Cape or No Cape?: Adapting Comic Books for Theatre

Anthony Cornatzer

You may not think about it at first, but the art of comic books and theatre have quite a bit in common. Though separate in form and discipline, both mediums share the same trait in elevating and taking us as audiences to various worlds of our depth and imagination.

Yeah, duh.

So, this being said, could the two ever possibly merge? Wait, what? But, no, may not be the first thing to come to mind as being sensible, let alone possible, but still it really does seem to be a plausible question to ask ourselves as theatre-goers and comic book lovers alike.

In popularity, the closest we've ever come to this reality is that of Broadway musical adaptations from both the DC and Marvel universe. They include, “It’s a Bird, It's a Plane...It’s Superman” original directed by Harold Prince (believe me, I wish I was kidding. If it weren't obvious, this is very much the original, stereotypical boy scout Superman of the early to mid-twentieth century), and “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” (how that title makes any sense is beyond me). With Spidey's musical, it went so far as to have a big-name production team attached that included Tony award winner Julie Taymor as a director, as well as U2’s Bono and The Edge for music and lyrics.

And yet, in spite of all of this, this all-star team, insane technical design elements, and web-slinging acrobatics, the show was a sheer, hot mess. Even with the production holding a position of dominance for quite some time in bringing in millions of dollars into the box office, it was seemingly more of a circus and a literal disaster show if anything else (if one simply recollects all of the varying accidents amongst the actors).

So, the question now seems to be can this be fixed? Because surely there will be more and more companies and daring innovators that will want to possibly ride this wild bull of a genre for the stage. Is it really possible for the two to merge? And that’s the one key question that should be eliminated now from the get-go with a resounding “yes”, it can be done, and done well.

The production of shows in this genre, themselves, happened, that’s more than obvious. So there is seemingly a demand for it from an audience perspective. But it also seems clear that these particular shows lent themselves too much towards the spectacle. It isn’t to say any drama, let alone Broadway productions, aren’t without exceptional spectacles that contribute to the success of a production--but it isn’t, nor should it be, the most essential element amongst the other necessary components for a drama.

Though the element is in itself necessary, Aristotle himself dictates that “The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic…[depending] more on the art of the stage machinist than that of the poet” (Poetics. VI. 64).

Anyone involved in story-telling, not just that pertaining to theatre or comic books, has needed to be cognizant of this if they wanted their work to be successful; to utilize the spectacle, then, as much as it was necessary, nothing more. And similarly, in transposition, the comic book universe encountered the same problem in trying to adapt their stories to film and television. A prime example of this is actually the varying the adaptations of Batman. Looking back on the original sixties television series with Adam West, there is needless to say a colossal difference between that and the later Tim Burton film adaptations in the eighties with Michael Keaton and later with Christopher Nolan’s legendary, Dark Knight trilogy.

Obviously, too, you can make the same comparisons from comic book to film with other characters, including once again with Spider-Man and Superman. And, ironically enough with Superman, the book writing team, Robert Benton and James Newman, later went on to write the screenplay for the classic 1978 film with Christopher Reeve. There’s definitely something to be said about that.

But it isn’t to say that theatre hasn’t gone through its own growth in transposing stories and mediums. As our societies and art have become more and more eclectic, also in fulfilling Wagner’s theory and vision of “Gersamtkuntswerk” (or, “total work of art”), so too has theatre risen to the occasion without fail. And there have been just as many successes and flops of shows what with absurdism, epic theatre, musicals, rock operas, pop operas, jukebox musicals, and even plays or musicals based around films (or, more popularly, “moviecals”), just to think of a few.

The point is, though it is clearly difficult to pull off, theatre has come too far to say that adapting comic books for the stage is impossible. It really isn’t impossible at all—the point is we have to be smart and intuitive about the transposition, just as we already do naturally in experimenting with anything new for the stage. If that then is accomplished, then we can easily transition in having true dramas versus entertainment in using the super-hero concept as a mere vessel. If comic books and films can accomplish this, so too can theatre.

Additionally too, it isn’t as if there aren’t enough characters or storylines in comic books for the stage to handle. If anything, there are too many for the stage not to utilize. Of course, there will be more efforts and experiments, triumphs as well as failures, but that’s still the same as it’s always been. But for those that do succeed, it seems fair to say that they will create more potential for theatre as well as comic books possibly than ever before.

Much in the same vein, theatre in itself draws originally from weird and extraordinary stories what with Greek mythology and the tragedies that would transpire from it. We would also continue to do the same thing with Christian pageants, fairy tales, as well as various other myths and fables throughout the proceeding centuries to follow up to now. Adapting comic books then for the stage really doesn’t seem that unusual at all. If anything, drawing source material from them only reaffirms the limitless possibilities that both mediums innately have.

So, for lack of better words, let’s not say no to the cape just yet for the stage.