Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Taking Comics To The Prom (Or, They're All Gonna Laugh At Us!)

This is the other one.

It's odd, the connections our brains make across distances of concept and time. Case in point, this past Halloween, I watched Carrie for the first time. The sound was off, but it's a remarkably easy film to follow without the dialogue, especially since the entire plot is picked up pretty much by osmosis just by living in America in the last 30 years. At the time, I mostly paid attention to De Palma's storytelling and the religious imagery (you ever get the feeling Stephen King had unresolved mother issues for the early part of his career? Because the "crazy overprotective mom" figure is practically an archetype in his early work), and wondering how anyone ever considered John Travolta a heartthrob. Maybe it's a non-threatening gay boy thing.

Anyhow, life continued apace until a couple weeks ago, when The Beat waxed ecstatic on the prospect of there being 75 comic movies in development. Around about the time Heidi MacDonald expressed her hopes for an even 100, I thought to myself, "We really are just as stupid and clueless as Carrie, aren't we?"

Spoiler alert: If you don't know what I'm talking about, the movie ends like this: Carrie gets taken to the prom by the school hottie (who's pushed into it by his girlfriend, who's taken pity on the school outcast), and ends up getting pity-elected prom queen. Except John Travolta and his girlfriend have rigged up a bucket of pig's blood in the gym rafters, they dump it on her head, and she goes psycho and uses her symbolic-of-a-young-woman's-sexual-awakening telekinetic powers to burn the place down, killing everyone inside. (Finally, a high school romance with a happy ending.) The burning part is less important to my point, though, than the triumph-cum-humiliation that Carrie goes through in that scene. (Which, by the way, Brian de Palma took his sweet damn time getting to. The build-up went on so long, I thought I was moving in slo-mo.)

Comics is about to hit that wall. Right now, we're the beaming Carrie, gazing out beatifically on the adoring popular kids who have deigned to bestow upon us that honor. But the bucket is teetering, and before you know it, we'll be bathed in delicious red corn syrup in front of the whole cast.

I'm not the first person to compare Hollywood to high school, but it seems the lesson needs repeating, so here I go: Hollywood - hell, the whole entertainment industry - is a lot like high school. In fact, the only measurable difference is that you don't have to actually succeed to get on the honor roll. Not that being on the honor roll will make you one of the cool kids, and that's what everyone really wants. To be one of the cool kids, you have to have "it," whatever "it" happens to be this nanosecond. For actresses, "it" is usually the measurements of a Barbie doll and the willingness to do scenes with gratuitous partial nudity. For producers, "it" is the ability to cause other people to believe you're big enough shit that they want to get in on whatever it is you're doing. For writers, "it" is being good friends with an "it" actor or director, or willing to pretend to be good friends with one. And for adapted material, "it" is the ability to make fuck-tons of money for the studio doing the adapting.

Currently, comics (or some of them) can make those fuck-tons for movie studios. So the cool kids are taking pity on us, or at least letting us do their math homework. But we shouldn't expect that to last forever, and we certainly shouldn't take it as an indication that they actually like us. The "legitimization" that the comics pundits like to talk about, especially in the marketing wake of the upcoming Watchmen movie (which will, by the way, be unwatchable), is a pile of malarkey. But it's a pile of malarkey we've long sought after.

One thing you have to remember about comics nerds is that we are, well, nerds. The uncool. The out crowd. The solo lunchers. Scratch a nerd (not too hard, or he'll cry), and you'll find someone who still has a chip on his shoulder about all the people who weren't his friends when he was fifteen. The nerd desire for "legitimacy" comes from one of two desires: The desire to finally be accepted by those people, and the desire to lord his success over those people. A lot of times, it comes from both. If you think prom queen Carrie wasn't feeling just a little bit of schadenfreude over all those bitches who chucked tampons at her in the opening scene, you've obviously never been or known any teenage girls.

But back to Hollywood. The cool kids like us right now, and they're putting us on stage and clapping. But make no mistake, that's not going to last, any more than the influx of back issue speculators in the early '90s lasted. And don't try to kid yourself, saying that exuberance was based on comics' financial value, and this is based on their content value. First of all, if you think Hollywood gives a damn about content, then you need to see your doctor about a prescription for anti-stupid pills. And second, if only quality content is getting optioned, then explain Ghost Rider.

So the high times are going to end as soon as the money dries up. And the money will dry up as soon as we have a good string of high-profile comics turkeys. And that string may be closer than you think. Last year's writers' strike is just starting to affect releases; 2009 will be the year where studios grasp around for something, anything, to fill the screens of multiplexes nationwide. The long-shelved Whiteout is already scheduled for September (holding a movie for two years and then releasing it after the summer rush are two big neon stinker signs). Wolverine has Gambit in it, which is enough to make at least every scene he's in suck; plus, how many people give a shit after X-Men 3? Watchmen, as noted, will be terrible, but probably make bank. Some damn fool went and green-lit Kick-Ass before the series even finished. Frank Miller's doing Ronin with the director of Stomp the Yard, God help us all. And then there's a slew of Platinum Studios-type properties you've never heard of, but that will all proudly sport the phrased "Based on the graphic novel."

One by one, the dominoes fall. Hell, if the trailers are any indication, The Spirit will be the one to kick it off, in what has to be the sickest irony I've witnessed in a while. But try telling that to The Beat. Try telling it to anyone who's excited about Watchmen, or Luke Cage, or Dragonball. In this, we're uncomfortably like video game fans, who resemble nothing so much as beaten wives at this stage. The difference being, they've already had the bucket of pig's blood dropped on their heads, and they keep coming back for more.

Another analogy comes to mind. There's an old Sylvester the cat cartoon that co-stars two dogs, Spike and Chester. Spike is a big mean bulldog of whom all the other dogs are afraid; Chester is a small yippy mutt who prances around Spike waxing ecstatic about how they're great pals, until Spike gets fed up, smacks him one in the kisser, and tells him to shut up. Then he gets up and does it again.

Don't be Chester, comics. Chester's a tool.

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