Monday, June 23, 2008

Graphic Novels are Hollywood's Newest Gold Mine

Thursday, Jun. 19, 2008 By REBECCA WINTERS KEEGAN
TIME magazine

Superman Leaped 40 years' worth of tall buildings on the printed page before he landed his first feature film, in 1978. In 2003, Wesley Gibson, the cubicle-dwelling assassin in Mark Millar's nihilist graphic novel Wanted, had producers circling before his first issue even went to print. Millar's work is unlikely source material for a big-budget movie; one of his obscenely named villains is made of fecal matter from 666 evildoers, including Adolf Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer. Nevertheless, Wanted is now a glossy summer action movie starring James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman, directed by new-to-big-studio-movies Russian Timur Bekmambetov.

Graphic novels--long comic books for grownups--have always had mostly cult appeal. Last year's most successful, the 13th volume in a Japanese manga adventure series--Naruto, by Masashi Kishimoto--sold 80,000 copies, far short of 2007's hottest novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, which sold more than 1.5 million copies. The point of the comics was largely their transgressiveness. "They're the last pirate medium," says Millar, a Scottish writer who consults for Marvel Comics on more mainstream fare, like Iron Man. "They're the last medium for a mass audience where you can do anything you want."

But the creations of oddball loners like Millar scribbling at drafting tables have also become the movie industry's most reliable development tool. Thanks to the box-office success of A-list superheroes like Spider-Man and the X-Men, Hollywood's appetite for comics-fueled material is insatiable. Titles from the darker corners of the genre, including gritty graphic novels like Wanted and Alan Moore's watershed deconstructivist superhero tome Watchmen are getting the big-screen makeover. Stories and characters first written for an audience of a few hundred thousand geeks at most are reaching, at the box office and on DVD and cable, popcorn-chomping crowds that number in the tens of millions. "The dalliance between Hollywood and comics is becoming a marriage," says Frank Miller, creator of the graphic novels Sin City and 300. "The downside is in the heads of people who make comic books. Everybody wants money and fame."

Times weren't always so flush in Toontown. In 1997, "George Clooney killed comic-book movies," says Millar. Joel Schumacher's joyless Batman & Robin, in which Clooney legendarily donned a bat suit complete with rubber nipples, left fans feeling abused. Studios turned their attention to fantasy literature like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. But when Spider-Man bested two wizard movies and a Star Wars prequel in 2002 and X-2: X-Men United broke $200 million at the box office in 2003, hand-drawn heroes swung back into favor. The joke in Hollywood now is that in a risk-averse era, comic-book adaptations have a distinct advantage: the drawings mean studio execs can see beforehand what the movie will look like.

At first, it was the family-friendly superheroes who made the leap to multiplexes, with the help of directors like Bryan Singer and Chris Nolan. Slowly, lesser-known comic books got a shot. Some, like Sin City and Hellboy, became modest box-office successes by adhering to the distinctive spirit of their creators. Others, like Road to Perdition and A History of Violence, attracted audiences with sophisticated stories that few people knew were derived from graphic novels.

Then came the spear that pierced the industries of comics, movies and ab videos: 300. "I was pretty sure we were making a boutique movie," says director Zack Snyder of his R-rated, blood-spattered retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae. With no stars and a lot of leather bikini bottoms, 300 grossed more than $200 million in the U.S. alone. "The movie struck a chord because it was unapologetic," says Snyder, who is directing Watchmen for release next March. "It's difficult to find a movie that feels true to itself. You feel the hand of Hollywood, the moviemaking by committee, on everything."

In the case of 300, the hand audiences felt was really Miller's, since whenever Snyder made a creative decision, he asked himself, What would Frank do? Comic-book-movie directors like Snyder, who see themselves as stewards of another person's vision rather than architects of their own, have made comic-book creators Hollywood's latest big-budget auteurs. Because they work with such low overhead compared with moviemakers, comic writers and artists can take many more creative chances than directors. "You don't have endless development meetings that turn your brain into milk," says Miller. "You get to at least see what an individual has to offer." After co-directing Sin City with Robert Rodriguez in 2005, Miller is completing his comics-to-movies arc by directing The Spirit, an adaptation of a 1940s crime-fighting strip, for a December release.

The other axiom 300 proved to Hollywood is one the comics industry has known for decades: "The audience for comic-book movies is overweight guys in their mid-30s," says director, comic-book-store owner and overweight guy in his late 30s Kevin Smith. Actually, the average age of a comic-book buyer is 23, but Smith's point--that there are fans aplenty to support R-rated comics franchises--has been digested. Even PG-13 comic-book movies are maturing. Batman keeps getting darker scripts, like Nolan's The Dark Knight, starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger (in his haunting last performance, as the Joker). Marvel Studios' first two movies, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, star Robert Downey Jr. and Ed Norton, Oscar-nominated actors with indie credibility. And Hellboy, who is back this summer for a sequel, is hardly your standard man in tights. He smokes cigars, drinks Red Bull and collects kittens. "Kids aren't kids anymore," says Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. "They're so exposed to everything. They wouldn't accept really simplistic superheroes." It's likely that a superhero movie like Watchmen or The Dark Knight couldn't be appreciated by audiences without the simpler fare that came before it. You can't deconstruct the superhero until someone has constructed him, rubber nipples and all. "Watchmen is thick and complicated and violent and political and critical of America," Snyder says. "It's huge."

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