Piqued by prequels

From 'Superman' to 'Saw,' tie-in comics enrich pics

Most “Star Wars” audiences met the mysterious General Grievous in the opening scene of “Revenge of the Sith.” But fans enthusiastic enough to watch Cartoon Network’s animated “Clone Wars” series, which George Lucas created to bridge the gap between Episodes II and III, found little mystery in the villain with whom they were already well acquainted from the show.

And while average viewers thought nothing of Neo’s spoon-bending acolyte from “The Matrix Revolutions,” hardcore devotees instantly recognized him as “The Kid” character from “The Animatrix,” a series of nine anime episodes commissioned by the Wachowskis (who penned four of the shorts themselves) to help connect the original pic with its two 2003 sequels.

Once redundant as merely franchise adaptations, today tie-in comics and cartoons frequently provide valuable supplemental details to the story and characters, rewarding fans who do their homework with key background information.

Take Kevin Smith’s four-part comic “Chasing Dogma” (1998), which explains how the Jay and Silent Bob characters went from New Jersey at the end of 1997’s “Chasing Amy” to Chicago for the opening of 1999’s “Dogma.” Skip the comics, and the movies still make sense, but read the comics, and fans are rewarded with added insight.

With auteur filmmakers catching on that they can expand their mythologies offscreen — and companies realizing there’s additional money to be made through this continuing pop-culture phenomenon — the trend is heating up.

Comics-based “Superman Returns” was a natural for the treatment, yielding four special issues that sold out before Superman flew onto screens.

“These prequel comics were the brainchild of (director) Bryan Singer and (screenwriters) Mike Dougherty and Dan Harris,” says Gregory Noveck, senior VP of creative affairs for Warner-owned DC Comics. “They wanted to fill specific gaps in the time frame between (1980’s) ‘Superman II’ and their film, ‘Superman Returns.'”

The comics focused on what Superman’s friends and enemies had been doing before the film begins. Only by reading the prequel comics would auds know that Ma Kent covered for Clark’s absence by forging postcards to Lois Lane (the cards even appear on Lois’ desk in the film) or understand why Lois fell for Richard White in Superman’s absence.

“I think culturally when people find a world that they like, they want to immerse themselves in it,” Noveck says.

Graphic novels can also provide artistic refuge for filmmakers. When Brad Pitt dropped out of “The Fountain” in 2002, the production shut down, leaving writer-director Darren Aronofsky distraught.

“After I licked my wounds, I immediately set up the graphic novel because I wanted the work of the artists from the film and (co-writer Ari Handel) to find an audience,” he recalls.

The pricey “Fountain” hardback sold out in fall 2005, while a moderately priced trade paperback will generate new awareness leading up to the pic’s release.

“Some people wondered if we were giving away the whole story and all of its secrets,” Aronofsky says. “I think the two works complement each other.”

Other studios have also used comicbook tie-ins to hype their upcoming pics. For instance, Lionsgate released a graphic novel before “Saw II” that shed light on the Jigsaw character’s mysterious origins, and New Line has similar plans for its “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” prequel.

Filmmaker Richard Kelly is taking a more ambitious approach with “Southland Tales,” telling the first three episodes in three graphic novels, with episodes four through six told as chaptered segments within the film.

Each of Kelly’s 100-page prequels covers a full day’s events, providing heavy backstory on how these characters all came to arrive in Los Angeles for the beginning of the film, suggesting that auds’ true understanding of the film may depend on whether they’ve read the books first.

“‘Southland Tales’ was designed with the same kind of storytelling grammar that ‘Donnie Darko’ was made with,” Kelly says. “It’s a big puzzle with a lot of characters that all fit into an intricate film that challenges the audience to engage in the narrative to try to solve the puzzle.”

Smith, who appears in “Southland Tales,” co-financed the graphic novels with longtime partner Bob Chapman of Graphitti Designs. At a cost of roughly $60,000 per issue, it was a risky venture, but as Chapman explains, they were investing in both the unique story and Kelly’s strong fan base — the same fans who practically willed a director’s-cut DVD of cult favorite “Donnie Darko” into existence.

“There really were no limits,” Chapman says. “We told Richard to tell the story he wants to and that we’d facilitate making sure that story reaches audiences.”

Kelly, new to the world of comicbooks, took advantage of the financial freedoms the page offers. Rather than taking $1 million out of the film’s $17 million budget to create an elaborate dream sequence, Kelly accomplished it in his graphic novel. Now, as the director re-edits “Southland Tales” after its chilly reception at Cannes (possibly augmented by the crowd’s unfamiliarity with the graphic novels), Kelly’s found himself adding comic elements into the film.

“It’s been a challenge to make sure that the film does not live or die based on whether or not you’ve read the graphic novel,” he says. “But at the same time, that was always what I felt was so cool about telling a story across different media.”