CAPES, COWLS & COSTUMES >> Let’s Go Out to the Movies …

Better yet, let’s not go out to the movies! Twelve bucks for a ticket, another $12 to $15 for eats, plus babysitters and parking … then the movie has to compete with other people’s conversations, cell phones, crying babies, shrieking children and talking back to the screen. And for all that, you get maybe two hours of so-called “entertainment.”

Just read the book instead!

It’s practically a given that the blockbuster film du jour — and most lesser epics — will be novelized. A novel based on any film featuring a comic book character is a sure bet. And, more often than you would imagine, the novels are better than the movies they’re based on. Because while a movie takes your eyes places they’ve never seen before (“You’ll believe a man can fly”), a novel transports your mind to deeper and richer places through the power of imagination. Instead of showing the story, the novel tells it, trusting your mind to interpret and visualize the people and events. And your mind’s got an even bigger budget than Warner Bros! A novel can also veer off into diversions such as backstories, providing depth and texture to characters and their motivations.

Take, for instance THE DARK KNIGHT, the novelization by Dennis O’Neil of this summer’s blockbuster. Batman and crusading district attorney Harvey Dent are both out to smash the hold of crime on Gotham City. Batman comes to see Dent as his own salvation — a heroic public figure who can take up his war against crime and allow Batman to retire to his happily-ever-afterlife as Bruce Wayne. Everyone — girlfriend Rachel Dawes, Lt. Jim Gordon, the Joker, Alfred — shows one face to the world, but has to keep their truths hidden from everyone else.

On the screen, motivations are murky. Bruce Wayne apparently becomes a staunch Dent supporter on the basis of one dinner. In the novel, O’Neil has the luxury of devoting most of a chapter detailing Batman’s national security-level scrutiny of Dent’s life, including weeks spent tailing the D.A., therefore providing readers with a character instead of a cutout. There is even a suggestion that as a kid, Dent might have had a hand in the suspicious murder-suicide of his mother and abusive cop father.

All this goes a long way to explaining what happens to Dent in the film’s final act. O’Neil, the award-winning comic book editor and writer of Batman for more than 40 years, certainly knows his Batman and delivers a fine synthesis of comic book lore with movie makeover, all clothed in an easy, sparse style that keeps the story moving and provides numerous moments of fine writing.

Also burning up the summer screens this year was the second installment in the Hellboy franchise, based on the Dark Horse comic book character created by Mike Mignola. HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY receives the prose treatment by another comic book veteran, Robert Greenberger. An ancient truce is broken between Earth and some of the places where the nasty things dwell. Now the world is about to be overrun by supernatural menaces under the command of a being of evil, leaving hell-born Hellboy and his colleagues in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense to take care of business.

Greenberger is skilled at playing in other people’s universes, including numerous STAR TREK franchises, PREDATOR and both DC and Marvel Comics. He slides easily into Mignola’s very full world of Hellboy (which also exists as ongoing comics series, as well as some dozen novels and short story collections) and takes up the story. His style is straightforward and readable, yet knows when to turn on the mood and how to use dialogue and interior monologues to help carry scenes and recap the story.

Even bad movies get novelized and, in the case of the legendarily bad movie, HOWARD THE DUCK, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik, sometimes even novelized well! Written by Ellis Weiner, the 1986 HOWARD THE DUCK novel follows the adventures of the fowl Howard, who has been transported from his own mallard-centric world to Earth via a laser experiment gone wrong, falling smack into the middle of Cleveland, Ohio and the voluptuous Beverly Switzler, transformed from artist’s model in the comic books to rock singer in the film.

The same nasty experiment also summoned the Dark Overlord of the Universe, who will now commence with destroying said universe. Weiner is a funny writer, meaning he’s a guy who writes funny stuff, as evidenced by his history with NATIONAL LAMPOON, SPY, THE NEW YORKER and numerous other publications, as well as the very funny YIDDISH WITH DICK AND JANE.

HOWARD was in desperate need of a funny writer. The movie is terrible; the novel is fun to read. Just not having to look at the guy in the goofy duck suit made the story easier to take. Top that with Weiner’s sarcastic, over-the-top commentary by a narrative voice that makes Douglas Adams-style observations on the action, speaking often for the universe and offering readers in the very first chapters the observation that excuses whatever absurdity that it is to follow: “And if there was a purpose to this existence, it escaped him.” Howard may save the universe, but don’t expect him to make much sense of it along the way.

SWAMP THING, on the other hand, was a bad movie based on a brilliant DC Comic that produced a so-so novel in 1982. Swamp Thing was created by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson in 1971. Wes Craven, king of the schlock film, licensed the character and made … well, a schlock film out of it. The movie gets the story fundamentally correct: Dr. Alec Holland, secret plant growth formula and bad guy Arcane somehow standing in his way.

But the initial 13-issue run of SWAMP THING and Martin Pasko’s then-current comic book reboot of the character were seen as more intelligent, adult-oriented comics, and Craven’s rubber-suited stuntman Swamp Thing and Adrienne Barbeau’s breasts were no match for the quality of the work to be found on the printed page. Well, maybe Adrienne Barbeau’s breasts.

Enter the novel by David Houston and, yes, Wein, whose involvement is probably the novel’s saving grace. If anyone would know the why and wherefores of Swamp Thing, it’s him, and his insider’s knowledge allowed him to add the kinds of interior monologues and omniscient narration which kicks a comic book movie novelization — even that of a B-movie — up a few notches.

Next time: odds and ends. —Paul Kupperberg

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Comment by R
2008-08-29 11:44:01

Hmm, never thought I’d be one day contemplating buying a novelization of Howard the Duck. I’m not sure I ever made it through the whole movie twenty years ago. Looking back now, it seems this movie was the first sign that the Star Wars prequels would be filled with some pretty lame humor.

As a huge fan of Douglas Adams, especially the first two Hitchhiker’s books, can I ask if the Howard the Duck novel is mostly played for humor, or is the humor only used occasionally?

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Comment by Paul Kupperberg
2008-08-29 15:14:04

The HOWARD THE DUCK novel is played strictly for humor…how can you help it? A love scene between a sentient duck and a human girl is funny no matter how you slice it.

Comment by rob!
2008-08-29 21:03:59

paul, i will not have ANYONE disparage, in any way, Adrienne Barbeau’s breasts. They helped me get through my early teen years.

luckily you followed up “Craven’s rubber-suited stuntman Swamp Thing and Adrienne Barbeau’s breasts were no match for the quality of the work to be found on the printed page.”


“Well, maybe Adrienne Barbeau’s breasts.”

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Comment by Paul Kupperberg
2008-08-29 21:38:25

Dude, you think I was watching MAUDE for Bea Arthur’s pants suits?

Comment by Rod
2008-08-30 09:34:02

I remember my 15-year-old self being excited about seeing HOWARD THE DUCK. In anticipation, I bought that novelization and read it beforehand. The book is better than the movie.

And I may be in the minority, but I love Wes Craven’s SWAMP THING. I’ll go one step further and admit to a love for Jim Wynorski’s THE RETURN OF SWAMP THING. And then I’ll continue to set myself up for ridicule for expressing my love for USA’s SWAMP THING TV series. None of these are the true Swampy of the comics, but I enjoy them all the same.

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Comment by Paul Kupperberg
2008-08-30 13:09:52

I was never a very bog horror movie fan to begin with — my taste runs towards the 1930s Universal and 1950s horror flicks when I watch them at all — so I never really developed an appreciation for the work of Wes Craven. In those pre-Tim Burton BATMAN days, we took what we could get in the way of films and SWAMP THING was better than some but, overall, not the comic book film we’d been hoping for. I never saw RETURN OF SWAMP THING (but I do have the novelization, by Peter David), but I did watch the TV show on a fairly regular basis. It was in the same category of entertainment as HIGHLANDER; you knew it was pure cheese, but it was just so damned satisfying.

Comment by Allan
2008-09-01 15:53:28

Craven’s filmography is by far the most schizophrenic among genre directors, insofar as it contains the highest of highs (A Nightmare on Elm Street, New Nightmare and Scream) and the lowest of lows (Deadly Friend, Vampire in Brooklyn and The Hills Have Eyes II), but I would still take issue with him being termed a “schlock” director, as it suggests a propensity for genre work makes a director inferior to other filmmakers who prefer to create less fantastic or horrific narratives.

As for Swamp Thing, the majority of its problems were more a matter of budget than talent. I think attempting to recreate any comic book, much less one as visually original as Swamp Thing with virtually no money is a task that would best even the most creative of artists. That said, Jim Wynorski managed to make his best film with the similarly budgeted sequel.

Oh and you might want to check out the last issue of Mr. Lott’s Hitch Magazine to read the definitive take on Adrienne Barbeau’s breasts. I have to say that it remains the most perceptive work of commentary I have ever written.

Comment by RP
2008-08-30 16:43:08

I loved the HOWARD novelization; I, too, was incredibly anxious to see that movie. Another big bomb (and personal favorite) that had an excellent novelization was BUCKAROO BANZAI–it’s one of my favorite novelizations ever.

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Comment by Paul Kupperberg
2008-08-30 16:49:25

I’ve heard a lot of good about the BUCKAROO BANZAI book over the years. One of these days, I’m sure to trip over it and I’ll be sure to pick it up.

Comment by Bruce
2008-08-30 20:32:20

I’ll second RP’s pick of the Buckaroo Banzi book so much better then that failed movie. I know they reissued it a few years ago so it should be easier to find.

Comment by Edda
2008-09-10 03:31:01

Mr. Kupperberg, did you cover Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise novels? I know that technically Modesty Blaise ran as a newspaper comic strip as opposed to a comic book. However, I find it of interest that these books got written by O’Donnell himself, ran over a few decades, and I could easily find most of them at my local library.

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Comment by Paul Kupperberg
2008-09-10 17:35:15

I haven’t covered any of the O’Donnell Blaise novels yet but I am a big fan of them. I started reading them in the ’70s. Maybe I’ll do a column on comic STRIP books soon; I can also do the Phantom novel by Lee Falk, another favorite of mine!

Comment by Bruce
2008-09-10 18:24:34

I covered one Modest Blaise book did not much care for it – No Martini Drinkers Here. Oh the super early days of my columns.

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