While its general mandate involves tracking and commenting on the publishing and sales side of comics, Milton Griepp’s ICv2.com focused on the ongoing affair between comics and Hollywood with Wednesday afternoon’s Comics and Media Conference – a sort of “zero day” event for Comic-Con International in San Diego. Like the annual Graphic Novel Conference held each year in front of the New York Comic-Con, the collection of panel discussions and interviews engaged the connection between comics and mass media in as many ways as possible with everyone from comics creators like Jeph Loeb and Jeff Smith speaking on their experience bringing comics stories to screen to executives from IDW and Top Shelf addressing how media franchises have reached back into comics publishing for promotion and development purposes.
Loeb kicked off the proceedings with a keynote address covering equal parts historical survey of comics’ slow and steady expansion into other media and his own growth from comics fanboy to Hollywood writer. In Loeb’s estimation, Hollywood’s relationship to comic books only came into its own when movie studios started treating the material and the audience as equal factors in a film’s success. Loeb explained the cache creators who understood fan perceptions earned in 2002 when “all the sudden after ‘Spider-Man,’ comic book writers were sexy. We didn’t live in the basement of our mother’s house anymore. We were the best writers in town, and the reason why we were was because we understood a medium that was incredibly successful. We understood how to tell stories about heroes and villains that weren’t pop. They were things that reminded us of the comics we had read and we knew. We stayed true to the medium.”
In actuality, Loeb argued, the model that studios now pursue in trying to earn viewers who identify with superhero characters and comic book stories models the early efforts of comics creators -Â a point the writer drove home in sharing the “Marvel No-Prize” he won for getting a letter published in “Amazing Adventures” #9. “What these really were were a way the company could come into contact with the fan. This was a long time before there was the internet, a long time before there was a way that you could go to a convention and meet people. These pieces of paper – a postcard that said ‘Thanks for your thoughtful letter’ and signed by ‘the Bullpen’ – were ways that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Flo Steinberg and whoever else was running around that office in that mythical way reached out and told me, as someone who was reading their stories, that I mattered. In the same kind of way that storytelling has been passed down in campfires and books and literature…this was the way that the storyteller could reach out and tell me that I was a part of the process. If you can imagine that as a Hollywood person trying to reach out to an audience, this was a way to make that connection. And that connection was coming.”
The writer hit upon the oft-cited dictum to explain the popularity of superhero movies today, saying, “For me, what I thought about was how these are the modern mythology of our day, how this is the legends we grew up with…the legends we are teaching our kids and our kids’ kids.”
Discussion moved to the nuts and bolts of taking a comic to the big screen over the next two panels, competing tales of Hollywood success (for Robert Venditti’s Top Shelf series “The Surrogates”) and failure (multiple aborted attempts by Jeff Smith to bring “Bone” to the screen in an accurate way). In conversation with Publisher’s Weekly’s Heidi MacDonald, each creator (and Top Shelf publisher Chris Staros) spoke on their experience dealing with development executives with Venditti noting that despite early interest in “The Surrogates” from big name producers, he signed with Max Handelman of Brownstone Productions because “He just seemed like a really good guy, and even though he didn’t have much of a track record, he seemed like somebody Chris and I would want to work with. A lot of times you’d say to yourself, ‘This guy has a lot of experience. Why don’t we try to go with somebody who’s more of a name?’ but that didn’t feel like a thing for me to say, being a box packer who got his book published to judge somebody on their experience.”
One thing Venditti said helped him to get through the sometimes glacial process of getting a movie approved and made was the fact that Top Shelf made sure the comic came first. “It is a lot better knowing that you have already done your book and your book is out there. If I was a screenwriter, it would be the worst because I’d put all this effort into something, and it’s entirely possible the story won’t be known to anybody because the film never gets made. We will always have the book, and Top Shelf was so good about letting us do the book so nicely so it stands on it’s own.”
Smith recalled how repeated dead ends came with executives who wanted to make his character sing as in a Disney musical, insert Brittany Spears songs into “Bone” and change key story points from reducing the role of the Bone cousins in the story to giving Fone Bone a pair of magical gloves that made plants grow. “It just got lost. It got all tangled up,” he said. “I think one of the problems was that, in 1998, ‘Bone’ was only two-thirds of the way done. I made a decision to put the comic book on hold for two years to work on the movie because we really had a good relationship with the people we were working with. And it didn’t work. I could tell about a year into the sabbatical when ‘Bone’ wasn’t on the shelves that it wasn’t going down. And I had an epiphany of ‘Holy shit. Movies aren’t important. Comics are important, and I’m going to lose my audience’…I knew right then that I am not a movie guy, I’m a comic book guy, and I’m not going to forget that.”
However, a happy ending may be on the horizon as “Bone” is currently in development at Warner Brothers with a set of people who seem to better understand the strength of the series, thanks to the sea change in how studios view fan favorite stories. “It seems weird to talk about that now because movies now have more respect for the source material -Â ‘Harry Potter,’ the ‘Spider-Man’ movies to some degree are true to the original and don’t mess with it too much, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ – it’s easier for me to talk to studio people now because they don’t feel like they have to fix your comic.”
The final panels of the conference explored the current state of the comics/Hollywood relationship with a discussion on Transmedia – the buzz word for building stories across multiple entertainment formats – featuring a lineup of publishers and members of the retail community. IDW COO Greg Goldstein stressed that when it came to creating content based on films, tie-ins only work through direct collaboration such as the publisher’s recent “Star Trek: Countdown” series, which involved the writers of the hit movie, and similar projects in the Transformers and G.I. Joe universes. “The one thing we’re learning every day with Hasbro is that there’s more willingness to collaborate every day than there has been in the past with other licensors,” Goldstein said. “So that’s become more of a two-way street, and I know we’re grateful for that because it allows us to not only have input into what we think will make for viable stories and expand the universe, but it helps develop a trust so that we don’t go down a road and make a sequel that will make absolutely no sense when the next movie comes out.”
That idea of canonicity of content became a major driving point in the panel, with Starlight Runner CEO Jeff Gomez arguing that “With true, artful transmedia, you’re able to operate within the canon, within the continuity of the universe and give the audience something that’s actually meaningful -Â something that’s going to add to the overall narrative.” However, Dynamite Entertainment publisher Nick Barrucci, while agreeing that fans appreciate and will follow stories made from comics involving film talent, said that “you really need creators with a vision to come in and make the characters viable…for us, it always comes first down to, ‘Can this make a good comic?’ If you can’t answer that first question and make it happen, you really can’t do anything else.” Barrucci laid the success of projects the publisher has put out with characters like the Lone Ranger and Red Sonja who were once thought dead properties at the feet of his talent more so than Hollywood names.
Wrapping with the “Comics After Hollywood” panel, the conference opened up to some of the most lively discussion which became more of a therapeutic discussion for representatives from Oni Press, Top Cow Entertainment and Hollywood management agencies to explain in stark terms how the development system can still work to undermine good comics if creators aren’t smart. “Hellboy” creator Mike Mignola said that the success of the movies based on his characters came more from luck than from him trying to control the final product. “I don’t want to maintain control as a creator. When you sell the rights, it’s a lot of people with money on one side of the table, and you’re on the other side. I was very luck to have a director that wanted me involved. If I had another director, chances are I wouldn’t have been involved at all. The day I signed the contract for ‘Hellboy,’ I went home and created a new character because, on the off chance that things turned out to be horrible -Â all those stories I had for Hellboy, I needed another place to put them. There’s pros and there’s cons, and it’s a gamble.
“I see a lot more comic book creators creating material…I hear no end of things where it’s very clear that the end product is to get a film. After ‘Hellboy II,’ when there was no immediate ‘Hellboy III’ [announcement], other comic guys would go, ‘I guess that means you’ve got to go back and draw the comic.’ I never stopped! I kept writing it! It’s not like ‘you got out, but now you have to come back.’ This is where I chose to work. There are days where I feel like I’m the last comic book guy that just wants to do comics.”