Comic to film adaptations have never been bigger; everything blockbusters like The Avengers to indie releases like Blue Is The Warmest Color to television shows like AMC’s live action spin on The Walking Dead. The lesser discussed counterpart to this is the adaptation of film into comic book story. In the time frame of “home media” being either incredibly expensive or nonexistent, the film adaptation was a novel way for publishers to capitalize on a successful film. Like Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in theaters (Someone must have, surely)? Pick up the graphic novelization for $2 and relive the viewing experience whenever you want!
Today, the sheer variety of access platforms for personal viewing (not only DVDs but streaming services like Netflix or iTunes, just to name the legal options) have, if not eliminated, definitely reduced the incentive for publishers to rush out a comic book version of the latest releases. Instead, we usually find comics that tie-in to new films or are released semi-concurrently. An example of the former is Pacific Rim: Tales From Year Zero, a prequel comic that’s published by movie studio Legendary’s comic book imprint. For the latter, we have Image’s 266 page Noah graphic novel, which is based on an early draft of the soon to be released Darren Aronofsky bible epic.
A good litmus test for the state of the superhero end of this spectrum are Marvel’s recent adaptations of their own wildly successful films. Take, for instance, their two issue retelling of Iron Man 2 from writer Christos Gage and artist Ramon Rosanas. Iron Man 2 is probably one of Marvel Studios’ lesser regarded films but it’s major strength (besides the magnetic charm of Robert Downey Jr and Sam Rockwell’s dance moves) is that it has some really dynamic action sequences. The comic book adaptation of the film really suffers because it’s a pretty dull recycling of what we saw on screen; the first issue jumps from one plot point to the next without any consideration of pacing and whole scenes are awkwardly condensed. The Ivan Vanko fight in Monaco is truncated to four lifeless pages, then almost immediately he’s sprung from prison by Justin Hammer (something that doesn’t happen until significantly later in the movie). Compare this clip from the film to two corresponding pages from Marvel’s adaptation:
On film, this scene is thrilling. There are terrific comedy and action beats, it’s just really well orchestrated. On the page, it’s totally forgettable. And what makes this especially frustrating is that this isn’t a comic quickly put together for release, Marvel’s Iron Man 2 adaptation came out two full years after the release of the film.
Given all this, it might sound like I’m suggesting that movie adaptation comics aren’t worthwhile, and that’s not the case. I’d like to argue, instead, that it’s an extremely challenging form of comics that is often approached the wrong way. As far as these kind of comics go, there are probably only two legitimate “classics” and they both appeared as serial strips in the comics magazine Heavy Metal; the Jim Steranko adaptation of Outland and, most famously, Alien: The Illustrated Story by Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson (which was recently collected and reprinted by Titan Books). To be blunt, these comics work because they are made by people who fundamentally understand comics as a storytelling medium.
When you look at pages from Steranko’s Outland, what really stands out are the layouts and compositions that are often unlike anything we see in the 1981 film. He draws your attention to story elements in a very uncinematic way; one enormous spread features Sean Connery’s Marshall O’Niel talking to two other characters, with the the background characters and elements left completely uncolored for emphasis.
On a later page, the story’s villain Sheppard has a phone conversation with a criminal co-conspirator. Rather than using talking head back and forth, Steranko puts the conversation in circles at the bottom of the page with the main image of O’Niel listening to a recording of the conversation placed as the central image. The takeaway here is that Steranko isn’t just drawing the scenes from the film, he’s suiting the material to the format.
Alien: The Illustrated Story approaches its subject in the same vein and is even more successful in this regard. When you read it, it’s clear Goodwin and Simonson understand that comics is entirely a visual medium. One thing that’s immediately clear is the distinctly comic book physicality to Alien: TIS not present in the live action film; Ripley’s pet cat Jones rests on her shoulder as all the characters sit around a table, bringing to mind Kitty Pryde’s pet dragon Lockheed. As the alien egg opens during Kane’s exploration of the alien ship, strange bubbles emerge from it like horrific Kirby dots. In the book’s take on the scene where the Nostromo crew hear the “distress beacon” MOTHER has sent them to investigate, the sound itself is depicted as an abstract series of huge, incomprehensible letters. It’s deliberately disorienting to the reader’s eye the way the sound is to the reader’s ear when watching the film.
Additionally, Simonson’s art, unrestrained by budget, is able to accomplish effects that would have been either cost prohibitive or unfilmable during the production of the film. When molecular acid from the alien facehugger melts through the ship’s floors, it’s presented in three concurrent stacked panels, like a physical cross section of the ship itself. Compare to this to the film’s version, where the viewer follows the movement of the acid from floor to floor rather than simultaneously. When we see the final form of the titular alien, it’s far more massive than an actor in a suit and towers over its prey.
But where Alien: The Untold Story really excels is in how it advances one of the film’s major visual concepts in totally original ways. Specifically, the idea that the alien itself is a part of the Nostromo ship the characters are trapped aboard. While the film does this with lighting and set design, we see this as early as the first page of the comic with Simonson’s take on a title page; the word “ALIEN” is a jumble of bones and wires, a confused amalgam of living tissue and machinery. As the story goes on, we see this again in the form of panel frames. As we watch the ship’s captain Dallas hunt the alien through a series of air ducts, the creature appears out of nowhere around a corner and almost completely blends into its surroundings. The most effective and unsettling use of this is during Ripley’s first encounter with the alien, where it uncurls itself from a ball; it’s as if the ship is coming to life to kill her.
These additions are what push Goodwin and Simonson’s comic from merely a faithful adaptation to a good work in its own right. Really, that’s why this is the example that’s held up when we talk about movie adaptation comics; Alien: The Illustrated Story (and Outland as well) is a truly innovative creation that can stand alone from it’s source material and be enjoyed totally independently if need be. In a sense, that’s the secret of any kind of cross-media adaptation. The line we always hear when people want to really talk up a comic is that it’s “cinematic”. But that shouldn’t be the goal and film to comics adaptations, the good ones anyway, are proof of that.