Sometimes I really want to like something. I really, really do. And it’s not bad and I don’t actively dislike like it. I just don’t like it. I love the film, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. It’s one of my favorite films of 2014 and it’s one I recommend. But the comic version, well, I want to, but I don’t. I picked up A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night: Death Is The Answer and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night: Who Am I (RadCo, 2014) when I saw them on sale online.
The comics were written by the film’s director and screenwriter, Lily Ana Amirpour, with art by Michael DeWeese and lettering by Patrick Brousseau. I’ve been writing a lot lately about adapting comics into film and thought it might be interesting to go the other way. But these comics aren’t an adaptation of the film. They provide the backstory for the titular, nameless Girl. Now I’m curious about why I was disappointed when I didn’t have expectations, what that means about what I look for in comicsss and the differences between comics and film as storytelling media.
If you haven’t seen the film, I am going to talk about plot details and such, because that’s generally how we do here at the Gutter. I don’t honestly think anything I discuss could spoil the film. But you might and if you’re worried, maybe go watch the film and then come back if you feel like.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a black and white American film in Farsi about an unnamed vampire (Sheila Vand) stalking the streets of Bad City at night. She appears young. She likes music. And she likes skateboarding with her chador flaring out behind her like Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee’s cape. The Girl preys on the poorly behaved men of the city and falls in love with a kinda James Dean boy named Arash (Arash Marandi), whose father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh), is a junkie who owes drug dealer and pimp Saeed (Dominic Rains) money. It also features Mozhan Marnò from The Blacklist as a prostitute. The film also has an excellent cat (Masuka). It’s genre-bending, mixing the Western (Spaghetti and otherwise) with Gothic horror and a dash of the French New Wave. It feels an awful lot like a Jim Jarmusch vampire movie, well, a different Jim Jarmusch vampire movie. Like the film, the two issues of the comic go for atmosphere, but atmosphere, implicit storytelling and narrative is tricky in comics as a form.
The comic’s a prequel to the film, showing how and why the Girl came to Bad City. There’s no speech, but we have access to the Girl’s thoughts about why she kills, her feelings and her guilt over what she is. It’s kind of a character sketch in two comics. Amirpour paces and plots it well, with a strong sense of her characters and action, but somehow the story is so…predictable. The first issue ends with, “She is the girl who walks home alone at night.”And I really was hoping it wouldn’t. So I think part of my disappointment is that while I expected the film to be better than the comic, I didn’t really expect the comic to be a comics origin story, which is on me. And probably the actual downside of not having an expectation of what the comic would be.
David DeWeese is a storyboard artist, computer artist and illustrator. DeWeese has a fine sense of composition and an incredible use of black and white. His animals are amazing, especially the iconic cat of the film. But there are little places where the art is uneven. The comics made me ponder and appreciate how different storyboarding and comics really are, even if they appear to be almost the same. And that is intriguing, that the intended use of a very similar visual forms can make such a difference.
The comics are being distributed with A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night‘s blu-ray. And maybe I wouldn’t be feeling that feeling I’m not quite sure what it is, if I had gotten the comics as supplemental material with the film—like Criterion’s booklets. And that would be pretty neat supplemental material. The comics feel like background material, so I wasn’t surprised to discover that the comics were based on material Amirpour created in making the film. As SF/F Editor Keith says, “You Can’t Make A Masterpiece Without Madness.” And A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a masterpiece as far as I’m concerned. In an interview with Film Comment, Amirpour says:
“I didn’t write the graphic novel and then decide to make a film out of it, which is the way most people assume it goes. Whenever I write any character for any script, I like to have all of the backstory and history and everything about the character. I was doing that for all of the characters in The Girl so I had all of these awesome stories, like how she bought the poster of Elvis Presley when she saw him in Morocco, how she became a vampire in Iran, traveled all over Europe… Really cool stuff. Her origin story, how she gets depressed and goes out into the desert to kill herself but can’t do it.
Then sometime around postproduction I was talking about some comic books and graphic novels. More cerebral stuff like Charles Burns and Crumb—I’m not really a Marvel person. So I was like, I’ve got all of these stories, I want to do a comic book, and at that point I thought I’d just do the illustrations myself. And me and one of my producing partners were talking and he was like: ‘Well, we want to do a comic book,’ and then it was like ‘Well, shit, let’s do it.’ We did the first run, and we have two and three coming out next. I think we’re going to do six for the first book. It’s kind of a dream to get to do that.”
(I can really see the influence of Burns on both the writing and the art, by the way).
In their long correspondence about writing, poets Robert Creeley and Charles Olson came to the conclusion that “Form is never more than an extension of content.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot while writing this piece. Comics and film are different media, though they have some resemblance that might fool us all sometimes. They’re both visual and sequential. Panels and storyboards. Chosen silence and inherent silence. It’s interesting to see some of the differences in adapting a film for comics. And it’s interesting to see how the form imposes on the content. Amirpour’s deft storytelling is amazing in the film, where sound and motion can tell a story by themselves. But here, even with the same writer with the same mastery of storytelling, the same sensibility and the same characters, the medium makes such a difference.
I’ve written before about the strength of comics’ inherent silence, but it can be a weakness, too. It’s easy to overlook how definitive written text can become in a silent, static form. Narration is unobtrusive in comics until the text or caption boxes themselves become too dense on the page. Sometimes captions work great—like in Brian Wood’s Northlanders. Sometimes, they are too much for me—like in Matt Fraction’s Defenders. In film, the narration is almost always audio now. Because audio inherently intrudes into the film, filmmakers are careful with the use of an external narrator, or figure out ways to play with one. But much of the strength of Girl was the way we quietly sat with the fact of a Persian vampire girl, a boy and a cat in a Bad City without defining them. And much of the weakness of the comics for me was the narration.
The film mixes so many amazing things that maybe shouldn’t work together: vampires, chadors, James Dean boys, skateboards, heroin, Westerns, pop music, Spaghetti Western-influenced music, hamburgers, a power plant, and a cat. And it holds them together with gorgeous cinematography, thoughtful use of sound, careful plotting and fine acting. And it conveyed a mystery that I don’t even know where to begin describing–though it was obvious that there were answers and that Amirpour knew them. The comics’ narration feels heavy-handed, eliminating some of the ambiguity, resonance of multivalence of aspects of the Girl, Arash and Bad City itself. I don’t want to know what the Girl is thinking, to be honest, not like this. And I guess I’d rather figure out who the Girl is on the screen.
And I think I’ve been looking at the comics wrong because these comics reflects how Amirporu figured out who the Girl is. It’s hard for material that inspired other art to stand alone. When I was a kid, I liked looking at all the ship and creature designs for the Star Wars movies. Now I would love to have a copy of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s plans for Dune. But I have a suspicion that the book would still be more amazing than any adaptation. Though if anyone could do it, Jodorowksy could. And I’m interested in seeing a book of storyboards for George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). So I’m trying to think of Death Is The Answer and Who Am I like Jodorowsky’s Dune work or Fury Road concept art–a glimpse into the process and some of its amazing creative coolness. (The Girl sees Elvis!)
The film is the text for me. But I do like the idea of a world where A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is so successful and the Girl is so iconic that there’s a whole line of comics, action figures and maybe even chadors. I love that there is A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night skateboard deck. I like the idea of the Girl becoming as iconic as Dracula.
Has Carol Borden mentioned that she really likes A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night?