The Blog January 25, 2011

In Defense of the Douchebags

So, Jason Aaron, writer of the amazing Vertigo series Scalped, one of the best comics being published today, posted an article on CBR recently (link!) in which he criticized comments made by Darren Aronofsky about taking scripts that Hollywood won’t make and turning them into comic books.  While I agree with many of Aaron’s points, I found myself unable to ignore the resentful tone he directs at screenwriters looking to break into comics.

As a screenwriter who recently published his first comic–a comic which began as a screenplay–I felt mildly affronted by Aaron’s article.  Alas, the Internet is not for the mildly affronted.  It is for unleashing enraged tirades of nuclear blog bombs of racial, political and religious intolerance.  Therefore, I shall attempt to assume the proper spirit of vitriol in my response.

You see, Aaron’s article only serves to confirm a suspicion I have been harboring ever since I, a screenwriter of no particular note or repute, snuck into the comic world through the back door–they don’t like us.  To be fair, I don’t like screenwriters either.  We’re a bunch of obnoxious, pseudo-intellectual, caffeine-addicted hacks who step right off the film school assembly line with a copy of Final Draft, five-day-old scraggle and oversized Buddy Holly glasses.  
Every idiot thinks they can write a screenplay–because they can.  At least before typewriters, wannabe novelists would get tired and give up before they hit page 50.  But with no need for paragraph breaks, quotation marks or any understanding of the English language whatsoever–even my drunk cousin Random Dan can knock out a “screenplay” in a week or two.  And if you look at the crap that comes out in theaters every week, it’s easy to tough not to hate screenwriters.  
But the truth is that only a tiny fraction of screenplays ever get made.  There are more good unproduced screenplays than there are hairs in Alan Moore’s beard.  A screenwriter has three choices: 
  1. come to terms with the fact that most of what you spend weeks, months or even years on will never see the light of day
  2. ritual seppuku
  3. tell your story any damn way you can
It is on the merits of Option #3 that Aaron and I disagree.  

But whenever I hear about a failed screenplay being turned into a comic book, simply to try and get Hollywood’s attention, because, you know, Hollywood loves comic book, I can’t help but cry a little bit inside.

I know there are lots of struggling screenwriters out there with scripts lying around that they haven’t been able to sell. And I know a lot of them have recently been getting the idea to turn those scripts intocomic books, that they can then turn around and try to get optioned as films. 

I also find the practice of making comics just to launch film properties to be anathema.  One of my first jobs in comics was writing for a company that did exclusively that, but I needed the money and I got some experience.  In the end, the company folded and the comics were never published, so I suppose there is some poetic justice in that respect.  However, I feel that Aaron is making unfair assumptions about the intentions of screenwriters seeking to turn their scripts into comics.

Ides of Blood started as a screenplay (actually, the original idea was to do Ides as a comic but the aforementioned comic company of ill repute passed on the project–thank God).  The entire reason Ides became a comic in the first place was because DC’s film division wanted to try and reverse engineer it into a movie–exactly the kind of medium-hopping malfeasance Aaron is warning us against.  Yet I do not consider Ides of Blood to be included among the projects that would cause Jason Aaron’s innards to shed tears.  Why not?

Because I didn’t write Ides of Blood the comic to make it into a movie.  I wrote it to be the best damn comic I could make it.  When the decision was made to make the comic, I started over from scratch, never once looking at the screenplay.  I changed numerous elements from plot to character to setpieces and completely reinvented the story for the comic medium.  Do I want a movie to be made out of Ides?  Uh, yeah.  Do I want to write it?  You bet I do.  But that’s all icing on the cake.  All I want is to tell my story.  And that is exactly what comics allowed me to do–a gift for which I am deeply grateful.  Aaron goes on to say:

We don’t need comics that are hanging out at our party only because they couldn’t get an invite to the much cooler shindig down the street. We don’t need comics that would rather be something else.

On the surface, Aaron’s reasoning here seems to make sense, but the more I thought about it, the more Aaron’s treatment of a comic’s secret screenplay origin as something akin to a back-alley abortion in the ’50s creates a slippery slope towards anti-adaptationism (I invented a word!).  If you follow his statement to its logical extreme, then screenplays should not be made into comics because a story can only be intended for one medium. It’s as if a writer must choose which caste his story should enter into at birth and once that caste is chosen–to change one’s mind is somehow disingenuous.

So I guess novels shouldn’t be made into comics, either.  That’s bad news for Orson Scott Card’s Ender Series and George R.R. Martin’s Fevre Dream.  Someone should have told Stephen King that The Dark Tower, The Stand and The Talisman aren’t allowed.  Right, you say, but the difference is those stories were already successful novels before being turned into comics.  And that’s exactly why I don’t want to read them.  I tried reading the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep adaptation that Boom put out.  The art was beautiful and all, but all I could think was, “What’s the point?”  If I wanted to read Philip K. Dick, I’d read Philip K. Dick.  I would rather see a dozen unpublished screenplays turned into comics rather than a dozen rehashed adaptations of stories that already exist in other mediums.

I quite enjoy and agree with Aaron’s 10 tips to screenwriters looking to turn their screenplays into comics–save for one to which I take exception:

Have you already said in interviews that you’re bringing this story to comics because you couldn’t get it off the ground as a movie? If so, then know that we are likely already biased against you. Nobody likes being told they were your second or third choice for a prom date. At least have the decency to lie to our faces.

Guilty as charged.  Sorry, but I’m not going to lie about the origin of my story just because I’m afraid it might piss you off.  Aaron acts as if there is an unbreachable us vs. them mentality between comics and movies.  Like it’s some kind of personal attack to want to write a VISUAL story for a VISUAL medium.  Look, man.  It’s not personal.  If you can’t handle that your girlfriend went out with other guys before you, maybe you should just stay in your room and read more comics.

This brings me to my main point.  A writer’s loyalty is not to the medium but to his story. The medium is nothing but a hypodermic needle for injecting awesomeness into the brain.  Aaron wants to read comics that want to be comics.  I want to read stories that want to exist.  I’m with Aronofsky on this one–a story is made to be told.  I don’t give a damn if the comic I’m reading started as a screenplay, a novel, a haiku or a tattoo on a syphilitic hobo’s back.

In the end, there’s only one question that should concern the reader–was the comic written with integrity?

I don’t know how you determine the answer to that question, but whatever criteria you choose to decide if a comic is worthy of merit, I don’t think that the fact that it started out life as a screenplay should automatically disqualify it.