[The Week in Geek is a weekly Tuesday column that plunges headfirst into a deep pool of genre geekiness without ever coming up for air.]
Comic fans know that it's difficult to get others to recognize comics as a story-telling medium and not a child's diversion. There's been some headway in the past ten years, mainly due to comic book movies, but, even then, it's not like everyone who pays nine bucks for a 'Dark Knight' ticket is running out to find Batman comics the very next day. At best, it lets the uninitiated understand, just a little bit, why you might like comics. My mom will probably never read 'X-Men,' but she'll see Hugh Jackman as Wolverine on opening weekend, no questions asked.
Of course, that's just the superhero stuff. If you really want to surprise somebody, follow 'The Road to Perdition' or 'A History of Violence' with the question, "Did you know it was based on a comic book?" The shock comes through ignorance; ignorance of the power of an entire medium. It's not just a matter of standing up and declaring that comics aren't just for kids -- it's the comic fan's desire to share this particular depth of storytelling with everyone they possibly can. Comics are no different than novels, film, or music; the storytelling limitations are only set by the talents of their respective creators -- not the medium itself. I don't think I've ever seen a movie that's understood this as well as John Cameron Mitchell's 'Rabbit Hole' does.
(Spoilers within...Be warned.)
In the film, Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are a couple whose individual ways of grieving the death of their young son is starting to negatively affect them as a married unit. Becca seeks out Jason, the teen responsible for accidentally running over her boy, out of a need for closure, and discovers that he's researching theoretical alternate reality "rabbit holes." Jason confronts Becca, after catching her clumsily stalking him, and the two help each other heal their wounded souls with Jason's homemade sci-fi comic book called 'Rabbit Hole.' (And though I may have warned of spoilers, the specifics of the plot are really secondary to the delicate performances on display in 'Rabbit Hole.' This is an actor's piece, by and large.)
The comic book is a more cinematic change from the original play, which found Jason writing a short story with the same themes of alternate realities. The art (by Dash Shaw) is simplistic and melancholy, and John Cameron Mitchell's treatment of the homemade book is so matter-of-fact and natural, that I couldn't believe my eyes. The climax of the film is Becca's absorption of Jason's two-page spread, featuring a series of twisted pipes, each representing a different ending for the fictional family featured within his story. It's a moment of profound revelation for Becca, and it's also the culmination of months worth of labored guilt from Jason.
John Cameron Mitchell gets it. The comic book is as sturdy an artistic vessel as anything else. Like in any medium, it's always the content that counts. Becca isn't moved by the comic because she had no idea that comics might actually be halfway decent; she's moved because of the hand-crafted, personal story inside. As someone who studied to become a sequential artist, I want to live in a world where comics are treated with that much respect. We've got some ways to go, comic fans, but validation like the kind found in 'Rabbit Hole' will get us there a lot sooner.