Who is Steve Gan and what does he have to do with the Guardians of the Galaxy movie? Read on to find out! ALSO: Black Lagoon provides slam-bang action in either manga or anime form, but there are aspects of it that resist easy translation to animation.
Author’s note: The comics pages reproduced in this article are from currently out-of-circulation works, and are used in the spirit of fair use for the purposes of demonstration and critical commentary.
If production proceeds according to schedule, by August 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy—a Marvel Studios film based on the 2008 comic book reboot of the property—will be in theaters, and if the box-office performance of prior Marvel Studios films are a reliable predictor, it should make a substantial amount of money for the company and its corporate parent, Disney.The emergence of the superhero movie blockbuster has helped call attention to the inequity of the old work-for-hire contracts freelance artists and writers used to sign in order to get work from publishers like Marvel and DC Comics, before comics creators started banding together and demanding fairer compensation for their work. While films such as The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon individually rake in over a billion dollars worldwide in box-office revenue, the writers and artists whose character write-ups, character designs, and comics laid the foundation for those films are almost never compensated for their contributions apart from their original work-for-hire payments. Even Stan Lee doesn’t get a real piece of the multibillion dollar movie and merchandising money pie: Whatever Marvel pays him these days (not an insignificant amount, from what I gather) is for his continuing work as an ambassador for the Marvel brand, they aren’t royalties.
It’s not my intent to argue against the legality of those contracts of yore: As the kids say these days, “It is what it is,” and as we saw recently in Gary Friedrich’s failed attempt to sue for a portion of the profits generated by the Ghost Rider films and video games—which led to Friedrich losing a counter-suit filed by Marvel Characters, Inc., by the way—those old contracts were pretty much iron-clad. The question of royalties and ownership aside, I firmly believe that it is only fair that those artists and writers who had a direct and significant hand in the original development of comics properties that have been adapted for other, more profitable media get properly and publicly credited for their work. And it is on this score that Filipino artist Steve Gan seems to have had some ill luck.
Like Alfredo Alcala, Nestor Redondo, and Alex Niño before him, Gan was already a veteran of the Philippine komiks industry when he was “discovered” by American publishers through the efforts of pioneering Filipino artist Tony DeZuniga. Unlike many of his peers who worked mostly for DC Comics on their horror, romance, Western, and war comics, the Chinese-Filipino Gan ended up working primarily for Marvel as both a penciler and an inker on titles such as Savage Tales, Dracula Lives, Tarzan, Conan the Barbarian, and The Savage Sword of Conan.These days however, he is probably best known among North American readers for his collaborations with writers Marv Wolfman and Steve Englehart, with whom he co-created the characters Skull the Slayer and Star-Lord, respectively.
Marvel’s Skull the Slayer was a pretty far-out comic book even by mid-1970s sci-fi comics standards. In an article that accompanied the book’s first issue (cover-dated August 1975), writer Marv Wolfman described the basic conceit of the title as “a cosmic dinosaur series” featuring a cast of Manhattan paper-pushers thrust into the prehistoric past. On Gan’s art, Wolfman wrote the following:
When the final art came in, I finally let out my sigh. Steve Gan had done a fantastic job—and more… exactly what I had wanted.
Despite the creative compatibility between Wolfman and Gan, their run on Skull the Slayer would prove to be short-lived. Wolfman elected to leave the title by the third issue because of his increased workload as both a writer and editor on Marvel’s books and he was replaced by Steve Englehart. Gan was dropped in favor of Sal Buscema.
It wouldn’t be too long before Gan and Englehart’s paths would cross again. Gan was assigned to illustrate the lead piece (“The Star-Lord”) in Marvel Preview #4 (cover-dated January 1976), a heady space fantasy story written by Englehart incorporating astrology elements, quasi-religious overtones, and even some social commentary.
Strangely enough, despite jointly creating the character, Englehart and Gan would never work on another Star-Lord story again. The character’s next two appearances in Marvel Preview were written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Byrne and Gan would spend the next couple of years working primarily as an inker while still creating komiks on the side—perhaps due to the somewhat sporadic nature of his American comics assignments, Gan did not need to relocate to the US when he started working for Marvel unlike many of the Filipino artists who caught on with American publishers during the 1970s.Gan’s style is indisputably influenced by the work of komiks legend Francisco V. Coching, particularly in his penchant for florid, detailed linework and his facial structure preferences, but it isn’t inaccurate to say that he also picked up some then-contemporary, stylistic “Americanisms” from his time working on Savage Tales—where he illustrated back-ups that ran behind stories illustrated by John Buscema and Al Williamson—and his time inking John Buscema on Conan the Barbarian.
Gan’s American comics career was cut short however, allegedly because of a dispute with Marvel over payments, and by the time 1980 rolled around, he was back to drawing komiks exclusively. It was around this period that Gan created, with writer Carlo J. Caparas, some of his most well-known material in the Philippines. At a time when many of his former associates in the “Filipino Wave” were struggling to make the transition to the emerging superhero-centric North American comics market of the 1980s, Gan was putting out some of his best comics work.
In March of 1979, Caparas and Gan debuted the serial Ang Panday (“The Blacksmith”) in the popular Pilipino Komiks anthology:
Ang Panday would become a breakout hit, particularly after the serial was retooled to incorporate a more fantastical bent, with the protagonist Flavio eventually trading his smith’s hammer for a sword forged from a mysterious, mystical ore gathered from a meteorite, said sword allowing him to take on all manner of supernatural creatures impervious to normal weapons. The serial was eventually adapted into a popular 1980 film that spawned a long-running film franchise and multiple TV series adaptations and spin-offs.
Showing their stylistic range, the Caparas-Gan duo would then create the graphic novel Pieta (serialized in the Darna Komiks anthology), an affecting family drama about a single mother and her delinquent son. Pieta, too would be adapted for film and television.
Gan would shift industries from comics to animation in the 1990s, notably working as a storyboard artist for Walt Disney’s Jungle Cubs and Timon & Pumbaa series as well as PBS’ Adventures from the Book of Virtues, and serving as a layout artist on Heavy Metal 2000.
It is here that we’ll note that in all of the major film and television adaptations of the Caparas-Gan komiks serials, Gan has never received any significant, formal recognition as a co-creator. As artist Gerry Alanguilan noted in a 2005 blog post, there exists something of a Philippine entertainment industry bias that largely ignores the character design and visual storytelling contributions of artists when it comes to attribution, an attitude that is unconscionable in light of the fact that comics and sequential art are visual media first and foremost: A comic book without any words is still a comic book—see Larry Hama‘s work on Marvel’s G.I. Joe #21 for just one of many examples that support this truism—while a comic book without any illustrations isn’t a comic book at all. Adding further insult, in what many observers saw as a politically motivated move, Caparas was nominated by the government in 2009 for the title of National Artist of the Philippines in recognition of his work in the visual arts and film. Caparas received the award despite protests from artists and critics alike who pointed out that it was Gan who was the one directly responsible for the “visual arts” component of the critically-acclaimed komiks serials frequently held up by Caparas’ supporters as proof of his merit as a National Artist. (That those proponents would choose to focus on his komiks serial work in their campaign for his National Artist award isn’t all that surprising, given that a significant portion of Caparas’ film oeuvre is largely composed of artless, schlocky, exploitative dreck often accused of sensationalizing violence against girls and women.)
With the character of Star-Lord set to play a leading role in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film, there exists the opportunity for Marvel Studios to do right by Steve Gan and recognize him in the film’s end credits, along with Steve Englehart, as the creator of the character. It won’t make up for all the snubs Gan has suffered from the Philippine film and TV industries over the years, but it’s also a small gesture that won’t cost the studio anything to implement. There is nothing, really, that should stand in the way of Marvel Studios doing the right thing and finally giving Steve Gan his proper, public due as a character designer, visual storyteller, and illustrator of uncommon caliber.
Further reading: To read more about the work of Alfredo Alcala, Tony DeZuniga, Alex Niño, Nestor Redondo, Romeo Tanghal, Whilce Portacio, Gerry Alanguilan, and other Filipino artists in American comics and for reviews and previews highlighting the work of Filipino and Filipino-American comics creators, check out the articles listed here.
On Black Lagoon and translation conventions
I’ve spent the past few weeks watching Black Lagoon —an animated adaptation of the manga of the same name written and illustrated by Rei Hiroe—on its official YouTube/FUNimation channel. The show’s premise is summarized on FUNimation.com thus:
Rokuro Okajima is meek, mundane, and metropolitan. His business trip to Southeast Asia turns from pleasure cruise to festival of pain when modern pirates board the ship and take him hostage. Revy, Dutch and Benny are merciless, maniacal, and mean. Together, they make up the crew of the Black Lagoon. Making a living in a city where the most villainous of villains make themselves at home isn’t without its risks, but they take on any job available to them. Smuggling guns, drugs, kidnapped children, and stolen goods is all part of a hard days work.
Here’s the interesting thing about the dialogue in Black Lagoon: The show is primarily set in Southeast Asia and Japan, with a cast of core and supporting characters hailing from the United States, Japan, Thailand, Russia, Colombia, Italy, Taiwan, Vietnam, China, Venezuela, Romania, the Philippines, Lebanon, India, Germany, and elsewhere. As such, the barrier of language occasionally plays a role in character interactions.
In the manga, presenting the veritable Tower of Babel that is the setting’s linguistic mélange isn’t a real problem. As is the convention with most comics, there is no need for the writer to actually be fluent in the foreign languages he is trying to portray in the work. Writing out the “foreign” dialogue in English (or whatever the intended readership’s language is) and then situating it between angled brackets, such as what writer Duane Swierczynski and letterer Chris Mowry did in this sequence from IDW’s Godzilla, is sufficient to depict the use of foreign languages in comics. It is just one of the features found in comics that allow comics creators to do things with storytelling that would be difficult to achieve in film and television.
In animation or live-action film and television however, it is more complicated. Actors must either speak convincingly in the foreign language (with subtitles providing the translation)—which can be quite difficult, not just for the actors but for the screenwriters as well, who have to ensure that their translations make sense to those viewers who can actually understand the foreign language—or they can choose to speak in a heavily-accented version of the show’s native language. The sheer multiplicity of locations and languages spoken by the characters in Black Lagoon ups the difficulty this situation poses. There is the implicit assumption for example, that when the main characters of Dutch, Benny, Revy, and Rock are speaking amongst themselves, it is in English (in the Japanese dub of the show, viewers “pretend” that they’re speaking English). However, this particular translation convention throws a monkeywrench in the proceedings when Revy and Rock actually go to Japan in season two’s final episodes: In the Japanese-dubbed version of the show, the viewer must now actively make the distinction between the instances when the Japanese native Rock is actually speaking in Japanese and when he is speaking in Japanese-that-is-standing-in-for-English. This also happens with the Russian characters in Japan, who speak Japanese-that-is-standing-in-for-Russian. It is left to the viewer to figure out depending on the context what language Japanese (or English, in the English dub of the series), is standing in for at any given conversational moment. (Incidentally, the main English voice cast of Black Lagoon will be at next month’s Fan Expo Vancouver 2013.)
Still, most viewers who’ve spent a fair amount of time watching subtitled and dubbed movies and television shows will find this phenomenon a slight annoyance at worst, and I personally think that the anime compares quite favorably with the original manga, both in the art/design and the storytelling.