There's an interesting little (and I do mean little) trend going on in genre / geek movies and television right now. Actually, I should say it's been going on since March 2007, but it seems to be debating whether to sputter itself out or not. It's the so-called "graphic novel style", which really just means "in the style of 300." Numerous films in pre-production have boasted that they're going to be done "in the graphic novel style", including Timur Bekmambetov's gestating Moby Dick adaptation and Keanu Reeves' 47 Ronin. Recently, it's reared its really ugly head in the Starz television series Spartacus: Blood and Sand which has featured shots practically lifted from Zack Snyder's film, but with a tie-in graphic novel being sold as an excuse. ("See! It's based on a comic like 300 was!") As I noted in the column last week, some advertisements even claim the series is based on a graphic novel, though it's a slender claim to make of a tie-in series.
It's really pretty cute. Everyone wants to be cool like the kids on the comic book shelves. We never thought we'd hear that in a million years, did we? Let alone be the inventors of, in the words of the LA Times "[a] particular aesthetic, born of video games and comic-book panels." It's a style that values fakery over realism "sort of the way that synthesizers were preferable to pianos in '80s pop."
Well, OK, it's not really cute. It's actually kind of annoying. What no one (not even the reviewers) seem to notice is that Sin City (another purveyor of "the graphic novel style", though one that wasn't copied nearly as readily) and 300 were designed to mimic one specific style -- Frank Miller's. The style of Sin City was meant to evoke film noir and scratchy pulp art in his own boxy, boobtastic way. 300 was meant to evoke the color and exaggeration of ancient Greek art. I've had dissenters insist King Leonidas' beard was "ridiculous," which makes me sad, as they've obviously never seen a Greek vase. (Put the humanities back in our schools so kids know this stuff. It's important. Really!)
Amusingly, the actual comic book / graphic novel movies are opting for "realistic" settings and worlds. Zack Snyder didn't film Watchmen in "the style of Alan Moore" beyond keeping to the panels and color palette. The streets surrounding the Gunga Diner and the Black Freighter selling newsstand are real. You can practically smell the rotten garbage. It wasn't intended to look fake beyond its little tweakings that signaled an alternate 1980s. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man was colorful, but grounded in a recognizable New York. Iron Man strove to be so realistic (insofar that an arc reactor is believable) that it may have really crippled the Marvel Universe as they try to go forth into The Avengers. A similar problem cripples the DC Universe thanks to Christopher Nolan opting for a real Batman over anything smacking of a comic book. And with every adaptation comes designers and costumers fearful that the costumes originally designed by Jack Kirby or Stan Lee come off as cheesy and unbelievable. No one would wear that in the real world!
With the dedicated realism of Spider-Man and Batman comes the new trend of the photo-real. I don't need to tell you about that, Avatar fans. Now you can see sweat and pores in 3D, so real and tangible that you'll want to reach out and touch them. Who knows? Maybe that will be the next game changer.
It's a fascinating convergence of styles and thought, particularly since the comic book directors are really rejecting anything that smacks of fakery. They want to sell their movies based on how gritty and real the world surrounding Superman and Batman are. They don't want these characters to look like animated panels. They want them to be mainstream and real, easily accessible to every moviegoer who hasn't read a comic book in their lives. I get the impression that now that they're in the club and have convinced the world how fun their heroes and heroines are, they aren't going to mess it all up by reminding everyone of bags and boards. They're going to sell it as sexy. Wolverine isn't sexy if he adapts "that graphic novel style" and sports his blue and yellow costume again.
Yet the real world stories -- Spartacus, Captain Ahab, gosh knows who else -- need to run the geek gauntlet to become palatable to the mainstream. Make it look fake, and audiences will love Moby Dick because he looks like a comic book character. But they won't see Wonder Woman because of Paradise Island. That's way too hard of a sell for the ordinary folks. They adored the distinctly alien Neytiri, but she looked real, whereas Wonder Woman isn't real enough. Or something.
I don't have a pithy conclusion or argument to make, except that I hope the so-called "style" doesn't create a backlash in audiences who will promptly associate a few bad eggs with an entire genre. (If it's comic booky, then it'll be cheesy.) But I don't think that will happen. As I said, it seems to be losing steam faster than Bekmambetov and Starz can capitalize on it. But I am curious as to how it'll all sort itself out. Will comic book movies continue on their path of hard-nosed realism to the point that the cartoonish appeal is lost? Will realistic subjects continue to embrace the "graphic novel style" until you can't tell fact or fiction? I don't know. But I'm curious to find out, and secretly delighted that a reviled genre is now a marketable phrase.