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Retro: Capes, Cowls & Costumes 3: Let’s Go Out to the Movies

(And now, another thrill-packed episode of a column I used to write for, from the summer of 2008...)

Better yet, let’s not go out to the movies! Twelve bucks for a ticket, another fifteen for eats, plus babysitters and parking…then the movie has to compete with other people’s conversations, cell phones, crying babies, shrieking children, and talking back to the screen. And for all that, you get maybe two hours of so-called “entertainment.”

Just read the book instead!

It’s practically a given that the blockbuster film du jour—and most lesser epics—will be novelized. A novel based on any film featuring a comic book character is a sure bet. And, more often than you would imagine, the novels are better than the movies they’re based on. Because while a movie takes your eyes places they’ve never seen before (“You’ll believe a man can fly”), a novel transports your mind to deeper and richer places through the power of imagination. Instead of showing the story, the novel tells it and trusts your mind to interpret and visualize the people and events. And your mind’s got an even bigger budget than Warner Bros! A novel can also veer off into diversions such as back stories, providing depth and texture to characters and their motivations.

Take, for instance The Dark Knight, the novelization by Dennis O’Neil (from a screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, based on a story by Nolan & David S. Goyer) of the DC Comics/Warner Bros. summer blockbuster. Batman and crusading district attorney Harvey Dent are both out to smash the hold of crime on Gotham City. Batman comes to see Dent as his own salvation, an heroic public figure who can take up his war against crime and allow Batman to retire to his happily-ever-after-life as Bruce Wayne. Everyone—girlfriend Rachel Dawes, Lt. Jim Gordon, the Joker, Alfred—shows one face to the world but has to keep their truths hidden from everyone else.

On the screen, motivations are murky. Bruce Wayne apparently becomes a staunch Dent supporter on the basis of one dinner. In the novel, O’Neil has the luxury of devoting most of a chapter detailing Batman’s national security-level scrutiny of Dent’s life, including weeks spent tailing the D.A., therefore providing readers with a character instead of a cut-out. There is even a suggestion that as a kid, Harvey Dent might have had a hand in the suspicious murder-suicide of his mother and abusive cop father. All this goes a long way to explaining what happens to Dent in the film’s final act. Dennis O’Neil, the award-winning comic book editor and writer of Batman for more than forty years certainly knows his Batman and delivers a fine synthesis of comic book lore with movie makeover, all clothed in an easy, sparse style that keeps the story moving and provides numerous moments of fine writing.

Also burning up the summer screens this year was the second installment in the Hellboy franchise, based on the Dark Horse comic book character created by Mike Mignola. Hellboy II: The Golden Army receives the prose treatment by another comic book veteran, Robert Greenberger (from the screenplay by Guillermo Del Torro, based on a story by Del Toro & Mignola). An ancient truce is broken between Earth and some of the places where the nasty things dwell. Now the world is about to be overrun by supernatural menaces under the command of a being of evil, leaving hell-born Hellboy and his colleagues in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense to take care of business.

Greenberger is skilled at playing in other people’s universes, including numerous Star Trek franchises, Predator, and both DC and Marvel Comics. He slides easily into Mignola’s very full world of Hellboy (which also exists as ongoing comics series, as well as some dozen novels and short story collections) and takes up the story. His style is straight forward and readable yet knows when to turn on the mood and how to use dialog and interior monologues to help carry scenes and recap the story.

Even bad movies get novelized and, in the case of the legendarily bad movie, Howard the Duck, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik, sometimes even novelized well! The 1986 Howard the Duck novel was written by Ellis Weiner (based on a screenplay by Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz) and follows the adventures of the fowl Howard, who has been transported from his own mallard-centric world to Earth via a laser experiment gone wrong, falling smack into the middle of Cleveland, Ohio and the voluptuous Beverly Switzler, transformed from artist’s model in the comic books to rock singer in the film. The same nasty experiment also summoned the Dark Overlord of the Universe, who will now commence with destroying said universe. Weiner is a funny writer, meaning he’s a guy who writes funny stuff, as evidenced by his history with National Lampoon, Spy, The New Yorker and numerous other publications, as well as the very funny Yiddish With Dick and Jane.

Howard was in desperate need of a funny writer. The movie is terrible; the novel is fun to read. Just not having to look at the guy in the goofy duck suit made the story easier to take. Top that with Weiner’s sarcastic, over-the-top commentary by a narrative voice that makes Douglas Adams-style observations on the action, speaking often for the universe and offering readers in the very first chapters the observation that excuses whatever absurdity that it is to follow: “And if there was a purpose to this existence, it escaped him.” Howard may save the universe, but don’t expect him to make much sense of it along the way.

Swamp Thing, on the other hand, was a bad movie based on a brilliant DC Comic that produced a so-so novel in 1982. Swamp Thing was created by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson in 1971. Wes Craven, king of the schlock film, licensed the character and made…well, a schlock film out of it. The movie gets the story fundamentally correct: Dr. Alec Holland, secret plant growth formula, and Arcane, the bad guy, somehow standing in his way. But the initial 13-issue run of Swamp Thing and Martin Pasko’s then-current comic book re-boot of the character were seen as more intelligent, adult-oriented comics, and Craven’s rubber-suited stuntman Swamp Thing and Adrienne Barbeau’s breasts were no match for the quality of the work to be found on the printed page. Well, maybe Adrienne Barbeau’s breasts.

Enter the novel by David Houston and Len Wein (based on a screenplay by Wes Craven). Wein’s involvement is probably the novel’s only saving grace. If anyone would know the why and wherefores of Swamp Thing it’s him and his insider’s knowledge allowed him to add the kinds of interior monologues and omniscient narration which kicks a comic book movie novelization, even that of a B-movie, up a few notches.

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