In the past, I’ve been less than forthcoming toward those who see relationships between comics and cinema, and while I still claim there are more differences than similarities, there is no denying that distinct art forms may thrive or at least play at each others’ formalities. Hold on, hold on – I’ll be more precise: Whereas film is a story that is ever disappearing before the viewer’s eyes, each split-second image replaced by the next to give the illusion of action, a comic shows you panel next to panel for the reader to decode, showing action through simultaneous juxtaposition. There is more to comics, of course – I complicate things here if you are so inclined – and more to film as well, but you have to look elsewhere for that. What we need to think about right now is the spatial juxtaposition of several (>1) images. No, really. If you are going to argue about how many images (or “panels”) constitute a comic, we’re not going to see the end of this post; visit the two links above as well as this one, then come back here. You’ll enjoy it in the end, I promise.
Now, there are several interesting overlaps between comics and cinema, but most of them only stand out in terms of pop culture cross-pollination, how a franchise from one art form came to shine in another: Batman migrating from the comics page onto the silver screen, or the merchandise churn of producing comic book versions of theater blockbusters (like Batman). The examples of cinema influencing comics storytelling are numerous, too – however, there are only a few examples of movies attempting to mimic the visual language of comics; first I will present you with a rather unconvincing one and then move on to one that actually works. The big surprise of it has something to do with genre and how you expect that to engage with a certain form. Let’s begin with Ang Lee’s Hulk.
In Hulk, director Lee utilized split screens in a comicky manner to (honour? commemorate? employ?) the comic book legacy of the source material. Even if it didn’t turn out so well, creative director Carson Yu explained, talking to Art of the Title:
Ang wanted to create a unique look for the film. He wanted me to develop a new visual language incorporating multiple cameras to tell a story.
In film, it’s difficult to show multiple events simultaneously on one screen. Ang wanted to develop a concept that incorporated how we normally read comic strips. He wanted to present the film in one giant comic page.
If you can get hold of the movie without paying too much for it, I do encourage you to do so, at least for the attempted comics layouts that fail completely to be other than a gimmick – especially in the context of being a superhero film. This is where genre comes in, as superheroes (particularly in Northern America) seem to be conflated with comics as such. Comics as an art form is capable of any genre, of course, and is not confined to superheroes; it should not be a given, then, that superhero film formally reflect the art form of comics. While Lee’s attempts are commendable, his results do not measure up to his more subtle nods to comics in The ice storm. The juxtaposed split screens in Hulk only serve as disturbances in that they try to emulate complicated comics (page) layouts that are not easily conveyed in moving images. Instead, we shall move on to a more surprising, more challenging, and eventually more successful implementation of comics formalities in film:
Long story short: the element of split screens emulating comics page elements disturb rather than add to the storytelling, taking the viewer out of the natural immersion of believing in the (rather surreal) narrative of an irradiated, superpowered green giant.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
This one I’m going to assume that fewer comics-interested moviegoers have seen (re: the superhero bias mentioned above) but nevertheless I’ll do a cold start with the below clip. Suffice to say it’s a Cold War thriller and we meet British/American secret agent Tom Hardy spying on a suspected Soviet double agent:
You see what happened there? Don’t worry, I’ll take you through it. The overall story doesn’t really matter, what we have before us in this clip is the view of the hotel opposite Tom Hardy’s character’s window: the end of a corridor and three adjoining rooms of a suite, all seen through floor-to-ceiling windows.
You noticed by now that the sound has been edited out in the above sequence. It’s cut from my own DVD copy of the film, and I don’t want a copyright infringement on my shoulders. In the following examples I have cropped and distorted the movie images to enhance the comic strip effect of those four en suite frames. You will note that the actions in each panel (as it were) play out simultaneously while still adhering to a left-to-right sequence of events.
1. In panel 1 (leftmost pair of windows) the character Irina is walking down the corridor toward the hotel room door; In panel 2 (the first room of the suite), the double agent Boris’ henchmen are sitting around; in panel 3 (the bedroom of the suite), Boris – ostensibly Irina’s partner – is straddled by a woman whose name we do not know. Panel 4, the bathroom, is as yet available.
2. Irina enters panel 2. The henchmen look up, surprised. Perhaps they forgot that one of them was supposed to sit guard on the chair in the corridor (ie., panel 1). They should have been warned beforehand, that is, from the previous panel. In the meantime, the merriment of panel 3 commences.
3. Irina moves from panel 2 to panel 3 (the bedroom) but is as yet visible in neither; she is, in comics terms, in the gutter, the space between panels (or, in this case, between visible spaces; rooms). The metaphors that she may soon be gutted that her partner is sleeping with another woman, or left in the gutter by him is entirely up to the viewer’s interpretation of this rather random screen dump of the scene. Remember from the clip above, it all happens quite quickly. This intermediary screenshot is chosen to show exactly that Irina moves too quickly from one room/panel for Boris’ henchmen to stop her.
4. In panel 3, Irina confronts Boris and his lover. His goons are still surfacing from the front room/panel 2. The other woman is turning to face her, she obviously had other things on her mind (and, in her defence, probably had no reason to expect her existence). Irina is taken aback.
5. Irina retreats to the bathroom (panel 4) to cry and, after this clip, be beaten profusely by that asshole Boris on camera. We have enough for now, however, to to demonstrate the traditional comic strip technique of a progressive sequence of events over a consecutive (left-to-right) series of panels, within one cinematic scene.
Long story short: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy director Tomas Alfredson succeeds in 30 seconds where Ang Lee fails over several sequences (particularly toward the end of Hulk).
The film and comics forms are not mutually exclusive, but this example (with a supplemental viewing of Ang Lee’s Hulk) should exemplify that they are not natively transferable, either. As with any adaptation from a still-image to moving-image form, or vice versa, the inherent differences pose challenges beyond the mere differences of scheme (ie, can we split it? vs should we split it?) but in fact emphasises the efficiency of just letting it be. In this case, actually having the internal structural divisions of a hotel glass façade function as panel dividers in a simple comics strip.
In comics, architecture has been investigated as a formal metaphor for the page layout by luminaries such as Feuchtenberger, McEown and Ware, but to turn that art form’s inventiveness on its static, self-explanatory head apparently took a film director.