District 9 is a bloody good movie, mixing some surprisingly intense action sequences in a Johannesburg ghetto with some real emotional depth, while stapling on a couple of broad and timely subtexts.
It’s also a very South African film, with director Neill Blomkamp bringing a large amount of South African attitude to the movie, most notably with the main character – the excellently named Wikus Van De Merw - who exemplifies the friendliness, stubbornness and sheer toughness of the national psyche.
At first glance, District 9 seems to share common ground with late eighties cheesefest Alien Nation, but the film itself actually has more in common with the classic BBC Quartermass serial, as an ordinary man goes through an extraordinary physical metamorphosis, trying to hold onto his soul as he transforms into something monstrous.
There is also a fair bit of mid-eighties James Cameron in there, some really nice reality-TV pastiches that do some interesting things with the format and there will be inevitable comparisons between the gloriously gruesome gore seen on screen and producer Peter Jackson’s own earlier work.
The role Jackson (and his lovely wife) played in getting District 9 underway is well known by now. When Halo fell over, Blomkamp was left high and dry before somebody had the bright idea to flesh out his 2005 short film into a feature.
While Jackson has undoubtedly become one of the most powerful film directors on the planet over the past decade, there was still the eternal search for money. Even if they were only after a relatively modest $30 million budget, they still needed to sell the idea of a smart, gory sci-fi action film set in a South African slum, with no name actors and a director with no big showreel.
In a project littered with bright ideas, somebody had another one – make a comic book to show to the investors and let them see exactly what they were getting for their money.
Well, the Wall Street Journal called it a comic book. Well, they actually call it a graphic novel, but we all know what they mean.
It’s not really a comic anyway. Look, you can see it here. It’s a book that reprints much of the script, illustrated with props and location shots and mood settings and occasional bits of storyboard art, laid out together on a page. This creates panel progression, which is enough for many definitions of comics, so we’ll claim this one.
Jackson used a bunch of his Weta Workshop mates to illustrate the script, the book was put together and used to sign deals with Sony and other distributors.
Good luck finding one, because there were apparently only 10 ever produced, which makes them a motherfuckin’ holy grail for the heads that connect with the film. Something like this movie has cult hit imprinted on its celluloid DNA and the idea of a book like this with an incredibly tiny print run is the stuff of future legend.
Of course, someone will eventually cave and see the book reprinted in some form, because there is some money in that idea and people connected to movies like to make money. But for now, it’s an odd excerpt here and there, and little more.
There have been plenty of comics in recent years that are fairly bloody blatant about their attempts to be as movie friendly as possible. Mark Millar has turned it into an artform, repeatedly pointing out that he gets a good wedge of cash and fanboy love from his Marvel work, but it’s nothing compared to coming up with his own idea, selling it to his film-making mates and riding that wave of publicity.
But this District 9 book is something else. It only exists to get the movie made, while still retaining some power as an artistic object. It must have some, if it was used to sell the look and feel of the completed film, which carries a fair artistic wallop of its own.
If anything, the ability of the book to attract movie money proves that Will Eisner was always right and anybody who has ever doubted him was a foolish young punk.
As far back as World War Two, Eisner was telling everybody who would listen about the ability of comics to teach and inform, about the power of comics in a learning or training process.
Ever since, Eisner has been proven right over and over again: The mix of words and pictures is instantly accessible and sticks in the mind like nothing else. Comics can teach mechanics how to take apart an engine, or how to escape a burning aeroplane, or how to sell a movie.
Comics can do anything.
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For a proper review of District 9 written while I was hiding away in my secret identity as a mild-mannered business reporter, follow this link.