Previously, CBR News spoke at length with organizers Bill Benjamin and Jeff Dellinger about the Comix Strip, the most recent addition to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, itself the largest literary event in America. Held through the weekend of April 24, the festival’s Comix Strip saw L.A. Times pop culture writer Geoff Boucher moderating a panel discussion called Comics: Superheroes of the Page & Screen with guests Jeph Loeb, Mike Mignola and Steve Niles, and CBR News was there.
Jeph Loeb has had an illustrious career not only in comics but also on the big and small screens. He is currently a writer/co-executive producer on NBC’s “Heroes.” When series creator Tim Kring called Loeb out of the blue, a network superhero series was the last thing Loeb expected Kring to want to talk about. “He had this whole movie figured out in his head, the pilot, and he just wanted to go through it and make sure that he hadn’t done anything wrong, so to speak,” Loeb said. “And at one point he said, ‘And I see this guy, and he kind of picks up a car, because there’s steel in it, and he kind of has this magnetic power and he can lift it off the ground.’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘Tim, that’s Magneto.’”
At that point, Kring’s exposure to comics books was so limited that he didn’t know if “Magneto” was a character or a power. But it was to avoid precisely that kind of confusion that Kring wanted to bring Loeb onto the project. “In the beginning I absolutely was sort of the professor in the room going, ‘Uh, no, you can’t do that, because that’s Banshee,’ and an entire room of writers go, ‘Excuse me? It’s what?’”
Loeb said he was far from the only geek in the “Heroes” writers’ room. He then proceeded to explain the difference between geeks and nerds: “If you’re here, you’re a geek. And you’re feeling good about it.” Loeb said the geeks in the writers’ room would go back and forth about what powers the characters had, and the “normal people” would say, “Uh, we don’t understand the emotional content of someone that can punch a wall.”
“It always comes back to the emotion of the character and whether or not that can connect to an audience,” Loeb said.
With his comic “30 Days of Night,” Steve Niles helped revitalize the horror genre in comics, and last year the writer saw the book adapted for the big screen. Hollywood has long been trying to adapt Niles’ “Criminal Macabre,” and the writer said the process has been fraught with problems. “All these are tough sells,” Niles said. “Even ’30 Days,’ which they bought thinking, ‘Oh, brilliant concept,’ they immediately tried to change it.”
Cal MacDonald, the protagonist in “Criminal Macabre,” is a modern day update of old-school private detectives like Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. Many of MacDonald’s predecessor’s struggled with alcoholism, and MacDonald himself is a recovering junkie. “Every time I go to the studio, they’re like, ‘Okay, so we just get rid of all the drugs, give him a fedora and a trenchcoat,’” Niles said. “They don’t get that it’s a flawed character, and it’s a negative thing in his life. I’m not doing ‘Cheech And Chong.’” Niles said it’s always nerve-wracking bringing a creator-owned project to a studio, because one runs the risk of losing the core of one’s story to Hollywood commercialism.
Mike Mignola is best known for creating the fan-favorite “Hellboy” series, and the film adaptation “Hellboy 2: The Golden Army” is right around the corner, opening July 11. But Mignola said there was a time when the future of the movie franchise was in doubt. “The first ‘Hellboy’ didn’t make $100 million, so it didn’t hit the magic number where everybody goes, ‘Great, we’re doing the sequel,’” Mignola said. That, and the collapse of the film’s distributor, Revolution Studios, left the Hellboy franchise in limbo. But Universal Studios scooped Hellboy up and paved the way for the sequel.
“Hellboy’s” director, Guillermo del Toro, has long been a staunch supporter of the franchise, and very much wanted to direct a second installment. With del Toro’s star on the rise, Mignola mused that Universal might have green lit “Hellboy 2” to net the director for future films.
Many franchises that don’t perform up to their potential in theaters are enjoying a second life thanks to DVD sales. That said, Mignola said that in his experience, the studio execs who make or break film sequels treat box office receipts as the be all and end all. Loeb countered that DVD is its own distinct division, and that in the studio system, one hand doesn’t always know what the other is doing.
“Niles” cited “The Punisher” as a prime example of this new trend: the film performed poorly at the box office, but after being the number one DVD for five weeks in a row, the upcoming sequel was green lit. Mignola said he thought the “Blade” franchise owed a similar debt to DVD sales. Loeb added that the stoner comedy franchise of “Harold & Kumar” was in the same boat.
Mignola expects the trend to continue. With the crowded film release schedules (especially during the summer), many films have no more than a week to recoup their budget. “But with the DVD and everything else, you can go on for years and make money, theoretically,” Mignola said.
When it comes to keeping a TV show on the air, ratings are just as unforgiving as box office receipts. “In television, you get about two episodes for you to find and audience, and if you don’t find an audience, you’re gone,” Loeb said. He went on to say that “Heroes” benefited from the fact that NBC didn’t have any other breakout hits in the 2006-2007 season, when the show first aired. When Loeb learned their lead-in was going to be “Deal or No Deal,” the screen scribe was not optimistic about “Heroes’” chances. “But somehow, and again, you don’t ever know how these things happen, it clicked.” Loeb cited the “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World” marketing campaign as the thing that really brought “Heroes” into the public eye.
Mignola said that whether or not a movie stands or falls is oftentimes at the mercy of the studio’s marketing department. The marketing people for the first “Hellboy” had told Mignola they really liked the film because it was different. “And you know that one’s going to bite you in the butt, because sooner or later, marketing’s going to go, ‘We don’t know what to do with it, because it’s different,’” Mignola said.
Boucher noted that in recent years, superhero films have reached something of a saturation point, and asked the panelists if they thought there would be a backlash against comic book movies when cape fatigue inevitably sets in. Niles agreed that people might become fed up with superhero fare. But the writer hopes that the precedent set by films like “Ghost World” and “Road to Perdition” will encourage filmmakers to adapt more non-superhero comics.
Loeb said that superheroes first started to appear on the big screen, Hollywood didn’t consider those films “comic book movies.” “It was a movie about Spider-Man or it was a movie about Batman, but it wasn’t a genre,” Loeb said. “So I think the thing that’s changed now, it now has earned its own place. You can actually go into a meeting and say, ‘I want to make a comic book movie,’ and they don’t look at you like, ‘Is there a trap door somewhere on my desk?’”
“I used to show up at meetings, and the guys at he front desk would say, ‘I really love your stuff,’ and then I’d go and talk to their bosses and they’d have no clue,” Niles said. “Now, those guys who were at the front desk are in the offices.” Niles then noted that the poster for “300” boasted “Based on the graphic novel.”
Loeb admitted that was a big step forward, but he did bemoan the terminology. “You’re not a comic book writer, you are a graphic novelist,” Loeb said wryly. “It really is that whole ‘janitor/sanitation engineer’ kind of thing.”
“I’m neither,” Mignola chimed in. “I’m a cartoonist, always have been.”
Boucher then opened up the panel to questions from the audience. One fan asked the panelists how much creative input they had when their work was translated from the comics page to the big screen. “No matter what, they’re gong to try to mess with it, and you’re going to have to fight for it,” Niles said. “I know Mike had his battles, I had my battles. You wouldn’t believe some of the suggestions I heard, including, ‘Why set it in Alaska?’”
“It always amazes me when you go into a room and you hear people go, ‘I don’t get it, but I’ll tell you how to fix it,’” Mignola added. “Well, if you don’t understand it, maybe you should find somebody who does.”
Fortunately for Mignola, “Hellboy” director Guillermo del Toro was a big fan of the cartoonist’s work. “Guillermo wanted me involved, wanted my input,” Mignola said. “It could have gone completely the other way.”
Another fan asked if the studios still clung to the notion that comics are a children’s medium. “I think particularly now, we have sort of the opposite problem,” Loeb said. “They see the audience as a bunch of 40-50-year old guys who are locked in their basement. At the end of the day, I’m not sure the comic book audience is a children’s audience anymore.”
One fan asked about the process of scripting a superhero story for the big screen. Mignola prefaced his answer by insisting that he is not a screenwriter. “As a comic book writer, I sort of ramble on and on and on, and then a film writer takes my ten years of rambling, and tries to squeeze it into something that’s going to work on the screen,” Mignola said.
Loeb, who has taught screenwriting at the University of Southern California, cited William Goldman’s “Adventures in the Screen Trade” as the best book on screenwriting he’s ever read. Loeb then launched into a description of three-act structure, a format typically seen as one of the rules of mainstream screenwriting. Noting in advance that, like all rules, these were made to be broken, Loeb said, “The basic notion that there’s a three-act structure, that in the first act you introduce your hero, you find out what the hero wants and what’s keeping that hero from actually getting it,” Loeb said. “The second act is them trying to achieve that goal and at the end of the act there’s going to be a twist. And then the third act is the resolution. And in the best movies, the character who wants something at the very beginning, the hero, learns at the end that that may not be exactly what they wanted or needed. And then they live happily ever after… or die.”
Boucher brought up the forthcoming movie adaptation of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen,” a seminal comics work that has been courted by Hollywood for years. Mignola, for one, is glad they waited as long as they did. “You needed to lay the groundwork with some regular superhero films so that when you turn the superhero thing on its ear, regular people who don’t read comics need to see what superheroes are,” Mignola said. “The problem with ‘Watchmen’ if you’d done it ten years ago, you’re selling to an audience who don’t know the language.”
“The advent of CG and the kinds of special effects that you can do no, it’s enormous,” Loeb added. “The idea that you could make a movie on your computer at home is such a giant leap forward.”
Mignola said he and his fellow comics creators used to rationalize their own job security by saying there were things they could do in comics that Hollywood did not have the technology to realize on screen. “And I remember a bunch of us went and saw ‘Terminator 2,’ and we came out of that and said, ‘Oh, crap, they can do anything we can do,’” Mignola said. “Fortunately, most of them still can’t come up with a story on their own, so those of us who write, we still have some value.”
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