In a recent interview, Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee explained why, of all colors, he chose green for the ever-lovin’ Hulk. As it turns out, it was due to technical limitations.
Yes, the green behemoth was originally conceived of as...gray. Unfortunatelyor fortunatelythere was a problem at the printer. Comic book panels used to be hand-colored in pointillist fashion, dot by dot, and gray didn’t reproduce as wellparticularly on smaller plates. Yellow being the color of the original Iron Man, blue monopolized by the Fantastic Four, red the primary color of Spider-Man’s costume, there weren’t many choices left on the spectrum for the Incredible One, except, of course, purplewhich Lee used for Hulk’s pants. It’s a great anecdote about how a medium is sometimes transformed or exemplified by its limits.
In fact, the comic book’s limitations have given rise to its most powerful means of creationits interaction with a reader’s imagination. Consider sounds. Not the SPKOW! of explosions and the PNAING! of bullets ricocheting off Tony Stark’s iron-plated chest, but identifying sounds, as inextricably intertwined with a superhero’s character as his costume: Nightcrawler’s BAMF! upon teleportation. Wolverine’s SCHNKKT! when his claws unsheathe. Spidey’s THWWPT! when he fires his webs. In the space between panels, the reader participates in the creation of the story, conjuring those sounds in his mind, dreaming the static images into motion, fantasizing month to month what happens next. It’s not surprising that it was fan response that led to the genesis of superhero teams like The Champions or The Defenders. Letters by the thousands poured in to Stan Lee as readers longed for pairings of heroes not yet conceived.
Filmmaking, aided by digital technology, has caught up to the comic book fan’s imagination, the image in motion eclipsing and in some cases exceeding the reader’s dream. Ang Lee’s Hulk suffers terrible shortcomings as a movie, but for those who grew up following the comic book series, the experience of watching the film’s last third, dedicated to Hulk’s battles with General Ross’ armed forces in the desert, is pure wish fulfillment. When Hulk makes one of his three-mile leaps, his arms flail slightly, like a kid jumping off a high dive for the first time. When Hulk delivers a two-fisted smash to a San Francisco street, the shock wave carries a row of cars on its crest and shakes the viewers’ teethjust as we imagined it would.
Indeed, some of the most compelling set pieces in recent movies visualize moments that comic-book fans have envisioned for years. Has there been a more exciting opening sequence than Nightcrawler’s havoc-raising attack on the Oval Office? A more thoroughly imagined display of limitless power than Magneto escaping his plastic prison in X2? A more giddy moment of wonder than when Tobey Maguire pressed his hand to a brick wall, and it stuck? These scenes take moments that every devotee has imagined privately and turn them into a shared vision, a way of bringing together the genre’s notoriously divisive partisans.
That broad, united fan base may bring about a new cinematic model. Instead of franchises, which consist of self-contained units, the success of comic-book films may mean the return of the serial: an ongoing saga spread out over several movies. For the studios, after the tremendous success of X2 and the Lord of the Rings three-film gamble, it makes financial sense. Though Warner Bros. just balked on the Batman vs. Superman project, it’s possible to imagine a future when, year after year, a new Spider-Man movie will hit theaters, or a new X-Men will be rolled out. As years go by, Wolverine could do battle with the Hulk, Iron Fist could team with Luke Cage, and the actors could be replaced as they outgrow their roles like singers in Menudo.
But the translation of comic-book form to the movies could have an even more exciting dimension. For a generation of directors, screenwriters and production designers who grew up with superheroes, comic books are the mythology of their youth. These talents long to put their own personal stamp on beloved characters and stories, just as comic book artists Walt Simonson, John Byrne and Bill Sienkiewicz did with Thor, X-Men and Daredevil, respectively. It’s even possible to imagine movie lengths shortened to roll the flicks out faster, to guarantee the faithful a 75-minute Punisher every May, followed by the latest Elecktra: Assassin in June.
I’d pay for it. And after they were over, I’d wait out the months between episodes as patiently as I’ve waited for my own mutant powers to blossom. Because movies are the new comic books. And I’m a kid again.
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