When Comics Become Movies – With No Superheroes in Sight


For most people, when you mention movies based on comics, superheroes immediately come to mind – but comics are a medium, not a genre, and in some of the best adaptations it doesn’t. there’s no cape or tights to be found. Take ghost world (2001), which first brought Scarlett Johansson to the world’s attention and earned Dan Clowes an Oscar nomination for his screenplay based on his own graphic novel. Or Tom Hanks’ acclaimed vehicle road to perdition (2002), based on a comic by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Then there was the controversial lesbian romance Blue is the hottest color (2013), adapted from the graphic novel by Jul Maroh and awarded the Palme d’or at Cannes.

Very much in this non-superhero tradition is the next film Paris, 13th arrondissement, directed by Jacques Audiard (A prophet, of rust and bone), which explores the complex sexual relationships of a group of millennials living in the Olympiades district of Paris. It is adapted from short stories by cartoonist and comic writer Adrian Tomine (primarily his book kill and die)who enjoys a rare position as a cartoonist: he is highly regarded by the literary establishment, his work championed by the likes of Zadie Smith.

And movies are Tomine’s other great passion. “I became obsessed with comic books at the same early stage in my life that I became obsessed with movies,” he says. “While I was learning to make comics, I used my dad’s Super 8 camera to make little movies. I think I ended up pursuing comics because they were so much easier and cheaper – and didn’t require friends.

A page from Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel ‘Killing and Dying’, on which ‘Paris, 13th arrondissement’ is largely based

When it came to considering a screen adaptation, Tomine’s top priority was trusting the person he handed over his material to. “I am by nature very protective of my work and skeptical of these efforts. Things really changed when Jacques Audiard reached out to me. I had said no to opportunities for so many years. . . It was important for me: to have a very good working relationship, not combative or terrifying.

Tomine’s background stands in stark contrast to that of the creators of the iconic 1990s comic book character, Tank Girl. On paper, the futuristic punk seemed like the perfect anti-heroine for the big screen at the height of the grunge era in 1995, and Hollywood studio MGM picked her up to adapt. The comic was the work of writer Alan Martin and artist Jamie Hewlett, the latter of whom later co-created the virtual band Gorillaz with Damon Albarn. Entering negotiations with the studio, however, young Martin and Hewlett didn’t have the kind of cultural currency that Tomine has now. The comics also lacked the critical respect at the time in the US and UK that they enjoy today. (The situation was different in countries like France and Japan, where comics have always been highly regarded.)

Jamie Hewlett, cartoonist of Gorillaz and artist of Tank Girl

Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz cartoonist and “Tank Girl” artist ©Getty

Hewlett remembers the shoot as one of their own comic strips. “It was our first time to LA. We had Mohicans and Doc Martens, so we went to Oxfam and bought some really bad suits. MGM wanted to dazzle us, so we flew over first class.

But the honeymoon didn’t last long. “For us, it was about putting a female character in a comic and making her strong and giving her something to do and be as outrageous as possible. They misunderstood the whole idea. Hewlett and Martin were treated well by the studio, but quickly realized their input was unwanted.”The only thing I managed to get in the movie was the opening scene,” says Hewlett “They wanted her to ride a white horse, and I managed to change it to being drunk on a water buffalo. Kind of like Lawrence of Arabiabut drunk.

'Tank Girl', the 1995 film - Hewlett says Hollywood misunderstood the character and, for example, wanted her to ride a white horse

‘Tank Girl,’ the 1995 film – Hewlett says Hollywood misunderstood the character and, for example, wanted her to ride a white horse © Suzanne Tenner/United Artists/Kobal/Shutterstock

Hewlett evokes his youthful naivety with good humor. “Our manager at the time made a deal with MGM that we weren’t even part of. We have something like £50,000 in our bank account. We thought we were rich! Alan went out and bought the biggest together Scalextric, and we built a giant track in our spare room.Then we realized we had no rights and the deal was abysmal.

The difficulties inherent in translating comics to the screen have long plagued filmmakers. One of the contributing factors is the common misconception that the two mediums are basically interchangeable. Both are, after all, sequential visual narratives.

“I would almost say the opposite,” says Tomine. “They may intersect in places, but they are very distinct. This purity of voice – whether through the artwork or through the words – is difficult to achieve in a collaborative medium, which film, by definition, must be.

Hewlett agrees: “There’s something about the way stories are told in comic books that you can never really translate to movies. It’s like reading a book. It’s your personal journey, the way you follow a page of drawings; you put your own voices in your head; you read it at your own pace. I believe some of the greatest living artists are comic book artists – but I don’t think that translates easily and naturally to the big screen, which is often why it’s a bummer. But I think it’s better. »

The reason for Hewlett’s optimism is the growing input of comic book creators into these productions. “If Alan Moore had realized The Watchers movie, I’m sure it would have been great! he says. “But that will never happen. So someone else had to tell the story. It is removed from the original idea, like a second or third generation photocopy. take the movie Akira [1988] — Kushiro Otomo directed the film from his own comic. That’s why it was so good. Another example, the animated film by Marjane Satrapi Persepolis. Directed by the comic strip creator herself, it recounts Satrapi’s childhood in Iran after the revolution and won him the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007.

Hewlett says Akira (1988) is a good example of a successful movie because the director (Kushiro Otomo) was the original creator of the comic

Hewlett says Akira (1988) is a good example of a successful movie because the director (Kushiro Otomo) was the original creator of the comic © Capital Pictures

Fortunately, the increased involvement of comic book creators is a trend that Hewlett and Tomine are benefiting from. Hewlett is in the early stages of adapting its Gorillaz project into a feature film with Netflix. “We are involved at every stage of the process. I will also direct the film,” he says. Tomine meanwhile recently completed a screenplay based on his graphic novel. Gaps and is working on a television adaptation of his latest book The solitude of the long-term caricaturist.

Tomine’s experience of the making of Paris, 13th arrondissement was very different. “I was not involved,” he admits. “I signed the papers and met Mr. Audiard once before the film. That was it, really.

The director largely appropriated Tomine’s material – shifting the action from the United States to France and even inserting entirely new characters. Yet somehow, in doing so, he retained the spirit of Tomine’s work. “There were things that felt very familiar to me, but I was quickly able to detach myself from looking at her in terms of loyalty to my work, and just wrapped myself in them like her own work of art.

“The film has a youthful energy and real vibrancy,” continues Tomine, who is now in her late 40s. “The source material was the work of a younger man – younger than me now, and certainly younger than Jacques Audiard. One of the great strengths of the film is that sense of being alive and being young, especially at this time in history… If he picked up on something in my work that led to those qualities, then I’m flattered.

‘Paris, 13th District’ is in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from March 18

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