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Review of Panel to the Screen: Style, American Film, and Comic Books During the Blockbuster Era

By Christopher Lopez
Morton, Drew. Panel to the Screen: Style, American Film, and Comic Books During the Blockbuster Era. University Press of Mississippi, 2016.

The more comic book adaptations inundate the multiplexes, the more diverse the conversation amongst film and media scholars about this cultural-commercial phenomenon becomes. Early projects such as Liam Burke’s The Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Hollywood’s Leading Genre and the Marvel Comics into Film edited collection used the lens of adaptation studies, but that is beginning to change. Drew Morton’s Panel to The Screen reflects this shift in focus, beginning the discussion about comic book films with the concept of remediation. Remediation theory differs from adaptation theory in that the latter concerns itself with texts which have been modified from one medium into another. Following media scholars Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Morton defines remediation as “the representation of one medium in and by another” (6). Panel to the Screen’s interest in comic book films, therefore, is primarily a formal one.

Remediation is neither linear nor one-sided; rather, remediation is a representational dialogue between art forms. Morton is interested, then, in the stylistic effects comics have had on film as much as he is interested in the stylistic effect film has had on comics. Since Morton’s concern with remediation primarily considers the visual stylistics of comics and film, he often modifies remediation with the term “stylistic.” Therefore, by “stylistic remediation,” Morton refers to the way that the stylistic features of comics and of film mediate one another. The use of split screens in digital cinema, for example, remediates the multiframe format of panels in comics.

While Morton explicitly frames his work as an exploration into stylistic remediation, he is more broadly concerned with stylistic remediation as it is expressed in its historical, commercial, and industrial contexts within North American film and comics. The breadth of his scope engenders helpful insight into the way cultural reception of comic books and economic concerns of studios influence stylistic remediation, but it also creates a superficial and, at times, misleading presentation of the medium-specific style of comic book art. Despite its shortcomings, scholars and students will find the book to be an insightful and fresh approach to the intersection of comics and film.

Panel to The Screen comprises three sections that approach stylistic remediation from different perspectives. The first section is comprised by two chapters which approach the topic of stylistic remediation from a primarily historical angle. The second section provides the reader with an array of case studies on films and filmmakers who attempt to stylistically remediate comics into film. The final section considers where stylistic remediation occurs in films that are not comic book adaptations, i.e., films that are not based on comics but still remediate the comic book aesthetic in cinematic form. Section one considers milestones within the history of stylistic remediation of comics into film with the first chapter exploring the 2010 adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Morton chooses Scott Pilgrim because the film demonstrates the wide-ranging cultural, economic, and formal possibilities of stylistic remediation, illustrating concepts and grounding terms that he explores in subsequent chapters. Based on a formal taxonomy developed by media scholar Pascal Fefèvre, Morton demonstrates how Scott Pilgrim stands out among other examples of stylistic remediation in its use of sound, iconography, and space.

As a “silent medium,” comics rely on visualizing sounds with expressive devices like onomatopoeias. As an audio-visual art form, film does not have to rely on visuals to imitate sound in the same way. However, Morton points out the various ways Scott Pilgrim visualizes various sounds throughout the film with graphic onomatopoeias like “POW!” and quasi speech balloons. Scott Pilgrim also makes use of the visual iconography of comics, incorporating “subjective backgrounds” behind its characters through the use of chroma keying. According to Morton, the film eschews realistic photographic backgrounds (an aesthetic staple of film) and prefers the pictorially evocative aesthetic of comics. Finally, in the same way the comic book source material manipulates time by juxtaposing different panel-to-panel transitions, Scott Pilgrim also manipulates time through the post-production effects of slow motion, speed ramping, and non-linear cross-cutting. Scott Pilgrim also demonstrates how stylistic remediation includes more than comics and film, as the comic book source material brings in the formal language of music composition and the pixelated graphics associated with videogames, both of which find their expression within the film.

Most importantly, however, for Morton is the way media conglomerates attempt to capitalize on the use of stylistic remediation. By adapting O’Malley’s comics into a film with a stylistic approach similar to the comic, Universal Studios promises the fan-base that the comic book will be found in the film. This commercial strategy is what Morton calls transmedia style storytelling: “a unified series of texts in different media that are unified by a unique stylistic approach” (35). This differs from what media scholar Henry Jenkins calls transmedia storytelling. Jenkins’ concept refers to stories that unfold across various media platforms with each story offering a new understanding of the world in which the stories take place (Convergence Culture, 106-107). Morton’s transmedia style storytelling focuses on how some transmedia franchises, Scott Pilgrim in this case, make stylistic choices that suggest that within each medium consumers will find the same story and world as in the original source material.

While indicating faithfulness to the source material, transmedia style storytelling offers audiences outside the fan base a way into the franchise without having to read the comic, play the video game, or watch the film before consulting the other adaptations. Transmedia style storytelling creates an economic synergy for media conglomerates to generate revenue from one property. However, this commercial use of stylistic remediation can also backfire at the box office, as it did with the high budget costs of Scott Pilgrim, illustrating Morton’s final point that the success of stylistic remediation is always contingent upon audience reception and the cost effectiveness of remediating comics through film.

Morton concludes his historical section by returning to the earliest stages of stylistic remediation in the 1960s Batman television series. Due to content restrictions like the Comics Code Authority and the conservative backlash against transgressive content in comics, the only viable audience market for comics were children. With their vibrant color schemes, historically rooted characters, and culturally inspiring themes, superhero comics were the most successful at pandering to this young audience. The appeal of superhero comics brought about a demographic shift in comic book readership, engendering the popular opinion that comics were for kids. So when the Batman television series adapted the comics to the screen, it expressed the child-friendly source material through its campy tone. Given the wider cultural appraisal of comic book art as impish, Warner Bros. rejected stylistic remediation in favor of the style of “realism” when producing Superman: The Movie. In other words, Donner and crew eschewed making any reference to the style and form of the film’s source material because to do so would cast the shadow of “camp” over the Superman project. To make a serious comic book adaptation was to opt for the film style of realism, not the remediation of comic book aesthetics.

This aesthetic trend would reverse, however, when superhero comics were seen by cultural critics as culturally acceptable with the rise of the adult graphic novels, and the thematically complex storylines of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. While this late 80s trend did not usher the return of stylistic remediation in superhero films, it did encourage adaptations to echo their source material. And yet, according to Morton, there was yet another industrial shift when audiences found the tone of comic book adaptations like Burton’s Batman Returns “too dark.” To continue capitalizing on the success of comic book films, filmmakers adopted a more playful, carnivalesque manner. Once the tone and style of these films evoked the campy tone of the Batman television show, filmmakers and media conglomerates gravitated back to the verisimilitude of the superhero comic book films of the 2000s like Spider-Man, X-Men, and Batman Begins. By retelling this history of comic book adaptations, Morton asserts that stylistic remediation is dependent upon critical appraisal of superhero comics.

With the economic potential and cultural backdrop of stylistic remediation established, Panel to Screen takes on a more formal and formulaic approach to stylistic remediation. The second section comprises two chapters which provide case studies of filmmakers using specific formal traits of film to remediate their comic book source material. Each concludes with excessive commentary on the economic successes and failures of each film. In the example of Dick Tracy, Morton investigates the way filmmakers attempt to remediate the iconography of the source material through lighting, set design, and prosthetics. Morton considers how films like Hulk remediate the comic book form of the multiframe through the split-screen of the digital cinema.

Morton limits each filmic case study to one example of stylistic remediation, leaving readers unable to appreciate the diversity of stylistic remediations within each film. For example, Morton uses the adaptation of American Splendor, a film that he describes as “one of the richest examples of stylistic remediation,” only to demonstrate textual remediation, i.e., remediating the use of words in comics through film (105). Despite the film’s stylistic richness, Morton’s only concern is the portrayal and function of text. While Morton was not in the wrong to choose Hulk for his case study for remediating the multiframe of comics, he misses the opportunity to engage different cinematic examples of the same type of remediation. Instead, he focuses on text. Morton’s engagement with American Splendor exemplifies his convoluted approach to comics studies and limited analyses of stylistic remediation found throughout the second section of this book.

In his final section, Morton demonstrates that stylistic remediation exists outside of comic book adaptations. He considers films often explored in formal studies on comic books and film, such as The Matrix and its experimentation with comic book motion lines in the “bullet time” sequence. He also looks at films unexplored by comic book film scholars, such as The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly and its use of space that evokes the malleability of space in comic book art. Most filmmakers, for example, would use an extreme long shot or long shot of an area to give viewers a sense of where the following shots would take place. However, in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly an extreme long shot of a particular location immediately becomes an extreme close up of a character oriented away from the location that sat in the background originally. Morton points out how Leone also molds the space of the narrative through cross-cutting that leads to an entirely unexpected event. While there is no formal record of Leone attributing his film style to comic book aesthetics, Morton cites film scholars who point out the malleability of space in his films and extensive records of Leone’s love of American comic books. Morton asserts that there is enough evidence to put the two together and suggest that stylistic remediation occurs outside of comic book adaptations. For Morton, any exploration of stylistic remediation must be mindful of these examples.

Oddly enough, this is where Morton’s handling of comics studies and the theory of film style is at its best. Unlike his approach to films and comics in the second section, Morton takes his time to explain what aspect of the comic book form he sees remediated in a particular film, giving readers the theoretical tools to determine if his cinematic example truly remediates comic book art. Moreover, unlike his previous readings, he provides ample examples from his cinematic texts.

The final section concludes by bringing the dialogical process of remediation to the fore. To illustrate the dialogical process, Morton focuses on the way film noir style informed Frank Miller’s graphic novel, Sin City This graphic novel would then inform the cinematic adaptation of Sin City leading to innovative forms of comic book remediation with the use of green screen technologies and color grading techniques. Panel to the Screen demonstrates that stylistic remediation can lead to a more holistic understanding of the formal and stylistic developments within comics and their cinematic adaptations. Perhaps most helpful is the way stylistic remediation can help theorists appreciate the cultural-economic web that connects film style, industrial marketing practices, and content. Stylistically remediated comic book adaptations are financially risky ventures that are at the mercy of fan-base appreciation and the wider cultural appraisal of the comic book art. Film style is not as free to evolve and rebel within Hollywood filmmaking as other experimental approaches to filmmaking are. Stylistic remediation, therefore, offers a multifaceted approach to comic book adaptations which can yield fruitful discussion for the intersection of comics and film studies.

Still, Morton’s emphasis on stylistic remediation does make form and style essential to his analysis, and this is where Panel to the Screen runs into trouble. The breadth of topics Morton wants stylistic remediation to address sometimes risks a superficial presentation of the medium-specific attributes of comics. Morton’s engagement with scholarly theories on the aesthetic of comic books is sparse, and his concern with industrial practices and the dialogical nature of remediation truncate every case study. Panel to the Screen is missing a proper taxonomy of the form and style of comics. Providing readers with his own taxonomy of comic book aesthetics would not only help them understand what he says about stylistic remediation, but it would also provide them with a rubric to determine if his analysis of each film works. A clear taxonomy would also give some coherency to the book, which feels disjointed at times because of its self-contained sections.

While his chapter on Scott Pilgrim introduces Fevère’s formal categories to understand the comic book source material, Morton does not return to them in his subsequent case studies. Instead he uses terminology mostly foreign to major theoretical works on the art of comics. For example, his comments on “graphical remediation” in Dick Tracy have nothing to do with the form of comics. While he helpfully refers to Scott McCloud’s famous picture plane to interpret the aesthetic function and meaning behind the caricatured aesthetic of the Dick Tracy comic strips, he conflates the way comics deform and caricature pictorial art with the formal nature of comics in general. Morton thinks that the use of abstracted prop items and caricatured prosthetics in the film warrants remediation, but the incorporation of caricatured images in film evokes neither the formal or phenomenal aspects found in comics.

McCloud’s spectrum is not designed to distinguish the photographic arts of film from iconographic arts of comics; rather, it is intended to demonstrate the diverse artistic and aesthetic range of how comic book artists can combine words and pictures. Abstracted images can be found in various genres of visual art, not only comics. Comics create an aesthetic synergy between abstracted or realistic pictures and words. Morton’s analysis only focuses on the presence of these images. Therefore, Morton’s “graphical remediation” of Dick Tracy is simply an example of how filmmakers visually evoke the source material without attempting to remediate the formal and stylistic tendencies of comic book art. The only comic book aspect of the movie is the source material it is based on. Morton goes on to mistake visual homages to the source material for actual remediations in films like 300 and Watchmen.

Limiting one supposed aspect of the comic book medium to one film could also mislead readers to think that, for example, the remediation of the multiframe in Hulk, is the only way to remediate that medium-specific attribute. Films from his other chapters like Scott Pilgrim and American Splendor also remediate the multiframe, but he fails to mention them in the multiframe section. Morton critiques Hulk for its formal compromise of the multiframe in the way it yields to classical film style as opposed to using a remediated film style. Yet the remediation of the multiframe is successfully accomplished in American Splendor and other adaptations like The Losers in ways that do not simply create several frames of the same diegetic space.

Panel to the Screen makes for a helpful, introductory textbook for a course on filmic style and the commercial strategies of film studios. The consistent and frequent use of film shots and comic book panels demonstrates the salience of illustrations in any conversation about remediation. However, those new to the concept of remediating comic book art through film will be confused by Morton’s terse and meagerly bolstered explanations of the medium-specific attributes of comics. They may also be unsure when remediation is taking place in comic book adaptations. Seasoned theorists will find themselves frustrated with Morton’s fragmented approach to remediation. Readers more interested in the theory and practice of stylistic remediation might find Dru Jefferies’ 24 Panels per Second to be a helpful next step. Even so, Panel to the Screen also reminds us that there is so much more to stylistic remediation than its industrial-commercial effects. Stylistic remediation might help us discover and articulate new styles of filmmaking at work in modern Hollywood’s comic book adaptations and other blockbuster films.

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