Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Table Talk - What's in a Translation?

This week, Barry Reese, Bobby Nash and Mike Bullock are joined in the conversation by New Pulpers Tommy Hancock and Van Allen Plexico as the guys discuss translating pulp characters into other mediums.

Question (Bobby): Pulp characters have been translated to other media like movies, television, comic books, and the internet, with varying degrees of success. What are some of your favorite translations and why? Conversely, what are your least favorite and why?

Mike: I really enjoyed Kurt Busiek's adaptation of the original Conan stories into comic book form for Dark Horse a few years ago. I've read every Robert E. Howard story and hundreds of Conan tales from other authors, but I felt like Busiek was one of the only ones to really write with the same voice.

After that, I really enjoyed the recent Zorro films starring Antonio Banderas. Both films were a nice mixture of good story-telling, high action, drama and a touch of comedy. That really made for two very entertaining films, I thought.

For the future, I have high hopes for the John Carter movie Pixar is about to release. I watched a show with the folks behind it talking about how faithful they were striving to be to the source material, which got my interest for sure.

As for least favorite, the Arnold Conan movies win hands down. They took an iconic character and turned him into a buffoon. Not to mention, Arnold is too short to play the Bronze Giant…

Barry: Well, when it comes to pulp-related projects in other mediums, I have to first mention a couple of my loves. I know under the strict definition of pulp, Lee Falk’s Phantom isn’t a pulp hero but I really enjoy the Bill Zane film from the Nineties. I’m also a huge fan of the pulp-inspired Indiana Jones series and the Rocketeer.

But in terms of actual pulp translations… I grew up with the Roy Thomas/John Buscema Conan and adored those. I also like the Busiek stories. The Shadow movie with Alec Baldwin has its detractors and I see where they’re coming from but I still enjoyed the movie. The Howard Chaykin Shadow miniseries is a huge favorite of mine and I also enjoyed the old Kaluta stories. Most other pulp-to-comics adaptations have been middling at best.

I thought Disney’s Tarzan animated film was a fun way to introduce the character to kids and the series that followed was pretty good, too. They even had an episode that featured Edgar Rice Burroughs. Before Pixar announced their John Carter movie, I had long believed that a John Carter animated film would do great for Disney.

Least-favorites? I’ll echo what Mike said about the Conan movies. I haven’t seen the newest one but the ones with Arnold… Ugh. I also cringe whenever I watch the Doc Savage film from the 70s. There are parts of that one that they got perfect… but there are other parts that are just embarrassing.

Bobby: All good choices. I too loved the Billy Zane Phantom movie, but had completely forgotten about the Alec Baldwin Shadow movie until you mentioned it. The Zorro films, the Rocketeer, and Indiana Jones are all great pulpy tales, although not necessarily all straight adaptations. A guilty pleasure of mine is also the 80’s Flash Gordon movie. For all of its cheesiness, I find that I still enjoy it.

As for least favorites, the less said about the recent Sci Fi (SyFy?) Flash Gordon series, the better.

Tommy: This is a question I don't like answering because if you're talking about actual Pulp characters from the heyday of Pulps, then the misses way outweigh the hits. Unlike a lot of people, I'm a big fan of the Alec Baldwin SHADOW movie. Was it campy in parts, sure, but great steps were taken, or maybe more steps were taken than I would have expected to get this one right. It's hard to say that I'm a fan of the DOC SAVAGE movie because it was clearly a miss, but I do enjoy the film for what it is, though it's not the Doc movie we should have been left with. Adaptations into comics have been somewhat more successful on some levels. Moonstone's SPIDER comic is one of the best adaptations I've ever seen. Actually, Moonstone got a few of its adaptations right. Dynamite, hit and miss itself in my opinion, definitely hit the bullseye with THE LONE RANGER. I like that adaptation very much. And again, another place where I may not be popular: I do like the Lone Ranger movie from the 80s, even though like The Doc movie, I recognize its shortcomings. And as to why some are my favorite and some are not….I think its the issue of adapting anything. Sure you can't do a literal translation from one medium to another every time, but you have to keep enough of what made someone the fan of the character in the first place to keep THAT fan interested. And so many do not do that.

Van: My favorite pulp adaptations to another medium probably include Marvel's SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN black and white magazines and Dark Horse's TARZAN / JOHN CARTER comics. There are also Alan Moore's LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN comics that are incredibly well-done. And Wayne Reinagel has made terrific use of the classic pulp hero and villain archetypes in his novels.

If we include Flash Gordon in the pulp category, then as a kid, I loved the animated cartoon, which was much more serious and better-written than the horrendous 1980 movie it was produced in order to promote--of which the only thing memorable is the Queen soundtrack.

And of course I'm anxiously awaiting seeing John Carter of Mars getting the Pixar treatment. Surely if anyone could get a story and characters right, it's them, y'know? As long as they don't make it too little-kid-friendly; Carter needs that hard edge to really work, in my opinion. He's driven by honor as a soldier, sure, but also by ambition and lust. He's flesh and blood. That needs to be there--he doesn't need to be a cardboard cutout hero. We shall see.

Bobby: So, if a big time Hollywood movie studio came to you today and said they wanted you to spearhead a pulp movie, what character(s) would you choose, and why? I know we’re each probably tempted to pick The Rook, Death Angel, Lance Star: Sky Ranger, or another of our original creations, all of which would be uber-cool, but I’m thinking of existing characters here.

Mike: That's an easy one for me: Phantom. I enjoyed the Billy Zane movie, but it came off as a campy, period flick, which I think doesn't do the character justice. Lee Falk never wrote a cheesy, campy Phantom yarn, so why should there be a movie like that? I'd love to do something that captures the darker elements of Phantom; the "stalk the bad guys and scare the &#^@ out of them" side of Phantom that the Billy Zane flick barely touched on.

After that, I'd LOVE to do a Captain Future movie. I'm really kind of surprised no one has in the recent glut of comics/pulps to movies. With the popularity of Flash Gordon, Star Trek and Star Wars, it seems like Captain Future and the Lensmen are a natural for blockbuster films.

Barry: I didn’t find the Zane movie to be campy at all. It had humor in it, yes, but I always found the Falk originals to have that from time to time, as well. Compare it to the Doc Savage film – THAT was camp! I agree that there are very dark elements to the Phantom but he’s also a guy who has a wolf named Devil and a horse named Hero… so I don’t think you can eliminate all elements of cheese from the concept.

As for what pulp characters could be made on the big screen – I think a Doc Savage movie could be a thrill-a-minute ride like the Mummy films or Indiana Jones. And you could do a very dark Shadow film that could successfully capture the same spirit that The Dark Knight Returns did.

There are tons of smaller characters out there that could make good films… but I’d start with the big boys and do them right first.

Bobby: For me, I’d do a Buck Rogers movie in a heartbeat. I love the character and the concept and I think this is a property just waiting on a good movie.

Tommy: Those that know me know I go in for the more obscure, so this isn't really likely to happen to me, heh. The Green Ghost, IV Frost, The Phantom Detective all come to mind for ones people might know. Then it gets crazy rare. And the reasons I'd choose these is I think the rare ones have interesting aspects that haven't been explored. We've been fooled to believe, fooling ourselves as fans I think, that if its a classic Pulp character and its not one of the upper tier names, then it has to be a rip off of one of those big names--a 'clone'. Oh boy, just go read some of the obscure stories and although you may not be impressed by the writing, you'll find the characters in a lot of them have their own traits that make them fun to play with and stand apart.

Van: I'm going to argue that what Philip Jose Farmer was writing was pulp--or, at least, a lot of it was. So I might well want to do a big-budget adaptation of his Wolff storyline from WORLD OF TIERS. I love the immortal, world-weary protagonist for whom there's almost as much to hate as to like. And hey, if we're going to call Farmer's stuff pulp, then I can likewise make a case for some of what Roger Zelazny wrote, too, since his Amber books are a direct offshoot of TIERS--in which case I get to roll out my absolute dream project: Five movies based on the Chronicles of Amber, with Corwin the Mad Prince in battle against his homicidal brothers and sisters across the multiverse.  They should at least hire me to write the screenplay for this!

Bobby: As exciting as a movie would be though, some characters just seem like they would be more at home on the small screen. For that I’d go with Secret Agent X. The master of disguise aspect of the character would be fairly easy to pull off these days and we really need a good, smart action series these days. We were on the right track with Human Target, but sadly, that didn’t last. Any characters you think would work better on TV than a movie?

Tommy: To be honest, that all depends largely on budget these days. Sure, a street level type character like The Crimson Mask or Domino Lady would play well on TV and probably better there than on the big screen, but really in either medium, how much money the production has really determines what can be done where. The size of the screen is sometimes the only difference between TV and movies.

Van: I think most pulp characters would work better as an HBO series (or at least an AMC series) than as a movie. I'm really not the biggest fan of movies in general--it's not my favorite medium. Novels, television, comics--I like all of those better than the movie format. Two or at most three hours and you're done? Nah. I want lots of room to spread the story out and see the characters develop over time--or, in the case of pulp, to see the hero wreak all that much more havoc than he would get to in only a couple of hours!

Over the past decade, Barry Reese has written for publishers as diverse as Marvel Comics, Moonstone Books and West End Games. Primarily known for his pulp fiction creations The Rook and Lazarus Gray, Barry has also penned stories featuring The Green Hornet, The Avenger and Ki-Gor. He won the Best Author Award at the 2011 Pulp Ark Conference.

From his secret lair in the wilds of Bethlehem, Georgia, Bobby Nash writes novels, short stories, novellas, comic books, and graphic novels. Visit him

Born with an excessively overactive imagination, Mike Bullock has parlayed that into a successful career writing comics and prose fiction. Bullock has written more Phantom comic book stories than any other US author and won the Angouleme Discovery Prize in 2007 for his creator owned series Lions, Tigers and Bears. 

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