Don't let Avatar Press hear you call it an 80's nostalgia book.
With tomorrow's "Free Comic Book Day 2," fans will be treated to the return of Robocop, the story of a cop whose life is saved by turning into a robotic tool of justice, and for many, will be the first time the "true" version of the character has been seen in a very long time. Though the first feature film is considered a cult classic by many, subsequent film and television interpretations have proven to be less successful with both fans and critics, leaving some to wonder if ol' Officer Murphy had any life left in him.
As many know, the second Robocop film involved Frank Miller and by the time the film saw the day of light, it wasn't really Miller's baby anymore. As "Frank Miller's Robocop" writer Steven Grant explained to
CBR News, this new nine issue mini-series is going to represent what the Robocop franchise could have been; "It isn't representative of any movie; that's the point. In the wake of 'Dark Knight Returns,' Frank was recruited by the producers of 'Robocop' to write the second movie. Frank had never written a screenplay before, or dealt with Hollywood, and really didn't care about what Hollywood felt was appropriate for a movie. So he wrote what's basically a real wild ride, filled with throwaway ideas and great little textures. We're working from Frank's very first version, not the later versions that the film was ultimately based on."
Since the script was already written for the film and this is Frank Miller's work, some more pro-actively critical fans have said that this project is more like Miller's work being diluted through Grant's sensibilities, but the writer contends that just isn't the case. "First, you have to understand there's not all that much difference between Frank's perspective and mine, which is one of the reasons I was asked to do it. Second, aside from the odd element needed to cover the transition from film to comics, I'm not adding anything to the script. No florid captions, no extra dialogue. Pretty much every word in the comic comes straight from the screenplay. So it's Frank's dialogue, Frank's rhythms. I'm the conduit, but the essence remains pure Frank Miller. It's not that hard to do; my job is basically breaking it down for the comics page, which is where 23 years of experience at breaking down stories for the comics page comes in. As prep, I reread 'Dark Knight Returns,' which was written in the same period and has many of the same tropes and rhythms, a few times, to put myself in a Frank Miller frame of mine. So I've done as much as I can to 'step aside' from the work. I'm channeling here, I'm trying to keep myself out of it."
But if Grant is being that hands off, what exactly is he doing? "Basically, I'm breaking the screenplay down into a form that's accessible and understandable on the page," explains the writer of why it's not called "Steven Grant's Robocop." "That's all. The difference between this and other adaptations is that most others are 3-4 issues, tops. The amount of action you can stick into four issues of a comic is far less than you can get into a 110 page screenplay, if you follow the screenplay faithfully. So comics adaptations are usually shorthand for the films they're adapting. But we have as much room as we need. [William Christensen, Avatar Press Editor-In-Chief] said, 'Do as many issues as you need to fit everything in.' Which is what we're doing. This isn't so much an adaptation as the screenplay turned into a movie on paper. It's the entire movie (if the screenplay had been made into a movie), as written, just done as a comic book. It's an interesting process, and far more rewarding creatively (even if I'm not writing any dialogue, etc.) than other movie adaptations are."
Grant is a well-known writer, through high profile jobs at Marvel Comics and his online column at CBR, but some do wonder how he became associated with this Robocop project. "I've done movie adaptations before -- curiously, I wrote the Dark Horse adaptation of 'Robocop 3' -- but while I enjoy doing them it wasn't something I was going after," he explains. "I'm not sure how I got involved, aside from William Christensen calling me up and asking me to do it. The story goes Frank asked for me -- we go way back -- but you'd have to ask William and Frank. I've never asked Frank about it."
His association with Miller has led to some fun conversation during this writing process, laughs Grant. "Frank and I talk about this thing and laugh ourselves silly, because the screenplay's insane. He thinks William's completely insane for even daring to publish this, of course. But in a good way."
It's sometimes impossible for fans to wonder how Frank Miller- it is the Frank Miller after all- could ever have a script so radically altered and while Grant doesn't pretend to have the only answer, he offers some potential reasons. He reminds fans that many of the same reasons that they love the work of Miller could have contributed to the script's eventual fate. "Someone asked me how we were portraying a major character in the film, and he isn't even in the first draft," notes Grant. "As for why the film was so different, it mainly has to do with structural things. This was the first screenplay Frank had ever written, he didn't put certain events in the places where the studio would naturally expect them, the screenplay's 130 pages long (most screenplays run 110 pages) and Frank doesn't really stick to the 'one page/one film minute' rule; if you filmed this as Frank wrote it you'd have a five hour movie of balls-out action at breakneck speed. Audiences would be trembling balls of jelly at the end, gasping for breath. It's just too much, and too concentrated, for one movie. Makes a great 9 issue comics series, though.
"There are about a dozen 'main characters' in a fairly intricately interwoven plotline. Another reason Hollywood decided to change the screenplay, I think; Hollywood prefers as few focal characters as possible, usually a hero, a villain and a love interest. 'Robocop 2' doesn't really break down that way."
This intricate plotting has also caused the "Frank Miller's Robocop" mini series to be nine issues, an unusual length for a movie adaptation in a medium where 64 pages is all that a comic book company needs to summarize a movie. "I went through the script and thumbnailed out the story. Nine issues was the number we needed to do it properly," contends Grant. "If I'd asked for twelve, William would've given me twelve. The fascinating thing about it is that the script has miraculously fallen into issue break points at all the right places, so it's working very well as a comics serial without any sort of manipulation."
It's been such a long time since Robocop fans felt that their needs were met by a project with the aforementioned hero's name and some might be inclined to see this new series as a nostalgia grab, but there's a foundation to this series that Grant believes transcends simple nostalgia. "I like Frank's work. But the social issues touched on in the 'Robocop 2' screenplay, which were very germane to the '80s environment it was written in, are coming back into vogue in the current political and cultural climate. It's the '80s all over again, in a lot of ways. Plus the core concept of Robocop, which Frank plays with brilliantly, is the concept of dehumanized man struggling to create an individual identity and express a personal morality in a world that consistently tries to undercut it. That was a powerful concept then, it remains a powerful concept now."
Sure, Steven Grant's got love for Robocop, but if you're thinking this is all a prelude to original Robocop work from the CBR columnist, you'd be wrong. "I did some Robocop stories over at Dark Horse, so I'm not burning with any unfulfilled desire to write the character, though I like the character fine. I could come up with more Robocop material if William wanted it, but I generally prefer to work on my own creations these days. Besides, I understand Nick Locking has some great Robocop stories coming up. I took on the adaptations more to have some fun with Frank than anything, and, if anything, they're more a matter of getting into Frank's head than into Murphy's. That was Frank's job."
Lest he be forgotten, Grant is joined by artist Juan Jose Ryp and while Grant wasn't involved with bringing Ryp into the project, he couldn't be happier with the results. "The best description I can think of is exciting. I could be more florid, but that's the point? That sums it up. I think readers will be very pleasant surprised."
Readers of Grant's "Permanent Damage" will know that the writer is an advocate of diversity in the comic book market and believes his latest project delivers that, besides your required dose of Frank Miller writing. "These are stories with enormous verve and personality, and while I wouldn't say you can't find that in any other comics these days, it's not too easy to come... But Frank Miller stories remain uncommon enough, in more ways than one, to look for.
"There's an underlying message about the individual struggle against dehumanization in modern society that's really the core of the Robocop concept. It's easy to connect to."
Readers can receive a free copy of "Frank Miller's Robocop" on Free Comic Book Day, on May 3rd at your local comic book store.