Admirers and fans of comic books and graphic novels live in a perpetual state of duality.
We want to see our favorite characters make the leap from the two-dimensional medium of sequential art in comic books to a three-dimensional cinematic format.
Part of it is a validation that the fiction we love is just as valid and of import as stories from other mediums, frequently translated into film.
Whether it’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” commenting on civil liberty or “The Dark Knight” commenting on the hypocrisy of authority structures or “Guardians of the Galaxy” wrapping a story about a traumatized orphan inside a package of nostalgia,” we feel a strange sense of victory when the world embraces the stories we’ve known about for years within our community.
But there’s the other side.
When the translation happens, and the execution is poor, the core understanding of character seemingly absent, the source material treated with the disdain of a slave, required for a purpose but regarded as unworthy of respect, that’s when we feel disappointment, or anger.
On Tuesday, July 28, Variety reported the development of a new “Shaft” film, based on the character created by Ernest Tidyman which starred in a number of films, novels, and recently a six-issue comic book series by author and filmmaker David Walker. Walker is also the author of “Shaft’s Revenge,” the first novel based on Detective John Shaft in forty years.
Instead of adopting the spirit and serious tone of the novels by Tidyman, New Line chose to go with a comedic approach, recruiting two talents from the world of television sitcoms. Kenya Barris, the creator of ABC’s “Black-ish” and Alex Barnow, Executive Producer of ABC’s “The Goldbergs,” will be the writers of the new “Shaft” film.
One day after the announcement, David Walker posted “An Open Letter Regarding Shaft,” a passionate statement to the brass at New Line Cinema, on his website. The statement spoke to the significance of Detective John Shaft in Black American culture, the financial performance of Black-led comedies and action films, and the kind of symbolism needed in the present-day America of social unrest due to ingrained and institutional prejudice.
The Hollywood Reporter picked up the story, and posted coverage of Walker’s open letter the same day.
Walker’s frustration and sentiment shined a light on the kind of feelings and discussions fans engage in regularly in the world and on social media, the backlash of increased visibility (or, in this case, cinematic resurrection) of characters we love which originated in a format that afforded them less notoriety.
New Line’s decision on “Shaft” made me think of a move and approach less certain, but the shape of which has started to take form.
On July 30, various websites reported that actress Jena Malone from “The Hunger Games” films has been cast to appear in the upcoming Warner Bros. tentpole film “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” The rumor mill is working with the theory that Malone will play Barbara Gordon, the intelligent, tech-savvy daughter of Commissioner James Gordon from Batman’s home of Gotham City.
In the comic books, Barbara Gordon became the vigilante Batgirl, but had to give up the identity after being shot and crippled by The Joker in the popular prestige format comic book “The Killing Joke,” written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland. The tragic incident was the beginning of the road for Barbara Gordon to take on a new identity as Oracle, the information-armed crimefighter and missions commander for various teams of superheroes.
Let’s look at a few things:
“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” will be the springboard for a new solo Batman film, so that doesn’t seem like a platform for a new iteration of a character named Batgirl.
The Joker will be introduced within the DC movie universe in “Suicide Squad” in 2016, nearly five months after “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”
The following lineup for DC Entertainment superhero films looks like this, and no “Batgirl” film in sight:
March 25: “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”
August 5: “Suicide Squad”
June 23: “Wonder Woman”
November 17: “Justice League: Part One”
March 23: “The Flash”
July 27: “Aquaman”
April 5: “Shazam”
June 14: “Justice League: Part Two”
April 3: “Cyborg”
June 19: “Green Lantern Corps”
DC Comics, publisher of the source material for the Warner Bros./DC Entertainment superhero-based films, has revisited the events of “The Killing Joke” time and again to “reinforce” the Barbara Gordon character in their comics, and DC Entertainment’s Chief Creative Officer (and prolific comic book writer) Geoff Johns serves as a bridge between the comic book continuity and the cinematic universe development.
On July 10, DC Comics and various media outlets announced that Warner Bros. Animation would release an original animated film based on “The Killing Joke” in 2016.
There’s that year again. 2016.
I’m considering the possibility that Barbara’s crippling at the hands of Joker is being set up for portrayal on the big screen. Not in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” but down the line.
That concerns me.
Donna Dickens is the managing editor of HitFix’s Harpy — a blog dedicated to examining the intersection of geek culture and feminism. Her column, “It’s Time To Kill The Killing Joke” spoke to the negative impact of the story, almost thirty years after its original publication.
“Should Warner Bros. decide to add Batgirl to their cinematic universe — whether with Jena Malone or another actress — the idea of revisiting Barbara’s maiming and sexual assault at the hands of Joker isn’t outside the realm of possibility. After all, Warner Bros. has made it pretty clear they’re going “gritty.” But to paraphrase the great Dr. Ian Malcolm, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.
The problematic nature of Batgirl’s origin story as Oracle is that it was never meant to be one. DC Comics had no plans for Barbara and she was assumed dead until Kim Yale and her husband John Ostrander fished her from the trash bin. Batgirl was merely an object to be used to further the story of the men — Commissioner Gordon and Batman. The last time she is seen in “The Killing Joke,” she is writhing on the ground, naked and bleeding out. She gets no character arc, no resolution, certainly no vengeance or even justice. So the problem isn’t that Batgirl is attacked and paralyzed, it’s how her subplot is framed within the larger context of the story.
If Warner Bros. understands that nuance and gives a cinematic Batgirl a subplot with her own, one with wants and desires and goals, they can sidestep a lot of fan unrest over Babs’ origin as Oracle. Or, you know, she could just be Batgirl. She’s pretty cool as Batgirl.”
Looking back at these two examples, characters separated by less than half a decade in both their first publication and first screen translations, both iconic in how they represent people of intelligence and prowess without a dependency on the White American Establishment or the Patriarchal Establishment, respectively, I’m both concerned and not surprised.
“It’s not hard to make good comic books.”
He was right, and the “Shaft” series, by writer David Walker, illustrator Bilquis Evely and team, published by Dynamite Entertainment, was a damn good comic book.
It didn’t sell as well as it could have.
I grew up seeing Detective John Shaft on the screen as a kid. I bought each and every issue of the comic book, but I know some people who didn’t. People who complain about the lack of Black writers in comics, yet don’t support the most talented Black writers in comics with their cash.
If “Shaft” had sold like gangbusters, could that have gained the series the notice from New Line? Would sales-based visibility have helped validate the tone of the “Shaft” source material and comic books, and affected the conversation?
Unknown. Maybe unlikely.
However, money finds money, and a comic book that sells well has a short road to the hands of a producer working in an industry looking for known properties to exploit and translate, especially now, with Marvel Studios redefining Hollywood’s approach to intellectual properties and cinematic universes.
On the other hand, since “Shaft” is going the comedy action route, then at least it’s partly in the hands of a Black writer, Kenya Barris, because that could have easily not been the case. The exclusion of Black writers from the stories of Black heroes and icons is still a problem today, and the complaints would have reached a whole new level if “Shaft” became the latest example of that trend.
With Barbara Gordon/Batgirl/Oracle, it’s a different kind of personal.
As a former Batman editor for DC Comics, I was made to choose between editing “Birds of Prey,” the series starring Barbara Gordon as the crimefighter Oracle, or editing “Catwoman.”
Arguably, Catwoman is the more popular character of the two, but I felt Barbara Gordon as Oracle was more important. A heroic symbol for women and wheelchair users, at the very least, Oracle struck me as one of the most capable and formidable female characters in American superhero comic books.
I wanted to contribute to the continuation of Barbara Gordon’s heroic journey and its impact more than I wanted to help shepherd Catwoman.
Barbara Gordon as Oracle is still quite the beloved character, even though in 2011, DC Comics modified the character’s continuity so that she regained the mobility of her legs and resumed the identity of “Batgirl.”
A decision partially motivated by commerce.
DC Comics and their parent companies are businesses.
Never forget that.
Having the benefit of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl while, at the same time, regularly referring to the story that depicted her crippling, and now producing it for another medium, strikes me as a commerce-based maneuver.
Since Barbara Gordon was remade into Batgirl, her story can continue going forward, the character as an intellectual property can continue going forward.
When can her narrative stop slamming on the brakes and looking in the rear-view mirror?
I hope I’m wrong about the fate of Barbara Gordon in the upcoming DC Entertainment film slate.
I hope “Shaft” pleasantly surprises us by having an element of comedy without letting it dominate the tone of the film.
But I wouldn’t be surprised if neither go the way I want.
After all, I’m a fan.
I’m used to the duality of love and disappointment.
Joseph Phillip Illidge is a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics, and the corporate politics of diversity. In addition to his coverage by the BBC and Publishers Weekly, Joseph has been a speaker at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Digital Book World’s forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, Purdue University, on the panel “Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books” and at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art in New York City.
Joseph is the Head Writer for Verge Entertainment, a production company co-founded with Shawn Martinbrough, artist for the graphic novel series “Thief of Thieves” by “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman, and video game developer Milo Stone. Verge has developed an extensive library of intellectual properties for live-action and animated television and film, video games, graphic novels, and web-based entertainment.
His graphic novel project, “The Ren,” about the romance between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war, will be published by First Second Books, a division of Macmillan.
Joseph’s newest comic book project is the upcoming Scout Comics miniseries “Solarman,” a revamp of a teenage superhero originally written by Stan Lee.
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