The Language of Comic Books: Common Mistakes Made When Translating Comic Book Stories to Other Media, Part 1 of 3

Stories told via comic books have a language to the mythology that are different from other mediums. The limitations of the page can be transcended artistic style, concise prose, and clever plotting.  These stories feel eternal to us because they target primal emotions about how we view the world.

We live in the Age of Imagination where virtually any story that can now be filmed to the delight of millions of fans. The rush to bring movies and television shows inspired by comic books have spoiled fans with an embarrassment of riches. This mad dash to claim the Geek Dollar sometimes leads to strange translates that causes the flavor of the source material to fade behind billion dollar budgets and famous Hollywood Stars.

This series of articles is going to review the mistakes most often made with movie and television adaptations of comic books.

The Best Comic Book Stories Return to the Beginning

I once read in an article years ago about a theory proposed by Alan Moore.  The best comic book stories always return to the beginning.  Some have suggested this refers to origin stories.  A number of characters are so iconic that their origin story doesn’t need to be told, but their best stories always echo the beginning.

It has been argued by many that Batman: the Animated Series is the best translation of the character to celluloid.  The economy of storytelling works because every plot somehow echoes to the origin of the character.

This scene is nominally about the Batman fighting the effects of the Scarecrow’s fear toxin, but really it a revelation and confirmation of the origin of the character and how he sees the universe.  This scene is a mantra showing everything that is important to this character.  Batman doesn’t need tell the audience that his parents were murdered in front of his eyes in Crime Alley.  The audience already knows this.  The audience wants to be rewarded for knowing this mythology by seeing it reflected in how the character acts now.

Here are another couple of great examples.

The surprise hit of recent years for me personally has been Arrow.  The show reflects a slightly darker version of the character than has been previously seen.  Oliver Queen wants to redeem his father’s crimes by healing the city.  His time on the island changed him.  This obsession shows in everything he does.

Every time the Arrow accuses a criminal of “failing the city” it is a callback to how his own father failed and how he had been a failure at life before the island.

Here’s an example of a show that seems to have lost its way.  Marvel’s Agents of Shields seemed to have everything going for it before it premiered.  It followed the wildly successful Avengers movie and featured fan favorite Agent Coulson.

A number of theories have been proposed on the internet as to why this show isn’t doing better.  Some of the big ones include:

  • Limited budget for television
  • Lack of superheroes appearing on the show

I think that the real problem with Agents of Shield is that they utterly fail to return to their beginning.  This teaser preview says everything about what the show should have been about and how to use these characters.  This show should be about a team of Shield Agents venturing out into the world to explore the strange and help innocent people caught in the crossfire.  This motif should be echoed in every episode and every scene should think about how and why these characters are engaged in this mission.

A different Whedon show managed to capture this method of storytelling perfectly, even if it didn’t have a start in comic books.  Every episode echoed to the beginning.  And I suspect this is the key element that is missing from the mythology of Agents of Shield.  This is not to say that the show didn’t have these elements, but it didn’t hammer them home artistically.

Note that the characters on this show always react according to this central theme.  Help the hopeless.  Save souls.  Each mission, every plot, every character decision is viewed through that angle.   This gives weight to the entire show and every time the tag line is mentioned we as the audience believe in it.

Immersing the audience in this mythology requires following the storytelling rules of this world.  This sort of repetitive style might seem bombastic with a different style of story, but without it the material feels dry and lifeless.

2 thoughts on “The Language of Comic Books: Common Mistakes Made When Translating Comic Book Stories to Other Media, Part 1 of 3

  1. Pingback: The Language of Comic Books: Common Mistakes Made When Translating Comic Book Stories to Other Media, Part 2 of 3 | The Universes of Jason Andrew

  2. Pingback: The Language of Comic Books: Common Mistakes Made When Translating Comic Book Stories to Other Media, Part 3 of 3 | The Universes of Jason Andrew

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