Which medium is right for the message?

Senior Television Writer
07.20.11 33 Comments

Oni Press

Comic-Con starts tomorrow, and before I head out to San Diego, I had a few idle (and unsurprisingly nerdy) thoughts on a subject that feels particularly germane, given the blending of comics, movies, TV, etc. at what was once primarily a convention about comic books:

What happens when characters from one medium cross over into another?

One of my favorite comic book series of the last decade is Greg Rucka’s espionage series “Queen & Country,” centered on the life of Tara Chace, a tall, cool blond “minder” for the British government, who’s one of the best killers in the world.(*) Each arc is drawn by a different artist, automatically giving it a different one even as characters like Tara, boss Paul Crocker and others continue to appear and, in some cases, evolve. It works wonderfully as a thriller, as a character piece and also as a bit of geo-political commentary. Rucka’s so plugged into this world that he had a Taliban story in the works months before 9/11 (it had the eerie timing to come out right after), and a later story opened with a terror attack on the London Underground that was eerily similar to the actual attack that happened nearly a year later in the real world.

(*) And to pre-empt the two inevitable questions: Yes, I am aware that Rucka based the series in part on the ’70s British TV series “The Sandbaggers,” and no, I have never actually seen an episode of “The Sandbaggers.”

I bring this up because it’s a great series that more people should be reading, but also because in addition to the “Queen & Country” comic book, Rucka has also written three different prose novels in the series: “A Gentlemen’s Game” (that’s the one with the London terror attack), “Private Wars” and “The Last Run.” Rucka got his start as a crime novelist (his Atticus Kodiak series is still ongoing, though it’s evolved pretty dramatically over the years) and so he’s an old hand at the format. And the “Queen & Country” novels are interesting for two reasons:

1)To see how differently the same writer, working with the same characters and universe, can tell a story so differently depending on the medium;


2)Because Rucka didn’t treat the books as inessential, or non-canon, or however the various “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” tie-in books are usually treated. These books are not only part of the ongoing story of Tara Chace, but major events in her life and the ongoing life of the series take place within those pages.

On the first point, with prose, Rucka is obviously able to go much deeper into backstory, and also into developing his antagonists. In the comics, Tara is largely going up against faceless spies, terrorists, etc., where in the books we get to know her opponents very well. Yet in re-reading the comic book series after finishing “The Last Run” run a week ago(**), I was reminded just how effectively Rucka and his artists were at conveying the emotions of Tara and her colleagues, and the comics often hit me much harder than the books. The comics are also, unsurprisingly, much better at depicting action (the third story arc, “Operation: Crystal Ball,” is particularly effective on that front).

(**) I somehow missed that a third book had been published back in October, and in fact only knew about the existence of the books in the first place because I saw a copy on the desk of The Star-Ledger’s book review editor back in 2004. 

There are some stories and characters that seem better suited to one kind of storytelling than another, and the transition – from graphic novel to prose novel, or from TV show to comic book, or TV show to movie – can be tricky, even if the original creator is involved in both. Rucka has written all the “Queen & Country” stories. Javier Grillo-Marxuach adapted ABC Family’s brilliant-but-canceled “The Middleman” from his own comic of the same name. Both of those worked. On the other hand, I found the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” comic book series (the “season 8” the show never got on TV) very hit-or-miss, even with Joss Whedon writing or overseeing it, and I noticed in the comments to my review of “Serenity,” the movie spin-off of Whedon’s “Firefly,” that many of you missed the smaller, more intimate, ensemble-driven quality of the show as compared to the big action and two-character focus of the film.

As to the second thing I found interesting, without going into too much detail (because, again, I’d like people who haven’t read this stuff to give it a try), several significant changes happen for Tara, and for several major supporting characters, over the course of the three novels. And thus far the one story arc (“Operation: Red Panda”) in the comic that was published after the novels appeared (it’s set in between the events of the first two books) doesn’t really bother to recap things for people who are only reading the comics. Tara’s been through something major, and the writing and artwork (in this case, by Chris Samnee) are good enough to convey just how damaged she was by it, but I can understand that comics-only readers would feel very much out of the loop reading it. And things change ever more over the course of the next two novels, so that when the comic book finally resumes publication (Rucka’s reportedly been waiting on artist Nicola Scott to be available to draw the first arc of the new series), the new status quo will be particular disorienting to those who haven’t been keeping up.

As someone who read, and loved, all three books, I was obviously able to keep up. Yet as I read them, part of me tried to put myself in the shoes of someone who was just a fan of the comic.

I often make the argument with TV shows like “Lost” that the story of the series should be contained within the series itself under its regular format(***) – if certain mysteries were explained on one of the show’s fake websites, or one of the tie-in books, I didn’t care, didn’t want to know about it, and felt it should be irrelevant to my enjoyment of “Lost” itself. Ditto for a lot of other spin-off media along those lines; just because Peter David managed to finally give Geordi LaForge a personality in a few of his “Star Trek: The Next Generation” books doesn’t absolve the TV show writers for failing to give LeVar Burton much of interest to do for seven seasons.

(***) An obvious exception: when the original format has been canceled and the only way to provide closure is in a new medium.

Yet here’s a series doing something exactly like that – if anything, the things that happen to and around Tara in the “Queen & Country” books are far more significant to that series than any information a “Lost” fan could glean from reading “Bad Twin” – and because I chose to read it all rather than being a purist, I’m getting a richer, more vibrant picture and am happy with that.

So while I travel, two discussion points for y’all to hash out:

1)Are there particular instances of a story/character/universe being adapted from one medium to another that you felt worked especially well, or especially poorly? And, if so, why?

2)Do you feel it’s unfair for spin-off projects – even if they’re official, canon, and from the original creator or creative team – to significantly advance or alter story or characterization from the regular series? Or is all fair, and if you’re not ready to consume every related property to a particular franchise, it’s your loss?

Have at it.

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