 1940s. And, arguably, the two have become inexorably blended thanks to the wonderful synergy between Warner Bros./DC Comics, as far back as the seminal Batman: The Animated Series of the 1990s.

So when Comic Book Resources posted an article titled “DC COMICS STORIES TAILOR-MADE FOR ANIMATED FEATURES” I had to take notice. Particularly due to the all-caps. That’s some virtual enthusiasm right there, FOR SURE!

Unfortunately, while by and large I agree with the author Marc Buxton and would LOVE to see each and every one of his suggestions made into animated films, I think there are some key points that are not taken into account. And the most basic of these points? That animated films are not comic books. In fact, there are things that you can do in comics that you simply cannot do in animation. In other words, just because both mediums are a mix of visuals and “text,” it does not mean that one can be tailor-made for the other.

I couldn’t help but notice that 90% of the article’s suggestions basically boil down to “hey, this was a great story in the comics, so it would be a great story as a film.” Here’s most of the reasons he offers for films to be adapted into animation:

  • “intense heroic dramas”, “some great character work” (Justice League: A New Beginning)
  • “do a modern version of the reality-hopping story” (Crisis on Earth-One)
  • “the definitive origins of Robin and Batgirl” (Robin/Batgirl: Year One)
  • “telling a modern story of heroism and courage”, “multi-layered thematic study of the ‘Shazam’ concept” (Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil)
  • “greatest human adventures and remains a touchstone in comic history” (Hard Traveling Heroes)
  • “memorable stories”, “story … like a Greek Tragedy”, “potential character depth” (Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia)
  • “great little brother/big brother dynamic”, “groundbreaking storyline” (Batman and Robin)
  • “adapt one of the most intense Superman comic stories” (Superman: Last Son)
  • “one of the most tightly plotted, action-packed stories of the early ’90s” (Superman: Panic in the Sky)
  • “one of the most stunningly original “Batman” stories ever told” (Batman: Court of Owls)
  • “one of the most popular stories of the ’90s” (Batman: Knightfall)
  • “scope and emotional resonance of the story”, “a tribute to the “Green Lantern” mythos” (Sinestro Corps War)
  • “the purest Batman story” (Batman: The Long Halloween)
  • “this darkest of stories” (Arkham Asylum)
  • “the ultimate modern Joker story” (Batman: Death of the Family)
  • “This story of the true meaning of heroism” (Kingdom Come)
  • “the first, true epic crossover event; the story that transitioned the DC Universe” (Crisis on Infinite Earths)

Now, OF COURSE a great story should be the driving reason for a film. But because it’s so “of course,” this “reason” should be taken as a given, and in and of itself, this does not mean it’s tailored-made to adapt to other media. In fact, why not make the argument that these comics are tailor-made for a live-action film? Or an HBO original series? Or a novelization? All in all, what is really being sold as a reason here? A great story told well? That’s been done already, because it’s in the comic itself!

So what’s left besides “story” as a reason? Well, there’s always “character.” However, while the article points out some opportunity for character-as-exploration-of-human-themes (such as how Kingdom Come “differentiates [DC’s Trinity — Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman], what their great failings are, and most importantly, what makes them heroes” and how Batman: Death of the Family explores the “perfect symbiotic relationship of chaos and order symbolized by Batman and the Joker”), the majority of the article simple name-drops the characters as if they are figures on a shelf that could be placed on a different shelf. Instead, some reasons for animation are simply “seeing the beloved Blue and Gold team of Beetle and Booster in animated form” (Justice League: A New Beginning) and “the first official meeting between the Justice League of Earth 1 and Justice Society of Earth 2 is an event many DC fans have longed to see come to life” (Crisis on Earth-One). I love these characters, too, but when you’re argument boils down to “it would be cool to see these characters move and talk,” it’s not really convincing as proof that animation must happen.

That kind of thinking too easily translates into something else very prevalent in this article. And I’m guilty of this sometimes, too– when you stop playing armchair movie director and become armchair movie executive. In other words, just because this character is a property, doesn’t mean it’s “tailor-made” to be leveraged for the sake of being a property. This “reason” is given to justify many of the author’s points, saying “with New Gods, DC and WB have their own potential ‘Star Wars’ franchise just waiting to be exploited,” and Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil might allow Captain Marvel/Shazam to “deserve his chance” to try again to be “the most commercially viable DC property.” This kind of stuff is an oversimplification of what “characters” really are, and glosses over what you’re really talking about, which is stuff like graphic design, cultural zeitgeist/consumer mentality, trademark and branding, or even just basic story theory. We should all take a step back and check if we really are talking about art forms or talking about business.

To be fair, the author does point out several aesthetic/artistic reasons for a story to be adapted into animation. The best example of this is his offer of Batman: Gotham by Gaslight. He rightly talks about how “an animated gothic horror . . . inspired by the art of Mike Mignola” gives opportunity for story (“mash-up of modern day super heroics with archetypes of the Victorian era”) and character (Batman as an “enduring character”) and, more importantly, tone (“moody, atmospheric alternate future.”) This is entirely appropriate, of course, as this recent Justice League: War director Jay Olivia has gone on record saying he wants to do this as an actual film. (It’s also been developed, although abandoned, as a video game). Another brilliant point is in the offer of Batman: Court of Owls. He says that “Greg Capullo’s take on Batman fighting the Talons over Gotham’s rooftops seems like a perfect fit for animation,” and THAT’s the point. An animated film has its own advantages as a unique medium, and these strengths should highlight or enhance a comic book story. In this case, a scene full of tone, movement, character, and dramatic tension.

It’s a bit more tricky when you read about the New Gods as “an animated Kirby tribute, crackling with the power only the King could muster.” I suppose on one hand it’s identifying that there is a unique combination of characters, concepts, tone/style, and, yes, plot, but at the same time, it boils down to “it’s cool and I want to see such coolness in another medium.” What is it about animation that would enhance this “power” and unique combination of stuff? In this case, I would argue that the graphic design of Kirby’s elements are such that it would not translate well into a live-action medium; the stark and simplified nature of the design elements of both character, backgrounds, and special effects would not be same, visually, if made live (or even, I’d argue, if made 3D.) It’s no wonder that these elements were a huge influence to 1996’s Superman: The Animated Series. However, I’d further make a distinction by this same token, and say that this story could not be an animated DVD or television release; if you are going for something to capture grandeur and otherworldly majesty, then a cinematic scope and aspect ratio of an animated theatrical film is the way to go.

Finally, I’d like to point out that just because something can be drawn on paper, does not mean that it automatically can be drawn for animation. Because what you are really asking for is something that was drawn once (for one splash page in a comic) to be drawn multiple times (usually for 12 frames per one second of film, sometimes more depending on the quality.) That page may have taken an artist six to eight hours to draw. Those 12 frames might take a week, with multiple artists involved in layout, key frames, in-betweens, or more. So you have to realize the extreme oversimplification of the claim that “it might be a struggle for WB’s animators to cram as many characters into every frame as Perez did in every panel of [Crisis on Infinite Earths.]” It may be so unrealistic to the point of being impossible. And also, the advantage is when your eyes can linger over these panels and their compositions. These are lost when film has a different language altogether to compose scenes and frames, to guide the viewer’s eyes. So, for the article to say that “Kirby built a world in every panel he drew” might be a fair point, but to mean that it is also “a world that is ripe for life in other media” does not necessarily follow. It’s a strength of the comic that does not have an equivalent in animation. So perhaps it’s appropriate then, that in the previous paragraph I said that the New Gods suggestion would be better served as an animated theatrical film– this only furthers the point because only that kind of film would have the budget and staffing appropriate for that expression. But I’d still think a direct translation of Crisis is impossible. Bottom line, some of the “tailor-made” reasons offered by the article were that these stories had a scale (see also the reasons for Sinestro Corps War and Blackest Night), but that is precisely why they *shouldn’t* be made into animated movies, I’d argue.

So, beyond my echo of The New Gods (as an animated theatrical release), I’d also affirm the author’s choices of Batman: Gotham By Gaslight, Batman: Court of Owls, and Shazam and the Monster Society of Evil. And here, I’d add my own “Top 10” stories to the list I’d like to see:

  • Green Lantern: New Guardians (2011)
  • Shadowpact (2006)
  • Stanley and his Monster (1993)
  • Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth (1972)
  • Metamorpho (The Brave and the Bold, 1965)
  • Klarion the Witch Boy (Seven Soldiers of Victory, 2005)
  • The Metal Men (Wednesday Comics, 2009)
  • Doom Patrol (The Brotherhood of Dada, 1989)
  • Dial H (2012)
  • Plastic Man (Jack Cole, 1941 or Kyle Baker, 2004)

But this list is entirely made with my own rationales, which I should save for different posts at a later time. Enjoy contemplating that list while you wait!