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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (12/27/10) 3:03pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Repo Man
TV:  <none>
Books:  The Middleman:  The Complete Trade Paperback Indispensibility

Repo Man
Repo Man is the 1984 cult hit that stars Emilio Estevez and was produced by one of the members of the Monkees.

It has all the makings of a cult hit.  It strains to be countercultural, with its opening theme from Iggy Pop (and, just to make sure we get it, there's an opening credit that says "'REPO MAN' THEME BY IGGY POP") and its nods to punk culture, and its "sticking it to the man" vibe.  Presumably its use of noticeably generic products (beer cans labeled "Beer" in Dharma-like black-on-white text) is somehow edgy.

So yeah, it tries a little too hard, but at the same time, this gives it a distinctive look and feel.  And the show's distinctive feeling makes up for its relative lack of story.  Sure, Otto stumbles into the car-reposessing biz, and winds up tracking down a car with some alien überweapon.  Sure, the plot meanders and never really makes much sense.  But the movie's not really *about* the plot.  It's about how it feels to live on the edges of the oh-so-conformist eighties.  It's about being a teenager and hating everything.  It's about having a movie that feels like it was made for us, and not for them.

Come to think of it, that's pretty much the definition of a 'cult hit', isn't it?

The Middleman:  The Trade Paperback Indispensibility by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClane
So once upon a time, Javier Grillo-Marxuach wrote a TV spec pilot called The Middleman.  He shopped it around, but nobody wanted to produce it as a series.  Undaunted, he adapted the script into a comic book that had a successful print run with Viper comics.  The comic gained a cult following.  Javi got some high-profile writing gigs on shows like LOST.[1]  Eventually, he wound up in a meeting with ABC Family, and they wanted to know if he had any shows to pitch.

"Well, I've got this comic series that we could adapt into a TV show...."

So we could say that this book comprises the comic that the TV show is based on, or we could say it went the other way around.

In any case, my interest in The Trade Paperback Inevitability is in comparing it to the show.  What changed?  What didn't?  And what does this say about the different media?

In the end, I'm surprised both by how much of the show is in the comic, and how little of the show is in the comic.  The core of the show is there:  the tone is spot-on, the three central characters are perfectly etched out, and even the running gag with the chyron timestamps is in place.  The comic defines the world of The Middleman as well as the show does.

And yet, for all that, these first three volumes comprise just a tiny, barely-developed version of what the show was going to be.  A thirteen-episode run is still pretty short, but they packed a lot of story into those ~nine hours of screentime.  They developed a 'back bench' of secondary characters.  The production crew poured in as many geek references as they could manage (e.g., a Wilhelm Scream showing up in each episode).  The "Ida thinks Wendy is high" joke got repeated until it became kind of glorious.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the show developed the Middleman/Lacey relationship into something with some genuine pathos.  And they did it in a way that was mostly silent looks and awkward inaction.  It's a style of storytelling that relies heavily on having expressive actors who can get across a character's inner state without a lot of dialog or action to clarify it.  I honestly wonder if that type of scene happens too often in comics; I doubt a writer would dump "give me a half-dozen panels of various types of uncomfortable, silent longing" on an artist, and I doubt many artists could mae that script work on the page.

I've mentioned before that I also find it interesting that ABC Family asked them to make the protagonist Latina.  I've said it before, I'll say it again:  American television is freakishly white.  It's just weird.  And I suspect networks keep it that way, because showrunners will want to cast whoever's best for the part, regardless of race.  And beyond that, television is very *very* non-Latino.  I can think of maybe a half-dozen Latino TV characters offhand, and I've watched a lot of television.

And somehow, ABC Family wants a Latina heroine for their new sci-fi show.  Hooray!  Moreover, Javi, who is Puerto Rican himself, decided to make the character (as he termed it) "Latina in name only".  In his experience, the Hispanic population of America doesn't sit around speaking Spanglish and talking about how Hispanic they are -- so Wendy stayed Wendy, even though she'd be played by a Cuban-American.  If I recall correctly, they only explicitly reference that once in the show, with one of the funniest throwaway lines in the series.  ("I'm *Cuban*!")

I've wandered away from the comic book, I suppose.  Again, it's a great sketch of these central characters and their world, and it hits a really distinctive tone.  I'm just glad they got to expand it out to its wider canvas.

For next time, I'm watching more of Friday Night Lights, perhaps reading (yet) another self-help book, and continuing through A Game of Thrones.  Also, I may start in on The Last Airbender -- the renowned animé show, not the lambasted Shyamalan movie.

[1] Side note:  he's one of the credited writers on "... In Translation", one of my favorite season-one episodes.

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