Monday, January 21, 2019

REVIEW: Anything You Can Imagine... (and Reassessing the Hobbit Films)

I discovered and first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit in the mid-1970s, when I was in junior high school, which of course immediately led me to tackling the Lord of the Rings (LoTR). The books had already been discovered by a new generation of readers in the 1960s, particularly hippies and the college crowd, according to popular lore. Around this time, the book really hit the mainstream, with displays in bookstores devoted to the series, launching fantasy as a full blown genre. (The  role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons debuted in 1974 and the Sword of Shannara series of novels by Terry Brooks in 1977.) The famous Hildebrandt Brothers LoTR calendars, launched in 1975, defined the look of Middle Earth in many people’s minds at the time. (Since then, I’ve read the entire trilogy numerous times; it’s not unheard of for some people to read it annually!)

The Hildebrandt Brothers defined the look of Middle Earth in the 1970s
This was followed in 1979 by the ambitious but ill-fated Ralph Bakshi animated adaptation. (The Hollywood Reporter recently interviewed Bakshi about the film.) Much if not all of the film was filmed live action then rotoscoped (essentially traced/xeroxed onto animation cells)—among the actors providing live action body references or voices were John Hurt (Aragorn), Star Wars’ C3PO’s Anthony Daniels (Legolas) and Billy Barty (Sam Gamgee). Planned as two films, halfway through production and already underfunded, Bakshi was informed there would be no second film.*

While the film is inconsistent, I have a soft spot for it—I saw it in a theater in San Francisco on its release and still think the mood, tone and production and character designs hold up well. Somewhere I have a paperback photo-comic adaptation of the movie; I also thought the soundtrack and theme scores were particularly memorable, though I must admit they haven’t dated well. (As many people have noted, the first movie of the LoTR film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson contains several sequences that clearly echo Bakshi's film; indeed, Jackson has acknowledged this influence, noting that Bakshi's adaptation was his first exposure to the trilogy.)

As a lifelong Tolkien fan of both the books and the films, then, I was thrilled to receive as a holiday gift, the book, Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson and the Making of Middle-earth, by Ian Nathan, which briefly covers Jackson’s biography and background, focuses on the complex journey it took through Hollywood to get a green light, details its pre-production and production, looks back on its legacy, and briefly covers the making of the subsequent Hobbit trilogy. (The book is so timely that it even includes a postscript about the planned Amazon LoTR series that was announced shortly before the book went to press.)

What follows is my review of the book, as well as an opportunity to revisit my love for the books and LoTR films and reassess the Hobbit film trilogy.

It does feel like kismet the films ever got made. The project was first picked up by Miramax—then run by the now disgraced Harvey Weinstein and his brother, Bob Weinstein—but it quickly became clear the brothers didn’t have the resources to fund two films, partly because they now answered to their new parent company, Walt Disney, which had recently purchased Miramax. Indeed, the brothers then tried to get Jackson to whittle the story down to one film. Balking, Jackson and his team procured from the Weinsteins 10 days to find another studio—any deal would reimburse the Weinsteins for the seed money they already had spent, as well as retain their financial interest in the films' grosses. There weren’t many takers who even agreed to meet with Jackson, but on the last day they met with New Line and its head, Bob Shaye. As the story famously goes, after Shaye saw the sample reel Jackson and his production team had developed to demonstrate their vision and special effects capability, after some silence, the inscrutable Shaye said something along the lines of, “Why are you making two films? Isn’t it a trilogy?” (The book notes that this wasn’t simply largesse or common sense wisdom on Shaye’s part—New Line was in search of a new franchise, having exhausted the shelf life of series like Austin Powers and Nightmare on Elm Street.)

At first glance, Jackson didn’t seem to be an obvious choice for such an ambitious undertaking. Armed with little more than New Zealand/Kiwi can-do spirit, he had made a splash and attracted attention with early DIY/shoestring productions like Brain Dead and Meet the Feebles; caught the attention of more people in Hollywood with the more mature and nuanced drama Heavenly Creatures; and showed his capability for bigger special-effects projects with the Frighteners (produced by Robert Zemeckis). He also had a friend and supporter in Mark Ordesky at New Line who got him the meeting with Shaye (Ordesky would eventually serve as executive producer on the production). As the book shows, though Jackson was an “outsider” from New Zealand, he was hardly naive; with the help of his agent, he otherwise proved plenty smart and savvy in playing the Hollywood game that is necessarily part of the process given the hundreds of millions of dollars and egos at stake.

Anything You Can Imagine covers the full history of the making of the films behind the scenes, including the creation of Jackson’s Weta Workshop and Weta Digital, under the leadership of longtime friend/partner in crime Richard Taylor. Of course, the films would not have been possible without advances in digital special effects (which included the innovative Massive software for generating crowds where individual “agents” could “think” and make movements for themselves) and the talents of the perfectly cast film, which included Elijah Wood as Frodo, Ian McKellen as Gandalf, and Viggo Mortenson as Strider/Aragorn. (Mortenson joined the production a few days after principal photography began after original cast member Stuart Townsend was let go—at the time, “creative differences” were cited, but of course, there’s more to the story, with Townsend seemingly a bit overwhelmed by the movie's demands which gave Jackson second thoughts given the rigors of production and his need to work with actors who were drama-fee.)

A whole chapter is also devoted to Andy Serkis, whose performance and interpretation of the pivotal character of Gollum completely re-shaped the film. Planned as an entirely CGI/animated character, Serkis’s fully invested and very physical performance of his lines convinced Jackson (and his co-screenwriters/brain trust, wife Fran Walsh and Tolkien fan and fellow writer Philippa Boyens) to bring Serkis on set to act opposite the other actors. His performance soon would be motion captured as reference for the animators, highlighting the on-the-fly/flexible way Jackson approached the films, much to the benefit of the final production.

Numerous behind-the-scenes stories are told, including the New Line’s smart marketing gamble to show an exclusive 30-minute “sizzle” reel at Cannes, which created positive buzz for the film and reassured not only the fan community but especially investors and distributors, who had begun to feel skittish about the project. (According to the book, these foreign distribution deals covered the full production costs of the film by the time the shoot began, but in moments of panic, Shaye took pains to remind Jackson that many of these companies would go under if the first film faltered at the box office.)

The book inspired me to watch the original trilogy again—I own the full extended edition of each film and, while I have seen them numerous times, as well as all the outstanding behind-the-scenes full-documentary extras, it had been many years.

The original LoTR film trilogy still stand up as modern classics—while, of course, they have the benefit of Tolkien’s original story, Jackson, Walsh and Boyens deserve full credit in unlocking the film’s complex storyline, themes, characters and drama, and making them accessible to modern day audiences, both to fans and non-fans alike. The changes they made to the original text for cinematic reasons or to deepen the characterizations in many cases improves or builds on the original text. The production design and special effects in the films by Weta Workshop remain incredibly impressive and created a credible world, but never overshadow the film, the story or the characters. One only needs to view the extras, or listen to the commentaries on the DVDs, to see how deeply and seriously the filmmakers thought about the story, character motivations, and world and culture building on Middle Earth.

The book also motivated me to re-watch the Hobbit film trilogy. While I originally saw this second “prequel” trilogy in the theaters at their release, I had never binge-watched them as I had the LoTR films numerous times; indeed, since their release, I've usually only "half-watched" them when they showed up on TV—in fact, until I decided to watch the full film trilogy, I discovered I didn't even own all three films. I did have the first two films either on DVD or on streaming, but never bought the third film. When I finished the first two, I went out and purchased the extended version of the third film on Bluray. (You can find my reviews of the theatrical film releases of film one here, two here, and three here.)

When I first saw them in the theater, I did not feel as invested or enthralled by them like the first trilogy. In fact, in my initial review in 2015, I even said the last film left me a little cold.  Like many, I felt the action, special effects and spectacle seemed to overwhelm what was the thinnest book of the series, turning what was a light children's adventure romp into a somewhat dark epic that seemed even bigger than LoTR. No doubt it was a challenge to find the right tone for a story based on a lighthearted children's adventure that needed to segue and have the same feel as the original LoTR films. The story, of course, is a true prequel to the trilogy, concerning the finding of the “One Ring”—which the filmmakers bolstered by adding material mentioned only in passing (if at all) in the Hobbit but were still part of Tolkien’s canon of back story in the appendices of his original trilogy, unpublished pieces, and his other Middle Earth work like the Simarillion. (Adding Legolas also connected the two film trilogies.)

With Weta concept artist Daniel Falconer at the 2014
San Diego Comic-Con
On fresh viewing, however, I was more forgiving and found the Hobbit films more enjoyable and engaging. Jackson clearly tried to preserve some of the original kid-friendly tone of the book through the over-the-top action set-pieces and some of the humor. The dwarves’ escape from imprisonment in the elf kingdom of Rivendell comes to mind. In the sequence, Legolas and a companion she-elf, Tauriel—played by Evangeline Lilly and created for the film—first try to recapture them, but when orcs attack, they end up allying with the dwarves in battling a common enemy. The levity and breeziness of the action, however, is often undercut by Jackson’s glee in finding innovative and funny ways to graphically kill and behead orcs, indulging Jackson's sensibilities as seen in his earlier films. These kinds of inconsistencies exist throughout the Hobbit films, as Jackson tried to honor the heavy tone of the epic Middle Earth mythology while keeping it accessible and fun in keeping with the tone of the original Hobbit book. It’s important to note that humor played an important role in countering the gravitas of the original LoTR trilogy as well, but in those films the humor is generally more nuanced, character based and less broad; in the Hobbit movies, I felt they sometimes took you out of the film.

That said, the Hobbit trilogy ultimately is still quite a feat of bravura filmmaking that is true to the original book as a product of the Middle Earth mythology, if not necessarily the tone of the original story by Tolkien. Obviously, Jackson felt the films had to feel consistent. While it would have been impossible to make each of the 13 dwarves in the film fully developed characters, they have distinct personalities and some have their own memorable moments; the realization of Smaug the dragon as a character is impressive (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, paralleling a similar journey Serkis took when he was cast as Gollum); and the final climactic sequence, the “Battle of Five Armies,” as the third film is named, is an incredible achievement of battle and storytelling logistics. Yes, it’s long and there are some moments that feel drawn out, but it’s thrilling nonetheless, especially with fans familiar with the book, with moments like the elves allying with the dwarves (and humans) to fight the orcs, and Legolas’ final battle with Bolg being especially satisfying.

Anyway, for any serious fan of the LoTR films, Nathan’s book should be a great read and an opportunity to revisit both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit books and film trilogies.

My dog-eared editions of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy, dating to the 1970s

My extended DVD collection of the LoTR film trilogy

Monday, January 14, 2019

Remembering Batton Lash

I was extremely saddened to hear about the passing of cartoonist Batton Lash on January 12. Although I've posted my thoughts about him on Facebook and Twitter, I thought I'd post something for posterity here as well....

Being a fellow self-publisher, he and his wife (and business partner) Jackie Estrada were among the first people in the industry to make me feel welcome as a professional and like I belonged. As all the comments made by people in the industry show in response to his passing, Batton was well-respected and liked throughout the field at many levels, by fellow pros both in mainstream and alternative comics, as well as retailers, fans, and many others. Of course, some of this was just smart business sense and promotion, but it also was part and parcel of Batton's gregarious, positive personality. Like many creative fields, cartooning is a tough way to make a living and requires a lot of hard work and hustle (and I mean that in a positive way), and Batton's determination and resilience as a cartoonist, and his ability to straddle a variety of styles and comics, made him a throwback to "old school" cartoonists. Batton often liked to tell the anecdote about how he took a cartooning class with comics legend Will Eisner, who pretty much advised him not to quite his day job. They joked about it in later years, but Batton's subsequent success was as much the result of talent as sheer determination, which is essential to this business.

I often made it a point to stop by to say hi to Batton and Jackie at the San Diego Comic-Con—where he was a fixture with a booth at a prime location on the main floor—and had the pleasure of being at smaller shows and book signings with him, where we often talked shop and business. Given the number of people he knew, our relationship was more professional than personal, but he was always warm and open with whoever he spoke with and being fellow self-publishers certainly made it a special bond. Batton and Jackie were great supporters and role models, and happy to share information and advice. (I don't have concrete evidence, but I also think Batton and Jackie both had some hand in the recognition I received at the 2018 San Diego Comic-Con as a special guest.)

Batton's illness was fairly public knowledge and I made it a special point to visit him at his booth the past few years. He was always his usual upbeat and cheerful self—though I wasn't completely aware of his progress, his passing was nevertheless a bit of a surprise.

I was privileged to have our two characters—Rob Hanes and Wolff & Byrd—play together in a pinup for his series, which appeared in issue 7 of Wolff & Byrd, reproduced below. It remains one of my personal favorite such pinups I've done and I'm glad to share it in Batton's memory.

Friday, January 4, 2019

REVIEW: We Told You So: Comics as Art

This is a review of the Kindle edition.

In 2016, Fantagraphics Books celebrated its 40th anniversary and, to mark the occasion, published We Told You So: Comics as Art by two comics journalists and former Fantagraphics employees, Tom Spurgeon and Michael Dean. An oral history clocking in at 500 pages (the print edition), it’s an in-depth and compelling insider’s look at the company’s history consisting of direct-quote reminiscences from present and former employees, cartoonists, industry pros and more. For most, the book may seem a bit esoteric, self-indulgent and “inside baseball,” as readers are given insight into Fantagraphics  behind the scenes during the company’s founding and history, operations, personalities, and its most illustrious, notorious and even insignificant moments. But it's a fascinating read for someone like me with an interest in publishing, and who grew up with Fantagraphics and particularly the Comics Journal, its storied, once-flagship magazine of “news and criticism." I witnessed the company's growth and many of its battles firsthand as reported in its pages and other comics news reports of the day, and knew many of the players by name and reputation, so reading this oral history brought many of those memories back to vivid life.

Fantagraphics was founded in 1976 by Gary Groth and Mike Catron to publish their comics adzine/fanzine, the Nostalgia Journal, which was soon renamed the Comics Journal (TCJ). Kim Thompson joined the company about a year later; following Catron’s departure soon after, it was Groth and Thompson who would become the guiding pillars of the company. (Thompson passed away fairly suddenly in 2013.)

The first magazine-format version
of the Comics Journal (#37)
While I wasn’t quite at the ground floor of its founding as a reader, I grew up with the company aesthetically, discovering TCJ with issue 38 (cover dated 1977), shortly after it had changed its name to the Comics Journal and become a monthly magazine. Starting with that issue, I own nearly the full run of the magazine, which today are scattered around my various boxes of stored comics and periodicals.

And what a ride it’s been, transforming over the years from fanzine and news magazine provocateurs, alternative comics publisher, pornographers (more on that below), to respected book publisher. Today, Fantagraphics is home to some of the world’s leading alternative comics artists like the Hernandez Brothers (Love and Rockets), Daniel Clowes (Ghost World and Eightball), Chris Ware (Acme Comics Library), and stewards of the complete works of iconic cartoonists like Jules Feiffer, Robert Crumb and Charles Schulz (that’s quite a lineup!).

The book covers many of the highs (and lows) of the company’s history. While TCJ began as a traditional fanzine of mainstream (i.e., superhero) comics, it soon became the enfant terrible of the comics industry as Groth and Thompson began the rather quixotic quest of holding comics to a higher artistic standard, while also providing more in-depth coverage of the personalities and business practices of the industry. (The lengthy interviews were particularly a distinct feature of the magazine). Along the way, Groth, Thompson and the magazine made many enemies (a phrase I don’t use lightly), earning reputations as elitists (and worse), which they seemed to revel in and embrace, often initiating attacks that some considered personal and vicious. The feuds (and related litigation) the company engaged in back in its prime are legendary and well documented in the book. In the days before the internet and social media, it was like watching flame wars and trolling occur in slow motion over months or even years, as people battled through letters and editorials each issue.*

[In full disclosure, I should add that I even got into the act—TCJ published a critical essay and a review by me in issues 101 (August 1985) and 108 (May 1986); I also had a couple of pieces of art published in Amazing Hereos, its sister magazine that contained more traditional coverage of mainstream comics.)*

Love and Rockets #1
1982 brought a major sea change when its founders decided to put their money where their mouth was, by publishing their first (creator-owned) comic book series, one that reflected their own tastes and values. This was the groundbreaking Love and Rockets by the Hernandez Brothers (Jaime and Gilbert), re-packaging and re-releasing the first issue the brothers had already self-published and sent to Fantagraphics for review. (I own this first issue and its initial full run as well!) While Love and Rockets didn’t start the independent comics movement per se (Cerebus the Aardvark and Elfquest had launched in the late ‘70s), it became the flagship for both Fantagraphics and the “alternative” comics movement—a term the book amusingly makes clear was a somewhat contrived marketing ploy lifted from the music industry by a Fantagraphics publicist, which the publishers weren't really comfortable with. But the term stuck and proved to be an apt description.

From there, the company began expanding its comics line with artists like the above-mentioned Clowes and Ware, as well as, Peter Bagge (Hate), and many others; and expanding into other diverse comics including translated work, collections, etc. Many of these cartoonists were not money-makers, but Fantagraphics published work they felt deserved exposure.

However, as the internet became a primary source of news and online discussion for comics, much like the mainstream magazine market, TCJ sales declined, making their comics and book publishing even more important to the company’s bottom line. While the company always lived on the edge financially, two particular episodes brought the company to the brink of collapse, only to be saved by some out-of-the box thinking. The first was the collapse in the late 1980s of a speculator boom in the comics industry that caused the market to tank, particularly small independent publishers like Fantagraphics. Fantagraphics’ solution was to launch a line of “erotic” (i.e., pornographic) comics in 1990, under the imprint Eros Comics, that helped the company weather the storm for the coming years.

With the enthusiastic support of Charles Schulz widow
and estate, Fantagraphics published the full run of
Peanuts in 25 volumes (plus a 26th bonus) from 2004–16
The second incident came in 2004, when Fantagraphics' book distributor went bankrupt, leaving the company suddenly $70,000 in the hole. The company desperately reached out to readers (and their catalog mailing list), explaining the situation and asking people to make a purchase from Fantagraphics’ deep inventory to boost their bottom line. Readers and the industry came through, infusing the company with $100,000 inside of a month.

The book also covers the company’s physical moves over the years, from the east coast and New England, to Southern California, to its present home in Seattle—a seemingly perfect fit as it arrived there along with the burgeoning alt-rock movement that was emerging; and the parade of often eccentric and low-paid interns and employees who crossed the company’s doorstep. The book is full of insider reminiscences that also covers the personalities and chemistry of Groth, Thompson and the people who worked for them for little pay.

While the company still retains its gonzo quality, it also seems to have grown up a bit, no doubt due to the mellowing with age of its principal owners. It’s found some stability and focus with its book publishing and has pretty much moved on from (or perhaps more accurately given up) trying to change the mainstream by focusing on just putting out comics and books that reflects the company’s values. Indeed, underscoring the challenges of comics publishers that do not publish "traditional" continuity-driven periodical comics or the like, Fantagraphics' bread and butter today comes from the more broader book market, not the narrower direct-sales comics market. Other such "boutique" comics publishers have followed in their footsteps.

Despite the nostalgia for classic comics from a more innocent time before they got wrapped up in stifling continuity and being fodder for licensing, franchise films and TV shows, we are today truly living in a "golden age" of comics, with a diversity of comics for all tastes, paralleling the fragmentation of audiences we’ve seen in television/streaming services/broadcast media. While Fantagraphics did not single handedly create the alternative comics market, it certainly played a big role in making that happen.

Postscript: During the 2018 San Diego Comic-Con, Fantagraphics announced that the print version of TCJ was returning in 2019, having ceased publishing as a magazine in 2011 and continuing as a website.


* In 1981, realizing that the mission of the TCJ had moved beyond the mainstream, it introduced Amazing Heroes, a more traditional (and less controversial) comics magazine that covered the industry in a more sanguine and positive manner as a compliment to the more hard-hitting TCJ. (The 1980s and ‘90 were a golden age of sorts for comics magazines and zines, which I collected as enthusiastically as the comics themselves, each with its own personality, such as the weekly tabloid-format Comic Buyer’s Guide (CBG), a dependable source of more traditional news, reviews and information that acted both as a fanzine and industry trade journal which served as a nice complement and counterpoint to TCJ. Between the CBG and TCJ, I felt both provided a fairly comprehensive view of what was going on in the industry. There were other great magazines as well during this period, such as Comics Interview, Comics Feature and more).