Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Flights of Fantasy: Bava & Stardust

There's only one week left for the special preorder pricing on Tim Lucas's stunning new book Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark (shipping later this month), and I urge you to take advantage of this opportunity while and if you can.

Right now, Tim and Donna are still offering the pre-publication price of $120 for Mario Bava: ATCOTD until the expected delivery date of August 21. This is the perfect opportunity to acquire the book (for yourself, or as a gift) at less than half its publication price, which will be adjusted to its retail price of $250 (plus $10 US postage or $40 postage outside the US) as of August 21st. Don't wait!

  • The details and ordering link await you here (along with tons of other Bava imagery, art, trivia and delights), with the special pricing notice in Tim's "Thursday, July 19, 2007: Important Bava Book Announcements" post.

  • Tim and Donna have a pretty amazing auction at eBay right now, commemorating the release of the book with an eye-popping bevy of extras you have to see to believe.

  • For constant info and updates, Tim's marvelous Video Watchblog is the place to visit -- always worth reading in any case, particularly if you love the films, music and pop culture Tim and I do -- which is easily found every day at my fave links menu at right.

  • Don't wait -- this is literally a once-in-a-lifetime chance to own the definitive biography and overview of Bava's life and films at half its retail price! More on this tome later this month, when I curl up with my own copy and come up for air...

    My wife Marjory and I had a lovely evening out last night, catching Stardust (2007) at the local theater (The Nugget in Hanover, NH). Marj really loved the film, as did I, but that means a lot more coming from Marj -- I mean, as Myrant readers know, I'm a cineomnivore, willing and able to feast on almost anything that moves (and even that which doesn't, as my Andy Warhol DVD collection attests). Marj is far more selective and fussy in her tastes, and Stardust won her heart as fully as The Princess Bride did (I asked her en route to Ben & Jerry's afterwards).

    Now, Stardust doesn't need my hoohah to promote the film. It's been and being ballyhooed as aggressively as any summer studio blockbuster
  • (if your computer has the chops and you have the necessary high-speed access, here's the studio's website for Stardust, folks; knock yourselves out).
  • There was much to savor, first and foremost for me the sheer joy of seeing the work of two old comics industry friends -- Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess -- brought so vividly to life on the big screen, sans the slings and arrows too many other film adaptations inflict upon their wellsprings. Congrats to Neil and Charlie; personal points of identification aside, it was among the most pleasurable nights in a movie theater Marj and I have shared this year, and for that we're both thankful.

    The basics of Neil's and Charlie's creation are faithfully transposed to cinema, via Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn's rather breezy screenplay. Youthful Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox), unaware of his magical birthright (relayed to us via the film's vivid opener), vainly courts the vain Victoria Forester (Sienna Miller) in their village of Wall, promising to retrieve a fallen star for her which they see plunge into the deep woods behind the wall that borders their village. Beyond that wall, natch, lingers the Faerie realm in Gaimanian guise. In his quest Tristan finds the star in human form, Yvaine (Claire Danes), and high adventure. Unknown to both Tristan and Yvaine, she is being pursued by two other potential suitors: eager-to-assume-the-throne Septimus (Mark Strong), who requires the jewel Yvaine crashed to Earth with and wears if he is to be crowned king, and the witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), who needs Yvaine's heart to restore youth and extended life to herself and her two cackling sisters (oh, and, uh, once Septimus catches the heart part, he wants that, too, to achieve immortality and the crown).

    The film is perfectly cast, and there were abundant pleasures there, too, from the engaging leads to the character bits inhabited by sage vets like David Kelly (the beguiling Irish actor most American viewers will recognize from his key roles in Tim Burton's Roald Dahl adaptation Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and 1998's Waking Ned, though he has over 80 onscreen roles in his pocket); Kelly plays the elderly ass-kicking wall guard, FYI. I quite enjoyed Melanie Hill as Ditchwater Sal, the gypsy-like sorceress who keeps Tristan's mother imprisoned, and Jake Curran scored for me as Bernard, the hapless peasant Lamia turns into a goat and Septimus drafts into his entourage; Hill played Annie Crook's ma in From Hell and is a familiar face on British television, while Curran is a completely new presence to me. One familiar face I was happy to see was Dexter Fletcher as First Mate aboard Capt. Shakespeare's aerial pirate ship. Fletcher first registered for this vet movie addict as Baby Face in Alan Parker's misbegotten Bugsy Malone (1976) and most vividly as Byte's put-upon 'boy' in David Lynch's classic The Elephant Man (1980). He was martyred in Nicola Bruce and Michael Coulson's memorable heroin-horror short Wings of Death (1985), a role which also informed his spin as the youthful Caravaggio in Derek Jarmon's Caravaggio (1986), though more viewers caught him in young hero mode in The Rachel Papers (1989). I knew he had survived the '80s -- he was Soap in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), which I also dug -- but it was an unexpected treat to see him in Stardust. This kind of thing is, after all, one of the primo pleasures of cinema, and Stardust boasts a great ensemble cast.

    Best of all, though, is Michelle Pfeiffer in full-bore witch/bitch mode, right on the heels of her triumphant racist villainy in the unnecessary (the John Waters original is the better film) Hairspray (2007; Marj and I caught that two weeks ago, and had some fun with it). Pfeiffer savors her role as thoroughly as Angelica Huston did her very similar role in Nicolas Roeg/Jim Henson's adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Witches (1990); it's good to see her soar out of the doldrums of The Deep End of the Ocean, The Story of Us (both 1999), What Lies Beneath (2000), I Am Sam (2001) and White Oleander (2002), films she was always better than but couldn't transcend. Clearly Pfeiffer is stretching into new directions with these most recent villainous roles, and her glee is intoxicating. By turns cunning and catty, secretive and shrill, her Lamia rules the screen when she's on it and appropriately casts a shadow over the proceedings when she's off it. Any good fantasy film sporting witchery is utterly dependent upon the quality of its witch, and Pfeiffer delivers in spades.

    But enough on that; what about Neil and Charlie? There are many differences between Neil's and Charlie's Stardust and the film adaptation, major (gone is the eloquent red-leaved tree, modeled upon Neil's friend Tori Amos) and minor (our hero Tristran is now Tristan, for the 'r' impaired); Neil and others have covered this ad infinitum online already, and that's not an issue for me. The film works beautifully on its own terms, as it should, and scores as one of the year's (and this current cycle's) best fantasies.

    As most of you know, Neil and Charlie's Stardust was originally published by DC/Vertigo in 1997 as a four-issue "prestige" mini-series, and though it was a bit of a fish out of water -- these were illustrated novella chapter-books, really, not comics or a serialized graphic novel -- Stardust did well, winning solid sales and industry kudos and awards. DC/Vertigo collected and repackaged the whole in 1998 in complete hardcover and a trade paperback editions; thus, Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess' Stardust (Being A Romance Within The Realm of Faerie) (the full title) spilled beyond the boundaries of the direct sales and comics marketplace with style (mmmmm, that hardcover was bound in faux leather and featured all four of Charlie's covers and many sketches; the paperback and all subsequent trade editions featured new covers by Charles).

    But wait, there is more, much more. When Charlie's beloved wife Karen suffered terrible injuries in an auto accident, Neil and Charlie and a bevy of artists (William Stout, Mike Mignola, Terri Windling, Bryan Talbot, Jill Thompson, Paul Chadwick, P. Craig Russell, Michael Zulli, Terry Moore, Linda Medley, Dave McKean, Jeff Smith, Trina Robbins, Steve Leialoha, Gary Gianni, Stan Sakai, Mike Kaluta, Moebius, Geoff Darrow, Brian Froud and a whole lot more) pulled together a special Green Man Press fund-raiser portfolio A Fall of Stardust (1999), which contained two chapbooks (the first by Neil, the second authored by Susanna Clarke) and a wealth of art plates.

    Eight years later, DC/Vertigo published a new hardcover edition of Stardust sporting over 50 pages of new material.
  • All this and more is detailed on Charlie's own Green Man Press website, which is well worth a visit!

  • What's critical here, to me, is the steady collaborative solidarity Neil and Charlie have maintained over the decade.

    Notably, the film credits -- onscreen and in all it's promotional materials -- its source as the book written by Neil and illustrated by Charles Vess. This is an almost historically unprecedented screen credit; we are a long, long way away from the era of Willy Pogany (see below), when illustrators were screen stars in their own right.

    Of late, DC/Vertigo film adaptations have reverted to screen and ad credits more anonymous than those that adorned serial and movie adaptations of Golden Age comicbooks, a reversion unfortunately fueled in part by the highly-publicized decision of Alan Moore to self-exile himself and his good name from any further Hollywood productions. With the notable exception of David Lloyd's well-deserved credit on V for Vendetta, Alan's decision relegated the rest of his collaborators to the limbo of "based on the DC/Vertigo Graphic Novel" or somesuch. Good for DC/Vertigo, bad for the respective artists relegated to this limbo (note, however, this is not meant to villify DC/Vertigo, just to identify the issue at hand; remember, they published Stardust).

    In fact, the exile of mere "illustrators" to this limbo of no screen credit is sadly emblematic of the 'creator rights' era of comics publishing, save for those key works that were wholly creator-owned and comics-creator originated (e.g., Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Crow, Fish Police, The Tick, etc.). Things are better than they were pre-1980, but the illusion that the creator rights battles have been fought and won is a pervasive and destructive one. When, in 1986, cartoonist Bill Wray adapted to comics the short story "Eight O’Clock in the Morning" by Ray Nelson (aka Radell "Ray" Faraday Nelson), published twenty years earlier in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, for the short-lived Eclipse Comics anthology Alien Encounters under the title "Nada," he arguably created something new: a collaborative work with new, unique elements. It was Bill Wray's adaptation, not the original F & SF pulp publication of the story, that brought Nelson's story to the attention of filmmaker John Carpenter, who loved it. Carpenter contacted both the writer's agent and Eclipse Comics to buy the rights to both and adapt them himself (scripting under the screen pseudoname "Frank Armitage") into the film They Live (1988).

    Much to Bill's frustration -- and despite the fact he had introduced visual narrative elements unique to his adaptation that made it into the film -- in whatever role they played in negotiations, Eclipse Comics refused to acknowledge or concede Bill's role as a creative collaborator. Indeed, it could be argued that it was Bill's adaptation and art that made "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" desirable to Carpenter in the first place. Thus, Bill received nothing: no screen credit, no income, no nothing. This, from one of the first direct market publishers to tout themselves as "creator friendly" -- a sad precedent had been established.

    The cover of the 1999 British hardcover novel edition (Headline), sans Charlie's illustrations; the comparative US editions were published by Avon (hardcover and paperback).

    Now, Neil could have gone that route. Many writers would have, and many have.

    Neil had, in fact, sanctioned the publication in 1999 of both UK and US editions of Stardust sans Charlie's illustrations
  • (but don't take my word for it, though I've referenced my own bookshelves and files -- it's all confirmed here at Wikipedia's entry on Stardust).

  • It's standard practice in the book industry to relegate illustrators to interchangeable, disposable components of the author's realm. I do not deplore this per se, as it is a practice that is utterly pragmatic and firmly established as a fair and legal precedent. In comics, this is far, far more problematic -- after all, the imagery/art in comics is essential to the narrative aspect of the form, and cannot be simply removed or changed without dire consequence or a significant impact (note, as a reference point, Paul Pope's delirious reinterpretation of Jack Kirby's Omac in Paul's issue of Solo) -- and how many illustrators can lay proprietary claim to the author's work they've illuminated? Precious few.

    I've illustrated my share of books, and whether it's my ink-slinging or another artist's, or no illustrations at all, the novels, non-fiction and short stories I've illustrated by writers like Joe Lansdale, Joe Citro, Nancy Collins, Rick Hautala, Doug Winter and, yes, Neil Gaiman neither live nor die by my role in a specific edition. Do the filmmakers behind the various Edgar Rice Burroughs characters owe money and screen credit to J. Allen St. John or Frank Frazetta? Neither, asserts the Burroughs estate (and Burroughs in his lifetime), and that's the norm -- reasonably enough, especially given the plethora of illustrators individual authors (consider Edgar Allan Poe alone in this context) have been graced with over generations.

    Still, there are exceptions. Amid the current boom in zombie films, comics, music and literature, how many know the name of Alexander King (do you? I thought not). Few, damned few -- King was the artist who codified almost all the zombie imagery the pop culture still thrives upon, when he illustrated (back in 1929) eccentric W.B. Seabrook's influential best-seller The Magic Island, which introduced the concept (and word) 'zombi' to most of Western civilization. It was King's illustrations that were instantly plundered -- as the only available reference point, really -- for stage plays, pulp illustrations and the first zombie movie, White Zombie (1931). All hail, Alexander King!

    More to the point, I cited Willy Pogany earlier in this post. This Hungarian-born early 20th Century illustrator was so firmly lodged in the public's mind's eye and had earned such prestige as a fantasy illustrator that soon after feature films began to "borrow" his distinctive imagery (e.g., the 1927 Douglas Fairbanks vehicle The Thief of Bagdad comes to mind, lifting from Pogany and other famed fantasy illustrators of the era), Hollywood came knocking on his door.
  • By the time sound became a fixture of mainstream motion pictures, Pogany had begun working in a number of artistic capacities in Hollywood,
  • establishing a precedent others would tap in decades to come.
  • If you've never heard of Pogany, or seen his work, you owe it to yourself to rectify that situation; Wikipedia offers the quickest inroad
  • and here's Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr.'s excellent lavishly-illustrated online bio and biblio of Pogany's career.

  • I cite Pogany because:
    (a) Pogany is the precursor to the more active collaborative relations and spirit between filmmakers and artists/illustrators/cartoonists initiated (read: resurrected) in the 1970s by the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky (via his doomed Dune production), George Lucas and Ridley Scott (via Alien, which spun off Jodo's collapsed Dune to involve Jean Giraud, Chris Foss, Ron Cobb and H.R. Giger in its production designs).
    (b) Pogany is among the magnificent pantheon of classical fantasy illustrators Charles has built his own vision and career upon.

    Now, Neil knows both these things, as does Charlie. Neil knew he was fortunate enough to be working with the Willy Pogany of his generation, just as Charlie felt privileged to be working with Neil.

    In short, Neil -- who is, after all, the veteran DC/Vertigo author whose track record (and extremely skillful diplomacy) with the publisher fueled the contracts he and Charlie negotiated and signed a decade ago; and who is, after all, co-producer of the movie adaptation of Stardust -- recognized and has properly honored Charlie's intrinsic worth and importance to Stardust.

    wouldn't exist without Charlie -- or, if it did, it would be a very different work.

    Neil's ongoing good relations with all involved ensured both he and Charlie would be involved in and credited for their role in Stardust's creation, where others who went before them were not.

    Kudos to Neil, kudos to Charlie, and it couldn't have happened to a nicer pair of fellows.

    Enjoy Stardust, one and all, and have a great Tuesday...

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