Monday, January 29, 2007

"In the Translation to the Different Media, Stuff Gets Changed" or A Khan by Any Other Name


I was driving from Greensboro the other weekend, a nice 2 hour drive and it was a bit late. Late enough that I decided to put some “Old Time Radio” (OTR) tapes in to listen to, thinking that listening to a story as opposed to music might help keep me awake. I chose the Shadow, you know the back story, that he’s in reality wealthy young man about town Lamont Cranston who learned from his travels in Tibet the power to cloud men’s minds and solved mysteries with his companion Margo Lane. However, I’m also currently reading some Shadow pulps being reprinted, and the Shadow there is completely different. Lamont Cranston is just a disguise he sometimes wears as the real Cranston is frequently out of country. Margo Lane has yet to make an appearance in the pulps but I understand later that she does. Instead, he has a whole host of agents. Nor is the Shadow given to talking much or even being as chummy as he sounds on the radio. He skulks in shadows, no hidden power to cloud men’s minds (though he does possess some ability as a hypnotist), and he uses guns. A lot. Whereas on this particular episode I was listening to, he uses a gun for the first time that I can remember and it’s one of those carnival target rifles which he only shoots at the targets. Chiefly, the big difference boils down to the fact that in the pulps, the Shadow comes across as the real identity, all the rest is a sham and subservient to that, whereas on the radio, the Shadow is an identity that Lamont Cranston adopts as an invisible force that criminals fear.

Now, the discrepancies are easy to trace. Originally, the Shadow was neither of these guys. The first one appeared in 1929 in a Street & Smith pulp FAME AND FORTUNE as one of several stories (a reprint of this pulp was just recently done). He has the haunting laugh that the later pulp and radio show would play up as well as haunting eyes. He was around for the one story.

Then came a radio show where a mysterious announcer called the Shadow would introduce a mystery as well as admonishing his viewers to read more of the stories in the magazine. However, viewers remembered the Shadow more than they did the real title to the magazine and when Street & Smith heard people were asking for the Shadow magazine, they wisely realized they should create one.

Enter Walt Gibson, who would create many of the elements associated with the pulp hero.

The radio show eventually morphed as well, the Shadow becoming not an announcer but the protagonist. However, a 30 minute radio show doesn’t give you much space to develop a plot and many characters. This is something that was talked about in regards to a Sherlock Holmes tv series from decades back. Once you have Holmes, Watson, Lestrade and one or two other policemen, time and budget constraints don’t leave much room for much else, making it hard to have a mystery with many suspects. Well, OTR has the same problem. Especially since the characters must all have easily identifiable voices. So, things get streamlined a bit as well as watered down some for the larger audiences. So, gone is the idea that the Shadow is only impersonating Cranston and he becomes a much more likeable if somewhat generic in personality. No one wants to explain that every week, his character needs to be summed up in two sentences. Trying to get the idea across that he can disguise himself as anyone and sneaks around quietly, not enough time and doesn’t work well with the medium. Thus, invisibility becomes his power.

Then the Shadow would head to another medium, the comics. The comics would be an odd mingling of the two, as he visually, looked like he did in the pulps and some of the stories may have even been adapted from there. However, he also had his invisible power, banking on most of the young readers would probably be more familiar to the radio show. Plus, comics weren’t especially verbose and were done traditionally in bright colors. And Gibson was just good enough of a writer to make you read about the Shadow blending in with shadows, able to hide practically in plain sight (apparently, everywhere was badly lit in Gibson’s world). It’s hard to get that across in comics, so the invisibility is a good shorthand that adapts well to the strengths of the medium.

The movie serial with Victor Jory (a man born to play the Shadow) went almost the other route. In it, he’s more of the Lamont Cranston persona of the OTR shows, an amiable scientist/sleuth who puts on the cloak and that and spooky laugh and voice to fight crime. However, his Shadow is a bit more akin to the pulps’. He has no powers of invisibility, he must skulk around (but not at the almost supernatural levels of the pulps) and adopt disguises and such. If he has a super power, it’s surviving explosions as most of the cliff-hangers are him in a building or room that blows up and collapses and the following week is him getting up and shaking off the dust of the debris. Interestingly, the villain on the other hand has the power of invisibility but only in a limited area, I guess highlighting why their hero isn’t invisible, it makes it too tough to film, especially on a budget. And serials are a visual and visceral medium made up of fist fights and death traps and such, and people want to SEE their hero in all this, something hard to do with the constraints at the time.

And the Alec Baldwin movie pretty much followed that lead. The Shiwan Khan elements came out of the pulp, but the rest is mostly from the radio shows. Technology has progressed some and there’s more of a budget, so they are able to make the hero “cloud men’s minds” and turn invisible. Of course, they could have also filmed it so that he was just really good at blending in the shadows as well if they so chose.

A little bit earlier, Denny O’Neil and pulp fan and artist Kaluta would launch a Shadow comic at DC. This character harkened back to the pulps, working behind the scenes through agents and then descending from shadows to mete out deadly justice.

There is more of course, such as the Archie publisher’s version that had him as a green clad superhero, but I think it’s enough to get to something that I started mulling over, listening to the show and comparing it to the pulps and what with the movies out that are based on favorite books and comicbook characters.

In the translation to the different media, stuff gets changed.

It’s that simple. Some of it’s by necessity. When I re-read FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING in anticipation for the movie, I realized that Jackson was going to have to change things. Otherwise he had a boring movie as most of the characters don’t do anything at all other than walk, interspersed with some scenes of absolute terror. A lot of stuff is just told to them. The big climactic fight at the end of the movie? It actually occurs at the beginning of the second book. Likewise, I understood why there is no scouring of the Shire in the last movie. It’s important thematically to the book, but for the movie, it’s overkill, just plain exhausting.

Ditto for comic characters. Look at the X-men movies. Most people interested in the comics aren’t going to be interested in going to see Cyclops, Beast, Marvel Girl, Angel and Iceman as teenagers. They are going to want the recent X-men. So bits and pieces of different eras are chosen, some dependent on film-making concerns. Meanwhile, they cannot do the origin story of Spider-man and have him be married. What they can do is go ahead and work Mary Jane as a character into the story since everyone younger than 15 knows who she is and Gwen Stacy is just a footnote to them. Is it historically accurate? Nope, but the movie isn’t trying to reproduce 40 years of history in 2 hours but to make a movie that stands up as a complete narrative on its own.

I’m not defending all of the choices in these cases. Some I think were bad ones and some I think are improvements. I give a little more leeway to something like Spider-man, The Shadow or Batman Begins in that they are not translating a specific story but the spirit of the character. After so many years of stories, some contradictory, some good and bad, stuff has to be jettisoned. It’s a different medium with different requirements.

Likewise, even Lord of the Rings will get some allowances in just the simple fact there is stuff you can film and stuff you cannot but that you can get away with writing. I don’t recall whether it was Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock in talking about Ray Bradbury in an anthology said they loved his short-stories and always wanted to film them but that what really made his stuff good also made it impossible to film. It was the way he wrote scenes, the language. And then you just factor in that books contain so much more information and are meant to be consumed over a longer period of time that a movie must throw out some stuff and beef up other things like dialogue and setting. It may be why short-stories tend to work better, you are not only able to keep more in, but you can make additions for the expanded storytelling.

It puts me in mind of Orson Scott Card’s novelization for The Abyss. One of the things he was allowed to do was to take advantage of the print medium. Thus, instead of having to conform just to what was on the screen, the first 3 chapters are dedicated to each of the chief 3 characters, their histories and motivations that would lead them all to where they were at the beginning of the movie. The written word allows you to get more intimate with characters, able to get into their heads in a way that’s hard to do in film without feeling artificial or slowing down the pace of the movie.

The one good thing about the time we are living in is that the technology isn’t that much of a hindrance anymore. It’s why we can get good superhero movies now, that they can do on screen stuff that can equal some of the best that comic artists could come up with and in some cases out do it because there’s real sound and real movement and a real immediacy. When doing the Shadow, you can make a choice of which version or which elements you want to keep for the movie. Might be hampered by your budget but not by the technology.

Doesn’t mean that there aren’t limitations. Comics can have thought balloons, we can see all the different thoughts of all of the characters, something hard to do with movies even with voice-overs. And through captions, there can be layering to the stories, almost with two different stories being told at the same time. And, when you’re talking ongoing comics, you can do one off personal stories devoted just to Alfred, or other interesting side quiet smaller stories and ongoing subplots that don’t play out well in the movie context (but might in an ongoing television series, to just illustrate two seemingly identical media but with different strengths and weaknesses).

But that’s me. I’m looking forward to the next superhero movies. Bring them on.


Agents of Atlas
: For the most part an enjoyable mini-series, but the final issue was disappointing. 1) Dull and anti-climactic. The big battle of the comic is in the opening pages and it's pretty much completely resolved by the powerful yet boring love-power of Venus. One of the things I liked about revealing that she wasn't really the uber-powerful Roman goddess of Love was that we'd see more to her powers and her using them in different ways as well as some idea of some limitations to them so that not every fight could be so easily resolved by her simply making everyone love her. The rest of the comic, long expositional dialogue of the "villains" explaining the plot to the clueless heroes.

2) The immasculation of the Yellow Claw. OK, I can understand changing his name to the Golden Claw (though that color too was often used to describe Asian villains and characters, one of the Shadow novels with Shiwan Khan is titled THE GOLDEN MASTER). But, here his role is completely changed, instead of being on par with the likes of Fu Manchu and a world conquering villain along the lines of Doom and Kang, he's more just the misunderstood but loving uncle. And he's de-uniqued in the process, tied to Genghis Khan as the comic makes a point of noting that the other two big Asian badguys are. Not to mention, Master Plan? Marvel already has a Master Khan, so it's just making him more similar instead of standing out. So, now half of all of Marvel's Asian characters are from the family tree? What's next, all the patriotic heroes descended from one particular Rogers family during the Revolutionary War? And then after all of that he's just killed off? WTF? More importantly, the move does to the Yellow Klaw what the changes from Marvel Boy to the Uranian did, in the changes, we lose a big sense of the larger than life, high adventure and fun the characters could be and instead became quite a bit duller and mundane.

3) Woo and party join up with the bad guys? Does no one remember all the Shield agents that were killed at the beginning of this? Not to mention all the other people that the Yellow Claw has kidnapped, brainwashed and killed over the years? And yet somehow, everything is ok as long as Woo is willing to become the next Khan under the service of the dragon? And no one blinks an eye, no one actually remembers all of the murders done by these guys in their bid to rule the world? What's next, Steve Rogers assuming leadership of a Supremist movement? And we lose Woo as an Asian American (one of the great things about the original stories, an Asian-American Federal agent vs. an Asian Communist villain) as he embraces a rogue culture of his racial identity over the ideals and culture of the country he long embraced.

I enjoyed most of this mini and loved the art. But, obviously, this ending felt really weak to me even while it tied everything up in a too neat bow (c'mon, even Derek is tied to the Khan Dynasty? Puh-leeze, that carried it a bit too far imho). I liked the idea of Mr. Lao being an ancient dragon. After everything else, surprised they didn't tie him to Fing Fang Foom. Maybe if the issue had been double-sized.

Ultimately, it's passive, devoid of actual conflict. It puts me in mind of a classics class I took in college, and the difference between The Odyssey and the Aeneid. The latter's hero is almost completely passive as a character compared to Odysseus. Both are playthings of the gods for the most part, but Odysseus and the story is active, he fights against the inevitable. Aeneas on the other hand blindly accepts his destiny, he has a good thing with Dido but when the gods say it's time to move on, he does so. A good philosophy in real life but it makes for boring storytelling.

A superhero comic thrives on conflict, and this final issue doesn't have it. The one hint of physical conflict is resolved by the all powerful yet passive powers of Venus. We don't have the heroes uncovering the secrets of Atlas, preventing the plans of Mr. Lao and/or the Yellow Claw and wresting control of Atlas from him/them. We could have that and then still reveal to the readers that was the plan of Mr. Lao all along. No, the issue almost completely passive storytelling and this is supposed to be the big climax. We have the bad guys explaining their plans, how they have been control all along and the destinies of the heroes, and the heroes blindly accept it all. At this point we should have some kind of internal moral conflict yet not a single one (the demi-goddess, the perpetually irate monster-man, the independently minded atlantean, the longtime federal man, highly capable secret agent) balks or voices resentment but willingly goes along with their proposed destiny. After all of their history of fighting the Yellow Claw, risking their lives defending the free world against him and his men, they just turn their backs on all of that and accept him as a benefactor? And isn't this pretty much the exact same relationship between Shang Chi and Fu Manchu? Only there, they have mined it for conflict and here all of the conflict is taken out. Not just the action, but even the internal, moral and personality conflicts that should arise from making such a decision. Even Derek betrays no emotion or moral conflict as he basically commits treason. Frankly, it just doesn't come across as being credible reactions on the part of the people involved and their histories with each other. They stop being individual characters or even interesting protagonists and suddenly become passive pawns.

Birds of Prey: It happened. After following the book for a long time and even constantly lifting it up as a good book, I had to drop it. Not only did it bring in the Manhunter, a character I now loathe, but also TWO needless legacy characters, both female characters taking over previously male identities: Judomaster and Spy Smasher.

5 or 6 years ago by itself and it would have only been a minor annoyance. But in the context of the present times where it seems to be largely the point of books like Freedom Fighters & the JSA and half of the OYL books, I'm just tired of it. It doesn't interest me or excite me in the least anymore.

Besides, the idea of a legacy character is that it somehow honors the previous character. However, when every character has a legacy, when the originals in increasingly throwaway scenes of stories that they play no other part in have to be killed off or incapacitated in order to have those legacies, I no longer get the sense of any kind of honoring nor specialness of the original or the successor. It's become too common, too been there - done that and too cannabalistic to have any real meaning. Nowadays, I'd find it more interesting to see the original and find out how he still is active and what he's been up to all these years. To me, the original is almost always by default the more interesting character. And I don't get the point of a new Judomaster at all, how is a female version of the character any more interesting by default of the original who was a largely unexplored character to begin with? What could you possibly do with a female Judomaster that couldn’t have been done with either the original character or just a new character? The name itself prevents taking the character too far into any kind of new direction.

'Course, I have to admit, I'm probably about the only person who isn't drawn to Birds because of the characters. At least not the main characters in the book. I like Black Canary and Babs well enough, and ditto on the Huntress a later edition, but they aren't what attracted me to the book originally.

Nope, I originally got the book because besides the artwork of Jackson Guice who I had vowed a long time ago to support his work barring other considerations (such as pairing with Mark Waid, a writer I have trouble supporting writing a bad pastiche based largely on one of my favorite characters, Sherlock Holmes), but besides that, I heard the series had Blue Beetle Ted Kord as a supporting character. Well, Kord was written out of the series shortly after, but the writing and art stayed pretty much top notch and Gail Simone took it even to higher heights with good art all along the way. I do hold Dixon partly to blame for the lack of respect that Kord got later as he's the one that introduced the heart condition and helped cement his second rate character status as he was always just not quite good enough, in this case to even score a romance with Babs making him come in second pretty much to a former teen side-kick instead of recognizing in his own way he should really be equal to Batman (being the premiere non-powered hero from his own Earth). But, I do give kudos to Gail for remembering him after his death in the book, playing up a bit what a big loss it is to the DCU to lose this character, in a book he wasn't in all that long.

But, it may be because of the fact that I don't feel any strong ties to the existing characters I do find it easier to take a break from the series as it brings in things that I do actively dislike.

That said, I am enjoying The Atom and Aquaman books. But it doesn't really change things as I wish they'd have found ways to do the new books and give us the classic heroes as well instead of one being MIA and the other possibly changed almost beyond recognition.. It's the beauty of "Flash of Two Worlds" that it managed to make both new and old characters viable without harming the integrity of either one.

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