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Review of The Comic Book Film Adaptation

By Erica McCrystal

Burke, Liam. The Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s Leading Genre. University Press of Mississippi, 2015.

Through an examination of the recent explosion of the comic book film, Liam Burke’s The Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s Leading Genre provides readers insight into the relationships between comic books and their film adaptations. Burke finds that scholars have neglected to conduct full studies on comic book film adaptation, and his text seeks to fill a gap in this untapped area. Because he defines the comic book film as its own genre, it is worthy of close critical study. Burke concentrates his research on Hollywood films from 2000 to present day, or what he calls “The Golden Age of Comic Book Filmmaking.” For this study, he conducted interviews with industry professionals and comic book film creators as well as gathering reports on the creative process and surveying film audience members for fidelity criticism. These methodologies, along with scholarly criticism from various fields, provide a comprehensive approach to the various perspectives of creating and viewing a comic book film adaptation.

Burke uses adaptation studies as the framework of his research, which allows for conversations on intersections and fidelity to source material. Since literary adaptation to film has been the most prevalent focus of adaptation theory, Burke expands the discussion by bringing comics into the arena. Burke’s analysis of franchises and their impact on adaptation provides commentary in adaptation studies that is unique to comic books since comic book films are not adapted from a particular ur-text, as novel adaptations tend to be. Burke also considers transmedia theories, specifically through conversations on transmedia franchises, which allow for the creation of various media forms that speak to the others within the franchise but are not direct adaptations. With such various approaches to comic book film adaptation, Burke’s text is useful for tracing the establishment of the comic book film as a genre with a particular aesthetic and a relevant source for scholars of comic book, film, adaptation, and transmedia studies.

Chapter One, “The Golden Age of Comic Book Filmmaking,” considers the ways in which the comic book film successfully dominated the first decade of the twenty-first century. Burke includes perspectives of industry professionals (e.g., Batman executive producer Michael E. Uslan, Spider-Man director Sam Raimi, and others.) and scholars from various fields (e.g., adaptation studies critics, post-9/11 critics) who look at the surge of superhero movies in post-9/11 America. Burke finds that the nostalgia, escapism, and wish fulfillment that comic books provide audiences are also accessible through post-9/11 superhero movies (e.g., Spider-ManSpider-Man 2Superman Returns), especially as post-9/11 supervillains were recast as terrorists, and superheroes were more concerned with militarism. He also credits the influence of technology since 2000 as one of the main reasons for comic books to be faithfully visually adapted to screen.

Shifting to what he calls “the conglomerate argument,” Burke finds that media conglomerates adapt comic books to the screen due to comics’ inherent profit opportunities. These “reliable formulas” include methods such as targeting a wide audience, effective franchising, and merchandising (54). Since this argument focuses on industry-specific influences on the success of comic book film adaptations, it is not concerned with original content. Instead, franchises are successful because there are endless possibilities for adaptations of comics. Comics and their film adaptations are examples of transmedia storytelling with open-ended narratives within a specific universe. In this way, the conglomerates have been successful by maintaining continuity through different media outlets. Burke also argues that the current generation of filmmakers are more eager, due to personal interest and growing up with comics, to produce comic book film adaptations than those in the past. Through a case study of Zack Synder’s 2007 film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300, Burke contextualizes the several reasons for the surge in adapting comics to the screen. The specific example is a helpful application bringing together the various perspectives and arguments Burke details in the chapter.

In a brief section on new media, Burke discusses comics as the central medium for language unification through iconography and symbols. Missing from this section are theories of semiotics and text-linguistics, specifically on their relationship to theories of comic book adaptation to film. While Burke stresses the importance of visual communication, it would be worthwhile to historicize theoretical perspectives and contextualize their place in the ways that the symbols and icons of comics translate, transfer, or are reimagined on the movie screen. This would allow one to theorize film iconography and semiotics and their relationship with popular culture and communication. Comics studies scholars have theorized comics through discussion of symbols and text-linguistics (e.g., Scott McCloud and Neil Cohn), so approaching their film adaptations through such a lens offers an analysis based on structure and language rather than external industry influences. The chapter is thorough in outlining of the reasons for the success of comic book films in the Golden Age, making it successful as a survey of literature rather than a new analytical or theoretical contribution to adaptation studies.

In Chapter Two, “The Comic Book Movie Genre,” Burke defines and affirms the comic book movie as a cinematic genre. Burke looks at examples of advertising and theatergoers’ comments to his survey questions and argues that both the industry and the audience treat the comic book movie as a genre. He finds this to be a crucial discussion because adaptation scholars do not often analyze film adaptation as its own genre. For Burke, this young genre evolved from the western tradition, which he observes through the similarities between the cowboy and superhero, shared conflicts based on individual and community, and plots focused on redemption and justice. Burke identifies conventions of the comic book movie and ultimately pens the following definition: “The comic book movie genre follows a vigilante or outsider character engaged in a form of revenge narrative, and is pitched at a heightened reality with a visual style marked by distinctly comic book imagery” (106). To further his argument through a scientific method, Burke claims that the comic book movie genre will follow the four phases of the bacterial growth model: lag, log, stationary, and death (107). For film genres, this translates to slow growth, increased production, plateauing, then decline; however, Burke argues that the bacterial growth model for genre is actually cyclical and that the decline phase leads to rebirth. He acknowledges that comic book films have not (yet) started to decline, so the claim for the cycling trend can only be viewed as mere speculation. Burke finds the comic book film currently in the stationary phrase, which unfortunately does not give credit to the recent successes of the Marvel universe, impact of comic book films on television, and increased announcements for upcoming films, all of which indicate the continued growth of the genre rather than stagnation. While Burke anticipates the comic book movie to decline in similar fashion to the Western, he also argues that the Western evolved into the action film, which evolved into the comic book movie. The bacterial growth model does not account for genre evolution and influence on other genres. As merely a forecasting tool, this approach leaves out the relationships between genres, which would be useful to trace.

In a discussion on audience, Burke argues the comic book movie may be called a genre because the fan base is largely comprised of non-comic book readers. While the comic book fan may help a comic book movie’s success, appealing to the non-fan ultimately provides greater box office success. This perspective is significant because if creators are influenced by non-fans, their adaptations will likely stray further from the source material. Comic book film adaptations have been successful in following the genre’s conventions and do not need to maintain fidelity. To measure the success of comic book movies that employ different methods regarding fidelity, casting, and adherence to other genre conventions, Burke uses the examples of Stephen Norrington’s 2003 adaptation of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of Moore’s Watchmen. Overall, the chapter is useful for defining genre and for scholars of genre studies, as genre conventions have allowed the genre to be scientifically mapped.

While the non-fan base, who has not read the source material, greatly accounts for comic book films’ success, since this genre is comprised of films that are considered adaptations, it is necessary to analyze fidelity. Chapter Three, “Fans, Fidelity, and the Grammar of Value,” considers the impact of comic book fans on creators’ choices regarding the faithfulness toward source material in recent comic book film adaptations. Burke acknowledges that adaptation studies scholars have taken a poststructuralist approach in looking at the intertextuality of adaptations. This brings forth a transmedia discussion on media conglomerates that take such an approach “with each version of their franchise shaping and being reshaped by the others” (129). With this nod to intertextual influences, Burke turns to argue that recent comic book films are more faithful to their source text than has previously been seen. He supplies a case study of fidelity in an adaptation by looking at Christopher Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins. He also traces the ways in which comic book fans have historically influenced the industry and how this has transferred into the digital age. This section incorporates responses from the audience surveys, and looks at the role of comic book fans on both the creation and success of film adaptations. Fans stress the importance of fidelity and continuity in part because the film adaptations, as mainstreamed versions, reach a larger audience than the comic books, and their popularity often creates a “definitive version for a wide sector of society” (137). Filmmakers, in tune to online fan discourse have used or listened to fan feedback to alter their final projects (e.g., Superman ReturnsScott Pilgrim). The attention Burke pays to fan cultures, which he mostly cites through online sites and message boards and a comic book conventions, makes it seem as though fans have a large impact on the adaptations. In fact, he argues that the Golden Age is a “fidelity-centric world of comic book film adaptations where fans hold the sway” (167). Yet, in the previous chapter, he makes the argument for genre conventions as steering film productions. This chapter, then, contradicts some of the points in the previous, specifically that filmmakers adapt comic books to fulfill the expectations of non-fans. With the evidence he provides, it actually seems as though creators greatly vary in their methodologies, especially in regards to maintaining fidelity and sticking to genre conventions, of adaptation creation. Perhaps then, we may qualify that all approaches can make for a successful adaptation.

The second half of Chapter Three does revisit some of the arguments in Chapter Two that box-office success cannot rely solely on fans but needs mainstream audiences. However, there is some disjointedness between Burke’s claims to how much power and influence fans have. Certain films are successful in appealing to fans and employing fan feedback, while other films are successful in targeting mainstream audiences. In searching for reasons for the lack of success in other adaptations, there does not appear to be a consistent pattern. Therefore, the conversation about fans and their impact on adaptation only seems to be applicable in case-by-case scenarios. Though Burke’s case study of Batman Begins argues it is a faithful film that breaks genre conventions, he does not negotiate how such a rupture can become mainstream and actually reframe the genre. Whether fan impact is in contrast to or aligned with genre conventions, comic book films have been both successes and failures when either faithful or divergent from source material. Therefore, while both genre conventions and fan influence have been noted, there is arguably no strict model for a comic book film that can guarantee box office success.

Turning to aesthetics, the fourth chapter, “A Comic Aesthetic,” considers the overlap between comics and their adaptations rather than segregating them as strictly distinct forms. Burke’s focus remains on “The Golden Age of Comic Book Filmmaking” for his film examples. Burke first looks at the similarities and differences between comic books and their film adaptations to argue that storyboarding techniques align the two forms, and filmmakers can maintain fidelity to their source material because of the overlaps. One popular way that films have attempted to combat their innate temporal restraints to create a fixed image or the view a reader may have of a splash page is through bullet-time, which he describes as “digitally accentuated slow motion” attributed to The Matrix (195). While Burke considers perspective and movement, especially in regards to bullet time, he spends little time discussing extended action scenes and the visual effects of destruction. This would be a nice addition to his text, especially since comic book films have the ability to prolong action sequences. Burke also looks to specific examples of the ways in which film adaptations have used color to achieve an aesthetic of comics. In analyzing formal elements such as these, Burke finds parallels between comics and their adaptations, citing specific examples of the effective use of elements of the comic aesthetic in film. In this way, Burke finds that comics are transferable to screen rather than separate entities altogether. Even sound exists in comics in a unique way, what Burke discusses as “visualizing sound” (198). Burke mentions adaptations where filmmakers, even though their medium readily employs sound, also try to incorporate the visualized sound techniques of the comic aesthetic.

Burke’s main argument of this chapter is that the comic aesthetic is not exclusive to comic books. It has transcended to screen, as “many codes and conventions pass back and forth in the overlap that these graphic narrative mediums share” (170). Such an exchange has allowed films that are not based on comic books, such as Unbreakable, to maintain the aesthetic and be considered within the comic book movie genre. Thus, the comic aesthetic has been further developed through film contributions, demonstrating that the aesthetic is not bound to one form. Arguing that particular films that are not based on comic books can be placed within the comic book movie genre is a pivotal claim for genre and adaptation studies as it allows for a redefining of what constitutes adaptation. A comic book film does not require an ur-text and can be either be adapted from multiple comics or branch away from accepted continuity. But Burke’s claim suggests that it does not even require any source material and may still be considered part of the genre. Such films are essentially adaptations of genre rather than texts.

Continuing the conversation from the preceding chapter, Chapter Five, “How to Adapt Comics the Marvel Way,” looks at additional formal elements that demonstrate the comic aesthetic and the “semiotic overlap” between comic books and comic book films that can be seen through the shared methods of representation (230). Burke uses Stan Lee and John Buscema’s seminal guide, How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (1978), to find conventions that reciprocally cross between comic books and cinema. Burke historicizes framing techniques of both comic books and film to consider perspectives and angles of representation. He argues that filmmakers employ these strategies due to an “unconscious desire to achieve a comic aesthetic” (235). While Burke does provide specific examples, he neglects other film genres that have also used variegated approaches to framing, as the evolution of cinematic technology has provided filmmakers working within any genre with the means to achieve similar ranges in angle variety. Burke also discusses performance and body positioning. He includes images from Lee and Buscema’s text alongside stills from films to demonstrate the overlap in dynamic comic book performance through the body. The images are helpful to see the ways in which a medium of frozen moments overlaps with a medium that readily moves. Burke also discusses stereotypical hero and villain types in comic books and how films maintain their particular look to achieve a comic aesthetic.

The conclusion is rather redundant, providing recaps of each chapter that are not necessary. It briefly suggests areas for further research, including television and video game adaptations, which would make for a more well-rounded discussion of transmedia. Burke’s text, though narrow in its focus on one decade of film adaptations, does effectively establish what the genre looks like and how comic books have influenced such a dominating cinematic style. While post-9/11 influences and the success of transmedia franchises marks the Golden Age the most successful era of comic book filmmaking, a similar study that focuses in comic book films before 2000 would be worth considering alongside Burke’s text.

Burke effectively incorporates transmedia theories, adaptation theories, case studies, and interviews within his comprehensive study. However, the audience member surveys were administered in a theater in Ireland; thus limiting his study, and any resulting commentary cannot be applicable to a cultural conversation outside of Ireland. Since Burke focused exclusively on Hollywood movies, the interview results would have been better aligned with the films if conducted in the United States. Scholars from a variety of fields may find Burke’s text useful, as the discussions in Chapter One may appeal to New Historicists and cultural theorists, and scholars of adaptation studies, specifically those looking at form, may consider a previously uncharted genre. Comic studies scholars may also appreciate the fan culture conversations and fidelity discourse. Overall, Burke’s text covers a wide range of tropes, supported by a variety of specific comic book and film examples, and effectively identifies the impact of comics on twenty-first century film.

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