24 September 2012

Bang! Pow! Zwounds!: Richard III as "Graphic Novel"

Editor's Note: Once again, I'm adapting personal email into 'blog posts. I shall mutlti-task, and you shall dig it. This comes out of a discussion with a director friend of mine who was tasked with considering a production of Richard III based on a graphic-novel approach.

Found here. Grisly remains found here?
So: "a pre-1700's graphic novel story," eh? First of all: Do we mean a graphic novel written and drawn in the "pre-1700s"? A graphic novel set in the "pre-1700s"? And why the "pre-1700s"? Do we set Richard the Three in 1699, or Roman-occupied Ireland, or dare we make it 1485? {Ed.: I've since learned that the particular audience in discussion rejects any Shakespeare set later than that as being too much a departure from historical accuracy. Hilarious.}

But my greater confusion here is what on earth we mean by "graphic novel." That's a little bit like saying, "Let's produce a Richard the Third like a pre-1700s movie story." Graphic novels are a medium about as varied as cinema.

But not everyone knows that, and were I to assume (thereby making an ass out of you and ume) a thing or two, I might assume we mean a sort of highbrow comicbook approach. Somehow. Which is still about as clear as the mud from which one might need a horse in order to extricate oneself.

My assumption however is based on the following facts:

  • The most commercially viable and well-known printed graphical storytelling of the prior and current centuries has been "comic books"; and
  • "Graphic novels" is a popular term for comic books when you're trying to lend them prestige, or raise people's opinions of them from out of the pulp.
The term "graphic novels" also frequently refers to works that have a little more length or over-arcing story to them than some, but that usage is a little reductive as it implies all "graphic novels" were written in one go (like a novel) when in fact the majority were originally published in a serial manner. Comic books, in other words, then collected into the so-called graphic novel.

So what are we to do with a concept based on highbrow comicbooks? In short (HA HA HA) there are too many different kinds of graphic novels to know what we mean when we use that ill-defined term, and the differences traverse everything from art to layout to content. A few varietals:
  • Maus - seminal in raising the reputation of comicbooks; it casts mice as Jews and cats as Nazis in a true story of one family's experience of the Holocaust
  • The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen - in a fit of zeitgeist, Frank Miller and Alan Moore both eschew/satirize the bubblegum aesthetic of superhero comics; Miller by taking a classic hero and giving him hard-boiled moral ambiguity, and Moore by taking superhero archetypes and subjecting them to a dystopian environment and socio-political realities
  • From Hell - Alan Moore here again, this time writing an exhaustively long "graphic novel" that delves into one possible explanation for the identity of Jack the Ripper
  • Sandman - what began as a pitch by Neil Gaiman to revitalize some of DC Comics' forgotten characters evolved into an epic story with a beginning, middle and end that chronicles the king of dreams (and his family: Death, Desire, Despair, Destiny, Destruction and Delirium [formerly Delight]) whilst tying in extensive details from the world's mythology, literature and religion
Ma' humps, ma' humps...
And those are fairly conventional examples, as far as just form goes.

I suppose the thing I can't quite wrap my mind around yet is why exactly to apply this concept to this particular work of Shakespeare's. As I see it, there are other plays of his - even other Histories - that might be better fits.
Henry V is a pretty good Superman/superhero analogue. Hell, the Henry VIs have those constant turn-overs that would make pretty interesting structure for exploring "serialized" storytelling on stage. Richard III may be episodic enough for serialized storytelling, if that's the angle, but I can't quite make it work without adding layers.

Recently it has been tremendously popular to adapt graphic novels into movies and, even more recently, television.
The Walking Dead, for example, is an on-going serialized story that's perfect for television. But they also adapted Watchmen into a film, which tried to do too much and with so much flash that the vital humanity of the story was lost. Even Ang Lee made a superhero movie with the first Hulk Hollywood blockbuster, which in my opinion is practically a lesson in what elements NOT to take from graphic storytelling when adapting from it.
Is there a better reference? Nope.

When they go wrong, what many adaptions have done is adhered too closely either to the content or the form of graphic storytelling (or both). When a graphic-novel story is transported cross-media, it's an injustice not to re-conceive at least a little. Two Frank Miller comics have been adapted into what most consider to be quite successful movies - his Sin City and 300 - and both with a keen eye on staying loyal to the aesthetic of the source material. I would argue, however, that as graphically similar as these movies are to the artwork from which they came, they are in fact very thoroughly re-imagined into a cinematic landscape. Miller went on to direct his version of The Spirit, which copped Sin City's look and failed miserably, lacking the originality of the other two adaptations.

Graphic novels, or comicbooks, work because of the spaces between the panels and how our minds fill those in. They give you some of the interpretive freedom of books or radio, with more of the visual fireworks of TV or film. It takes a certain amount of mental coding to read them, but that can be learned intuitively, and when a good unity between the words, layout and illustrations can be achieved, the story-telling is enhanced.
Simply sliding that on top of a film, the languages do not converse. Movies are all about seeing change, seeing it very closely. Just because one of the steps to creating them involves story-boarding doesn't mean that a medium that utilizes frames and composition will automatically translate. You're still filling in the white spaces. You're still animating the iconic.

When it comes to adapting a live show into a "graphic novel" context, there are a few examples from which to pull, but most of them take a fairly satirical (or lightly tongue-in-cheek) slant and have more to do with traditional superhero comics than more varied graphic storytelling. I was in a production of Stand-Up Tragedy in college for which the director brought the main character's comicbook imagination somewhat to life on stage with enormous puppet cut-outs, but that was for one sequence only and functioned rather more as a simple staging element than as anything functional. Vampire Cowboys here in New York have done many a popular show using comicbook tropes, but these are largely original productions and focus on the combat elements (not a bad notion at least by the end of Richard III). I don't know of any examples specific to only the medium itself - not the characters within them, for example.

So anyway: why Richard III in this context? Perhaps we are thinking of him as a character similar to superheroes like Marvel's X-Men mutants, who are ostracized and persecuted for being different, said difference being what makes them special and powerful? Perhaps Richard's story is episodic enough to remind of serialized story-telling - there is a strong procession of scenes of mounting ambition and stakes. Perhaps we're thinking aesthetically of something that utilizes iconography, or stained-glass windows, both of which comic books owe something to.

Yet in discussing all this, what I'm struck by is a very different idea. Richard III reminds me of nothing so much as the trend in television over the last five years or so for highly successful, critically acclaimed shows to feature a main character who is morally flawed. Don Draper of Mad Men is a philanderer, Walter White of Breaking Bad is someone we've watched become (or simply come into being) a ruthless criminal, Dexter is a fracking serial killer, and a host of other shows have followed suit - Damages, Boss, etc. In other words, tragedy makes for great television. In terms of a contemporary hook for RIII, that's where my mind goes. Those shows are incredibly effective, and we root for some of the worst characters in them the hardest. Did this begin with Tony Soprano, or Richard the III?

I have no ideas, however, about how to invite those influences on a production. That's an entirely other conversation. One we should have soon!

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