Friday, January 06, 2006

Screenwriters to Comics Scribes

Somewhere back near the dawn of time [or, as I like to call it, Monday], I asked the following questions: What about the post-Millennium influx of screenwriters into comics? Are they just slumming it, picking up some easy money writing down for the fanboys? Are they just scratching a childhood itch to write Wolverine or the Batman, or some other bruiser in tights and a cape? Or is there something else at work here? [Pictured is Lost coc-reator Damon Lindelof, whose apparently writing a Wolverine vs Hulk comic. Sod that, Damon - tell us what the numbers mean!]

I lose track of when this trend started, but it's been going on at least seven or eight years now, if not longer: screenwriters turning their hands to comics. Who did it first? Can't remember. I seem to recall Back to the Future writer Bob Gale was towards the front of the cue, turning in a run on Batman during one of its cataclysmic continuity crunches. No doubt there were others in the mix too. But it was either Kevin 'Clerks' Smith or J. Michael 'Babylon 5' Straczynski that really got the ball rolling, IMHO. Marvel went apeshit promoting the hell of their two superstar screenwriters, trying to generate headlines that ordinary comics never get, simply on the name recognition factor of the scribes. Let's face it, does average bloke on the street care less if Brian Michael Bendis stops scripting any particular comic? No, because they didn't know he was already writing it and nor did they care.

Kevin Smith cannot be accused of slumming it in comics: Silent Bob loves comics. Hell, he's got his own comic shop - or is it a chain now? Anyway, he's got four colour ink in his veins. Of course, that doesn't mean he can turn a script in on time. Anything but. Smith is notorious for the long, long gaps between issues on some of his comic projects. He's busy - you know, making movies and stuff. He gets paid a great rate to script comics [more on that later], but I doubt it's even close to the money he could make giving, say, Fantastic Four the Sequel a quick polish. Publishers like Marvel get themselves into an invidious position when they hire a superstar name like Kevin smith to write for them. He has all the power, they have none. What are they going to do, sack Kevin Smith and replace him with Joe Schmo? Oh no.

Likewise, JMS didn't go straight for the Marvel money trough. He started at Top Cow with several creator owned projects, putting in the hard yards, proving his comics work was not simply about playing with the most popular toys - sorry, characters. Of course, JMS got stiffed with a turkey artist or two on Rising Stars before it got someone who could tell a story and do it on time. But I'm rather fond of Midnight Nation, even if it had speeches longer than Lord of the Rings in some of the speech bubbles. I hope the letterer got double pay for some of those pages, they earned it.

Editing superstar scribes can be an issue. If you believe the rumours, certain screenwriters demand their deathless prose for comics be left untouched by human hands from the moment it leaves their laptop until the printed comic reaches the stores. To me, that betrays a certain arrogance. Everybody - everybody - needs an editor, someone to curb the occasional excess. Alan Moore has complained in interviews that he hasn't been properly edited since Watchmen. Simply because someone is a success in their chose field, doesn't mean they don't need to be editorially challenged every now and then. For example, I wish someone would get J. K. Rowling to deliver a 300 page Harry Potter novel instead of these wrist-snapping tomes she now produces. I wish Universal executives had stood up to Peter Jackson and said save the three-hour version of King Kong for the extended DVD release. Editing may be the most invisible of arts but, sometimes, less is more.

Simply because you're highly skilled in one area of creative writer, that doesn't automatically make grant you the same level of craft and skill in another medium. Yes, comic scripts and screenplays have similarities, but that's as much to do with brevity and layout. Both are still simply blueprints for telling stories - not the final product. The fact that some publishers let screenwriters get away with such behaviour is a sign of comics' inferiority complex. In what other medium would you pay an inexperienced writer in that medium up to ten times the usual rates and then promise not to change a word they handed in? Actually, I can think of a not dissimilar case - the celebrity end of book publishing, where stars 'write' novels. Of course, the publisher sensibly gets a ghost-writer in to do the hard work and nobody actually expects the celebrity to be able to write. They are trading on their celebrity, not their writing skills.

Let's face it, green-eyed envy is another issue. Comics scribes spend years, even decades building a career, learning their hone, paying their dues. Meanwhile screenwriters are handed assignments on the basis of their work in another field, with better pay, better promotion and their name in lights. No wonder the lowly scribes are left to mutter darkly in corners.

I suspect there's three kinds of screenwriter to comics crossover. First, there's those who do it for the love of comics as a medium, their affection for the characters and their nostalgia for the comics they read as a youth - it is about scratching that itch, that teenage dream. Secondly, there's the people who have stories they want to tell and comics is a natural medium in which to tell them. Stories that would be too expensive to tell in other media, or that would simply never get commissioned. Thirdly, there's the opportunists, the people who get offered a wad of cash, having got any better offers on the table and feel like knocking off some quick work for some big bucks. Fortunately, the last of these are a rare breed and get found out pretty quickly. Mostly, it's types one and two. For that we should be grateful...

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