The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 161 | Storytelling 101: On Ed Brubaker’s Angel of Death and why comics are more than just “paper movies”

Leaving Proof 161 | Storytelling 101: On Ed Brubaker’s Angel of Death and why comics are more than just “paper movies”
Published on Saturday, November 24, 2012 by
A viewing of Ed Brubaker’s Angel of Death inspires some reflection on the differences in storytelling and story-processing between comics and film.  PLUS: Links to the latest trade paperback and graphic novel reviews and an anime viewing recommendation. 

After noticing the ads for Angel of Death some 18 months ago or so (and then promptly forgetting about it until I saw it last week on the PS3 Crackle app) I finally managed to sit down and watch the Ed Brubaker-written film the other evening. For those of you unfamiliar with the project, Angel of Death originally aired in 2009 as a series of ten “webisodes” on Crackle, Sony’s online video-streaming service. Starring veteran stuntwoman Zoë Bell (Gamer, Whip It) and featuring Lucy Lawless (Xena: The Warrior Princess, Spartacus: Blood and Sand), Doug Jones (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth), and Ted Raimi (SeaQuest DSV, Xena: The Warrior Princess) in supporting roles, Angel of Death is Brubaker’s first screenplay to go into production, something that struck me as more than a bit surprising given the multiple Eisner and Harvey Award-winner’s impressive crime/espionage comics-writing resumé—I just assumed that he’d already had at least a couple of writer credits for TV or maybe video games before he got the call to write for the web series. All ten of the Angel of Death webisodes have been compiled into a 78-minute feature, currently available for viewing on Crackle, YouTube, and Hulu, and it was in this format that I watched it, as opposed to watching it piecemeal the way it was intended to be seen.

Zoë Bell (left) with co-star Lucy Lawless on the set of "Angel of Death." Bell served as Lawless' stunt double on the "Xena: Warrior Princess" TV series from 1998 to 2001.

Dr. Rankin (Doug Jones) tries some improvised neurosurgery on Eve (Zoë Bell).

The film’s premise goes something like this: Professional contract killer Eve (Bell) sustains and survives a life-threatening injury—she gets stabbed through the top of her head with a hunting knife in a genuine WTF?! moment—on her latest job. And before you go “No way!” let me just point you to the curious case of 19th century rail worker Phineas Gage. Just like the historical Gage, Eve recovers from her gruesome injury and begins to exhibit a change in her personality. The cold-blooded assassin starts being haunted by a vision of a young girl accidentally killed during her last mission. The overwhelming guilt she feels over the death, combined with the unhinging of her mental state brought about by her traumatic brain injury, drives Eve to turn her lethal talents against her employers in a bloody campaign of revenge by proxy. As expected, Bell—who won the 2005 Taurus World Stunt Awards trophy for “Best Fight” for her work in Kill Bill, Vol. 2—acquits herself well during the film’s numerous fight scenes although she perhaps doesn’t have the easy on-screen charisma viewers might expect from typical female action movie leads.

Despite poor-to-middling reviews all around, Angel of Death is not all that bad for what it is, a low-budget affair helmed by schlock-genre director Paul Etheredge—whose 2004 film Hellbent was described by the Village Voice as “humorless gaysploitation slasher flick” and by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as “an exercise in blood-spattered boredom”—but my primary interest in watching the film was to see how well the taut scripting and solid plotting that are Brubaker’s stock in the comics trade would translate to film.

The difficulty in comparing Brubaker’s work in comics to that in film lies primarily in the fact that many more layers of creative interpretation stand between his screenplay and the viewer compared to his comics scripts and readers. In comics where the writer and the artist are different persons, it is up to the artist, whether it is one person or a penciler/inker duo, to visually interpret what is written in the script, with guidance from the book’s editor and regular feedback from the writer. In film however, whatever is written on the screenplay goes through multiple interpretative filters—the storyboard artist, the director, the actors, the cinematographer, and the film editor—that define the work’s ultimate look and the screenwriter, unless he is also the director, often has little control over how his work is translated into film once production is underway.

Ed Brubaker (left, wearing green), with fellow comics writers (seated, left to right) Christos Gage, Matt Fraction, and Brian Michael Bendis at a 2010 comic book signing at New York's Midtown Comics.

As fashionable as it has been in recent years for writers to use graphic novels as pitches for their film or TV projects, comics—or as many in the entertainment industry increasingly refer to them, “paper movies”—are more than just elaborate storyboards that can be easily adapted to film.

There is for instance, the notion that comics are a much more interactive medium than film. In broad terms, this is because  readers are compelled to “fill in the blanks” more often in terms of story continuity since scenes in comics are discrete sequential storytelling units—individual comic panels—separated by space and featuring events frozen in time, whereas films have shots that are sequentially overlaid over each other in the same viewing space and are virtually continuous through time, the continuity being broken only by camera cuts and scene changes. In terms of language, a reader also has a greater degree of autonomy over how he chooses to interpret the dialogue in comics compared to a viewer watching a film. Textual, interpersonal, and logical meanings as well as non-linguistic vocal information can be gleaned from a speaker’s intonation, pitch contour, and phonation. In the silent medium of comics, intonation, pitch contour, and phonation are subconsciously supplied by the reader during the process of subvocalization that accompanies the act of reading. In film, these qualities are supplied by the actor doing the speaking, under the guidance of the director. We don’t have to look far to find a basic and common sense example of how knowledge of this difference allows a comic book creative team to do certain things that would be difficult, if not impossible, to do in film. In the two-panel sequence below (reproduced from Marvel Comics’  Ultimates 2 #6) for example, former SHIELD scientist and ex-Giant Man Hank Pym conducts a lengthy conversation with a mysterious traitor who is a current member of the Ultimates superhero team:

Page detail from Ultimates 2 #6 (July 2005)

Because the medium of comics has no sound, the partially off-panel speaker’s voice cannot be recognized by the reader as belonging to any specific character he has encountered before. Ultimates 2 writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch can depict the conversation happening “on-screen” with all its attendant drama, tension, and suspense without having to worry about inadvertently revealing a very important detail upon which the whole story hinges: The identity of the story’s mystery traitor.

The comics reader also controls the pace of the narrative to a much greater extent, whereas a movie viewer is wholly dependent on the director and film editor’s predetermined timing of events. In comics, while panel size and arrangement dictate to a degree the rate at which a story progresses, the reader can view an individual panel for any length of time, he can go back and forward between panels at will, and he can even view multiple panels simultaneously by viewing the whole page as a storytelling unit in itself.

When Alan Moore talks about his 1980s comics work being purposefully designed to be “un-filmable,” he isn’t just being an ornery git trying to keep film studios from cashing in on projects based on his work: He’s also talking about the potential and real dissimilarities between how visual and linguistic information can be delivered in comics and film and how that information is processed and interpreted differently by readers and viewers. An oft-cited example of a comics-exclusive storytelling technique employed by Moore and artist David Gibbons in Watchmen can be seen in the graphic novel’s fifth chapter “Fearful Symmetry.” The symmetry referred to in the chapter’s title is expressed in ways literal and structural: In terms of panel layout and even panel composition, the first page of the chapter is a rough mirror image of the last, the second page similarly reflects the construction of the second-to-the-last page, and so on and so forth, culminating in a symmetrical two-page spread smack dab in the middle of the chapter:

Double-page center spread from Watchmen #5 (January 1987)

The use of page and panel layout to echo a text’s theme such as what Moore and Gibbons did in “Fearful Symmetry” is only one of the more overt and famous examples of the creative use of the features and visual grammar of the sequential art format to tell a story in a manner unique to the comics medium that resists obvious and easy translation to film or animation.

All this isn’t to say that the media of comics and film are so different that they do not share certain fundamental creative and procedural principles. The basic elements of plot-development or writing dialogue are generally the same regardless of whether one is working in comics or film, and as Larry Hama mentioned in a recent conversation, the tasks of storyboarding and comic book illustration bear many similarities. But as writers and artists make the jump from comics to films and vice versa, and as comics and film development become more and more entwined, enterprising comics creators tempted to limit their use of visual storytelling techniques to those that can be more easily replicated in film would do well to keep in mind what Moore said in a 2008 interview with the LA Times:

If you approach comics as a poor relation to film, you are left with a movie that does not move, has no soundtrack and lacks the benefit of having a recognizable movie star in the lead role.

Recent trade paperback and hardcover reviews

As returning readers may well recall, I’ve split off the trade paperback and graphic novel review aspect of Leaving Proof into a separate feature integrated into the Comixverse’s reviews section. Here then, is a list of links to my most recent reviews:

Leaving Proof 12: “Logicomix: An Epic Search For Truth” GN review

"Logicomix: An Epic Search For Truth," a book purchased for personal use, earned one of my least laudatory reviews.

A reader once asked why my reviews are almost always positive. A quick look at my previous reviews does indeed reveal only a handful of what can be unequivocally called negative reviews, but there is a simple explanation for this phenomenon. In a way, the books that I review are already pre-screened to be ones that align with my personal preferences in comics. What happens is that every week or so, publishers with whom we maintain contact send us a list of the digital copies of books that are available for review. Given that the Comixverse is a small operation, we can only review a very limited subset of available titles within a reasonable span of time from the books’ date of publication. With everything else I’ve come to do for the site, I can only manage to read, do background research, create site graphics, and write reviews for, at best, one or two typical (~150 page) volumes a week. When going through the weekly list of titles available for review, I generally pick books that feature known quantities in terms of genre or creative team, not because I don’t like reading outside of my comfort zone, but because it streamlines the read-and-review process. And as it happens, that means I choose books that I am more often than not predisposed to enjoy. That doesn’t mean however, that the books that I do end up reviewing are subject to less scrutiny.

On School Rumble

School Rumble on YouTubeI only recently finished watching the 26-episode first season of School Rumble on YouTube, an animated show based on the romantic-comedy manga of the same name by Jin Kobayashi. The manga’s Wikipedia entry describes it as a shōnen property—that is, an anime/manga geared towards the young male teen demographic—but I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. While it’s set in high school and features a teenaged main cast, the show’s over-the-top, Twelfth Night-on-steroids shenanigans strike me as the type of humor that might be appreciated by an older, mixed-gender audience. I’m not saying that it features “adult” or “mature” jokes (although there is the requisite fanservice here and there), but it seems to me that the comedy is derived largely from a sentimental, even nostalgic, view of adolescent romantic relationships and the silly and embarrassing trials and tribulations young teens go through to find “the one,” as opposed to the embedded perspective you’d expect to find in shows specifically aimed at teen audiences. In any case, it’s pretty hilarious stuff, and I highly recommend it. The show’s shibuya-kei style ending theme by Yuko Ogura, オンナのコ♡オトコのコ (Onna no KoOtoko no Ko, roughly translated as Girls Boys) is also pretty catchy:

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12 Responses
    • I was able to watch Angel of Death on DVD some time ago. It was fun but reading your review I don’t recall the movie at all. The DVD had it reedited into a movie rather than a serial. That is about all that I remember. It is forgettable.

      I’m a Zoe Bell fan. I saw her first—at least her face in focus—in Q. Tarrintino film and have wanted to see her in more roles.

      I do agree that comics aren’t just paper movies yet they do often work well that way. Angel of Death, the DVD I picked up used at Blockbuster, was capitalizing on Brubaker’s name and comic prowess to sell the movie.

      • I think a good amount of the time, comics creators can get away with treating comics as “paper movies,” that is, elaborate, detailed storyboards… comics and storyboards have a shared visual vocabulary, after all. But I also think that if artists and writers visualize and plan their comics using only schema that are drawn from or are easily translatable to film, they’re seriously limiting the storytelling potential of the medium.

        • Loosely combining comments by Scott McCloud and Robert Kirkman into a mush of an idea, I think pacing is the missing factor. The visual vocabulary between film and comics can be shared, however, the film always controls the pacing of the shot, pacing of the resolve, pacing of the action. In comics, the reader’s reading speed determines the pacing. Some long expositions—that aren’t in vogue with many companies—may give some clue about pacing, as do narration text boxes—again not vogue. I remember a letter in the back of a Walking Dead floppy wherein the writer was complaining about the long torture scene in a previous issue. Kirkman’s answer was “you’re making it long.” I had never thought about it, but he’s right. In Walking Dead #100 Kirman and company gave many panels to the death of long time character Glenn. It is brutal at any speed. Readers skimming through the quiet panels would have a different sense of brutality than readers slowly working through every gory detail of the panel.

          Nolan and several directors have recently gotten it right. They’ve moved comic properties to movie properties successfully. They’ve fond their own pacing. I mention Nolan because I love the new Batman trilogy, but many people didn’t understand why so much of the origin story in the first movie took so long. I didn’t mind, but then I’m used to 8-10 part story arcs from the 90s to reveal any detail after a year of comics.

          Pacing is the limiting potential to the medium conversion.

          Brubaker’s Angel of Death is interesting because it was originally a web serial that became edited into a DVD release movie. That is two different pacings and flows.

          I’ve long held that good editing is good film making. That may be way many of my favorite directors also do their own editing. Love it or hate it, it is what they intended it to be from Spy Kids to Clerks.

          • That Kirkman anecdote is particularly illuminative. And the pacing dilemma, if you can call it that, cuts both ways. I remember 9 or 10 years ago when “decompression” was becoming a dirty word in the comics-reading community. Sure, it was trendy to do all these wide panels that showed incremental action and many artists and writers were indeed clumsy with the technique, but I think a similar proportion of readers who didn’t “get” decompression were doing the equivalent of fast-forwarding through the long shots in a Sergio Leone western or Akira Kurosawa samurai drama… and then complaining that they didn’t get their money’s worth because they only got 40 minutes of movie.

            • That is a good point that it cuts both ways. Decompression can be a powerful focusing tool in comics when well handled. When poorly handled it looks like a script being shortened to fit the sales expectation.

              My wife hates the first Plane of the Apes film, with Heston, because of the walking. She likes Easy Rider but refuses to watch it again for the same reason. She wants a faster movie.

              Sometimes film makers need to appreciate the John Ford landscape. Sometimes the audience does too. If an audience is going to take time and contemplate a film it may need to be given that time during the film. Decompression does cut both ways and audiences aren’t always receptive.

              I’m teaching a film course in the spring that will focus heavily on the 70s exploitation films and am readily preparing my counters to the students inevitable “this film is slow.”

            • Yeah, the problem with explaining decompression in comics to readers who just aren’t accommodating to the technique is that it’s come to be associated with the supposed “padding” of floppy page counts to better fit the format of the inevitable TPB collections. Add to that the fact that there are many instances of decompression-done-wrong by artists and writers just latching on to the trend without an appreciation of its strengths and weaknesses and one can understand why it became so maligned a concept in many comics-reading circles and why proponents of the technique can come off as shills or self-deluded comics snobs who refuse to see that the decompression emperor has no clothes.

              I think one good teaching exercise to help readers better appreciate decompression in comics would be to do a side-by-side reading of, say, Koike and Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub with a DC or Marvel superhero comic from the same early-1970s era, just to show how letting the panels stretch out and breathe (or segmenting what would normally be “single-panel action” into multiple panels) at the right moments can really change up the pacing and narrative tension in a story being told in the sequential art format.

            • Back to Angel of Death, the action should look good by using Zoe Bell. She is a stunt person and should be able to handle anything. I would like to see it as a serial sometime to feel it in a different format.

      • Yeah, Angel of Death probably works better viewed as a twice-weekly or even daily serial composed of 7½ minute-long segments. Sitting through the whole thing in one go, a viewer can’t really help but compare it to other feature-length actioners, and it just doesn’t hold up that well at all. Contrasted with other limited-budget “made-for-Internet” live-action web shows though, Angel of Death looks quite good, with a couple of hand-to-hand fight scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in a major TV or film production.

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