You may have noticed a few trailers for OBLIVION, a new Tom Cruise SF film that seems to fuse the themes of I AM LEGEND, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, WAR OF THE WORLDS, and MINORITY REPORT into one handy epic. (It also destroys New York, just as all futuristic movies must.) The film comes out in April and in addition to Cruise it stars Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Melissa Leo, Zoe Bell, and Andrea Riseborough. The director is TRON: UPRISING’s Joseph Kosinski, and he’s also the source of this film’s tenuous but fascinating “graphic novel” connection.For you see, OBLIVION is part of the lineup of Radical Publishing, one of the biggest of the comics publishers based around the “graphic novel to movie” business model, and one of the few still operating, although not really as a comics publisher. For one of these “movie comics” to actually get made into a movie is extremely, extremely rare—only COWBOYS & ALIENS and (sort of) 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, of all the hundreds of comics made just as movie pitches, have shown up at your local theater chain.
But Oblivion’s path to the screen is not the typical “movie comic” story. The story—a drone repairman on an Earth decimated by an alien invasion finds a downed spaceship and adventure ensues—is one Kosinski developed before being tapped to direct the Tron reboot, he told MTV:
“That was the original treatment, the story. At the time I was ready to turn it into a screenplay, WGA went on strike and we couldn’t actually hire a screenwriter to work on a screenplay at that point. So in order to keep the process moving forward I teamed up with Radical Comics to develop and illustrate a novel in parallel based on this story. And we did that over a couple years, and then I got pulled into ‘Tron,’ which was a couple years, and as ‘Tron’ was in post [production] I had enough between the story and the illustrations I had done with Andree [Wallin], the artist, I had enough of a package to go out and set the project up at a studio which is what I did. And then I went into feature mode so, we never actually finished the graphic novel because once it got picked up I realized that the way I wanted this story to be experienced was on the big screen and not out of the book.”
Indeed, although mentioned on the Radical website, with concept-ish art by Wallin and adapter Arvid Nelson, and promoted as a comic here and there, it doesn’t seem to have ever come out. An Amazon page says only “Sign up to be notified when this item becomes available.” And it wasn’t even much of a graphic “novel” as Kosinski told CBR:
I think “Oblivion” could be made into a graphic novel with panels, but for our book, “Oblivion” will be an illustrated novel with around 40 to 50 large wide format images interspersed through the story. I wanted to do large painted images to really show the scope of the worlds.
So the whole “graphic novel” thing was a wash where OBLIVION was concerned, right? Well…not quite. In his MTV interview Kosinski explains further:
“It was our final Comic-Con for ‘Tron,’ and while I was showing the big Comic-Con trailer and we were doing our big song and dance for ‘Tron: Legacy,’ I was also launching an ashcan for ‘Oblivion’—which was just kind of like an introductory chapter with eight images at the Radical [Comics] booth. And the day after I got back from Comic-Con, I got a call from Tom’s agent saying that Tom had seen the ashcan and wanted to meet me and talk to me about it. I went over and met him at his hanger and I pitched him the full story ’cause he had just read that introductory beat—there wasn’t a script at that point it was a story in my head. And I pitched him the whole story over about two hours and at the end of the meeting he said, ‘Let’s do this. I want to do this. I want to do this movie with you.’ … The role fits him like a glove. I just can’t imagine anyone else playing this character.”
Obviously, Cruise’s “people” at the con went around picking up stuff, or Radical pitched it to them, along with the ashcan. The “movie comic” model is in no danger of going away because graphic novels make terrific movie pitch documents—a busy studio exec can flip through a prose book and just get a headache, but looking through a graphic novel gives you the gist of the whole project. If Kosinski’s story is to be believed, it was just an “ashcan” that got Cruise interested. (Although the 51-year-old Cruise was being optimistic. The original story called for the drone repairman to be a young guy.) Wallin’s art is accomplished and dynamic, but what’s visible on the web looks more like promo pieces than a comic. (The whole thing kind of reminds us of the fake Sherlock Holmes graphic novel by John Watkiss that was used to
rescue hostages from the Kardashians get the film greenlit.
All in all, while the OBLIVION story reinforces the lore of the GN as effective pitch, it doesn’t really validate the whole “movie comic” company idea. Whenever a comics publisher turns to this model, it doesn’t end well. We’ve been covering the Platinum mess of late in detail, and most movie comic companies have gone the way of Virgin Comics, which now only exists as Liquid Comics, packaging some of their stronger comics-related material the company put out. As one Hollywood veteran told us “When you’re cold in town, just throwing your ideas into a comic book isn’t going to make you any less cold.”
However, it must be said, Radical has just announced ANOTHER project that may be the culmination of the whole “movie comics” method: HERCULES, an adaptation of the Radical Comic, has just been announced for Summer 2014, starring Duane Johnson and directed by Brett Ratner. The Radical comic was by Steve Moore and Cris Bolsin, and it was a nice-looking if standard kind of comic. Radical’s Barry Levine and Jesse Berger are both on board in production capacities.
With comics movies billion dollar franchises in Hollywood, there’s still a big incentive to try to hit the jackpot. So does this mean that the “movie comics” model is on the ascendant and more companies in the vein of Platinum and Radical are going to start springing up again? We’d advance a cautious “no” on the matter. Starting up a standalone company is an expensive business—Radical had to bring in investors to erect big shiny Comic-Con booths, hired actual staff and spent a ton of money when just printing a little xerox was all that was necessary. Indeed, Radical has been keeping a very low profile of late—their most recent announcement was a goofy-sounding pact with a credit card that gives you individual rewards when you press a button on the card—buy a froyo and get some Radical art. Right.
As we alluded to at the top of this piece, companies that set out to make comics just to get them turned into movies have had a pretty low success rate—if you want to put out a comic as a storyboard to put on a producer’s desk, it’s much more economical to get a publishing deal with Image or IDW…or just DIY. Printing is cheap and accessible for even the clumsiest studio lackey these days.
There’s another reason that movie comics companies seem to be fading away, related to the above. With Tumblr and Kickstarter and Twitter and WordPress and Lulu and so on, publishers just aren’t gatekeepers any more, and the need a young creator may have felt to sign up with a Platinum or Tokyopop to “get their name out there” no longer exists. Today’s kids are posting their graphic novels to Tumblr straight from the cradle; they don’t need a Stu Levy to get them exposure.
On the other hand, you could also argue that Marvel and DC have become the biggest “movie comics” publishers of them all…but that’s a post for another day.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.