One of the most interesting movie adaptations published in Marvel Super Special was the adaptation of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner (Marvel Super Special #22, Sept 1982). The comic-book version was written by Archie Goodwin, penciled by Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon, and inked by Williamson, Dan Green, and Ralph Reese.
It’s an interesting adaptation, not only because of Blade Runner‘s later status as a classic science-fiction film but also because the movie succeeds in large part due to elements that are distinctly cinematic. The movie is known for its slightly slow pace, in which long takes allow the viewer to absorb the cityscape, or the stark and poorly lit interiors, conveying a sense of mood that’s often as important as the dialogue. Many sci-fi films intend to wow the audience with their landscapes, both exterior and interior. Blade Runner is not without a certain wow factor in its future presentations, but these are subsumed within the overall starkness of the presentation. Viewers often remember the look of the film as much as any characters or plot details. But a comic adaptation, when compressed to so few pages, inevitably has to focus on plot, and this has a tendency to reduce the adaptation’s ability to immerse the reader in mood-setting visuals.
The movie’s stark look combines with the often dispassionate dialogue and muted performances to convey a sense that no one’s excited to be living in this particular future. Whatever wonders there may be don’t move the characters, who walk through these landscapes a bit like unfeeling robots. And this is key to the movie, which uses the idea of androids as a way to question what it means to be human and how we judge what — and who — are “real.” Indeed, the movie’s Replicants often seem more emotional and “alive” than the movie’s human characters. Here too, the comic adaptation is at a disadvantage, since its printed dialogue cannot so easily convey tone.
The movie is also distinguished by its soundtrack, composed by Vangelis. The ambient sounds accent well the movie’s stark visuals. There’s a beauty to both, but neither seems excited about it. Instead, the music conveys a more philosophical, if not melancholy mood, that enhances the effect of the visuals. The soundtrack is also characterized by its use of synthesizers, although these are never used in the 1980s pop way that one might expect. The soundtrack is moody, and even its love theme uses a tenor sax that seems to convey an underlying sadness and the distance between the movie’s lovers. As a love story, Blade Runner feels more like two desperate, sad, and lonely people than an endorphin-spurring jolt of drug-like emotions. The lovers’ eyes don’t light up, and their smiles at each other are uncertain smirks, emphasizing the tenuousness of their love and their lives. The music seems to capture this same sense of recompense, perhaps suggesting that no love can be more than this, for these characters and in this place that has drained life, love, and death of passion for all but criminals. Like most movie music, the Vangelis soundtrack tells us how to feel. Yet this too is deprived the comic-book adaptation.
Most movie adaptations aren’t great comics in their own right, and the Blade Runner adaptation’s no different. Given how much of the movie’s success depends on its ambiance, it’s hard not to imagine that a Blade Runner comics adaptation would have benefited from a more decompressed style of storytelling, with larger panels and fewer captions and word balloons. This might have helped immerse the reader in the movie’s world. Of course, in 1982, this wasn’t a realistic option, and the adaptation was limited to 44 pages.
That’s not to say the comic doesn’t take moments to emphasize the look of this future. It opens with a splash page, prominently featuring the Tyrell Corporation building. The image is lessened by the fact that a thick fog covers its middle ground, preventing a clear shot of the city and making the flying car appear to be drifting in space, rather than grounded in an actual setting. The page is also lessened by its unrealistic colors, typical of comics at the time. It seems to reduce Blade Runner to the idiom of early-1980s comics, rather than being inspired by the material to transcend that idiom.
The image seems to draw a contrast between the Tyrell Corporation’s wealth and the poorer areas around it. There’s something burning in the distance, suggesting a factory, and the fog recalls industrial pollution. Whereas the Tyrell building and those beyond it are colored orange, the fog-drenched buildings in the foreground are mostly grey and brown, suggesting a grimy setting. The movie isn’t without its class tensions, but this establishing shot seems to visually suggest that this is a city of extreme haves and have-nots, a situation more reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s classic silent 1927 film Metropolis than the dynamics emphasized within Ridley Scott’s film.
Later, as the story nears its climax, the adaptation offers a two-page spread, mostly consisting of a single panel depicting the Tyrell Corporation building. The giant screen with a female face on it, an image from the film that has become iconic, is included in this central panel — a fact likely to please fans of the film even today. Yet again, fog is used to avoid depicting a middle ground, and it’s not a good sign when a large percentage of a future cityscape is a single, undifferentiated field of color. Here too, the limited colors significantly lower the realism of the artwork and the impression it might make. Nonetheless, the artwork around the fog is good (the detail on the building is remarkable), and the image is good enough to invoke how powerful a comics adaptation of Blade Runner might be, if it surrendered more fully to the visual potentials of the comics medium.
This isn’t to say that the art is bad, even if the long list of pencilers and inkers may make us suspicious. Some panels are workmanlike, but others are simply glorious — even if the colors (by deservedly legendary artist Marie Severin) seem to lessen the overall effect.
One of my favorite sequence in the film is when Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) administers the Voight-Kampff test to Eldon Tyrell’s secretary, Rachel (played by Sean Young). Ostensibly, Tyrell has Deckard test Rachel as a control, but in fact Rachel is one of the new Nexus-6 Replicant models Deckard’s there to demonstrate the test works on. It takes Deckard far longer than normal, but he’s able to ascertain that Rachel’s a Replicant. He has her excuse herself before discussing his finding with Tyrell, but Rachel isn’t dumb. She figures out she’s a Replicant, and this effectively set’s the movie’s quasi-romantic B-plot into motion. Of course, like all good B-plots, this plot dovetails nicely with the concerns of the more action-based A-plot. In fact, the B-plot is the heart of the film (at least for me).
The comic adaptation does a good job here, even if the montage of Deckard testing Rachel feels overly compressed. The page in question begins with an establishing shot of Tyrell’s office, illustrated from a distance using a worm’s eye view. Besides the extreme camera angle, the panel uses both negative space and reflections brilliantly, and both techniques reinforce the philosophical implications of the scene. Replicants are a distorted reflection of humanity, or vice versa, and the use of flat areas, sometimes without border lines, suggests the austere aesthetic of the movie as well as the emptiness that seems to define this city’s inhabitants.
The panel is entirely colored an orange-red, which risks feeling lazy, but this actually works well, accenting the wonderful artwork. More “proper” coloring would likely define those areas of negative space too much and would risk distracting from the artwork. As it is, the effect is more like tinting than traditional comics coloring, and a strong case could be made that, even were this artwork recolored using present computer coloring techniques, it would benefit from being colored in a single hue (the same orange, or perhaps a blue) ranging only in luminosity. The use of a single color also echoes the darkness of the scene in the movie, suggesting the idea of limited vision in a different way.
One of the movie’s most famous sequences is when Deckard guns down a female Replicant, who flees in a see-through jacket. As Deckard shoots her, she crashes through a store window in slow motion. The film doesn’t hesitate to show her pained face, and her slow-motion death, combined with shattered glass, manages to convey a sense of martyrdom. There’s doubtlessly a sexual element to the sequence, in which an attractive woman runs in skimpy clothing, and her death suggests the strong connection between eros and thanatos. Yet the death of beautiful women is often used in fiction to represent the death of innocence, or how evil the killer is, or even the unjust, squandering nature of society. These elements are all present in the sequence, and the sequence seems surprisingly willing to implicate the movie’s main character. After all, she’s fleeing when she’s killed, and she’s driven by nothing more than a willingness to live.
The comic adaptation isn’t as successful as the movie, in depicting this scene. But the comic devotes a full page to the shooting and its aftermath, and it’s not afraid to show the female Replicant’s face as she’s shot. The shattering glass doesn’t get the space we might wish, much less shard-shaped panels, but it’s not cut for space. The shards around her beautiful but dead body still manage to be evocative, and here again the art exploits the reflection motif, as her face is reflected in the shards on the floor. We might wish the sequence were, well, more cinematic, but it’s powerful in its own right.
Another of the film’s more famous sequences comes at its climax, in which Deckard flees Roy Batty, the lead “villainous” Replicant (played by Rutger Hauer). Deckard dangles off a building, but Roy pulls him onto the roof, saving his enemy. Roy then delivers a brief monologue about death, specifically about how his memories will be lost with him. Deckard watches silently as Roy dies — not due to any action on the part of the “hero,” but rather due to the artificial time limit placed on Replicants’ lives. The unorthodox nature of this conclusion pleases on its own terms, but it also works as an expression of how unjust, or at least immune to justice, this world is; there’s no sense that the hero triumphs due to his innate cleverness, nor strength, nor worth in any way.
Precisely why the lead villain chooses to save the lead hero, precisely at the villain’s moment of victory, remains debated, but the answer may be a combination of the fact that the hero’s death would bring no increased pleasure (the villain has already won, and he’s already killed his technological maker) and that the villain wishes to have a witness to his death, so that at least that final memory would be shared and would not die with him.
This may well be a part of why we, as humans, don’t wish to be alone: we wish to share experiences with others, so that these experiences are not confined to our own mortal (and therefore dying) brains, which we interpret as feeling less alone. I recall when my father lost his lifelong friend, what moved my father most was remembering walking with his friend, somewhere, in some season, down a street lined on both sides with trees, and how the trees were all shedding their leaves simultaneously, burying them. It was a strong memory, and hearing it recounted, I got the sense that my father could still see those leaves; he knew the species of the tree, and he could picture the color of those leaves and the arcs of the leaves’ stems as they fell, and he could recall how they felt on his body. I knew that he couldn’t communicate much of this in our limited words, and that my own brain couldn’t retain so much of the facts he was conveying. No one had shared this experience with my father except his friend, and now that this friend was gone, it existed only in my father’s brain. Somehow, this was far more touching than the death of a human man who had been deteriorating for some time. His death was no surprise. How much it hurt, knowing this memory was now isolated in a single brain, was a surprise.
The comics version of this sequence uses the literary or printed nature of the medium to good effect. In a film, the viewer can’t control the speed at which a story moves, and this can make one feel lost, if one doesn’t get a good sense of the landscape in which characters are moving, or precisely where they are in that landscape. This can happen in a comic too, but the reader’s ability to pause over panels mitigates it, letting one immerse one’s self in a landscape until one has a sense of it, or at least as much sense as the panel provides. But it’s no surprise that a comic would see the drama inherent in a rooftop chase or a character hanging from a building; such melodramatic elements (and the effective ways of visually portraying them) are a staple of comic-book stories, for better or for worse. What’s more interesting is that Roy’s final monologue, in printed form, arguably brings out its philosophical implications in a way that the movie’s dialogue doesn’t. The fact that the reader is able to pause, move back, reread, and reconsider aids the sequence, whereas a viewer might have to rewatch the film several times to pick up on the sequence’s implications to the same degree.
Other memorable moments from the movie don’t work quite as well. Roy gains access to Tyrell’s penthouse through the human Sebastian, and the comic can’t convey the awkward nervousness as Roy and Sebastian wait to see whether their ploy will work. But the comics retains the cleverness of having Roy and Sebastian gain access to Tyrell’s penthouse through communicating a chess move, which indicates Tyrell’s self-indulgent wealth and his detached, cerebral character; chess is more interesting to him than people, again emphasizing how the humans in this world appear to be disconnected and dispassionate, relative to the Replicants, who are arguably more alive. This maneuver used to gain access to Tyrell’s penthouse also illustrates how even the greatest security can be penetrated due to human error, a fact now familiar to us due to internet and corporate security concerns. And if the comic fails to convey the scene in the elevator very successfully, it excels at depicting Tyrell awakening and going to his chess set. Tyrell’s bedroom is lovingly drawn with masterful precision.
Shortly before the climax with Deckard, Roy kills Tyrell. In the movie, this feels (at least to me) impulsive and anti-climactic. That’s not necessarily bad, in that Roy’s impulsiveness is part of his menace, and it foreshadows his sparing Deckard; he impulsively kills, and he impulsively saves. The anti-climactic nature of the scene, in which Roy’s squeezing of Tyrell’s head feels oddly restrained, may also be read as reflecting how unsatisfying vengeance is for Roy, and perhaps this experience informs his choice to spare Deckard. In the compressed (no pun intended) comic, however, the fact that Roy is killing his creator finds emphasis, underlining the mythological truth of the sequence, which evokes how one generation of Greek gods might overthrow the previous one, as well as the psychological truth of the sequence, which recalls how our fathers cast long shadows over our lives until they are literally or symbolically gone. These implications are present in the film, but there’s no mistaking the symbolic potency of the murder in the comic.
To be sure, the rest of the adaptation is something of a mixed bag, but the more time one spends with it, the more one likes it.
Another advantage of comics, relative to cinema, is the presence of page breaks and panel borders. This allows comics to control how information is packaged, much in the same way that a paragraph functions in prose. In cinema, footage generally just rolls forward without the same kind of breaks. The captions and dialogue in a panel functions with its imagery as a distinct unit, and this encourages the reader to consider it as such, whereas it’s easy in film for important moments or lines of dialogue to be lost, because the viewer is always paying attention to the next, ongoing sequence. In this way, page or panel borders can act to “bookend” a moment, literally freezing it on the page for consideration.
Thus, when Rachel says that she’s not part of Deckard’s business (his profession is hunting Replicants) but rather is his business, the panel includes only this dialogue, combined with Rachel sitting dejectedly. It’s a clever line that conveys the depressing consequences of Rachel’s realization that she’s a Replicant, which is in effect her reaction to her own objectification. As with the earlier shooting of the female Replicant, gender issues mix here with broader, existential ones. In the movie, the same sense is communicated, but it’s part of a moving tapestry of references, auditory and visual. In the comic, it’s much easier to turn a bit of that tapestry into what feels like a moment, a unit of its own, surrounded by a nice black box.
When we began, I discussed several reasons to think that a comics adaptation of Blade Runner might be difficult. But Blade Runner has one quality that lends itself to adaptation: the movie has Deckard narrating in voice-over, a technique which has largely fallen out of fashion. Similarly, captions — especially objective ones — have fallen out of fashion in comics. Yet Deckard’s voice-over is easily adapted as captions, yielding a comic that can feel literary as a result. Indeed, there are rare moments in the adaptation in which the captions help the comic feel like a comic from Europe, where comics have remained much more compressed and captions haven’t fallen out of favor nearly so much.
It’s not hard to imagine that Blade Runner could have gotten an ongoing Marvel series, the way another Harrison Ford property — Indiana Jones — did after its own comics adaptation (of Raiders of the Lost Ark). Marvel also had Star Wars at the time, so it could have had three comics starring characters played by Harrison Ford! Of course, it’s perverse to wish for a 1980s comics continuation of Blade Runner: the movie is considered a classic today, and there’s no doubt that any comics continuation would be a bit more pulpy, and quite a bit more uneven, than purists would wish. But some would regard a comics adaptation of Blade Runner as itself a perversion. And an ongoing series, with all the thematic and stylistic incongruities that would have inevitably accompanied it, could have been a most delightful perversion. It could have happened.