23 July 2012

Graphic Film, Graphic Novel

David Cronenberg; illustrated by Sean Scoffield
Toronto: Key Porter, 1999

For nearly two decades, The Dead Zone stood as my favourite Cronenburg film – then along came Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method. The Toronto filmmaker has been going from strength to strength this millennium, encouraging me to catch up on everything I'd missed.

Last week it was eXistenZ, Cronenberg's fin de siècle nightmare about gamers, the gaming industry and Blinky the Three-Eyed Fish. One of the director's body horror films, the title refers to a new game system contained in a disease-prone pod that is in fact "an animal grown from fertilized amphibian eggs stuffed with synthetic DNA." You play by inserting a 12-foot UmbyCord of "twisted, translucent, blue and red veiny vessels" into your spine through a permanent Metaflesh bioport.

Steve Jobs would've called this a "shit design".

Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Allegra Geller, the designer behind eXistenZ. A "game-pod goddess", she's just begun leading her fawning followers through a test when things appear to go very, very wrong. First, an assassin tries to kill her with a gun made of flesh and bone (she takes a tooth in the shoulder), then she's saddled with timid Ted Pikul (Jude Law), who is not only an ineffective bodyguard but an UmbyCord virgin.

I knew something of what to expect from eXistenZ through this odd book, which is as far as I'm aware the only graphic novel made from a Canadian film. Purchased back in April 1999, it did a disservice in  discouraging me from taking a trip to the cinema. Where on screen eXistenZ is disorienting in its depth, on thin paper it's just confusing.
Illustrator Scott Scoffield takes the film's murky look and renders it black, at times obscuring vital detail. His panels look like stills that have been manipulated with a paint-simulation filter. Who knows, maybe they were. The dialogue is all here, but the acting is absent. Faces float, washed-out and emotionless in the darkness.

There is no drama.

Don't get me wrong – as a film, eXistenZ is not a triumph – but it is worth seeing.

Warning: Not for the squeamish.

Better yet, see Cronenberg's A History of Violence, which – interestingly – was adapted from John Wagner and Vince Locke's graphic novel of the same name.

Warning: There will be violence.

Did that need saying?

Object: A slim paperback – 111 pp – containing the graphic novel, an uncredited interview with Cronenberg, an uncredited essay on his films and a Glossary (uncredited).

Access: My copy, signed by Messrs Cronenburg and Scoffield, was purchased new for $24.95 back in the spring of 1999 at Toronto's TheatreBooks. "Very scarce thus", claims an online bookseller (who offers two copies). I'm not so sure. I remember plucking mine from a teetering stack of signed copies. In fact, half of the fourteen currently listed online are signed by both men; prices range from US$40 to US$98 (condition is not a factor). Unsigned, "as new" copies begin at US$4.09.


  1. I was one of the few people who thought this was a mindblowing movie. Imaginative, perverted, dystopian, suspenseful, disgusting... Throw out a Cronenbergian adjective. It's there. The story is almost like something out of a Philip Dick novel.

    I think there should be a separate category for a graphic novel that merely consists of rendering photo stills from the movie into "cartoon art." It's almost like some kind of techno Photoplay edition. I had to look into this artist's background. Scoffield is primarily an artist who works in the Art department on film productions, though to be fair I did discover he has also contributed pencil and ink art to DC, Marvel and other comic book publishers. He *can* draw unlike many "graphic designers" out there whose skill is confined to the keyboard and mouse.

    1. I'm finding that eXistenZ is one of those movies that lingers. No surprise, given that this is Cronenberg, I suppose.

      I think you're right that there is a place for the manipulation of stills... and to be fair to Mr Scoffield, there are some images that are very nice indeed. I was particularly taken by his renderings of Willem Dafoe and Ian Holm.

      In retrospect, I wonder whether he wasn't hindered by page count - all Cronenberg's dialogue is there, but some key dialogue-free shots are absent. I've just counted and see that the graphic novel itself takes up only 81 of the 111 pages.

  2. Eastern Promises was terrific too. So rare to have a different mindset in Hollywood. I think I have seen them all and been transported by most. A DANGEROUS METHOD did not quite work for me though. I wanted more discussion of where their work parted ways and less of Keira naked and shivering.

  3. Regarding Canadian movies adapted into graphic novels, Bruce McDonald's DANCE ME OUTSIDE and HARD CORE LOGO were adapted into comic book form by Nick Craine...


    1. Thanks, Michael. You're right, of course. Typing that sentence I thought I should've been more clear. I wasn't really counting either of the Craines because they're adaptations of movies that are adaptations of books.
      Or are they?

      His Hard Core Logo bills itself as an adaptation of both the film and the book, while Dance Me Outside is subtitled "The Illustrated Screenplay".

      Either way, I've shortchanged Mr Craine and been very lazy with my words. I blame it on the summer heat - but that's a cop out.

  4. In my view Cronenberg is a very uneven filmmaker. When he's at his best, his work is breathtaking and exhilarating, and when he's at his worst, you could almost swear never to pay money to see a Cronenberg film again. I have tremendous respect for this blog and for your usually spot-on critical assessments, but for me the film version of ExistenZ was the latter kind of experience.

    Michael Washburn

    1. Oh, well, I've never really thought of myself as a film critic. Having pretty much now caught up with all I missed of the director's oeuvre, I find myself agreeing with you, Michael. Cronenberg is very uneven - remarkably so, I think. As for eXistenZ... well, let's just say it hasn't exactly stayed with me.

  5. Thanks, Brian. I would like to see more posts about creators of more even quality that Canada has produced -- John Buell, Brian Moore, Margaret Atwood -- and if we are going to stick to film, then Denis Villeneuve might be worth a post or two.

    Michael Washburn