Adapting visual and structural features of comic books to film. Possibilities and limitations

Bachelor Thesis, 2015
75 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Comics und film — a historical and theoretical overview
2.1. A history of interaction
2.2. The differences
2.2.1. Panels and page layout
2.2.2. Perception and immersion
2.2.3. Drawing styles
2.2.4. Omission of sound and the codependence of image and text
2.3. Adaptation challenges and an updated research premise10

3. Adaptation
3.1. Imitating panel structure and comic perception
3.1.1. Using stationary frames or tracking shots to imitate panels
3.1.2. Using freeze frames to imitate static panels
3.1.3. Using slow motion to imitate static panels
3.1.4. Using multiple-frame imagery to imitate spatial synchronicity
3.1.5. Using montage techniques to visualize the gutter
3.1.6. Using montage to engage immersion
3.2. Transporting the individual drawing style of the illustrations
3.2.1. Graphic stylization
3.2.2. Other techniques to transport the tone of the drawing style
3.2.3. A different claim to realism Exaggeration and impossible views Violence
3.3. Turning visual sound into actual sound
3.3.1. Using a soundtrack
3.3.2. Importing and transcribing graphic indices
3.3.3. Copying the codependence of image and text

4. Collaboration with comic creators and closeness to the original

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

7. Illustration directory

1. Introduction

Filmic comic book adaptations are not a new phenomenon, but throughout the last decade the amount of productions based on comic book material has highly increased (Platthaus 2011: 24). The film industry seems to have remembered the potential of adapting comic book material: For one, filmic adaptations of comic books can base on preexisting franchises and profit from their status and fan base1. Most importantly however, both media are related. “As visual media both [share] aesthetic qualities and formal properties, […] which have important visual resemblance” (Gordon 2007: xi). They seem to predestine comics for filmic adaptations.

Nevertheless, Andreas Platthaus, leading German comic theorists, claims that despite the close relationship between comics and film only few of these box offices successes are aesthetically appealing and that most visually fall short of their originals (Platthaus 2011: 22). Experts from both media agree: Comic icon Alan Moore considers his comics to be “unfilmable” (The Mindscape 2005), because they “exploit all the things that comic books can do and that no other medium can” (Dent 2009: 1). French director Alain Resnais questions if filmic adaptations of comic books could “add something to the original work” instead of being “rehashes” (Lefèvre 2007: 1). For Platthaus the reason are structural differences between comics and film that complicate the visual adaptation process (2011: 22). Yet, like other theorists, he highlights counterexamples, comic book adaptations with the ambition to not only adapt characters and plot, but also the visual style of the original.

This paper will examine how recent films have tried to adapt the visual and structural features characteristic to comic books and how those adaptation techniques have explored the limitations of both media. Thus, this paper will try to answer the question to what extent film is able to make comic books “come alive” (McCloud 2000: 210) and to what extent it is incompatible to do so. Due to the limited space, this paper will primarily focus on American live-action adaptations of American comic books2.

2. Comics and film — a historical and theoretical overview

Most theorists agree, that comics and film share distinct structural and visual characteristics (Friedrich/Rauscher 2007: 7; Seeßlen 2011: 257; Lefèvre 2007: 2): Both primarily use images and both rely on cutting to link these pictures (Platthaus 2011: 24). Pascal Lefèvre (2007: 2) summarizes the central similarity between both media as follows: “Film and comics are both media which tell stories by series of images”.

2.1. A history of interaction

History proves how closely related the two visual media comic and film have always been (Gordon 2007: vii). “Seit ihren Anfängen haben sich Comic und Film wechselseitig beeinflusst, ihr Repertoire an Ausdrucksmöglichkeiten um Techniken aus dem jeweiligen anderen Medium erweitert” (Friedrich/Rauscher 2007: 7). Looking at the beginning of film in the late Nineteenth century these similarities become evident: The picture plate “Woman Kicking” (1870-1890) by Edward Muybridge shows a sequence of motions divided into small frames (ill.1.) that resembles certain panel-to-panel transitions in comics (McCloud 1993: 70-71, 108-110) (ill.2). Both try to create motion by juxtaposing static images.

Muybridge’s experiments predate the birth of film and comics only by some years. The birth of film is commonly dated to the year 1895, when the Lumière brothers presented their cinematograph (Friedrich/Rauscher 2007: 7, Seeßlen 2011: 255). Many believe that this is also the year that marks the publication of the first comic strip of comics — Richard Fenton Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley” (Friedrich/Rauscher 2007: 7, Seeßlen 2011: 255). However, theorist do not agree on this3. What is commonly considered the first filmic adaptation of comic book material remains equally unclear. Yet, It is commonly believed that the first filmic comic book adaptations were produced around 1900 to 19204.

Superheroes were the ones to establish the genre of filmic comic book adaptations. For the decades to come, their stories would make out the dominant content of filmic comic book adaptations. By the 1950s multiple superheroes had their own television series and appeared in low production films (Gordon 2007: vii). Formative for the public perception of filmic comic book adaptations in the future, were the Batman-film from 1966 and the following television series (1966-1968). Characteristic to both are comical characters, eccentric performances, flashy colors, gimmicks and obviously artificial props that “emphasize comical elements and take them to extremes” (Friedrich 2007: 35). Until today this comical notion is considered by many to be typical for comic films (36).

The first filmic adaptation of Superman, which started he modern blockbuster film era (Gordon 2007: vii), tried to change these views. The goal was an epic spectacle (Friedrich 2007: 25), that took the original and itself seriously (Ofenloch 2007: 73). Even though Superman (1978) achieved this premise, the Superman-franchise, which evolved from it, ultimately returned to the slapstick of the Batman-projects of the 1960’s in its later installments (Friedrich 2007: 27-28). Nevertheless, the film industry had realized comic books potential to be adapted into cinematic spectacles — something that was and still is especially true for superhero comics5. Consequently, both Batman and Superman returned to the screen multiple times. However, the public perception of comic films did not change. After Batman Returns (1992) was considered too little appropriate for children, ambitious director Tim Burton was replaced by Joel Schumacher who reanimated the pop spectacle of the 60’s (Friedrich 2007: 37-45). Again, filmic adaptations of comic books seemed to align with public perception.

Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) is commonly considered to have given new life to superhero-comic-adaptations (Friedrich 2007: 28). Its surprise success, followed by that of Sam Riami’s Spiderman (2002), revitalized the genre, and encouraged film studios and producers to more adventurous adaptations: Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) aimed to be a compromise between arthouse and spectacle (Rauscher 2007: 64): The visual aesthetic of the movie should resemble that of the comic book original. This trend had been started in the early 1990’s when Dick Tracy (1990) made an “effort to capture the aesthetic of a comic in a live-action film, and paved the way for the exploration of the visual correlations lying dormant between cinema and comic” (Cohen 2007: 13).

In comics, this “exploration of the visual correlations” had already started in the late 1980’s: Frank Miller extensively experimented with filmic means of expression while working on The Dark Knight Returns (1986) (Friedrich 2007: 37). Therefore, it barely seems a coincidence that Frank Miller is also responsible for what might be “the strongest signal of the symbiosis between film and comics to date, Sin City (2005)” (Gordon 2007: viii), the filmic adaptation of Miller’s own graphic novel of the same name (1991-92). Miller functioned as co-director of the adaptation and its sequel Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014). Critics granted Sin City (2005) that it made Miller’s comics come “thrillingly alive” (Corliss 2005: 1). Some even claimed that “there will be no reason for anyone to make a comic-book film ever again[, because] Miller and Rodriguez have pushed the form as far as it can possibly go” (Mabe 2005: 1).

2.2. The differences

The last chapter demonstrated how closely comics and film have always been related, up to the seemingly perfect symbiosis in Sin City. However, “although there are many similarities, the differences are still considerable” (Lefèvre 2007: 12). Many theorists state that those structural differences between comics and film are as considerable as the natural relationship of the two visual media (Dittmar 2008: 6; McCloud 2000: 33; Friedrich/Rauscher 2007: 8; Platthaus 2011: 24). Pascal Lefèvre summarizes:

There are four main problems in the adaptation of comics into film and three of them are related to the characteristics of the comics medium itself[6]: panels are arranged on a page, panels are static drawings and a comic does not make noise or sound. Film is quite different. First, there is a screen frame, second, the film images are moving and photographic, third, film has a soundtrack. (2007: 3)

In his analysis of these problems, Lefèvre touches on additional crucial differences between comics and film that complicate the adaptation process. To get and keep a better overview, this chapter will therefore restructure the three problems claimed by Lefèvre into the following four unique characteristics of comics that are difficult to imitate in film: (A) panels and page layout, (B) perception and immersion — resulting from the before mentioned page layout7 — (C), drawing styles and (D) the omission of sound. To reveal what problems these differences cause during the adaptation process this chapter will first highlight how these characteristics work in comics and then explain how they are different in film.

2.2.1. Panels and page layout

Comics tell stories through juxtaposing images “in deliberate sequence” (McCloud: 1993: 9). These images are called panels. Even though some theorists claim that comics use motion pictures (Seeßlen 2011: 257), panels are strictly speaking always static and unable to depict neither time nor motion (Dittmar 2008: 86, Mc Cloud 1993: 110, Lefèvre 2007: 6). Devices such as speech balloons and motion lines might indicate time and motion inside a panel and condense certain duration into “frozen moments” (McCloud 1993: 98, 109; Mahne 2007: 51), but each panel always remains only part of a bigger context or motion sequence (Dittmar 2008: 73, 87). For better visualization panels can therefore be compared to photographs (Mahne 2007: 51).

While comics are unable to depict time in temporal sequence they can do so through spatial sequence (McCloud 1993: 100), namely through juxtaposing panels. “Comics’ multi-image structure [is] the portrayal of time through space” (McCloud 2000: 210). However, “panels are not only placed in a linear sequence but also on a larger space, namely the page” (Lefèvre 2007: 6). Even though being unable to read them synchronically, the reader will always perceive them synchronically (Platthaus 2011: 24, Dittmar 2008: 122)8. While looking at one panel, the reader will always perceive neighboring panels if not the whole page. For comics this results in a unique, spatial perception of time. If the panel in focus always depicts the present, the reader unconsciously and synchronically perceives the past in the previous panels and the future in upcoming panels (Mahne 2007: 51, 62). Therefore, the page layout contributes to the structural possibilities of the medium and is of equal importance to the story telling as the individual panels (Mahne 2007: 51).

In film the smallest units are frames and takes (Mahne 2007: 76). Their central difference to comic panels is at the same time one of the most crucial differences between the two media in general: the depiction of motion. In contrast to panels in comics, which are only able to hint motion, “film functions with moving images” (Lefèvre 2007: 6). Images are not captured as if shot with a photo camera, but filmed with cameras that can capture motion and move themselves, which enables film to depict time through time. “Die Erzählzeit und die erzählte Zeit verhalten sich zeitdeckend”9 (Mahne 2007: 78).

Even though film seems superior to comics in depicting motion, it faces difficulties trying to adapt the versatile structural features of panel arrangement and page layout and how comics use them for storytelling. The reason starts during the production process: Since comics layout contributes immensely to the storytelling, illustrating the panels and combining them on the page is one process in comic production. “In cinema, filming and montage are two quite separate phases” (Lefèvre 2007: 6), even though the form is a non- dividable unit (Mahne 2007: 77). Additionally, montage is limited to the linear structure of the medium film. Individual frames and takes can only be montaged in one way: One after another. Conclusively, “layout is a function in comic for which there is no equivalent in cinema” (Cohen 2007: 31).

2.2.2. Perception and immersion

The previous chapter highlighted that comic panels are static and that they create motion mainly through juxtaposing these panels. However, the sequence alone does not create motion. Like Muybridge’s picture plate “Woman Kicking”, a panel sequence only suggests motion, but each frame remains a static pose. In comics, the actual motion only exists in the comic reader’s imagination. During perception, each static panel is a syntagmatic unit (Seeßlen 2011: 257) and the medium relies on the reader’s imagination to “transform[…] them into a single idea”10 (McCloud 1993: 66).

Die dynamische Körperpose als Bewegungsindikator basiert vornehmlich auf der Rezeptionsleistung des Betrachters, der in dem herausgehobenen Moment auch das Vorher und das Nachher erkennt und entsprechend seiner Bewegungserfahrungen einen Bewegungsablauf rekonstruiert. (Mahne 2007: 55)

“Analog zu den Einzelbildern […] vollzieht sich auch die Rekonstruktion der Ereignisfolge einer Bildsequenz kraft der Induktionsleistungen des Rezipienten” (Mahne 2007: 57). Comic readers imagine everything that they do not see based on the limited things that they do see.

That motion has to be imagined and that action only exists through putting individual panels into context to one another, marks the high level of immersion in comics. The comic reader is the comic artist’s “silent accomplice” (McCloud 1993: 68) and “a willing and conscious collaborator” (65). Logically, “the goal of making comics “come alive” seems closer in such works [that] create an immersive experience” (McCloud 2000: 210). This leads McCloud and many other theorists (Dittmar 2008: 87, 90) to believe that the heart of comics actually lies in the space between the panels, where the immersive experience takes place, and that this space „is a crucial means of creating narrative momentum“ (Kovacs/ Marshall 2011: x). McCloud coined this space “the gutter” (1993: 66).

Of course, the reader’s participation in the perception process can reach different levels. In some comics, panel arrangement and page layout are more complex than in others and take longer to decode. Besides, not all readers decode equally fast. Therefore, it is of essential importance to the perception process of comics that the medium offers readers the chance to choose their own reading speed. The static nature of comics combined with the synchronicity of panels on a page allows readers to “linger on a panel, scan the complete plate, and return to panels or whole sequences at free will” (Lefèvre 2007: 5). Conversely, this grants comic artists the chance for “aesthetic provocation” (Platthaus 2011: 24): to incorporate more detail, to deconstruct conventions and choose more abstract styles of illustration that take longer to decode (cf. ill.3). Comic artists know: “Je mehr [der Leser] vom Zeichner herausgefordert wird, desto mehr Zeit wird er sich nehmen” (24).

In film, the level of immersion is quite lower. Like any medium that uses montage film includes a dialectic process (Monaco 2002: 219), but film only “makes use of audiences’ imagination for occasional effects” (McCloud 1993: 69). Unlike comics, film does not rely on it for its storytelling11, conclusively however “the partnership between creator and reader in comics is far more intimate and active than cinema” (McCloud 2000: 39). To create a similar immersive experience in film as in comics seems almost impossible, since film is unable to copy the most essential aspect of such an experience in comics: an individual speed of perception. A viewer of a film might rewind to look at something he has missed — and that only at home, not in the theatre — but that only grants him limited control (Cohen 2007: 31). Once he watches it again, he again is “obliged […] to follow the rhythm of the sequence” (Lefèvre 2007: 5) and watch what the director has chosen to film (Seeßlen 2011: 257).

This consequently limits the amount of detail filmmakers can include in their work. Since the viewer usually sees each image only once — and since he is aware of this fact —, he is likely to try to gather the most essential information first. Only then the viewer might spot details, if the frame has not yet changed. The more details are incorporated, the more are likely to be lost. This effect is only intensified by the fact that cinema, unlike comics, usually uses images in constant movement and that the screen is in less closer range than it is in comics (Lefèvre 2007: 5).

2.2.3. Drawing styles

Every drawing is by its style a visual interpretation of the world […]. The form of the drawing influences the manner the viewer will experience and interpret the drawing. A drawn image offers a specific view on reality and the creator’s subjectivity of this reality is built into the work […]. The viewer is obliged to share this figuratively view of the maker, and can not look at the object-in-picture from another visual point of view than the one the picture offers. (Lefèvre 2007: 8)

Additionally, “the fact that pictures are drawn reminds the reader of their artificial status” (Lefèvre 2007: 2). It results in an alienation effect. Therefore, a comic reader will more easily accept the depiction of artificial realities or impossible views, since he does not compare what he sees to the depiction in the real world (7, 9).

The expectations in film are different. Here, viewers expect realism and compare what they see to the real world (8). Any altering of the photographic appeal of the film will automatically create conflict with the film’s own goal to portray realism as well as the viewers expectations.

The visual ontology of a drawing creates problems for an adaption from a comic book to a live-action movie. […] The more stylized or caricatured the drawing, the more likely the director of the movie will experience problems in finding a way to capture such a representation on film. (Gordon 2007: xii)

The stylization and caricaturization mentioned by Gordon also includes cartooning, meaning simplification to ensure universal appeal (Wandtke 2012: 88). Regarding the drawing of human features, especially faces, cartooning is a technique used by almost all comic artists (McCloud 1993: 42). “By stripping down an image to its essential meaning, an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t” (30).

2.2.4. Omission of sound and the codependence of image and text

Comics are not only a static medium, but also a silent one. Similar to motion, comics are only able to suggest sound through a variety of graphic indices (Dittmar 2008: 115; Lefèvre 2007: 11, McCloud 1993: 134). Over the years those signs, like speech balloons or onomatopoeia have been conventionalized so far that they verge on being linguistic symbols (McCloud 1993: 129). Comic readers understand them instantly. Nevertheless, the actual sound “remains largely an interpretation by the reader” (Lefèvre 2007 11), marking one more time comics high level of immersion.

Graphic indices are only one indicator of the close relationship between word and image in comics. Others are the synaesthetic quality of the lettering in comics (Schüwer 2008: 356-365) or the deeply intertwined interaction between textual elements and images in the story telling (327-338). For Wandtke this “codependence of word and image in comic books […] forms the basis of the definitions [used] to distinguish comic books from other mediums” (2012: 80). In any case, this codependence is responsible for comics’ most complex transitions between panels and engages comic readers’ active participation far more than comics’ graphic indices. After all, in comics text can only be understood by taking the image into account and vice versa (Dittmar 2008: 9).

Unlike in comics, sound is an important channel of information in film (Monaco 2002: 15). Film is able to depict sound through sound and is therefore superior to comics in depicting it — as it is superior to it in depiction motion (cf. 2.2.1.). However, sound affects the immersive perception of comic reader’s (McCloud 2003: 210): “The presence of sound in films […] disturbs the mental world created by comic readers who fill in the silence with imagined aspects” (Gordon 2007: xii). Comic readers are able to interpret onomatopoeia and speech bubbles as what sound they want, while film viewers will hear all sounds as what they are. Conclusively, filmic comic book adaptations do not only have to decide what to turn into sound12, but most importantly how to do so.

Similar questions and problems arise when filmmakers try to imitate the codependence of image and word into film. Some theorists claim that a similar union also exists in film, namely that of sound and image (Mahne 2007: 50). This would seem to enable film to copy the codependence, but the question remains, if it enables films to make comics “come alive” by doing so.

2.3. Adaptation challenges and an updated research premise

All in all, film makers face multiple challenges when trying to adapt the visual structures and the aesthetic of comics, mostly due to the different ways in which comics and film are perceived. Different levels of immersion and contradicting claims of realism were reoccurring differences that seemed to cause challenges for filmic adaptations. In the following, this paper will continue its goals set in the introduction and analyze how films have tried to adapt the visual and structural features characteristic to comics by using filmic techniques. Frank Miller’s and Robert Rodriguez’ adaptations Sin City (2005) and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) will serve as a backbone throughout the analysis. This is due to the films’ high status among filmic comic book adaptations and the involvement of the creator as co-director.

Wether or not Sin City makes Miller’s comics “come alive” is to be determined. For this purpose a clearer definition of the term “making comics come alive” is necessary.

Thus, this paper will differentiate between two levels of vivification13: On a basic level, filmic techniques establish the aesthetic of the comic book by visualizing comic features. On an advanced level, filmic techniques not only visually resemble comic features but are able to resemble the effects they would have in the comics.

3. Adaptation

Michael Cohen claims that “it is not possible for a live-action film to replicate the formal properties of comics” (13). As the introduction shows, Cohen is not the only one to claim so. Although film might not be able to replicate them, it can adapt these properties. The main part of this paper will analyze how filmic comic book adaptions have tried to do so14.

The analysis is structured in three parts, basing on the key adaptation challenges developed in the previous chapter. The first part focusses on techniques through which filmic adaptations try to imitate basic structural comic features and the consequent comic perception as elaborated in the chapters 2.2.1. Panels and page layout and 2.2.2. Perception and immersion 15 . The second part focusses on techniques through which liveaction films try to adapt the individual drawing styles of the comic books they are based on or transport the illustration’s tone onto the screen, as elaborated in chapter 2.2.3. Drawing styles. The third chapter will demonstrate how filmic comic book adaptations tackle the challenge of transforming the visual means by which comics indicate sound into actual sound, as elaborated in chapter 2.2.4. Omission of sound.

3.1. Imitating panel structure and comic perception

Throughout this paper the structural relationship of comics and film has been mentioned numerous times. The smallest syntagmatic unit in film is the take, a rectangular image, similar to the smallest syntagmatic unit in comics, the panel. Both juxtapose these images to create sequences and tell stories. Nevertheless, the structural differences between comics and film are as evident as the affinity of the two media: First, takes are moving images, while panels are static images. Secondly, film creates temporal sequences of said takes through montage, whereas comics create spatial sequences by arranging panels on a page. Thirdly, film viewers simply follow the sequence of the film, whereas comic readers travel from panel to panel and decode the sequence in their own speed. The fourth reason is a result of the three previous ones: To turn static images into motion, to turn panel sequences into actual action and to put everything into context engages the comic reader’s imagination and participation in a far greater level than film.

This chapter will highlight how films have tried to answer the resulting questions: How do I visualize static panels and resemble how they suggest time? How do I visualize the spatial synchronicity of the page layout and resemble its affects? How do I imitate engage a similar level of immersion as in comic perception?

3.1.1. Using stationary frames or tracking shots to imitate panels

The take is the filmic equivalent to the panel in comics. Therefore, when trying to imitate panels filmic comic book adaptations usually try to make their takes resemble panels in their characteristic features. To imitate the static nature of panels, some filmic comic book adaptations extensively use stationary frames and steady cameras. Long, unmoving shots resemble the set frames of comic panels and create a static aesthetic. However, such films have to use this technique extensively to create the intended aesthetic to such a degree that it will be recognized by the viewer. Therefore, such films largely relinquish tracking shots and panning shots. The action takes place within the stationary frames.

In Sin City (2005) directors Rodriguez and Miller use stationary frames far more extensively than other filmic comic book adaptations16. The established aesthetic is especially recognizable, since numerous scenes involving moving cars are filmed in extremely sweeping panning shots that exaggerate the depicted motion. The contrast between stylized motionlessness and exaggerated motion intensifies the aesthetic of both types of takes.

A frequent use of stationary frames means in return that the use of tracking shots and panning shots is used far more selectively and purposely in these films. Sin City uses such techniques mainly to create contrast. In other films the goal is often to imitate certain panel characteristics that the mere use of steady cameras can not translate onto screen. For example, cinema’s fixed rectangular screen format “is not well equipped to imitate the page layouts of comics” (Lefèvre 2007: 6), nor the varying panel shapes. Panning shots can be used to imitate these shapes. A full-page shot in Sin City: That Yellow Bastard shows character John Hartigan hanging on a rope around his neck. Block texts to his right as well as a vertically written “Chapter Six” on the previous page intensify the impression of an upright image and guide the reader downward (ill.4). In doing so the panel’s internal structure traces the direction in which the reader reads the panel (Schüwer 2008: 458-465). The filmic adaptation translates these two pages into a downward tracking shot.

Of course, the meaning of panning shots and tracking shots changes, if the comic book is not printed in vertical but in horizontal format, like another comic book written and illustrated by Frank Miller: 300. In 300 the comic format fits the film screen. However, the rectangular page format of the comic separates it from other comics and is important to its structure. The film 300 (2006) therefore faced the challenge to emphasize rectangular shapes in a medium that is almost solely produced and perceived in rectangular shape. To solve this problem, director Zack Snyder strikingly used slow and detailed panning or tracking shots to emphasize naturally lengthwise images, such as the Spartan’s phalanx and first line of attack. Most striking is a scene, in which the camera follows the fighting Leonidas on his constant way forward through the battlefield. The uncut tracking shot lasts several seconds emphasizing horizontality to a level at which it is as unnatural to the medium film as the horizontal page format is in general to comics. In doing so, it resembles certain panels from the comic (ill.5).

All in all, the extensive use of stationary frames and the selective use of panning shots and tracking shots are effective ways to visually imitate comic panels. The strategy to use motionless frames “where a moving, panning or tracking shot would have been the norm” (Cohen 2007: 33) is striking enough to be recognized by the viewer as an intendedly unnatural stylization breaking the cinematographic illusion of realism. At the same time it supports the goal of adapting the original comic book frame by frame. While the steady camera is able to orient itself towards the perspective of the panels, the action that is condensed in the respective panel is able to break free. It might, therefore, not be surprising that the films using stationary frames not only rank among the most stylized, but also among those filmic comic book adaptations with a higher ambition to resemble the original frame by frame. Sin City17, 300, but also Dick Tracy (1990) (Cohen 2007: 32-34) are illustrative examples.

3.1.2. Using freeze frames to imitate static images

The static nature of comic panels is one of the essential differences between comics and film and therefore most difficult comic features to adapt into film. Film depends on motion pictures. The only way to not only suggest but resemble static panels in film is the freeze frame technique, in which all motion is suddenly frozen (Mahne 2007: 79). To that effect, freeze frames are almost the direct equivalent to panels in comics.

While freeze frames can not be found in neither of the two Sin City films, other filmic comic book adaptations offer illustrative examples: In Kick Ass 2 (2013) a number of villains is introduced through short clips. Each scene ends in a freeze frame of the villain drawn in the style of the comic accompanied by a text block with the villains name (ill.6). The Losers (2010) uses the same technique to introduce its main protagonists. Again, the photorealistic freeze frame is altered into a comic image drawn in the style of the original comic book illustrated by Jock (ill.7). In both cases, the freeze frame stops narrative time to give the viewer time to take a mental image of important characters.

Similar is the use of freeze frames to imitate establishing shots or aspect-to-aspect transitions. These comic techniques use one or more selective, iconic images to set the reader’s “wandering eye on different aspects of a place, idea or mood” (McCloud 1993: 72) and establish it in its key features. Since “time seems to stand still” (79) in these panels or panel sequences, freeze frames are perfect to resemble them in film. In The Losers multiple freeze frames are used to depict an enemy mansion in its key features. Additionally, the frames are stylized to look like photographs, which helps to merge comic’s and film: It allows film to import static images and imitate comic structure, without interfering with its own claim of realism. Since the protagonists are actually observing the mansion from a distance, the technique at the same time links story and way of expression18.

In The Losers freeze frames are also used for further reasons. During the invasion of an enemy mansion the eponymous Losers shoot several guards. The moment in which each guard is hit is captured in a short but recognizable freeze frame. The technique elevates a single moment out of a motion sequence (Dittmar 2008: 87) and in doing so resembles a comic panel. In Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) a fist fight is depicted though the rapid montage of multiple freeze frames. Each freeze frame shows a different hit to the victim’s head. Since each freeze frame imitates a panel, the sequence of freeze frames resembles a sequence of panels, which comes even closer to the representation of comic structure in film19.

Similar to freeze frames is the filmic technique bullet time. Here, the frame itself is not frozen. Instead, the camera circles around an object that is frozen in time. The film Kick-Ass (2010) demonstrates how effective bullet time can be to make comics come alive in film: The film uses static images drawn in comic style to tell Big Daddy’s and Hit Girl’s origin story20. Minimal tracking shots and the use of bullet time make the two-dimensional images seem three-dimensional and therefore suggest motion. Since the scenes only show frozen moments and actual motion is just suggested through the motion of the camera, the scene leaves the static nature of panels intact (ill.10).

Freeze frames seem to be the closest filmic equivalent to static panels, because they are not only able to visualize their still aesthetic, but also imitate their structural effects. Nevertheless, their use in film is limited. Since films depend on motion pictures, freeze frames are usually only used for occasional effects. A more frequent use would shatter the cinematographic illusion of realism. Even rarely used, freeze frames interrupt the realistic depiction of time expected by the viewer and draw his attention to themselves and reveal the film as a medium of story telling.

3.1.3. Using slow motion to imitate static panels

An alternative way to suggest condensed time in film and therefore resemble comics’ static panels is slow motion. “Die Zeitlupe (slow motion) hebt einen Moment aus dem Handlungsgefüge heraus und bildet die verlangsamten Bewegungseinheiten ab” (Mahne 2007: 79). It stands exactly half way between static panels, in which time is condensed, and the motion picture, in which the condensed time breaks free. Maybe this is the reason why slow motion is one of the few filmic techniques that can be suggested in comics; by juxtaposing panels with minimal shifts in motion as in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (ill.11). Similar panel transitions as in Watchmen (ill.12) are relatively easy to translate back into film21. However, this chapter will primarily focus on slow motion as a technique to adapt individual panels.

Sin City makes frequent use of slow motion. One of many examples is a scene, in which Marv drives his gateway car into a river. While the car is in the air, it is shot in slow motion, resembling a similar panel from Sin City: The Hard Goodbye, that shows Marv’s car frozen in mid air (ill.13). In a different scene, Dwight jumps out of a window — in slow motion. The respective panel in Sin City: The Big Fat Kill includes a block text containing Dwight’s thoughts (ill.14). The film uses slow motion not only to resemble the frozen motion from the comic book, but to condense Dwight’s jump long enough for him to voice his thoughts during the motion (Mahne 2007: 79).

Furthermore, slow motion is frequently used during fighting scenes, not only in Sin City. In 300, Wanted (2008) , The Losers and Kick-Ass such scenes are stylized through alternating parts shown in real time with parts shown in slow motion. Besides implying condensed time, slowing down the narrative time allows the viewer to comprehend more information in less plot duration. Otherwise, certain aspects would be too fast to be perceivable by viewer — especially in fighting scenes, which are usually edited in a rapid sequence of frames. In a scene from 300, that was already mentioned in chapter 3.1.1., Leonidas is seen in an uncut tracking shot killing one opponent after the other. While his steps from one opponent to the next are filmed in real time and from a distance, the film zooms in on Leonidas to show each of his lethal strokes in slow motion. In combination with zoom, the parts shot in slow motion are elevated even more from the rest of the film (Mahne 2007: 79). Since the sequence is not edited or cut, the viewer gets the impression of seeing parts arranged on a linear sequence. This perception is very similar to that of the linear panel sequence in comics.

Condensing the narrated time by slowing down the narrative time, is not a unique technique of film. To achieve similar effects, comics — which are only able to suggest time spatially — use varying sizes of panels. The bigger the panel the more the comic signals the reader that he should pause, slowing down the narrative time. Full-page shots and splash pages, the equation of a single panel with a whole page, are the biggest possible sizes of panels. Usually, they “show something momentous” (Marshall/Kovacs 2011: x). Hence, panel size indicates importance as well22. In film, slow motion or long and slow tracking shots are used to adapt full-page shots and splash pages. Consequently, slow motion is especially used in filmic adaptations of comic books which frequently use full- page shots and splash pages, such as Sin City. The examples are numerous: The film uses a slow tracking shot to show John Hartigan’s finding new courage to safe Nancy. Shortly after, the film shows Hartigan in prison — with a tracking shot that lasts almost six seconds. In Sin City: That Yellow Bastard, the first is a full-page shot marking a dramatic turn of events (ill.18), the second a splash page that marks Hartigan’s seeming anticlimax (ill.19). A third scene from the film, resembling a big panel from Sin City: The Big Fat Kill (ill.20), slowly zooms away from the aftermath of a shooting that will have grave repercussions for the story’s protagonists. In all three scenes, the viewer is offered additional time to comprehend the magnitude of the situation for the story.

Occasionally, splash pages and full-page shots are used in comics to visualize the character’s perception, mostly when they are gaping. The big panels let the reader experience how time stands still for the character that is in awe. Slow motion translates this effect. The most striking examples from Sin City are the scenes of a dancing Nancy. In Sin City: That Yellow Bastards Frank Miller uses four consecutive splash pages followed by three additional full-page shots to demonstrate how John Hartigan stares at Nancy while she dances on stage (Miller 2005: 130-140, cf. ill.21)23. The film translates these pages into scenes shot in slow motion, yet the scenes’ duration is not nearly long enough to translate the value of such an extensive juxtaposition of full-page shots in the comic book. Similar full-page shots can be found in Sin City: A Dame to Kill for, where Dwight gapes at Ava swimming naked in her pool (ill.22) and in Sin City: The Big Fat Kill where the skilled assassin Miho jumps from roof to roof (ill.23). Examples from other comics include two full-page shots from 300 showing the dancing full oracle (ill.24) and a full-page shot in Kick-Ass that depicts how Kick-Ass stares at Hit Girl jumping from roof to roof (ill.25). In the respective adaptations, all pages and sequences are shot in slow motion.

While slow motion and slow tracking shots are effective filmic techniques to resemble how panels offer the viewer time to comprehend, they cannot offer him unlimited time. The time offered by slow motion might be enough to understand a take’s meaning for the plot or recognize a take’s resemblance to a panel from the original, but many connections in comics are so subtle that they are not recognized that easily. Analyzing them — and then understanding this connection — takes as long as necessary in comics, which is definitely longer than any slow motion or tracking shot or freeze frame can last in film.

3.1.4. Using multiple-frame imagery to imitate spatial synchronicity

The three previous chapters have focussed on answering the question how filmic comic book adaptations try to visualize panels and translate their unique concept of time. However, panel arrangement and page layout in comics are as important as the individual panels themselves. The key aspect of page layout is the spatial synchronicity of its components that allows the reader to put individual panels into context gaining additional information. To adapt spatial synchronicity, film uses “multiple-frame imagery or split screens imagery; two or more different images, each with its own frame dimensions and shape (Lefèvre 2007: 6).

In general, split screen imagery is most commonly used to depict telephone conversations (Mahne 2007: 85). Sin City does not use split screen imagery — neither to depict telephone conversations nor for any other purpose — but many other filmic comic book adaptations do. In Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) and Hulk (2003) nearly all telephone calls are depicted through split screen (ill.26). Especially, Ang Lee’s superhero adaptation is known for its extensive and very creative use of multi-frame imagery. The scenes demonstrate that the synchronic perception offered by split screen imagery is even superior to that offered by juxtaposed panels in comics. Here, each panel depicts one person’s verbal contribution to the conversation (ill.27). In film, however, the viewer is able to listen to the utterances of one conversation partner and simultaneously perceive the reaction of the other.

Film’s superiority becomes even more evident when the screen is split multiple times, as in a scene from Hulk, in which Talbot leaves the office shared by Bruce Banner and Betty Ross. The scene consists of three frames, each focussing on the individual reaction of one of the three characters present. While Talbot shoots Betty a glare, Bruce glares at Talbot’s back and Betty looks from Talbot back to Bruce — all at the same time. In addition to split screen imagery, the scene uses slow motion to give the viewer more time to comprehend the temporal synchronicity made perceivable through multiple-frame imagery.

In two other scenes, Hulk demonstrates how the multiple frame imagery can be used to depict multiple perspectives of a single event or location: The first shows an experiment, the second Hulk’s outbreak from a military facility. In both scenes multiple frames in varying sizes are arranged in constantly changing positions. While the bigger frames or the background depict the setting or concentrate on main protagonists, smaller frames are positioned closer to the side and focus on details or characters of subordinate importance. This gives the viewer the chance to focus on changing details knowing that the setting background will stay the same. Since the multiple frames split the viewer’s attention, limited motion is essential. During the experiment scene, frames therefore focus on immovable components or on concentrated faces. The scene depicting Hulk’s escape from the military facility includes more motion. Consequently, the depicted details are more difficult to locate and comprehend.

Yet, when film tries to visualize a whole page layout even multiple-frame imagery reaches its limits. Page layouts from Sin City comics contain illustrative examples. In Sin City: The Hard Goodbye nine tools of Marv’s plan are arranged three by three (ill.28). The reader is able to look at them for as long as he likes to figure out to what plan these nine tools might add up. The film Sin City arranges the tools in a swift sequence. Since the viewer is unable to memorize them all in such short time, he is unable to put them into context. Most likely the reader will remember the first and the last, which additionally implies a false hierarchy between the objects. A complete page layout, including its panel’s possible internal relationships, is even more difficult to adapt into film. The comic Sin City: A Dame to Kill For contains a page in which the panels are arranged symmetrically. The panel on the top and that one the bottom have the exact same size and rectangular shape. The top panel depicts a marriage bed with detective Mort and his wife. The panel on the bottom shows Ava Lord, the woman that seduces Mort, lying provocatively naked in her bath tub. The page layout contrasts marriage and temptation (ill.29). In the film Sin City: A Dame to Kill For each panel is adapted into a visually similar take. However, to adapt the internal subtext of the page layout, the film would have to copy the whole page and even then it would not assure that the viewer would comprehend it in the time he would be given.

Multiple-frame imagery effectively visualizes neighboring panels in comics. Moreover, it is occasionally able to make temporal synchronicity perceivable in ways that comics are not. Yet, intersecting more than three frames in film is difficult. The individual images become smaller, and the viewer’s attention is divided even further among the constantly moving parts. Unless the viewer is able to pause, which is only possible in comics, split screen can only imitate panel transitions on a limited level. To adapt page layout with its multiple connections, film is not equipped. Additionally, split screen is — just like most techniques discussed in this chapter — a “self-referential technique. Though [it] is closer to comics, it breaks the usual cinematographic illusion” (Lefèvre 2007: 6).

3.1.5. Using montage techniques to visualize the gutter

In comics, the reader perceives the page layout by autonomously moving from one panel to the next. The perception of montage in film is similar: “Zunächst richten wir unsere Aufmerksamkeit auf den einen Gegenstand, dann auf den anderen; wir interessieren uns selten für den Zwischenraum” (Monaco 2002: 177). In comic perception, however, this gap is of interest, since the gutter is the place, where the reader analyzes the transitions between panels. Here, the actual perception process takes place. Some filmic comic book adaptations try to visualize the gutter and resemble its included perception process by experimenting with different techniques of montage, since montage is responsible for the transitions in film, as the gutter is for the transitions in comics.

Instead of cutting from one take to another, filmic comic book adaptions use pans to move from one scene into another. Often, diegetic objects function as dividing means and visualize the gutter. In a scene from Sin City: A Dame to Kill For Dwight drives with his car from an abstractly stylized frame that resembles a panel from the original comic book (ill.30a) into a photorealistic one. A road sign marks the transition between both frames and at the same time the transition from abstraction to realism and is used to link the comic panel with the live-action film (ill.30b). Similar examples include 300, where a building divides consecutive takes, or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, where scenes are cut through characters that walk passed the camera (ill.30c).

Another technique to visualize the gutter are jump cuts. “Aus einer fortlaufenden Bewegung werden einzelne Bilder herausgeschnitten, wodurch ein ruckartiger Bild- und Zeitsprung entsteht” (Mahne 2002: 83). In Kick-Ass, Big Daddy is shown in a long, uncut pan while fighting several villains. Each fight is shown, everything in between — how Big Daddy moves from one villain to the other — is omitted. The visual gaps resemble the gutter of comics. Since the viewer actually fills them with his imagination — as the comic reader fills the gutter with his — jump cuts imitate the gutter and its significance for the perception process perfectly. Yet, since the pan is still the guiding element and since Big Daddy is “imposed over a continuous background” (McCloud 1993: 115), the perception process is more similar to that of a polyptych in comics than to that of a regular panel transition (ill.31).

Nevertheless, there is a panning technique that seems to resemble not only the gutter but the perception of panel transitions: the swish pan. Here, the camera moves so fast from one object to another that everything in between blurs (Mahne 2007: 88; Monaco 2002: 177). In Hulk and The Losers swish pans are used to cross the spatial distance between participants of a conversation (Mahne 2007: 94). The utterance is heard before its utterer is seen by the viewer. The swish pan then moves to the utterer, resembling how a comic reader would move from one panel to the next one that draws his attention. A scene from Kick-Ass 2 demonstrates this aspect even better: In the first frame, Insect Man warns Kick- Ass during a fight. The swish pan is then used to combine this frame with that depicting Kick-Ass and an attacker in his blind spot. Even though a similar transition does not exist in the comic book, the example proves that swish pans can not only visualize the gutter but resemble how the comic reader would rush from one panel to the next to find out what Kick-Ass was warned about.

All montage techniques discussed in this chapter are able to visualize the gutter, yet most are unable to match the simple cut in resembling the perception of panel transitions in comics. The reason is that — unlike simple cuts — swish pans, jump cuts and pans including dividing means draw the viewer’s attention to themselves as techniques of montage. In comics, the gutter might be important, yet it is not the creator of transitions but a result of them. Besides, the immersive character of comic perception can not be imitated by any of the discussed techniques. They only require insignificantly more imagination by the viewer than regular cuts, which is in any case less than that what transitions between panels in comics require.

3.1.6. Using montage to engage immersion

Previous chapters have touched on the fact that film is able to visualize the structural features of comics, but is only able to resemble their effects to a limited degree. In comics, stillness, spatial synchronicity, and an individual reading speed are contributors that help the reader to comprehend the page layout. In film, freeze frame and slow motion might slow down the narrative time and split screen and montage techniques might create spatial synchronicity and suggest internal connections of neighboring frames, yet an individual reading speed is impossible to imitate. A film has one speed that every viewer has to follow. This inability restricts film to only engage the viewer’s participation on a limited level: If something is left to the viewer’s imagination, it has to be striking and small enough to be comprehended within the limited time. Nevertheless, many filmic comic book adaptations try to engage the viewer’s imagination and participation as much as possible. Cutting and montage seem like effective ways to do so. Not only do they determine what the film does and does not show, but are also responsible for film’s dialectic process (Monaco 2002: 218-219).

Montage can be used to cut out a central part of an event which the viewer then imagines out of the context. Scenes from The Losers and Kick-Ass prove that this use of montage is strikingly similar to that used in comics: The scene from The Losers cuts from a frame that shows Clay pointing a gun at a criminal to a long shot of the mansion in which the scene takes place. Similar to McCloud’s example (cf. ill.32), only a loud gun shot leads to believe that Clay shot his opponent. In Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn uses montage to combine a frame of two male legs, with pants and underwear around the ankles, and a frame, in which a tissue paper is thrown into a trash bin full of tissue papers. In both scenes, only the viewer puts the montaged frames into context. Even though both transitions are fairly obvious and and probably unconsciously comprehended by every viewer, the murder in The Losers and the masturbation in Kick-Ass only take place in his imagination.

Even more striking is a scene from the film 300. The sexual act between Leonidas and his wife is depicted in a sequence of extremely short takes, that are separated by strikingly long frames of black. Because the takes are shot in slow motion, they can be seen as resembling panels (cf. 3.1.3.), with the black screen in-between them resembling the gutter. Watchmen includes a similar scene, in which Rorschach follows Big Figure into the bathroom to kill him. After he enters, the bathroom door begins to swing wide. Even though the scene is uncut, it engages the viewer’s imagination. Every time the door swings inwards the viewer is offered a short glimpse of the two characters, every time the door swings outwards it blocks out the details, similar to the gutter in comics.


1 This is especially true for adaptations of superhero comics. In the last decade these films have earned over ten billion dollars in worldwide releases (figures by box office mojo).

2 “Animated adaptations deserve a proper analysis of their own, but most problems of live-action adaptations will haunt animated version as well” (Lefèvre 2007: 2).

3 Roger Sabin claims that Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday (1888) is “generally agreed to be the first comic ever produced” (1996: 16). Other origins might be Rodolphe Töpffer’s picture-stories (19th century), William Hogarth picture-story “A Harlot’s Progress” (1731), the Bayeaux tapestry (around 1070/80) or even pre-Columbian and Egyptian picture-stories (McCloud 1993: 10-17).

4 Many believe Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend to be the first comic book adaptation. However, information about the publication date differ. While Gordon dates the release to 1906 (2007: vii), Platthaus dates it to 1921 (2001: 24). Due to this inconsistency this paper uses a different, indisputable example.

5 Superhero comics rely greatly on a certain spectacle element (Gordon xvi), which qualifies their adaptations for blockbuster productions. This is also the reason why Superman (1978) marks the beginning of the blockbuster era. Consequently, most comic books that were adapted into film since then, are superhero stories.

6 Lefèvre names the rewriting process as the fourth problem, however, all filmic adaptations face this problem. This paper will only concentrate on the visual adaptation process.

7 Even though “perception and immersion” do not belong to the structure of Lefèvre’s discussion, he touches on them several times, since comic structure and its perception are deeply linked.

8 The human eye still perceives a point’s surroundings when concentrating on a single point to fixate it (Monaco 2002: 156).

9 Of course, this is not always the case. Especially the montage of the individual takes is decisive for the relationship between plot duration and screen duration (Mahne 2007: 82).

10 McCloud’s calls this process closure. However, his terminology, especially concerning the differentiation between the different types (1993: 70-72), is highly problematic (Mahne 2007: 59-60).

11 McCloud’s possibly claims that comic reader’s use their imagination consciously, while film viewer’s use it unconsciously (cf. Monaco 2002: 219).

12 As with all adaptations of text-based narratives, the adaptation of comic text into sound in film is merely an adaptation of content, not a visual one. However, adapting comic-content into film is different from adapting a novel or a play, since dialogues in comics are often “not suited for film dialogue” due to their “stylistic and bombastic” nature. “A literal screen translation may emphasize such dialogue’s artificial nature to the point of unintentional camp” (Lefèvre 2007: 11).

13 This paper will not concentrate on film’s simple vivification of a comic’s diegesis, which is merely achieved by turning suggested motion into actual motion and suggested sound into actual sound. In that regard, film is clearly superior to comics (McCloud 2000: 210).

14 At this point it has to be clarified what this paper considers a “filmic comic book adaptation”. Like Pascal Lefèvre, this paper will use the term “adaptation” in a broad sense, “including also films directly inspired by a certain comic or comic series” (2007: 2), such as Wanted (2008) or A History of Violence (2005).

15 Comic structure and its perception are directly linked. How something is depicted, arranged and structured directly affects how it is perceived. They therefore need to be analyzed together, even though they were explained separately in chapter 2.

16 Stationary frames are not used equally frequent in all story arcs of the film. In The Hard Goodbye and The Customer is Always Right it is used most frequently.

17 Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) does not use stationary frames as often. This might be one of the key criteria, why the sequel is far less successful in adapting the comic book aesthetic of the original than its predecessor.

18 Sin City: A Dame to Kill (2014) has similar opportunities: Since protagonist Dwight McCarthy works as a private detective, he uses a camera multiple times: Once to observe an unfaithful husband, once to observe Ava Lord. However, the film relinquishes to use the opportunity and use static freeze frames that could resemble panels from the comic?. In Sin City: The Hard Goodbye Frank Miller uses a singular panel to establish a change of location (ill.8). Again, the panel is not imported into Sin City (2005) via an establishing freeze frame, but with a sweeping panning shot. Since Sin City is usually consistent in using tracking shots only for extreme motions (cf. 3.1.1.), the omission of establishing shots remains questionable.

19 Besides being edited in temporal succession the film shows the freeze frames in spatial juxtaposition (ill.9). This, of course, intensifies the impression of panel arrangement and page layout.

20 Kick-Ass is not the only filmic comic book adaptation that summarizes background stories in static images illustrated in the drawing style of comics. In American Splendor (2003) selective panels from Pekar’s comic Our Cancer Year summarize Harvey Pekar’s fight with cancer. In Scott Pilgrim vs. the World some of Ramona Flower’s relationships to her seven evil ex-boyfriends are illustrated via panels from the comic book series.

21 Comics strategy of suggesting zoom is quite similar: A location or action is shown in several juxtaposed panels, each showing it from a further — or closer — point of view. Illustrative examples can be found in Sin City: That Yellow Bastard (ill.15), in The Losers (ill.16) and several times in Watchmen (ill.17). Due to their close resemblance to filmic means of expression, they are as easily translated into film, as panel transitions that suggest slow motion.

22 Analogously, smaller panels indicate lesser importance. However, film is unable to adapt how comic inserts miniature panels with lesser importance into the page layout. What the comic indicates through size, film could only indicate through temporal length, and shortening these takes accordingly would make them almost unrecognizable.

23 Similar splash pages and full-page shots showing Nancy dancing can be found in several Sin City comics.

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Adapting visual and structural features of comic books to film. Possibilities and limitations
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
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Comics, Film, Superhelden, Verfilmungen, Pop-Kultur
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Matthias Kreuter (Author), 2015, Adapting visual and structural features of comic books to film. Possibilities and limitations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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