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More Than Storyboards: Comics and Film #3 - Swords, Scandals and Comics

By Tyler Weaver

So far, we’ve looked at the differences between comics and film storytelling and we’ve taken your mind into the gutter. Now, thanks to reader @DailyGreenDiva’s suggestion, we’re going to conduct a little thought experiment (in my book, Comics for Film, Games and Animation, I added a comic book to American Beauty… see warning below), adding a comic book to a pre-existing film: Ridley Scott’s 2000 epic, Gladiator, the story of a general turned gladiator turned savior of Rome.

Before we go further, a word of warning: just because I say a comic could be added, it doesn’t mean that it should be added. Most works that existing in a single medium (mono-media) are perfect just as they are; conversely, if they suck, you can add the greatest comic or great American novel to it and the final product will still suck. Transmedia deepening is not a cure for crap; it’s an option for exploration. With that in mind, a mono-media work, especially a film–a medium whose running times are controlled by number of theatrical showings, the bladder capacity of the audience and other extraneous concerns–will invariably have holes, stories that could–not should–be filled in.

comics and film

So, Gladiator. Comics. Let’s go. First, let’s look at the easy answers. And what’s the easiest answer?


We could look at Maximus’ conquests as a general in a Miller-infused 300-knockoff. But that isn’t very exciting, is it? Maximus’ appeal doesn’t come from the “he’s an awesome bad-ass general who says ‘unleash hell’ in the first five minutes of the film (though that is pretty bad-ass) so we have to know all about his badassery” moments. The appeal of Maximus comes from the tragedies he faces in the confines of the film and his responses to those tragedies and Russell Crowe’s performance.

What about Proximo, the charismatic gladiator trainer played by the late Oliver Reed? His charisma comes from Reed’s performance, yes, but also from the mysterious nature of his past. We already know he was a gladiator. Why reveal the intricacies and deaden a wonderful performance? We know all we need to know about him onscreen.

OK then, how about Marcus Aurelius, as portrayed by the (also late) great Richard Harris? Again, his character shines onscreen, and we don’t need to know much about him. If you want to know about Marcus Aurelius, go read his books (they’re brilliant and, unlike the film, present an historically accurate picture of a great, if flawed, leader). Then again, you could always make a comics version of his Meditations

Lucilla? Commodous? Again, their stories are presented onscreen, and thanks to excellent performances from Connie Nielsen and Joaquin Phoenix, respectively, (say it with me) we don’t need to see more than is onscreen.

See the point about backstory? It’s not that interesting. The right (read: not from lazy, hackneyed writing) holes in backstory are what make characters interesting onscreen. To “fill in” is uninteresting. To deepen? That’s another story.

The Gladiators

Maximus amasses a band of brothers of fellow gladiators as he leads them to survival–at least in the first battle. Hagen’s death near the end of the film is brutal and crushing; Juba’s survival is reason for celebration. I can see the appeal of wanting to know more about them. But, isn’t that backstory? That’s too easy.

Let me take a moment and divert here: why do I advocate comics as a prime transmedia expansion and why am I so anti-backstory? Two reasons:

1.) Comics (remember, I use the word comics as singular) shares traits with all media: they can show action like films, thought like novels, dialogue like plays; like radio, where everything is aural, down to the description, everything is visual in comic, down to the sound. Because of this, comics is an excellent bridge medium between other media, creating a solid chain of transmedia storytelling.

2.) Comics is capable of telling any story you want to tell. The nocturnal activities of a rich orphan? Batman. A look at tenement life in New York City? Eisner’s A Contract with God. One family’s fight for survival during the Holocaust wrapped in a tale of fathers and sons? Spiegelman’s Maus. A look at the inner lives and workings of an apartment building? Chris Ware’s Building Stories. Universe-shattering war between gods? Kirby’s The Fourth World. A zoo escape during the bombing of Baghdad told by lions? Vaughan’s Pride of Baghdad. Why waste that opportunity on something as mundane as backstory?

But, back to the task at hand.

Maximus and Proximo’s crew aren’t the only gladiators in the world. What about another group of gladiators? A group who hears whispers of what that crazy old man Proximo and this new Gladiator are doing? How would that ferment a spirit of uprising in them? A spirit of escape? How would they view it?

Now we’re talking about something interesting: not expansion of characters, but an expansion of a world and the creation of connections throughout that world. Let your audience know your world is a big place; give them the means to explore, show them the way to explore it.


The brief aside to a comics version of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations may have seemed random, but it points to an untapped usage of comics in transmedia, particularly how it relates to film: the pictorial representation of thought. What is, after all, a comics version of Meditations, a book of philosophy, but a deepening of character through their thoughts?

One of my favorite scenes in Gladiator is when young Lucius tells his uncle, Commodous, that he is playing Gladiator, the savior of Rome. What other games does Lucius play? What stories did he concoct? What backstory did he create for Maximus? What did his mother tell him of Maximus? How do all of those elements inform his play, inspired by what he saw in the Colosseum?

This option uses backstory, yes, but through the imagination of another character, offering a deeper glimpse into their thoughts and dreams and hopes and fears. It’s not “fill in the hole and cash in” backstory, it’s intriguing backstory - and if you’re going to go there, that’s the only way to do it.

Both of these options, the different group of Gladiators and Lucius’ imagination offer something that backstory does not: a deepening of world and a deepening of character. Explore those notions when pondering your own deepening via comics.

Thanks again to reader @DailyGreenDiva for supplying the Gladiator notion. Next time, we’re going to look at the options, both print and digital, for expanding your story into comics form.

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