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Pipeline2, Issue #93: Licensed Comics

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Pipeline2, Issue #93: Licensed Comics

SIMPSONS COMICS ROYALE

[Simpsons Comics Royale]

The trick with licensed comics is to preserve the “feel” of the television show or movie or novel or whatnot that it’s based on, while taking advantage of the comics format. It’s one of the reasons science fiction shows are so frequently adapted to comics. Without the restrictive budget being soaked up in special effects, the comic can look as good, if not better, than the television show for a fraction of the budget. All those big spaceships and alien creatures don’t need to look photorealistic in a comic the way they do on a television show. Even with CGI, that photorealism is impossible to pull off.

Then there’s the issue of likenesses. By doing an animated series as a comic book, you have a little leeway. You know your likenesses can be pretty good. You’ve probably got character models to study and give your artists. They don’t have to rely on stock photographs of the actors and the inevitably stiff poses they result in.

But it’s about more than just the look of the show. It’s about the attitude, the presentation, the editing, the acting, and more. All of that has to somehow get reproduced in a comic, and that’s no easy thing. THE SIMPSONS makes it particularly difficult. There are so many tricks used in the series that it would be hard for any comic to keep up with it. You have the quick flashbacks. You get running gags, background gags, and musical numbers. If you’ve seen the show, you know what I mean. You know that the first act of the episode is just a series of gags to set up the actual plot. This past week, the family took a safari to Africa. They didn’t get to Africa until after the commercial break. The first act was a torturous (in a good way) trip to get to that.

At the same rate, a comic book is a unique storytelling vehicle. You don’t want to waste that in an effort to be slavishly aping the style of the licensed product.

So how could you possibly do a Simpsons comic book?

I suppose Matt Groening knew what he was doing when he formed Bongo Comics in 1993. Based on the small sampling of material I’ve read recently, they seem to have a pretty firm handle on things over there. The annual Halloween special issue is a perennial favorite and even garnered an Eisner Award last year. Some of the trademarks Simpsons storytelling elements have even been translated into the comics, and some of comics’ traditions have transitioned well into The Simpsons.

To make a long story short, this is a review of the just released SIMPSONS COMICS ROYALE trade paperback. Debuting earlier this month, the $15 book contains 160 pages of Simpsons goodness and works on most every level. It’s a faithful adaptation of the series’ style at times. At others, it’s a nice children’s book. Sometimes, it’s a new take on super hero comic traditions. At others, it feels like the home to leftover series scripts. I mean that in a good way, though.

SIMPSONS COMICS ROYALE collects the 80 page megalith that was SIMPSONS COMICS #50, along with LISA COMICS #1 and stories from KRUSTY COMICS #1-#3. Inbetween those bits are short essays from Simpsons creator, Matt Groening, who writes about haircuts, reading, life’s lessons, bullies and more.

The book starts off with a feature-length 24-page story called “Wall Or Nothing.” It bears an eerie similarity to this past season’s opening episode guest-starring The Who. The two halves of Springfield divide and a wall is built to separate the two. On one side is the ‘haves’ and on the other, the ‘have nots.’ The story manages to go into different directions from the episode, while retaining all the trademark Simpsons storytelling elements. Those quick cuts to unrelated events are here. Short flashbacks for a quick gag show up. Supporting characters show up in droves, often for the sake of one gag.

The only thing that might detract from the relatability of this story to the animated series is the pronounced number of supporting characters with speaking roles. One of the few limiting things in animation s keeping the number of characters limited, so that you’re not paying twenty people to say one line. With The Simpsons, there are actors who portray multiple characters, so little walk-on lines are easier to do. But for the sake of some semblance of focus on the story, they’re often limited. Plus, you still have to pay voice actors extra money to acting as different characters. Without those financial constraints, it can sometimes be too easy to put every identifiable member of Springfield in every story. This story falls victim to that, but it’s not terribly distracting.

As much as I like Krusty the Clown, I found his stories in this book to be amongst the weakest of the lot. They read more like comic book stories than adapted episodes. I think that what little I’ve read of the Bongo line usually works best when it follows the storytelling styles established in the series.

To that end, CBR’s own Gail Simone has a story in here called “Li’l Goodfellas.” It lasts 17 pages and feels more like a Simpsons episode. There’s a limited scope to it, with a cynical and blackly humorous feel to it. But the storytelling follows the style. You get a brief opening that gets the Simpsons family to the core of the plot, an adventure in a children’s playground that isn’t a playground at all. Over the course of the reader’s introduction, you get a number of great throwaway gags and oddball creations. Then the plot line kicks in and everyone mobilizes to it. Some of those early gags resurface and get funnier with time.

(That’s not all Gail has in here, but if I started discussing every story in this book, I’d be going on for far too long.)

Two other bits I’d like to highlight: Chuck “Batman” Dixon writes an eight-page story called “The 1,001 Costumes of Bartman.” As you can imagine, it’s a Batman parody with Bart in the lead. It comes complete with references to the Batcave, Batman’s proclivity to have a suit for any occasion, the Bat signal and more. Bongo’s head honcho himself, Bill Morrison draws it.

The highlight of the book for me is the final story, LISA COMICS #1. This was a one shot that came out about five years ago and was instantly critically acclaimed. (Well, “critically acclaimed” for USENET, that is. 😉 It’s a perfect comic for all ages. There’s imaginative stuff in there for the kiddies, while the adults and more “mature readers” will take great pleasure in the Lewis Carroll-inspired wordplay. It’s an inventive little tale, and if you liked that issue of PROMETHEA a couple of months back, this one will be right up your alley, too. It’s also a terrific example of using the Simpsons characters in a story that only a comic book’s format could properly do justice to.

The art throughout the book sticks to the character models you see on the television series. If you want stuff with a more individual feel to it, you’ll have to wait for the annual Halloween issue and see big time comics stars do their bits. (Sergio Aragones drawing Bart Simpson? It can work.)

The most impressive thing about this book, though, is the marketing factor. It wasn’t published for the sake of the direct market. It was produced for HarperCollins with the intent to sell it on shelves of major bookstores everywhere. This would be a perfect introduction to the Simpsons comics for any reader, whether a comics veteran or not. The pages are heavy, glossy, and hold the color well. There are a wide variety of stories in the book. The price point is pretty good. The cover sticks out on the shelves and is well designed. This is a book that comics fans should be glad to have out there to bring new readers into the fold.

ROBOCOP VERSUS THE TERMINATOR

[Robocop vs. Terminator]

(There’s a header badly in need of a decent segue. From The Simpsons to R-rated action flics? Yeesh. Well, The Simpsons have parodied them both, so I think I’m safe.)

If you just heard the title of the comic, you’d think it was a crass marketing ploy: ROBOCOP VERSUS THE TERMINATOR. Just merge together two big science fiction universes and have them fight it out. This one’s right up there with ALIENS VERSUS PREDATOR, really.

But it works. The reason is that the storytelling makes sense. Robocop can easily be connected to The Terminator, and the two universes instantly can become one.

And would you believe that something this crassly commercial was perpetrated by two of comics’ living legends, Frank Miller and Walter Simonson? That’s why I picked it up. I’ve not read too many other licensed comics, but with those two names behind the scenes of this four-issue mini-series from Dark Horse in 1992, how could this one go wrong?

(Just a disclaimer: I’ve seen the two Terminator movies, but I’m not a disciple. I don’t know all the little continuity bits and pieces. I’ve never seen any of the Robocop movies in their entirety, but know enough of the mythology to scrape by. So if my lack of knowledge is a distraction, I apologize. I’m writing this review from the point of view of a comics fan; not a 1980s sci fi movie fan.)

Frank Miller intertwines the two mythologies in an amazingly simple, almost obvious way. It was Robocop who gave the Terminators sentience. So when one of the last humans left alive in the Terminators’ time frame wants to stop her future from happening, what’s a girl to do? Simple: Time travel back to stop Robocop by any means necessary. So she kills Robocop. And that’s the end of the first issue. That’s also when the Terminators show up (including the dog terminator and boy terminator) and undo what she did. And back and forth they go. It’s a neat little time travel story, which uses time travel in a couple of different ways. (I’m extremely hesitant to use the word “unique” here. Science fiction literature is replete with time travel stories, to the point where I think every hypothetical line of thought has been written about by now.)

The story covers a lot of ground. On one hand, you have the broad, sweeping science fiction story arc. You’ve got the time travel and the evil robots and the big gun fights. On the other, you have a tender love story about a guy (Robocop) who can’t love in his robotic form and senses the loss. Along the way, you get a straight-out action movie, some suspense bits, and some nice little touches of humor. (The humor is really subdued. This book takes itself seriously, with lots of scowls and gunplay.)

Walter Simonson’s art is dead on for what this book needs. It’s bold and graphic when it needs to be. It’s unflinching under the light of Miller’s grand scale epic struggle. He gets to do a small number of quiet moments between civilians, but for the most part, this series is all about the action, the set pieces, and the impending war. (Simonson has a good track record with adaptations. His work with Archie Goodwin to adapt the original ALIEN movie is often considered one of the best movie adaptations done in comics.)

It’s a great adaptation of two existing series. TERMINATOR (and TERMINATOR 2) had an actual plot, which is a big reason it endures to this day. But everyone remembers the action sequences. Everything else in the movie was in service to them. Robocop had big violence and action scenes, as well. So to create a comic book using both these set-ups and still have it maintain the character and the flavor of the movies from whence they came, you needed to have lots of big time action. The second issue is teased at the end of the first as “A Really BIG Fight.” This differentiates it from the first, which is more an action sequence, quickly getting us from the future to the present day of Robocop. It’s also a slight bit confusing, but it will make sense by the time you’ve started the second issue. Just try to keep up and you will be rewarded.

John Workman, as always, follows Walter Simonson to this book. His lettering is just what the book needed, too. It can be large and boisterous along with the art when the script calls for it. Workman doesn’t shirk away from allowing the lettering to become part of the art, and not just the invisible element to the story.

Rachelle Menashe does the coloring, which is serviceable, if not anything to write home about. The book is printed on a nice heavy white stock of paper, so it holds the colors extremely well. I would have loved to see a more daring color scheme, but given the timeframe this book was produced in, computer coloring wasn’t the status quo just yet. It would be interesting to see this book repackaged and recolored, though.

As the book was produced at the beginning of the boom years for comics of the early 1990s, it comes with an obligatory bonus: a cardboard cutout insert. Each issue has a different character. The cardboard is stapled into the middle of each issue. While it can be annoying, it never splits a double page spread, and it does act almost as a backing board. So the comic does preserve well. =)

ROBOCOP VERSUS TERMINATOR is definitely a fun mini-series that won’t be too difficult to read through in one sitting. Put it on your shopping list for the summer convention season. I think you’ll have some fun with it.

Next Friday: Peter David’s STAR TREK.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 200 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML. Those columns are even migrating over here in drips and drabs. Eventually, they’ll all be on CBR. I can’t believe Pipeline is entering its fifth year in nine short weeks…

This year, I’ll be at the Chicago Comicon (i.e. WizardWorld) the San Diego Comicon (i.e. the Comic Con International: San Diego), and the Pittsburgh Comicon, which requires no second name. Hope to meet some of you there.

Finally, I write DVD movie reviews (occasionally) for the gang over at DVD Channel News. Really, I swear; I’ll have a new review or two up there soon. Promise.

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