Posted April 3, 2008
The same week that I walked over to the rep theater to see Persepolis. I watched the straight-to-DVD Justice League: The New Frontier. And, yes, it’s probably wrong to write about The New Frontier within pixels of Persepolis, even if they’re both comics that became animated movies with very different results.
I admit it. I like Persepolis better as a movie than as a book. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud fuse Satrapi’s two volume comic memoir about her life in post-revolutionary Tehran and European exile into one movie. The story seems smoother. But the real difference for me is the art. The film gives it some space.
While she doesn’t paint with a single kitten hair, Satrapi’s work gestures
toward Persian miniatures, even sharing their geometric focus. But
Pantheon’s 9″ x 6″ book seems less like a collection of
miniatures than cramped Victorian curating, with panels squished
closely together without much border. Even a miniature needs space.
On screen, her art has more depth and texture, from rough pastel
shading and gray washes to tumbling flowers and twining branches. The
blacks are much more expansive.
Satrapi uses the movie to explore different styles for each
narrative, from a blackened out Social Realist woodcut look for the
Iran-Iraq War to the overarching frame of Marjane at the
airport, the only segment in color. Her Uncle Anoush’s story begins
as an animated miniature before sliding seamlessly into a puppet play
of his flight to the Soviet Union. My favorite segment depicts the
tempting of Reza Khan to become shah. I love its mockery of the
British diplomat (Edmond Ironside?) and Reza Khan’s self-importance
and vanity. Their flapping arms are perfect.
But her story also escapes the reverence in which we might hold it. The respectable ratios. The dominance of text over art. The binding
that makes it harder for the art to open up like the jasmine spilling
down the screen. Pantheon has nice graphic novels, but there’s an ambivalence in the materials themselves, an unwillingness to risk not being taken seriously as books, even when some of the conventions of comics publishing—the ratios, the binding, the borders, the paper—might serve Satrapi’s art better.
Still what can compare with the luminosity and absolute blackness of the
film? The monochromatic silence so much deeper than the book? How
do I go back to static Satrapi when
she’s created something perfect with Vincent Paronnaud?
More brightly-colored than Persepolis but darker-toned than Warner Bros.’ Justice League
tv series, The New Frontier is set before the Justice League became the Justice League.
The story addresses the Cold War, McCarthyism and the threat within
using heroes in capes, tights and star-spangled shorts. In their 90
minutes, Darwyn Cooke and Bruce Timm make a nice allegory for
contemporary America, focusing on the heroes’ relationships, the
capture of the martian J’onn J’onzz, and rampant paranoia. But the
end’s rushed. There’s a monster kinda out of nowhere. Superman
suddenly stands up for what’s right and calls everyone to look past a
feared alien threat—whether pinko or green—and work together.
It’s a nice little trick, an homage to 1950s alien menace movies that
are anti-Communist or anti-McCarthyite depending on how you squint.
Better fans than I can write about the truncated story and the references to
DC comics history. Really, I’m not the one you want to go to for
that. I can say that Cooke’s art had more space and flexibility
before it was animated straight to DVD. I didn’t expect the movie to
compete with the books’ expressive art or multiple artistic styles;
and it doesn’t. But while the film’s slicker, it’s not as painful as
Disney Hellboy. J’onn J’onzz remains tragically expressive. Blocky
Korean War Wonder Woman is an Amazon’s Amazon and who doesn’t like to
see pointy-eared Batman wearing purple gloves? But while superhero
cartoons—and maybe cartoons in general—benefit from The New
Frontier‘s new medium, I can’t say that The New Frontier
does. Its sacrifice is certainly appreciated, but Cooke’s art
flattens out on the screen.
It’s funny that the more literary text would benefit so much more from its
transposition. The New Frontier becomes more stereotypical on screen, while Persepolis
escapes the pieties of literature with all the force of a francophone
woman singing “Eye of the Tiger.” Literature is supposed
to be more expansive than genre. Superheros are supposed to be
But there are little overlaps. Both movies are about profoundly
distrustful societies turning against themselves to battle their own
fear. Satrapi humanizes what is too easily understood as dehumanized
political history, seeking solidarity in our common humanity. The
New Frontier presents the parable of a Martian squatting in a
black site cell. One is a helluva lot more respectable than the
other, but learning to love the alien is always worthwhile.
Between repertory cinemas and straight to DVD movies, Carol Borden lives a glitzy life.