John Carpenter and George Romero Move To Comics
“It’s all in the reflexes.”
The filmmaking careers of George Romero and John Carpenter have not been at their liveliest over the last five years. But they’ve found a new medium for their work that has the potential to let them work with a scope and creative freedom that has been denied to them for a long time.
After Romero parlayed the success of Land Of The Dead into two more independent at bats, but the last thing he was slated to direct was a proposed remake of Deep Red which he bowed out of when he discovered his old collaborator Dario Argento had not given the project his blessing.
After a decade of false starts, (and two Masters of Horror episodes) John Carpenter returned to the director’s chair for The Ward; a film which I and about eight other people, really liked. Though he’s still technically attached to an adaptation of 90’s comic Darkchylde coproduced by WETA, there hasn’t been any movement on the project since it was announced four years ago. As disappointing as the idea of not getting to see practical WETA effects directed by John Carpenter is it seems safe to say that the film, if not dead, is mired deep deep in the ninth circle of development hell.
This would be an unfortunate par for the course for fans used to unseasonably long draughts between new films from favored genre directors who have fallen out of vogue. Fortunately there is new work by Carpenter and Romero that is easily available. Both directors have embraced Comic books as a recourse.
Of course this is hardly the first time that commercially marginalized filmmakers have used comics as a storytelling medium. Alejandro Jodorowsky, unable to finance his insanity on a large scale famously began a long and fruitful collaboration with Moebius and continued in the medium after their project Incal was completed. Back when he was still the guy who couldn’t keep a show on the air instead of the most in demand commercial filmmaker in the world, Joss Whedon wrote successful runs on X-Men and Runaways and oversaw a sequel series to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Kevin Smith wrote stories set in the Askewniverse for Oni to satiate fans between films and then moved onto Marvel and DC. When it looked as though Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain wasn’t going to be made he adapted into a comic, and repeated the exercise with Noah. Richard Kelly wrote a prequel to Southland Tales as a graphic novel.
Yet this is different. The directors above were either considered visionaries who would get their stories out by any medium necessary and whose work was pretty much segregated from the run of the mill monthly releases in the shops. Or were like Whedon and Smith, who made their love of comics part of their public persona and artistic preoccupation, thus hardly making it surprising when they chose to branch into the medium (they also spent most of their time working on pre-existing properties). Carpenter and Romero are different, older school, objects of geek culture but not participants in it. Yet both have shown enough affection and understanding of comics in their work to give the idea of them working in the medium some serious potential. How does reality live up to said potential?
The idea of Romero working in comics should be a home run. Romero has long had a problem with his ambitions outstripping his resources. Most famously when he was forced to scuttle his original script for Day of The Dead at the last minute, but also when he had to abandon a planned direct sequel to Land of the Dead in favor of the smaller in scope Diary and Survival of the Dead. Things get off to a promising start. Marvel is treating Empire of The Dead as an A list book, and the art of Alex Maleev renders Romero’s apocalyptic New York in impressive detail. Romero receives full scripting credit on the book and it sounds like his voice. The big ideas he’s working with, Zombie gladiators as a distraction to the masses, Bub 2.0, and an extremely bifurcated class system where the rich still live in The Dakota and the poor eat rat meat, are fine, if largely recycled from his original Day of The Dead script and Land of The Dead. But taking the oppurtunity to work them out on a larger scale is understandable and by the end of the first issue things are feeling if uninspired at least on track.
Which is when the vampires show up.
And folks I’m painfully aware of how fanboyish the following is going to sound, but vampires, especially Olde Worlde Vampyres just plain do not belong in George Romero’s Dead Universe. Particularly since Romero bends over backwards to tie Empire into his earlier, grittier, lo-fi work. The suspension of disbelief just snaps and we’re left with shambles. There’s no going back after the revelation, and no matter how grim Maleev’s art insists things are, how bleak a tone Romero’s reaches for, the rest of Empire of the Dead just feels goofy. It’s Romero’s work alright; unfortunately it’s the Romero who directed Survival of the Dead, not Dawn of the Dead that appears to be at the helm.
Ironically, though he only gets a story by credit, John Carpenter slips into the voice of his classic work with far more ease than Romero is able to. Well perhaps that isn’t so surprising as the man who’s the principle creative force behind the revival of Big Trouble In Little China is Eric Powell. If you’re unfamiliar with Eric Powell, then that means you’re probably unfamiliar with The Goon. In which case I’m so sorry, since I believe this also means you are unfamiliar with sunshine, ice cream, puppy dogs and this thing that we human’s call, “joy.” Just go ahead and imagine that Frank Capra directed Evil Dead 2 and you’re about half way there.
Powell is simply put the ideal man to orchestrate the return of Jack Burton and he doesn’t disappoint. His script is riddled with in jokes and throwbacks to the original film, which are just subtle enough to be amusing rather than a distraction and he slips naturally into the tone of Carpenter’s masterpiece and the voice of Jack Burton to make the whole thing look seamless. Though the art by Bryan Churilla lacks Powell’s trade mark tactile detail and eccentricity, he delivers decent caricatures of the cast (even if the size of Burton’s neck fluctuates quite alarmingly and he seems to be working under the impression that Wang is about sixty) and has a good sense of motion to it. On the whole Big Trouble In Little China may just be fan service, but it’s the best and lightest kind of fan service and has the feel of a well deserved victory lap for a film that was underappreciated and mistreated for so long.
Either way the success of both comics financially it feels as though comics have opened up to filmmakers with a new viability. Both creators have shown that the opportunity is there. Now let’s see if anyone will follow.