Comics may not be widely read, but the artform has some friends in high places, including novelist Michael Chabon and filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. Ben Wooller explores the phenomenon of the comics advocate.
09 August 2004


It took seven years for James Joyce to write ULYSSES, and though he had a book of short stories, a book of poetry, a play and a novel to his name, no one would publish it. A few chapters, heavily edited, were printed, but faced controversy and litigation.

Ezra Pound, his friend and long-time supporter, insisted Joyce move to Paris, a place more receptive to the avant guard, where ULYSSES might be published as a whole. Sylvia Beach, who had recently opened a bookshop called Shakespeare & Co on the Rue Dupuytren, had the same idea, and in 1922, 1000 numbered copies were printed. Winston Churchill pre-ordered a copy.

ULYSSES was embraced by most of Joyce's contemporaries. DH Lawrence derided the book as obscene, while Virginia Woolf likened it to "the scratching of pimples on the body of a bootboy at Claridge's", but others leaped to defend it. Pound and TS Eliot were already speaking of the book as if it were a classical masterpiece. Ernest Hemingway wrote that it was "a most goddamned wonderful book". F Scott Fitzgerald was willing to jump out of a window to prove his reverence to Joyce (Joyce asked him not to), while William Faulkner went to a cafe only to gawk at Joyce, unable to approach him. Love it or hate it, Joyce's contemporaries understood what ULYSSES was.

I find it hard to picture all this. I don't know why. It's not just the passion of Joyce's supporters, Scott Fitzgerald's threat of suicide, Faulkner's awe-struck paralysis, it's the image of these writers who produced some of literature's masterpieces backing an author whose work had been rejected, and loathed by mainstream society. And this was despite the possible negative repercussions it could have on their reputations. US postal authorities had been burning Joyce's books as they arrived in the country, yet these prominent writers came forward and gave it their blessings.


I can't help but liken the above to what's happening now with comics. Look beyond the trend of "celebrity" writers, and there's a who's who of pop culture heavyweights stepping into the ring and backing comics. This isn't just genre writers like Joss Whedon and Richard Morgan doing superheroes, although they're a decent part of it. This is mainstream writers like Michael Chabon, rock stars like Rob Zombie, and filmmakers like Frank Darabont writing comics, and, one would hope, bringing some of their audience with them. The director of the brilliant SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION writing a HELLBOY story? This I have to see!

'There's a who's who of pop culture heavyweights backing comics.' Ever since Michael Chabon used comics as a central element in THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY, he's been welcomed into the comic community as one of the more vocal exponents of comics in the mainstream. While his keynote speech at the Eisner Awards was primarily about kid's comics, he did have this to say: "Not only are comics appealing to a wider and older audience than ever before, but the idea of comics as a valid art form on a par at least with, say, film or rock and roll music, is widely if not quite universally accepted." I wonder if it makes people not familiar with comics sit up and think, 'Hey, this guy won a Pulitzer! He must know what he's talking about'.

MAUS also famously won a Pulitzer, and I recently saw a review of it in one of Australia's few literary magazines Quadrant, so that's nice to see, especially in light of American press such as Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times covering comics, which is possibly one of the reasons comics are being gradually accepted. Spin even has a last page comic strip, featuring events in a rock stars' lives as drawn by the likes of Paul Pope, Travis Millard and Phillip Bond. And McSweeney's, that barometer of literary hipness, recently dedicated an entire issue to the form, edited by Chris Ware and featuring essays by Chabon and John Updike.


Filmmakers seem to be comics' most kindred spirits. Steve Grant calls comics "paper movies". Directors like Guillermo del Toro, Sam Raimi and Robert Rodriguez have demonstrated as much with their detailed film adaptations of well-known and not-so-well-known comic properties.

While Raimi is already a cult figure, every man and his dog has seen SPIDER-MAN 2 regardless of whether or not they read the comic, and Raimi's affection for the character is demonstrable. Del Toro has now made two comic-based movies, HELLBOY and BLADE 2, but he started out making beautifully chilling and highly acclaimed horror films. My fiancée doesn't know all that much about comics, but she's going to see HELLBOY when it's finally released in Australia because it's by "the guy who did THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE", one of her favourite films.

'Filmmakers seem to be comics' most kindred spirits.' Del Toro wrote the HELLBOY script and directed the film with Mike Mignola's input every step of the way. They called it their "Harryhausen movie". I cheated and watched the opening scene at my brother's house, grainy and shaky in an obvious handheld camera sort of way, but it looked like it came straight out of the comic. I had to stop watching, it all looked so... perfect. I want to savour the details, the shadows, the Mignola-esque statues, and Nazis, and big Lovecraftian gods on the big screen.

For years Robert Rodriguez has been trying to get a MADMAN film off the ground. In lieu of MADMAN, he's hard at work on his SIN CITY adaptation, and he revealed at the San Diego Comicon that he's using the actual comic panels, Frank Miller's own art, as the storyboards. He publicly stated in interviews that he's not interested in making ROBERT RODRIGUEZ'S SIN CITY, he wants to make FRANK MILLER'S SIN CITY. He went so far as to hire actor Josh Hartnett for the "test" footage (which was the story "The Customer is Always Right"), following Miller's exact layouts, lighting and dialogue.

Having been burnt by Hollywood before (on ROBOCOP 2 and 3), Miller was hesitant, but upon seeing the test he was impressed, and is even directing sections of the film. Not only having an all-star cast (Benicio del Toro, Bruce Willis, Clive Owen, Brittany Murphy, Elijah Wood, just to name a few), the black and white film will have the characteristic Lynn Varley splashes of colour. And to top it off, Rodriguez hopes SIN CITY will get people reading the graphic novels. Luckily they're more accessible than the 40-year mess that is the X-MEN or SPIDER-MAN.

While putting their talents and names behind comics isn't a risky a prospect as it was for someone like F Scott Fitzgerald to back a book as genuinely controversial as ULYSSES, it is still a sign that people in positions to promote comics to a wider audience are as passionate about comics as the everyday reader is. It already looks like their promotion is getting people to sit up and take notice. Fingers crossed.

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