The James Clayton Column: Comic creators kick ass

The arrival of Kick-Ass 2 is a reminder of how comic book artists and creators have become movie industry royalty, James writes...

I like to think that the following happened on a daily basis during the filming of Kick-Ass 2 – all cast and crew members signalled their arrival on set by announcing, “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum.”

If no one actually did take the opportunity to make a tenuous title-based association and quote Roddy Piper’s best line in They Live, it’s a damn shame. If Kick-Ass 3 happens, someone (everyone) involved can start this motivational ritual/repeat film reference in-joke when shooting begins on that sequel. In advance, you’re welcome.

Leaving John Carpenter homages to one side and returning to hard work on the Kick-Ass 2 set, two figures who hung around a lot during production were writer Mark Millar and artist John Romita, Jr. They are, of course, the creators of the original comics that have subsequently been adapted to the big screen by Matthew Vaughn and Jeff Wadlow respectively.

The pair were there to act as consultants, for they are the guiding visionaries behind Kick-Ass, and it probably helped having instant insight into the mythos at close hand. This time around, though, Millar and Romita Jr had an extra role – specifically, they had roles in the film.

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They may only brief cameo appearances but, hey, it’s something. The duo get to get-it-on and brawl with each other in the background during a mass-scrum sequence. Romita, Jr. plays a bad guy named Schmuggy and Millar is in costume as a character named The American Ninja. (A different American Ninja to the Michael Dudikoff one. Notice the ‘The’ prefix. See? Clear distinction.)

In total, here’s what this amounts to – children fantasise about being superheroes and eventually grow up to make a living out of writing and drawing superhero comics. Those comics get made into movies and then the creators get to appear in said movies as superheroes. It’s a sweet full-circle wish-fulfilment moment that warms the heart of any geek who’s ever dreamed of being a costumed crime fighter like Batman, Spider-Man or Captain America. (Or perhaps even American Ninja.)

These Kick-Ass 2 cameos are just one shot of cinematic vindication for comic book fandom – a fanbase and subcultural scene that tends to tote an inferiority complex that is no longer relevant or rational. Blockbuster movie adaptations of graphic novels and comic book properties have been happening for years, but there’s a real sense that comics have well and truly cracked Hollywood in recent years.

Rising up from the basement and breaking out the box panels, comic characters and the creators who flesh (or rather, ink) them out have assumed control of pop culture and become major power players.

This has occurred as comic book properties have become more highly prized in the industry. Blockbuster hits yielding massive box office hauls and publicity subsequently fuel a drive for sequels and further big-budget productions building off extensive print mythologies.

This in turn has also resulted in more notable cinematic adaptations of texts outside of the Marvel and D.C. mainlines – see Hellboy, 300, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, RED and Dredd for a select few examples from the past decade. In cinemas or set for release soon we’ve got Kick-Ass 2, RED 2, 2 Guns, R.I.P.D., 300: Rise Of An Empire and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, so the indie sweep – alongside the superhero juggernauts – is showing no sign of abating.

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That’s not the interesting phenomenon I want to focus on here, though. What really strikes me as remarkable is the consequential ascent to importance and acclaim of those who write and draw the comics.

More than ever before, the movie world and other creative industries are looking to embrace artists and graphic novelists who were previously confined to a niche, only infamous in their own special interest sphere. It’s not about comics becoming mainstream or popular (for they have ever been thus) – it’s about comic creators suddenly finding themselves swimming in that mainstream and not actually being eaten by sharks while they’re floating in unusual waters.

Take Mark Millar, for instance. After the success of Wanted and a couple of Kick-Asses the Scottish scribe can pretty much push any pitch to moviemakers and get it greenlit, which is the case with upcoming projects The Secret Service (to be directed by Matthew Vaughan) and Nemesis (Joe Carnahan is attached). The man is now effectively writing his comic series scripts as storyboards for the eventual live-action version.

Millar is also now the Grand Moff High Chief Creative Consultant at 20th Century Fox, overseeing the evolution of the X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises. In this executive authority position, the Kick-Ass author now has immense influence over mutant multiverses and, subsequently, the workings of the blockbuster film scene. Plus, he’s got a sideline as The American Ninja, so things are more than grand in Millarworld.

Other comics writers have experienced a similar shift in status, in some cases going stellar. Over time Neil Gaiman has gradually gone from being the cult figure behind the Sandman series to becoming a global literary rock star with sway over a fanatical fanbase and multiple media formats.

Film adaptations of Stardust and Coraline were made and were met with tremendous enthusiasm. What’s more, droves of people suddenly switch on to Doctor Who to watch episodes that Gaiman has penned and many Gaimanites tuned into radio for the first time just to catch the BBC’s recent recording of his novel, Neverwhere.

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Planned film or TV takes of The Graveyard Book, American Gods and Sandman are all possible because the graphic novelist’s name and ideas now carry more clout outside of cult circles.

Gaiman is an outstanding exception who’s long been operating outside of the medium but the ‘comics creators inherit the Earth’ notion is real and the cross-platform rise of “Neil Scary Trousers” (as Alan Moore once dubbed him) is indicative of significant pop cultural page turn. There’s a fresh magnetic charge towards the minds who’ve spawned sequential graphic narratives as the attracted screen industries seek to tap their rich imaginations and output. It’s a two-way energy generation flow as well, print to motion pictures and motion pictures to print.

Wider audiences are latching on to the works of cult legend Warren Ellis and searching out the original Red comics and the Extremis series on which Iron Man 3 is based. Future Avengers and Captain America films acquire the subtitles Age Of Ultron and Winter Soldier and there’s an upsurge in interest in the respective comics arcs written by Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker. These lauded scribes already rule the Marvel print realm but now their names and creative influence resonate and impact beyond the comics store.

Switching to the small screen, when David Goyer gets high class comics writing talent in the shape of Matt Fraction and Jonathan Hickman to script episodes of Da Vinci’s Demons the response isn’t perplexed murmurings of “Hurm? Comic scribes writing TV screenplays?” Instead the result is fresh audiences delving into a series in anticipation of an event, which is exactly what happened with Gaiman’s Doctor Who contributions.

The illustrators aren’t missing out on the action either. Amazing artists like Jock (The Losers, Battleship, Dredd) and Guy Davis (ParaNorman, Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming Pinocchio) keep getting drafted in to provide official posters, concept art and designs crucial to the end look of the film.

I get a great amount of pleasure from sticking around through the credits to see these names on the big screen. There’s a wonderful feeling knowing that the writers and artists you recognise and respect are playing a part in the production of massive worldwide movie hits and getting a thank you nod for their labours in the final reels.

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The sweetest moment of all – and the clearest sign perhaps that something’s changed – is in the credits of Dredd. The first names in the closing titles – before the director, Karl Urban or any of the cast and crew – are those of John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, the creators who invented the character for 2000 AD over 25 years ago.

We’ve come a long way from times where the only ripples across popular consciousness were an Alan Moore cameo on The Simpsons and the obligatory Stan Lee mug moment in every Marvel movie. In this environment, where Hollywood is in thrall to the comics world, I doubt that any graphic novelists would find themselves getting the kind of hassle Frank Miller experienced over RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3 in the early 90s. These figures are VIPs now, and they’re the ones who know how costumed heroes and visual action narratives work better than anyone else.

These comic creators came here – into the wider public sphere – to chew bubblegum and kick ass. It appears that they’re all out of bubblegum.

James Clayton is mainly a writer but in his spare time he dresses up in a wetsuit and fights crime under the alias ‘Bubblygumchew Asskick Thwack-Maestro’. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

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