1987 And All That: Little Shop of Horrors

A column in which Matt Derman (Comics Matter) reads & reviews comics from 1987, because that’s the year he was born. Click here for an archive of all the previous posts in the series.

Little Shop of Horrors (DC) by Michael Fleisher, Gene Colan, Dave Hunt, Anthony Tollin, John Costanza, Julius Schwartz

When examining an adaptation, in any medium, there are two obvious metrics to determine how good it is: 1. How true is it to the source material? and 2. How well does it justify its own existence, i.e. does it work as a standalone piece of entertainment, or is it merely a pale rehash of a story that was done better in its original form? Unfortunately for the Little Shop of Horrors comic, it doesn't stack up in either area, failing to capture much of what makes the movie so good, and also ending up a subpar comicbook in its own right. It's not unreadable, and there are a few things it does well, a handful of smart choices that pay off. On the whole, though, it's boring, thin, and poorly paced, plus it fluctuates between remaining so true to the film that it reads awkwardly and straying so far from the film that it loses some of its core appeal.

It's worth noting that Little Shop of Horrors the movie is itself an adaptation of the musical play, which was based on/inspired by a non-musical movie from 1960 called The Little Shop of Horrors. So what I'm reviewing here is the comic adaptation of the film version of the musical reimagination of the original story. This doesn't overly inform my review, nor does it need to, since the comic is based only on the movie which directly preceded it, but it is interesting how far removed from the initial idea this comicbook is. Also, if you haven't seen the 1986 film, I wholeheartedly recommend it; it's wonderfully self-aware without feeling the need to be self-referential or otherwise meta, and there are stellar performances from the whole cast. The Steve Martin/Bill Murray scene in particular is an absolute delight, and essentially a complete sketch in-and-of itself.

If you've seen the movie and liked it, or even if you didn't like it, or even if you haven't seen it and never plan to, I'd suggest avoiding the comic. Again, it's not that it's total dreck, but it's a fairly unimpressive and uninspired affair, something that feels largely phoned in, as though it didn't matter to the creators even while they were working on it. I don't know if that's the actual history, but that's certainly how it feels when you're reading it, as though nobody involved cared too deeply about the final product, and were all just going through the motions to get the thing produced. Which wouldn't be a surprise since, after all, this is essentially just movie tie-in merchandise that happens to be in comicbook form.

For the unfamiliar, the plot of Little Shop is relatively simple. Seymour Krelborn, a shy, clumsy, good-hearted florist, discovers what he believes to be a new kind of plant, but is, in fact, an alien creature whose arrival on Earth is the first step in an invasion plot. Seymour names his discovery the Audrey Two, after his co-worker/love interest, Audrey, and before long the Audrey Two makes Seymour into something of a star. People from all over find themselves strangely enamored of the plant, and it makes Seymour and his boss Mr. Mushnik a lot of money, since all the new visitors to their flower shop mean a lot of new business. Seymour struggles with his success and celebrity, though, because only he knows the truth about Audrey Two; it feeds on human blood. Eventually, Audrey Two grows big enough to start talking, and it demands that Seymour feed it more and more, no longer satisfied with the measly drops of blood Seymour squeezes from his fingertips. By promising to give him everything he desires, the plant convinces Seymour to kill some people, namely Audrey's sadistic dentist boyfriend Orin and, ultimately, Mr. Mushnik, who was a bit gruff but genuinely liked Seymour and vice versa. The guilt Seymour feels over these deaths weighs heavily on him, enough so that once he gets on offer from a botanical company to make clones of Audrey Two and sell them all over the world, Seymour finally snaps and confronts the plant-monster. They have a big fight, the flower shop is

destroyed, and Seymour barely manages to win in the end by electrocuting Audrey Two with a loose cable. Oh, and of course Seymour and human Audrey end up together, because what's a comedy without a love story*?

The movie makes that zany and somewhat predictable narrative work for several reasons. One key aspect is the music, but more important than that is how openly the film embraces the absurdity and campiness of its plot. All of the performances are intentionally hammed up, so that the characters are only barely three-dimensional, and some of them not even that. But they're established that way deliberately for the sake of humor, and it lands more often than not. Between the singing and the brazen silliness, Little Shop of Horrors the movie is non-stop entertainment, heartwarming and hilarious and at times effectively horrific.

Right out the gate, the comic unavoidably suffers from the absence of any songs. Which, I mean...what can you do? There was never going to be music coming out of the comicbook, and truth be told, I appreciate that writer Michael Fleisher doesn't try to force any in. Many lyrics show up as lines of dialogue or, more commonly, as thought bubbles, but there's no attempt to recreate the full effect of the musical numbers, nor should there be. Still, it's a big loss when comparing the comic to the movie, and it puts the comic in a place of needing to recover from that loss before it even begins. The other thing that hurts the comic is that many of the characters' lines are taken directly from the script of the movie, as close to verbatim as can fit on the page, but the heightened, exaggerated performances from the film don't translate into the comic, so you end up with a lot of very weird, unnatural, needlessly expository dialogue. When you only have the words to read and don't get to hear them in the actors' voices, they're strange at best and off-putting at worst. The humor fades from them because all of the delivery goes away, and some of the cast's personalities also get dulled as a result. The two Audreys (human and plant) get the worst of it, because they both have such distinct voices and speech patterns in the movie, and simply taking the text of what they say isn't enough to show who they're supposed to be as characters.

Speaking of which, Audrey Two looks alright in the comic, but never as impressive or as frightening as it needs to for the story to succeed. It's the primary antagonist and a man-eating monster, so it ought to,even if only in the final act, have the presence to be as awesome and intimidating as that role requires, which never quite happens. The art is by Gene Colan, Dave Hunt, and Anthony Tollin (pencils, inks, and colors respectively) and by-and-large they do a fine job. The essence of all the human characters is captured without modeling them too heavily on the actors from the movie, and there are a decent number of interesting angles and layouts, so most of the visual elements are on point or at least serviceable. When it comes to the plant, though, the art falls short across the board. When Audrey Two is supposed to be wilting, we often can't even see the entire thing in-panel, so the only real way to know what's going on is through everyone else's reactions. There are a couple of times when, if I hadn't seen the movie, I wouldn't even know what Audrey Two was doing, the most apparent example being the scene where it tries to bite someone at the radio station and Seymour pulls it back at the last minute. It's as if Colan couldn't figure out a good way to display Audrey Two's movements or personality; it should've been—needed to be—a fully realized character with its own distinct expressions and physicality, but instead it's more like a large, stiff, faceless eel in a flower pot. That's likely the biggest single weakness this comic has: its villain demands no attention.

The other candidate for the comic's biggest weakness is its pacing, particularly the hypercondensed ending, where Seymour's destructive, hard-fought, super-significant battle with Audrey Two takes up only two pages from the time it starts to the plant's demise. But at other times the story's speed is the best part. Seymour really clicks as the doofy, aw-shucks protagonist, and I attribute that to the care and attention given to the opening scene, a.k.a. his introduction. He's perfectly mousy, and he takes two legitimately funny falls in the first four pages, but keeps his attitude of positivity going all the time. The writing and art both sell him because they take the time to explore that combination of the awkward klutz and the incessant optimist. Then again, I suppose part of why the conclusion had to be so rushed is because much of the rest of the story moved so casually. Plus the solid characterization of Seymour helps shine a light on the poor characterization of Audrey Two, so...maybe the pacing is always a problem, even when it seems like it's contributing something good.

What it boils down to is, no matter what you liked most about the movie, you're probably not going to get it in the comic. There's no music, there's way less humor, and the plant isn't funny, scary, or gross like it should be. Little Shop of Horrors neither does justice to the film its adapting nor stands up on its own. But hey, I read it twice so you don't have to.

*I recognize that this is only one possible ending for the film, and was not what Frank Oz originally shot, and is therefore also not the preferred ending of many of the movie's fans. But it was the ending of the theatrical release, it's what you see if you rent it on itunes, and most of all, it's how the comic ends, so that's what I'm rolling with for the purposes of this column.

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