Staging Comics in Serial Film, 1936-2008: Presentation at the 22nd SERCIA Conference in Paris, September 8-10, 2016

Coming September, Ilka Brasch and I will be co-presenting a joint paper titled “Opening Gambits: Staging Comics & Television in Serial Film, 1936-2008” at the 22nd annual conference of SERCIA, the french association for the study of Anglophone cinema, in Paris, France (you can find the CfP here). Our paper, which will be part of a conference on “Cinema & Seriality,” will focus on a discussion of the medially self-reflexive opening scenes of a number of serials and films that adapt characters and properties originally introduced in comics, and discuss examples from 1930s film serials up to superhero blockbusters from the 2000s. Instead of merely posting our abstract as announcement here, I thought I’ll leave a clip and a few lines from my working draft (along with the abstract, which is included at the end of this post and can also be found here) as a teaser for things to come. Comments & suggestions on this early stage work are very much welcome!

Opening Gambits: Staging Comics & Television in Serial Film, 1936-2008

Ilka Brasch and Felix Brinker

Taken out of context, the opening moments of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman might strike an early 21st century viewer as a somewhat unusual way to begin a superhero blockbuster. All in black and white, the film opens to a shot of a movie screen in the old-fashioned aspect ratio of 1.33:1, framed by lavish curtains. To the sound of a rattling film projector, this screen-within-our-screen then presents us with the image of a comic book on top of an old-timey table cloth. The comic book is soon opened by the hands of a child who, via voice-over, starts to tell us about the “great city of Metropolis” in the “ravages of world-wide depression,” and the work of the journalists of its newspaper, the Daily Planet. Within the next minute and a half, the images on the diegetic screen allow us a fleeting glimpse at some panels of a fragmentary comic narrative, until one of the panels dissolves to give way to a shot of the Daily Planet building. After a pan to the night sky, the diegetic screen then is suddenly exploded by Superman’s opening titles, which, appearing full-color and moving towards the spectator, subsequently claim the full 2.35:1 aspect ratio of the frame. To me, this opening seems weird since its content does very little to introduce the feature length film that follows: it neither features Superman, nor any actual historical comic narratives, nor any other authentic footage from any of the previous films and serials starring him (the issue of Action Comics used here is a mock-up produced specifically for the film, as were the black-and-white film scenes used in the sequence). The sequence nonetheless manages to evoke a vague sense of child-like wonder and nostalgia for by-gone times by gesturing to Superman’s long history in various media—most centrally, to his comic book origins and his time as the star of black-and-white film and television serials—by remediating the figure’s earlier media to the audiences of the 1978 film. In doing so, Superman’s opening titles present Donner’s film as one moment in a larger serial sprawl of succeeding takes on the Superman figure, and thereby call attention to the long history of the figure and its origin in a different medium. <to be continued…>

And here’s our abstract for the whole paper:

Opening Gambits: Staging Comics & Television in Serial Film, 1936-2008

In one way or another, serial narratives always reflect on the parameters and conditions of their own serialization—through devices like the ‘previously on…’-segment featured in many contemporary TV series and the recapitulation of past events through expository dialogue, for example, or by foreshadowing future events (which has become conventionalized in post-credits announcements that promise the return of iconic figures like James Bond or Iron Man). Individual installments of a series thus place themselves in the context of other episodes or films. Once the serialization of popular narratives, properties, and figures crosses media platforms, their latest incarnations by necessity situate themselves in relation to other media as well. On such occasions, the thematization of storytelling parameters frequently takes a decidedly medially self-reflexive turn. Our paper examines the ways in which serial film adaptations of graphic narratives from three decades across the 20th and 21st centuries negotiate their relationship to the materials on which they are based, and discusses instances of medial self-reflexivity in the film serials Ace Drummond (Universal, 1936; adapting the comic strip of the same name) and Radio Patrol (Universal 1937; also based on an eponymous comic strip), as well as in the superhero blockbusters Superman (Warner Bros., 1978, Dir. Richard Donner) and The Incredible Hulk (Universal, 2008, Dir. Louis Leterrier).

Focusing on the medially self-reflexive opening sequences of these productions, we argue that all four examples of serial film exhibit a comparable preoccupation with their own prehistory in other medial contexts, and that all of them thematize the qualities and affordances of other media—comic strips and comic books in the case of Ace Drummond, Radio Patrol, and Superman, and television the case of The Incredible Hulk—in a similar fashion. By arranging comic panels on the film screen, the opening sequences of Ace Drummond, Radio Patrol, and Superman, for example, comment on the affinity between serial storytelling and the sequential art of comics, while simultaneously presenting themselves as worthy filmic successors to their respective source materials. The Incredible Hulk’s title sequence, by contrast, evokes the aesthetics of the 1970s television show of the same name by offering a virtual remake of the earlier program’s opening credits. Our examples, in other words, all pit the aesthetics of film against those of other media. In doing so, they evoke a self-conscious mode of reception that is cognizant of the differences and similarities between film and other media. Our paper argues that such a medial self-reflexivity is a recurring interest of serial film, and that the study of such moments can serve as a useful starting point for an inquiry into its shifting position within a broader media environment—from the co-existence with competing serial mass media of the 1930s (like daily comic strips and early comic books), to its integration into the ‘transmedia universes’ of the 21st-century.

Working Bibliography

Denson, Shane. “Marvel Comics‘ Frankenstein: A Case Study in the Media of Serial Figures.” Amerikastudien /American Studies 56.4 (2011): 531-553.

Gardner, Jared. Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First-Century Storytelling. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2012.

Higgins, Scott. Matinee Melodrama: Playing with Formula in the Sound Serial. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2016.

Hurst, Richard M. Republic Studios: Between Poverty Row and the Majors. Lanham: Scarecrow, 2007.

Young, Paul. The Cinema Dreams its Rivals: Media Fantasy Films from Radio to the Internet. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2006.


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