More than Storyboards: Comics & Film #2 – Finding the Gutter

By Tyler Weaver

If you want to look at comics as the “back door” you’ve been waiting for to get your failed screenplay traction as an adaptation, turn away now. You’re more than welcome to be part of the denigration of one of the most vibrant art forms of modern times into a stepping stone, but my words won’t be the fuel for your fire. That said, if you’re interested in something a little different, like the integration of comics as part of a larger storyworld, read on (and welcome).

comicstoryworldcover-e1350901391951In my last article, I said that the magic of comics comes from the gutter, the space between panels, the space that has to be filled with your imagination to create the movement between iconic representations of moments and complete the story. Like comics, transmedia storytelling–the crafting of stories that unfold across multiple media platforms, in which each piece interacts with the others to deepen the whole, but is capable of standing on its own, giving the audience the choice as to how deep into the experience they go– also finds magic in the space between, in the gutter.  When you consider deepening your screenplay into a transmedia storyworld via comics (or any medium), you have to find that gutter. What did you have to leave out? What are alternative ways of viewing the events in your film? Other perspectives? Is there a character that turns from ally to opponent? What happened there? All of these considerations are ripe gutter pickings.

Here’s a point about transmedia storytelling that I scream about as much as “comic books are more than storyboards:” the deepening of a world into a transmedia experience shouldn’t be expectant; it has be irresistible. You shouldn’t need to consume every piece of the experience to get the whole story; you should want to consume every piece. Transmedia storytelling isn’t about the necessity of accumulation; it’s about the freedom of exploration. A transmedia expansion shouldn’t be a cash grab (if it is, it’s crap transmedia, terminology I use in the book; check it out, it’s in the index), but rather treated like exposition in a screenplay–doled out when the audience craves it, and even then with only enough of a nibble to make them crave more.

With that in mind, let’s look at a few ways comics can be an irresistible part of your story:

BACKSTORY

Let’s get the boring one out of the way. Backstory is rarely, if ever, irresistible. Comic books have been tied-in and tied-up to tell the backstory of a film or game or whatever for awhile now, and with few exceptions, they suck.

Why? They suffer from Prequel-itis, that dreaded disease that makes the intriguing mundane. Need I remind anyone of the Star Wars prequels? Take something amazingly cool (Jedis) and turn it into something boring by revealing the mystery behind it. If audiences don’t need to know it on the screen, they usually won’t care if it shows up in another medium. The question is: can you make it irresistible? Some have made it fascinating at the very least: JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, for one (I discuss Trek at length in the book including an interview with Trek screenwriter Roberto Orci).

Bear one quotation in mind from the great Kurt Vonnegut when considering a deepening via backstory: “The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.”

THOUGHT, VOICEOVER and SHIFTING PERSPECTIVE

Comics merges the tried and true of drama: books are about what people think, plays are about what people say, movies are about what people do. If you can make it work, you can have people doing, saying and thinking in one comics panel.

Remember, a transmedia expansion is less an actual expansion and more a deepening; think of it like a three-dimensional spiral, going ever deeper. How far can you take things?  Can you show what’s going on inside a character’s head? How about how they see things? What about their delusions, their hang-ups, their passions, their foibles? How can you show greater and deeper motivation for their actions on-screen?

Here’s a hypothetical example: Mad Men. I would love to see a 1950s romance comic that shows how Betty Draper saw the world and what her husband was up to. Maybe an EC Comics version of “Don Draper’s” wartime experience? The possibilities, once free from budgetary concerns (an explosion won’t wipe out a week’s worth of catering), are endless.

the gutter

AN ALTERNATE VISION

I’m going to break the admonishment I gave in the opening paragraph (the only rule about rules is that they should be learned and broken for the story’s sake): there has been one instance of a comics adaptation of a failed screenplay that worked so beautifully it made me question the veracity of my opening statement: Darren Aronofsky and Kent Williams’ masterful and stunning comics adaptation of his first screen version of The Fountain.

It is the version that was shut down by studios in the early 2000s, the version with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in the Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weiz roles and a massive budget, before Aronofsky rewrote it into the “mean, lean indie film” that eventually saw theatrical release.

One caveat about this exception to the rule: the reason this worked (other than the final product being amazing) is because it’s a deeper look into the world of an already-established and visionary filmmaker. It’s the ultimate DVD extra, a beautiful testament to the power of comics storytelling and a wonderful companion to the film version.

You are not Darren Aronofsky. Yet.

A WORD OF WARNING

I’d like to offer one final piece of advice. Remember the ending of The Sopranos (RIP James Gandolfini)? That cut to black was powerful – but it pissed people off. Why? Because there was seemingly no definite conclusion (series creator David Chase has since provided his own thoughts). Since the end of the show, audiences have postulated what happened in that diner, what happened at that cut to black. They say they want the answer, but here’s the truth: they don’t. No answer will ever be better than the one an audience member can create for themselves. Be cognizant of this notion when pondering a deepening.

Great art asks questions and makes demands on the audience, so ask yourself this: is the irresistibility in learning the answer or pondering the question.

A CHALLENGE

The above ideas are just a smattering of the world-deepening potential of comics. Remember what I said in the first installment: comics has unlimited storytelling potential. Don’t squander it on the easy answer. As a comics primer, I’ve prepared an ever-updating list of “Recommended Reads” at my book’s companion website, comicstoryworld.com.

In the next installment, we’re going to conduct a little thought experiment and add a comic book to an already existing film. I haven’t decided which one yet, so I’ll leave it up to you guys. Let me know what you’d like me to wrap my brain around via Twitter– @tylerweaver – or in the comments.

I love a challenge.

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One thought on “More than Storyboards: Comics & Film #2 – Finding the Gutter

  1. whaleofatale

    There is power in that which is not seen with the natural eye. The gutter that drains the story to the unseen depths below natural comprehension fuels imagination and triggers an awareness of active involvement in storytelling.
    I rely on, and I trust in, the imagination of my readers. Human imagination is the most powerful tool we have at our disposal. Proper use of the gutter in writing is a exercise in trust and an agreement between the writer/artist and the reader.
    Granting the space between the stories themselves allows proper fill-in and the universe grows in the minds of the readers. Even with the propensity for forensic analysis in our society, some of the most powerful stories implement the imagination by not telling or showing.

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