Fanboys and Hacks Hollywood Talent Tackles the Comics Game

Fanboys and Hacks Hollywood Talent Tackles the Comics Game
Playing a movie superhero gives you the inherent right to try your hand at the medium. Or that seems to be the supposition of actor Thomas Jane; the character actor has been seen in critical hits like Boogie Nights and The Thin Red Line, but he's lately known for portraying vigilante Frank Castle in the 2004 version of The Punisher (and its announced sequel). He's just the latest to join the ranks of "celebrities" who are translating fame into cross-promotional opportunities; lacking the style profile for a fragrance or shoe, Jane has launched his own comic, Bad Planet.

If you equate credentials with a legitimate interest and enthusiasm for the genre, Jane certainly has that: he's a long-time collector of pre-Code horror and sci-fi comics. (The late '40s/early '50s period of comics before the Comics Code was introduced to police their content.) Despite this enthusiasm, Jane's comic lacks a compelling story that's necessary to drive a narrative. Given that he has no experience — as a writer or comic creator — Jane made the smart move to recruit top-notch artists and painters to help bring his vision to fruition.

Doug Simpson, manager of Paradise Comics in Toronto, has been collecting comics for over 25 years and has been in the industry as a retailer for over ten. He agrees with Jane's decision to go with a few of the industry's heavyweights to give his book a bit more polish. "One aspect I like about the whole project is as a comic fan Tom realised that he was a rookie and should surround himself with very capable people. The art team is excellent and he handpicked the cover artists for each issue from a group of his favourite creators. Tom is a long-time collector of pre-Code horror and sci-fi, so you can see the influence in his writing: the horrible aliens, the beautiful damsel in distress, and the lone hero saving everyone from the aliens and themselves."

Despite Jane's flashy art and professional printing job, Bad Planet is simply awful, crippled by a premise that is tired and rehashed — good-guy alien crash-lands on Earth just in time to save us all from bad-guy aliens that have been here for awhile. Forgiving fans can see where his vision fits into his admiration for the genre; the story is simply lacking punch.

It's not all disastrous and ill-fitting when it comes to the shifting of creative talent from one medium to another, but it certainly helps to have some experience in the basics. "More often than not they fall far short of my expectations," says Simpson, "and I realise that they should concentrate on their true field of expertise. There are actually only two people who I believe have managed to make the transition seem easy: [Buffy creator] Joss Whedon [who's penning Marvel's smash hit spin-off Astonishing X-Men] and Allan Heinberg [writer for The O.C. and Gilmore Girls, who is writing Young Avengers]. Both writers have stayed with their strengths and concentrated on what they know. Whedon has always written good, solid stories involving group dynamics and solid individual heroic stuff, which is great for X-Men. Heinberg, coming over from The O.C., tends to concentrate on the teen angst and the struggles of youth. Young Avengers deals with all these situations and he writes to his strengths."

The difference between Whedon and Heinberg's writing styles and that of Jane's comes down to talent. Whedon's experience in crafting Buffy's seven-year run — and his understanding of the complexity of group dynamics — has translated beautifully to Astonishing X-Men. Similarly, Heinberg's teen drama angst is an easy transfer to Young Avengers, which simply adds super-powered to the teen drama description. Whedon, for one, carefully eased his way into comics. His first title Fray was loosely based on Buffy, revisioned as a futuristic slayer in a dystopian world.

The bottom line, in the comics world, is that good storytellers are better prepared to translate dialogue to the page; those who impose their popular image into just another marketing opportunity don't tend to have much staying power. That spells bad news for actress Rosario Dawson; her comic cred stems from her appearance in Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez's Sin City, and she recently signed with Speakeasy Comics to create her own book. Having a "name" can be enough to attract some initial attention, but for fickle comic fans, that's only enough to get you in the door. Having the talent to back it up is another story.

Some of the biggest current names in comics didn't start there. In fact, besides being fans of the genre, these guys don't really have much in common, other than the fact that they have been able to make a living out of comics.

Film director Kevin Smith — who sold off his extensive comic collection in order to finance his first film, Clerks — has managed to keep his films and comics fresh and funny even though he regularly comes under fire for his version of comic characters. One of the most notorious outbursts from the fans came when he took over the job of writing Daredevil. He gave one of the main characters AIDS and killed her off. Comic book purists everywhere were incensed at his defamation of one of their most beloved characters. But they still bought his work, and still continue to do so even now. In addition, his work on the critically acclaimed Green Arrow series also caused a ruckus; he resurrected Oliver Queen, but justified it by claiming the stalwart hero had no soul. That kind of in-your-face attitude towards the conventional way of writing classic comic characters has earned him a dedicated fan base. Smith also dabbles in the retail side by running Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash in Red Bank, New Jersey.

With so many movie- and television-based people jumping onto the comic bandwagon, it's difficult to say if this is fad or evolution. But there are good additions, like Damon Lindelof, writer and co-creator of Lost, who recently added his name to the expanding list of TV writers penning comic books. But unlike Jane, he's tackling household names, writing Marvel's Ultimate Wolverine Vs. Hulk.

The success of these writers is based on the fact that they each had something different in their bag of tricks. Comics need to evolve and with Smith, Lindelof and Whedon leading the way, it looks like the evolution is already under way.