Comics and movies collide on the page

Review Graphic novels



Raymond Chandler; adapted by Ted Benoit; ill. by Francois Ayroles; intro. by Philippe Garnier

A Scanner Darkly

Philip K. Dick; additional text by Harvey Pekar; book design by Laura Dumm and Gary Dumm

Pantheon / 190 pages / $23.95

Beginning in the late spring and summer of 1947, and extending through the fall and into the early months of 1948, Raymond Chandler toiled over a script he would later assess as some of the best film writing he ever produced.

If not delusional, he was arguably mistaken. Playback, the screenplay on which he worked during that period, is hardly on the level of Double Indemnity, his collaboration with Billy Wilder, or the Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and William Bendix vehicle The Blue Dahlia. Set in the unfamiliar (to Chandler, anyway) territory of Vancouver, Canada, the script was never filmed, but languished in the Universal Studios archives for almost 40 years. Playback is noir, but more in the manner of a stumbling Dashiell Hammett than Chandler at the top of his talent. A decade later, near the end of his life, Chandler rethought the project, reprised the title and wove in Philip Marlowe to produce his final novel - again a shadow of his finest work.

Fast-forward to 2003. That year, a pair of Frenchmen, writer Ted Benoit and artist Francois Ayroles, decided to revisit the original Playback - which they'd encountered in the 1985 book Raymond Chandler's Unknown Thriller: The Screenplay of `Playback' - and developed it into comics form. The result is Playback: A Graphic Novel, originally published in France in 2004 and now available in English.

The relationship between film and comics is tricky. As Scott McCloud notes in his eye-popping, entertaining and illuminating book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, comics juxtapose "pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer." Movies, too, are made up of a series of images, but the essential difference is that film is sequential in time, not spatially on the page. "Each successive frame of a movie is projected on exactly the same space - the screen," explains McCloud, "while each frame of comics must occupy a different space."

At the same time, Andrew Helfer, former group editor of DC Comics' short-lived but influential Big Books and Paradox Graphic Mystery imprint, believed that a key attribute of the graphic novel was the ability to simulate huge, breakout, no-holds-barred "movies" for a fraction of the going Hollywood rate. For mere thousands of dollars (and, of course, a massive amount of an illustrator's blood, sweat and tears), a conjured blockbuster could find its way to the page and satisfy in much the same way as the richest multimillion-dollar film. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was once a writer and editor for DC.)

Comics, then, afforded the frustrated film crafter a cheap and viable means to present movies without undertaking the formidable expense of making them. Published storyboarding, as it were, masquerading as ersatz Panavision.

So, what is Playback? Illustrated fiction, or simulated film? In fact, it's probably best read as an act of reclamation, since Benoit and Ayroles remain true to the story's roots. The major change here is a savvy one - to shift what had been Chandler's opening flashback from the center of the work (where it had been moved, in a bit of ill-conceived studio tinkering) - back to its original position at the beginning of the script. The narrative involves a beautiful blond (what else?) wrongly accused, exonerated and then wrongly accused all over again.

The resulting graphic novel is rendered in heavy-inked black and white, with no grays or halftones. The effect is crude and static, but not without appeal; at its best, it's reminiscent of the engraved wood-block work of graphic book pioneer Lynd Ward. If there's a problem with the result, it's that the stark, highly contrasted style and paneling harms the rhythm of the piece, creating an atmosphere that is too often static and homogenous.

That said, to be drawn again into the world of Raymond Chandler is a happy treat - even if this is far from Chandler at his best. If nothing else, there are enough tantalizing riffs and quips in Playback to make the journey north across the border a rewarding and entertaining one.

Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly is a very different kind of story, in which a police officer posing as a drug dealer is asked by his superiors to keep tabs on himself. It's a perfect Dick-style setup, raising questions about good and evil, reality and illusion, the nature of consciousness. The novel came out in 1977 and has now been turned into a film directed by Richard Linklater and starring Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson.

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