DR #89: Adapting A Story INTO A Comic Book

Dear Reader,

I spend a lot of time talking about what happens when somebody takes a comic and turns it into a movie or a TV show (which is an odd thing to call things that only get watched on the internet; but I don’t make up the terminology).

How does it work the other way around?

Adaptation Is How Things Survive In New Climates

The challenge with an adaptation is knowing how much suspension of disbelief you were getting out of genre conventions, how much you can get out of conventions of the new genre, and what to do to make up the difference. Different things gain and break suspension of disbelief in different kinds of story. It’s like getting Canadian money when you go to Canada, except the exchange rate is secret, it’s different for each dollar you change, and you’re going to also have to offer to-be-determined Canadian goods and services—like socialized healthcare and Tim Hortons—in addition to money, for each souvenir, meal, and hotel room you buy.

With a superhero comic, for example, you can just assume that the police take the man dressed like an American Flag BDSM Matador seriously. If you spend time addressing that, it actually takes the reader out of the story, because it’s usually just taken for granted that it’s part of how this kind of story works.

When you go to make the movie, on the other hand, you HAVE to address it. It’s not an established genre convention that a police detective will violate due process for any maniac in a domino mask, and you’ll take the viewer out of the story if you don’t address it.

After nearly ten years—I date that from Iron Man in 2008—the process of going from comic book to movie is at least somewhat consistent.

Going The Other Way is Less Reliable

I’ve already talked about a pair of disappointing adaptations, but I don’t think either of them is really typical of why adaptation comics often fail to work. Serenity: Leaves on the Wind and Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Search: The Too Many Colons failed not in the way that comics fail, but in the way that Fan Fic fails.

I think I can make my point a little better by talking about a title that had many more decks stacked against it.

World of Warcraft

It’s just possible that if I had a team of top tier researchers, a government grant, and freedom from any ethical concerns about my experimental methods, I might, over the course of several years, be able to come up with a more convoluted and restrictive set of narrative hurdles than the World of Warcraft comic had to work around. But it wouldn’t be easy.

First and foremost, there’s the problems of what game it’s based on, because there are very few things that are less suited to telling a basic straightforward narrative than an MMORPG. I’m not going to explain what an MMORPG is—you either already know, or your guesses about what the acronym stands for are going to be too entertaining to spoil.

Maybe Mabel Or Rodney Populated Germany?

The game format means that all conflicts have to take the form of “A guy is up to no good in a fortified location, so the good guys send in a random group of dudes to have a fight with him.” All conflicts. And the constant need for more and new and more new guys for the dudes to be sent in to fight means that you’re either having old characters turn evil, or inventing new characters and pretending they’ve been a thing all along. Or both.

Not to mention that the game is inheriting additional story constraints from Just Plain Warcraft, to which it is essentially the sequel—the constant need to have everyone split into two eternally cold-warring, suspiciously symmetrical, multi-global factions, for example.

Now, I’m not saying that you couldn’t get good stories in a game like that. Darrowshire, the starting experience in Eversong Woods, the mad scientist who is tortured by the memory of turning her pet cat into a slime monster… all good stuff, but all in the single player, leveling up, portion of the game. As the playerbase is eager to remind you at all times, 85% of the game only starts when you hit maximum level.

Making A Comic Out Of That

But the enlightening part, for the purposes of understanding comics, is what happened when it was time to put all that on the comic shelves.

You can’t go telling the same story that the game is in. Because then you’d be either spoiling the ending for the players, if the comic got ahead, or you’d be telling them things they already knew, if the game was ahead. You’re already committed, before the comic starts, to telling the important parts of the story in the medium least suited to telling a story at all.

So if the World of Warcraft comic isn’t allowed to tell the story of World of Warcraft, what can it do?

Flashbacks!

You could spend a year or so unpacking the backstory of arguably the game’s main character. The NPC who is the leader of the larger—by player population—faction, and is therefore most likely to be in ultimate charge of sending you to fight whoever it is you’re fighting this week.

So take the very basic details that were in the game—that he was missing for a while—and expand them. It was a decent enough story, but it suffered for feeling as if it had no stakes. It was all flashback, and you knew even as you read it that it was going to end with the Conan the Barbarian guy getting his memory back and coming back to claim his throne, because you can just hop in the game and look! There he is, on the throne, which is thoroughly claimed.

So next they tried telling a story about—

Some Guy Who Isn’t Even In The Game At All!

Yeah, Me’dan pretty much sucks. I could sugarcoat it, draw it out, but that won’t change the fact that they went with a cross between Magic Wesley Crusher and Original The Character, Do Not Steal.

That’s the face of a man who knows his name is ‘Meh.’

And he could be the most exciting half-orc, half-human, half-protoss guy ever, and it wouldn’t help the fact that whatever adventures he has don’t matter. They can’t matter. The main plot is still trapped in the games, so nothing anyone does in the comic can alter, stop, or in any other way interact with the actual end of the world-level fights that the playerbase is having online.

Morning Menu: Oranges, Ribena, Polenta, Guacamole

Comic adaptations that have worked have been of stories that were episodic and brought in experienced comic talent—Adventure Time leaps to mind as an example, as does Steven Universe. Those can tell any side story they want, because the shows they are based on have already established that fun silly plots that don’t matter happen all the time in between other episodes.

Or look at the most recent round of Star Wars comics, released by Marvel. Again, based on episodic source material—though these episodes are somewhat longer and more expensive to produce—take place in between, by seasoned writers and artists. And using characters that the fans already really care about.

The crazy thing is? I can’t think of a single example of anything that was originally a movie getting just retold—not a sequel, not a flashback, just redoing the story of the movie—in comic book form. Maybe that’s because so few stories are originally a movie? Or maybe too many people just know better than to try?

Monkeys Made Of Ribald Pizza Goo,

-The Guy Who Wrote This

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