Thursday, April 28, 2011

Graphic novel mistakes and three dimensional irony

The eagerness of movie studios to pump out films in 3D is further proof that nobody learned anything from a terrible mistake the comic industry made a good 25 years ago.

It’s easy to see why the studios go 3D as often as possible – they can charge more money and offer more of an ‘experience’. While there are no easy guarantees of financial success with a 3D film, there has been an extraordinary amount of money made over the past couple of years, so it’s no wonder a blockbuster without some kind of 3D element is a relative rarity.

Which is the whole problem – selling 3D films as an event that can only be fully experienced in a cinema becomes a whole lot harder when any old piece of shit gets a post-production conversion.

Especially when some of those conversions have an effect of the actual quality of the experience. Many people walked out of the recent Clash of the Titans remake with a decidedly low opinion of the conversion process, and anybody soured by that kind of experience is unlikely to be convinced by ads telling them that Thor must be seen in 3D to get the Full Effect.

It’s especially aggravating when there is the odd movie that takes full advantage of the 3D process, and does deliver that type of experience that is often promised and rarely delivered.

Avatar made more money than God, even though James Cameron never found an iconic cliché he didn’t like, because it delivered a huge, colourful experience. A new film by Werner Herzog – who is going through a wonderfully bizarre and fascinating late career surge – brings 3D into a French cave where some of the earliest and most well-preserved cave art ever found lives. None of us are ever going to be allowed into the cave where they were found, so 3D offers a new richness to the experience.

But now that every second movie requires those ugly, ugly glasses, it actually becomes harder to find the good stuff amongst the bad.

This has all happened before, but since it happened in the media ghetto of comic books, nobody seemed to notice.

Read any old issues of Amazing Heroes from the 1980s, and there is a real excitement in the air, as creators as diverse as Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman and Frank Miller and Howard Chaykin and Los Bros Hernandez and Dave Sim and Chris Claremont and loads of others produced thoughtful and intelligent comics that were so good they broke out of the four-colour ghetto and got noticed in the real world.

Media coverage of these comic books rarely got past the ‘Pow! Zam! Comics aren’t for kids anymore!’ (and to be honest, hasn’t got much better in the next 25 bloody years). But it also raised awareness of the good stuff, and got their books shelved in prime positions in big bookstores.

So anybody who heard about Moore’s blistering examination of Thatcher’s Britain in V For Vendetta, or Spiegelman’s heart-wending tale of personal tragedy hidden beneath mouse masks could walk into almost any bookstore in the English-speaking world and find a copy of their works.

Or so the theory went, with Graphic Novel sections opening up everywhere for the first time in the late eighties. The few collected comics that made it into bookstores weren’t shelved in the humour or science-fiction sections any more. They had their own shelf.

The problem with this became evident very quickly, with only a few genuine classic comics widely available, the stores needed to fill the shelves with something and the big comic companies were only too happy to take advantage of the fact.

So that’s why anybody in the late eighties went to their local bookstore for some for thought-provoking comics was greeted with tonnes of fucking Spider-man and Batman comics.

I’ve loved Spider-Man and Batman since I was a kid, and always will, but Marvel and DC learned all the wrong lessons from this new avenue of opportunity, slapped together any recent superhero comic that was even slightly okay and pumped them out there.

There were still the occasional superhero comic that got collected that were worthy, but nobody who was new to the whole idea of reading comics wouldn’t even know where to start.

The ‘graphic novel’ isn’t the greatest and most perfect term for serious comic books, but it’ll do, and it was just the right kind of hook that appealed to an older, more discriminating reader who wanted a bit of complexity and emotional truth in their funny books.

But any gains that were made in the 1980s were instantly undercut as this tsunami of shit and mediocre comics covered everything. The chance that the world might actually take comic books seriously was fumbled.

Things have got better. The comic business never really learned its lesson, and continues to pump out vast amounts of mediocre tie-in books to event-based storylines that will be forgotten next Thursday, but there are so many good comics out there at the moment, and it can be surprisingly easy to find copies of something like Blankets or Ganges.

But there was a real opportunity in the late eighties for a quantum leap in the medium’s evolution, and the way it is perceived as part of modern society, and it was lost.

James Cameron might spend a lot of time trying to convince people that 3D is not a fad, but as long as huge amounts of inferior examples overwhelm the few good uses, he won’t be convincing anybody.

Pumping out the graphic novels and 3D films might make brilliant short-term business sense, but also ensure that the long-term gains will be all the harder to achieve.

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