Words for Pictures by Brian Michael Bendis.

Brian Michael Bendis has written a lot of comics. A LOT OF COMICS. He’s had several very successful runs on various Marvel titles, and has some critically acclaimed creator owned work to his name.

He’s been a regular guest on a comic book podcast called Word Balloon for nearly 10 years and often answers fan questions, most of those questions being about the craft of writing and making comics.

More recently, he has taken to the blog site Tumblr to answer fan questions more directly on the business of writing.

So it makes sense that he would want to put out a book about writing comics and graphic novels.

In his book Words for Pictures, he covers all areas of working in comics. To script layouts, working with artists and working with editors. He even has a chapter dedicated to the business side of writing.

It’s more of a coffee table print sized book. I was expecting it to be more like a tradtional book, but it’s a larger format. This is needed though because of all the art that’s in here. The size and paper quality really helps show off the quality of the art.

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It’s a very comprehensive and enjoyable read. I’m not someone who is immediately looking to break into comics. Sure, I’ve thought about writing some of them and I’ve had a few ideas. But I am interested in the craft and process. I also like hearing the writers themselves talk about their own craft and process.

This book isn’t just Bendis, either. He has many of his friends and collaborators contributing parts to make up the overall book. There’s Matt Fraction talking about working with David Aja on Hawkeye. There’s an editors round table which involves editors talking about how you should approach them and what they’re looking for in new talent. There’s a conversation between David Mack and Alex Maleev on how comic book art can be so much more than art. There’s really a lot in here and I think it’d be a good read even to someone who isn’t looking to write comics, but is interested in creating in general.

The book is about giving advice to new writers and tips on breaaking in. The thing with comics is that staying in is as hard as breaking in, so the insight this books gives in regard to the relationship with your editor and artist is very useful.

I do have one problem with the book, however. Even though Bendis does get a lot of good writers and artists contributing to the book, they’re either close friends of his or people he works with a lot. That makes sense because it probably made the book easier to put together, but that means there’s a lack of DC and indie creators in here. There’s cover blurbs from people like Geoff Johns, Warren Ellis and Jim Steranko talking about how good this book is, but why didn’t they contribute anything to it?

There is a section of the book by Diana Schutz, who is a long time editor for Dark Horse comics, and has been behind books like Hellboy and 300. But this is only one part. In the editors roundtable section, only one editor is a none marvel employee.

Also, all the examples of art used are pretty much exclusively Marvel or from Bendis’ creator owned books. Again, this is probably down to legal reasons, but this could have been a much more comprehensive look at the business and craft if he could have included more DC and indie stuff. There’s a similar problem with Grant Morrisons SuperGods, but in that case, there’s little Marvel stuff involved.

Bendis is very much a Marvel company man, and it’s great that Marvel let his used so much of their stuff in his book on writing. But how great would it be if, say, Frank Miller did a section of the book? (For all I know, though, Bendis might have asked him and he could have said no).

But this is still a really good read. It is to comics what Kings On Writing is to prose. It’s also just an enjoyable read and never feels like a boring chore to get through.

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Comics, everybody – The Series Finale.

With recent rumours surfacing that Marvel may be rebooting their continuity next May, it got me thinking about finales and endings in comics. If the rumours turn out to be true, the reboot will come as a climax to Jonathan Hickmans recent storyline in both Avengers and New Avengers (A quick summation of the storyline: earths from multiple dimensions are crashing into each other, sometimes killing both worlds in question. Tony Stark and his illuminati have been trying to find ways to prevent these ‘incursions’, but the price to do so is the cost of killing worlds. It’s a really good storyline and worth checking out).

The word ‘reboot’ often agitates and upsets comic fans, because it means a lot of the story lines that they’ve read and loved are going to be swept under the rug and forgotten about in place for a new and improved time line.

DC have rebooted several times, most recently with their New 52 launch. The New 52 was an initiative that saw the launch of 52 new number 1s in the space of 1 month. Nearly every character had their history rebooted, save for Batman and Green Lantern. The initiative saw a boost in sales and fandom, and got people excited about comics again. And as someone who is mainly a Marvel reader, it got me picking up DC comic books.

But Marvel aren’t prone to rebooting their universe. They’re very faithful to their history and continuity, because they know it’s part of what the fans love about Marvel.

Instead though, Marvel are prone to having multiple ‘series finale’ and ‘relaunches’ a year. More so recently, with their Marvel Now and then their All New Marvel Now initiatives, instead of relaunching the majority of books in one month, they spread them out throughout the year. However, none of these relaunches saw a significant reboot or retcon to any continuity or history.

I have several Marvel comics in my collection that have the words ‘series finale’ on the cover. I seem to always fall victim to them. I think it’s because super hero comics never end, but these ‘series finales’ give readers a sense of closure.

When I say they don’t end, I don’t fully mean in a literal sense. I mean more that these are comics that have been published for over 50 years (75 years in the case of some DC titles), and they show no signs of stopping. I think what the series finale does is it allows story lines to end and new ones to begin, giving readers a chance to either stay on for the next part of the storyline, or jump off because they feel like they’ve read enough and they’re satisfied with the ending.

Super hero comics have a soap opera feel to them. For people in the UK, they’re like the Coronation Street of publishing. For people in the US, they’re sort like Doctor Who.

These are both TV shows that have a long history to them, and what makes them able to continue is that story lines will end and then new ones will begin. I’ll be honest – it’s probably been a couple of decades since I’ve actually watched Coronation Street, but what it does is it’ll have a couple of story lines ongoing at one time, and as one or two of them come to a close, a new one will start to begin. The story lines will end, but the characters will live on in the street, and maybe have supporting roles in other storylines. In the case of Doctor Who, that sense of closure is offered every time the Doctor regenerates and changes his appearance. This was done best with David Tennant, as he said goodbye to all his former companions, and it was also the head writers final episode. Then Matt Smith would come along and start his own adventures.

Marvel comics are the same. I think it’d be foolish to say it’s to make them closer to real life, because what’s great about comic books in general is them offering escapism from real life. But it’s this idea of closure and you being able to walk away if you want to.

It’s also not just Marvel Comics. Look at Grant Morrisons recent run on Batman over at DC. It was so long running and complex that it was part of the reason why Batman never had a hard retcon at the beginning of The New 52. Morrison had already spent several years on his story and it wasn’t done in time for the New 52. But he did get to finish his story. DC relaunched Batman Incorporated into a second volume, which turned out to be the finale of his run. It ran about 12 issues and when it was done, DC did away with the title. The ending to the run (and this is a major spoiler, so maybe skip down a bit if you don’t want to know) was the death of Damian Wayne, the son of Bruce Wayne. But that was just the ending to Morrisons run, not the end to Batman as a character. Other writers were allowed to deal with the aftermath of Robins death (DC had a banner called Requiem on all the Batman books the month after).

As a reader, and someone who does like that sense of ending to a storyline, I like the appeal of the series finale, which is why I have so many. I want comic book story lines to come to a point were I can look at them and go ‘okay, this is it’. I know they’re often done as a marketing ploy to make people think they have more collectibility, but if you’ve been reading a series for a while and you’ve dedicated time to it, you want that feeling that it was worth it.

When it comes to stories, we need endings. As readers and viewers of television. When we watch movies. Even when we listen to songs. That’s what makes them different from real life. But comics have to go on. The longer characters like Batman, Superman and Spider-man last, the more they have a lasting mark.

X-men.

For over a decade now, comic book movies have been some of the highest grossing films to come out from Hollywood. What started out as a fad has become it’s own genre. Over the next  few months, I’m going to be delving into each movie individually to try and find out what it is that’s made them a mainstay in modern Hollywood. 

x-menTitle: X-MEN

Release Year: 2000

Director: Bryan Singer

Writer: David Hayter

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Halle Berry and Anna Paquin.

 

 

Two years after Blade had been a hit for New Line Cinema, X-men was released by 20th Century Fox. Unlike Blade, X-men were a pretty well known brand before they took off as a movie franchise. Marvel had had a lot of success with the X-men comics in the 90s thanks to a new number 1 issue by star creators Chris Clearmont and Jim Lee (the first issue sold millions of copies because it was part of a boom comics were going through in the 90s. This would later lead to the medium struggling and eventually lead Marvel to bankruptcy and selling off their properties to movie studios, which is why fans today constantly complain about Marvel studios not having the movie rights to Spider-man and the X-men), there was also the animated cartoon show, which, like a lot of Marvel stuff, is where I first remember discovering them. So the film itself wasn’t as much a risk for the studio like Blade was, but comic book movies could still go either way at the box office.

X-Men 1 coverThe X-men comic itself struggled to find an audience when it was first published in 1963. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the original lineup consisted of Cyclops, Beast, Ice-Man, Angel, Jean Grey (who was then known as Marvel Girl) and lead by Professor Xavier. Sales weren’t as high as Marvel would have liked, this could have been down to Lee and Kirby working on other Marvel titles at the time and not giving the X-men their all, since their run on the book isn’t as long as, say, their run on the Fantastic Four. In 1969, Roy Thomas and Neal Adams took over as creators on the book and introduced some new characters, but the book was cancelled around issue 66. So Marvel decided to relaunch the title, with a new line up and new creators, which helped give the title the boost it needed to make it one of Marvel Comics most successful franchises.

What also makes X-men brand as successful and good as it is, is that Mutants themselves are a metaphor for people who don’t feel like they belong in society. In both the comics and the films, mutants represent those people who are on the outside, and it’s a metaphor and theme that’s pretty much timeless. And it works across the board, from racism to bullying to sexual preference. Over the past 50 years, at one point or another, these have been addressed in the comics, and if there’s one thing that Hollywood loves – it’s a good metaphor that audiences can latch onto.

The theme of oppression is very apparent in X-men, as the main plot of the movie involves a plan by Magneto to turn the leaders of the world into Mutants. Magneto is the first character in the movie we’re introduced to, as the film opens in Poland 1944 – a Nazi Concentration Camp. We see a young Erik Lehnsherr be separated from his parents, but what we’re actually witnessing is his super villain origin. It’s what starts his hatred against human kind, made all the worse as he gets older by the way humans treat mutants. I think we start with Magneto so we can sympathise with him, and believe in his cause more. He’s not wrong in what he wants, which is equality for mutants, it’s his methods in gaining what he wants that makes him the villain. He’s willing to use a machine, which he knows will have bad effects and will lead to death, on humankind to turn them into mutants. I’m not sure I’d go as far to say he’s a political activist in the sense of someone like Martin Luther King, but there are certainly parallels there.

(Side note: we’ll see more of his backstory much later in X-men: First Class)

Going against the original lineup in the comics, the core team in the movie consists of Wolverine, Storm, Cyclops, Jean Grey and Rogue. Lead, of course, by Professor Xavier. There are also other well known mutants in smaller roles, most notably Ice-Man, who will have more to do in future movies. There’s also cameos of Kitty Pryde and Pyro.

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The main focus of the movie, and nearly every X-men movie to come after it, is on Wolverine. This is for the simple fact that he’s the most popular character in the X-men franchise. Even though he wasn’t in the original lineup, since his debut in the mid-70s, he’s had several of his own on-going series, been in a multitude of different X-men titles, and more recently, he’s been a main character in The Avengers. We’re introduced to him at first as a cage fighter. He’s making use of his mutant ability to heal (and also his adamantium laced skeleton) to make a living, and because he’s a bit of a lost cause when we first meet him. It’s here he meets Rogue, who ran away from home after discovering her mutant power from her first kiss (she sent the guy into a coma for 3 weeks because her mutant ability is to drain a persons energy, or if they’re a mutant – their ability). When the pair are out on the road, they’re attacked by Sabertooth, who we later find out is part of Magnetos Evil Brotherhood of Mutants. They’re saved by Cyclops and Storm, which sends Wolverine and Rogue to Xaviers School for Gifted Youngsters, which brings all of our characters together.

x-men-eric-and-charlesWhat I like most about this film, and what I think helped it become as big and successful as it is, is it’s cast. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are perfectly casted in the roles of Professor Xavier and Magneto respectively. Two classically trained Shakespearian actors in two of the most iconic roles from comics. What’s also great about these two actors in these roles is that they’re actually best friends in real life. The relationship between Xavier and Magneto has been an important part of X-men since it first launched, and the fact that these guys are friends off the screen as well adds a whole extra layer of subtext to every scene they’re in. You can feel the history between them whenever they have scenes together. From the first time we see them together at the UN meeting, to the final scene of the film when they’re playing chess.

There’s also Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. He was originally the second choice for the role behind Dougary Scott, who passed on the role of Wolverine to star in Mission: Impossible II. It needs to be said: Hugh Jackman is great. He’s doesn’t always choose the best roles, but he always gives a performance his all. He’s also one of the few modern Hollywood actors who can sing and dance and be an action hero (and he manages to pull off the questionable hairstyle of Wolverine. See, this guy has talent!) I’ve always liked him as Wolverine. He gets both the toughness and soft side of the character right. And for all you ladies out there who like your eye candy – he spends a lot of time in this film without his shirt on.

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This film doesn’t waste any time in establishing the love triangle between Wolverine, Cyclops and Jean Grey, a love triangle that’s been an important part of X-men history. Cyclops is the clean cut, handsome frat boy, while Wolverine is rough, rugged hairy new guy. The banter between Wolverine and Cyclops (James Marsden) makes for some good comic relief in the film and helps add that extra tension to the team. They try not to make Jean Greys singular job being the object that these two guys have to fight over. She is given other stuff to do (like x-raying Wolverine in all the scenes that he’s shirtless in). She’s played pretty well by Famke Janssen, who plays her more like her early comic book character, were she’s still discovering some of her powers. She’s better than the other female member of the group, Storm, who literally has very little to do. This was before Halle Berry won her Oscar, so she wasn’t that big of a deal yet, but the character she’s playing is one of the first black female superheroes in comics. It was probably hard to give her anymore screen time, but she needs more to do. Her best scene is in the train station, when’s she’s being threatened by Sabertooth, and she straight up gives him a giant lightening bolt.

Several characters, most of which have good performances behind them, but what I noticed this time around watching is that we don’t get too into the origins. It’s probably because mutation is something you’re born with and develop around puberty, but the film doesn’t spend much time on how the characters got to this point. Wolverines is glimpsed briefly in flashbacks. Cyclops, Jean and Storm are introduced as the teachers of the school. It’s only in Rogue that we see an actual origin. But they’ll attempt origins later, and you’ll probably be wishing they’d never bothered in some cases.

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What stopped X-men from having too overly campy a look was the costumes. Gone are the colourful outfits comic book readers are used too. Instead, the film uses matching black lather jump suit costumes. They’re not that exciting as far as costumes go. The look of the film would later be replicated in the comics by artist Frank Quietly in New X-men. This is an early example of the movies having a knock on effect on the comics, something that would become more and more of a trend once Marvel began making their own movies.

 

The movie has aged pretty well. Their are effects there that look pretty dated, but they’re not overly done due to the modest budget the film had. They spent $70 million on making the movie. It would end up taking over $200 million at the box office, making it a smash hit. This is why X-men is often thought as as the beginning of the current trend in superhero movies. It had that appeal to both adults and younger audiences members which allowed it to take in a lot of money. It would also make Bryan Singer one of the hottest directors in Hollywood, and was the beginning of Hugh Jackman becoming a star (I wonder if Dougray Scott ever regrets not taking the role?).

Next time: I’ll be looking at Spider-man, which would end up being even bigger than X-men.

Blade.

For over a decade now, comic book movies have been some of the highest grossing films to come out from Hollywood. What started out as a fad has become it’s own genre. Over the next  few months, I’m going to be delving into each movie individually to try and find out what it is that’s made them a mainstay in modern Hollywood. 

 

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Title: BLADE

Release Year: 1998

Director: Stephen Norrington

Writer: David S. Goyer

Starring: Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferson, N’Bushe Wright and Donal Logue.

 

 

Blade always seemed like an interesting choice of character to turn into a movie. He made his debut in comics in the early 1970s, first appearing in The Tomb Of Dracula series by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan. At first, he was a supporting character, and was created to fight vampires in the Marvel universe. He has had several of his own titles over the years, but none of them lasted that long, and he never really broke out like other supporting characters. I, personally, have been reading comics pretty steadily since I was 8, and I’ve read my fair share of Marvel comics, and I can’t recall Blade appearing in any of them. Even recently, in all the big marvel events like Civil War and Secret Invasion, stories that happened after he broke out as a movie star and when he was a little more well known, he was never used. Almost to the point were it’s like comic book writers don’t know what to do with him.

spiderman_bladeMy first experience with the character that I remember, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, is the character turning up in the 90s Spider-man animated cartoon show. They did a vampire storyline were the vampires never bit anyone, instead they drained the plasma from their victims through their hands. This was because the cartoon couldn’t have blood sucking vampires, so it had to make do with plasma draining vampires (and because children know what plasma is, right?)

 

The film itself is also pretty significant because it’s one of the few R rated (or certificate 18, for English people) comic book/super hero movies. Movies like this aren’t usually made with that high of a rating because they need to be family friendly in order to make money. The majority of comic book movies are 12a (which is something I’m going to go into more when I write about Spider-man in a couple of weeks) in order for the studios to make back the money they spend on these things and turn a profit. But Blade got lucky, because it came out on the back of Batman & Robin, which was very much made to cater to the family friendly audience, and it ended up severely under performing at the box office (because, as we’re all well aware of – Batman & Robin is not a good movie).

Also, with Blade not exactly being a big household name, they had freedom to do pretty much whatever they wanted to do with the character and the film, which turned out to be a blood-filled action movie full of bad language. And what they did worked, because they spent $40 million making Blade, and it made over $100 million back at the box office and even went on to get two sequels and an unrelated TV series.

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Now, onto the movie itself. Blade is the story of a half human, half vampire who has all the strengths of being a vampire but none of the weaknesses. His mother is bitten by a vampire when she is still pregnant with him, and he is torn from her dying womb and adopted by Whistler, who decides to turn Blade into a vampire slayer. The films villain, Deacon Frost, wants to do away with mankind, and let vampires become the dominant species on the planet. In order to do that, he needs to unlock the secrets of an old vampire God La Magra. Blade must stop Frost before he can do this, and along the way he’s going to kill a lot of vampires, and make Donal Logue wish he’d have died in the first scene, because this dude goes through hell for Deacon Frosts cause.

I watched it again recently for the first time in years – and it holds up pretty well. Some of it is very dated to the late 90s, like the outfits and the underground club dance scene that opens the movie. But other parts hold up better, like Blades costume. He decides to go for the long leather coat and body armour look. He only works in black, and he still looks like a bad ass. I was also thinking that a lot of the costume design in this movie looks very inspired by The Matrix, but after some imdbing found out that The Matrix came a year later, so this is pre-matrix black leather.

Wesley Snipes is also pretty great in the lead role, and managed to help turn a supporting character from a comic into a movie star. They never give him much dialogue, the exposition is left to other characters, but in the action scenes he’s really solid.

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But even though this film isn’t as campy as other super hero movies, it’s still full of stuff that makes no sense. Like, for example, Whistler, who is Blades old and wise trainer, but still thinks it’s a great idea to smoke next to a fuel pump that’s in use (he smokes whilst filling up Blades motorcycle (I’m not making this up!). And then there’s Donal Logues character, who is Frosts main henchman. He is lit on fire right at the beginning of the film, has both of his hands chopped off and goes through a lot of rough stuff, He pretty much has the worst day you can have and still thinks he can take on Blade, before finally meeting his match against a zip-wire.

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And my favourite thing about this movie, which is another thing that I list under ‘making no sense’ is that, with the help of a little sun tan lotion, vampires can go out walking in the daytime. There’s a scene which is set in the middle of the day, were Frost is holding a little girl hostage. In a park. In the middle of the day. But he doesn’t burn up to a crisp because he has factor 50 on and he’s stood in the shade. So much for taking out the comic book campiness.

z0y2aZeqPIThe DVD also features an alternate ending. When Frost is possessed by the evilness of La Magra, he has one final confrontation with Blade. The ending that ended up in the final cut depicts Frost as being possessed by having extremely red blood shot eyes and looking very pissed off at everyone and everything, the alternate ending depicts Frost as a giant whirlwind of blood. They made the right choice in choosing their ending, because the whirlwind of blood would not have aged as well as the sword fight that’s in the film.

But the film is good in what it sets out to do – be a badass, vampire slaying movie. There’s plenty of it, the film rarely feels like it’s boring and dragging, which is also help by it’s running time being just under 2 hours.

So now a character that no one had heard of has become a huge commercial movie star, and Marvel have had their first taste at big screen success. But what came next was even bigger. Next time, I’ll be looking at Bryan Singers X-men.