Starring…The Stan and Jack Players!

(Soundtrack: Smashing Pumpkins — Pisces Iscariot)

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about that I don’t have time to beat to death right now:

Corporate superhero comics and studio age films relate to one another in very similar ways. What am I talking about? Well, take the Warner Brothers career of James Cagney for instance. Cagney was a “star”, not an actor. People usually make this distinction in order to establish the superiority of the latter. But let’s forget about value judgements for a second (or, preferably, forever!). Cagney’s “persona” isn’t so different from a costume and powers. It’s a constant in the films, from The Public Enemy to Yankee Doodle Dandy. Sure, they “retconned” gangster-Cagney into a more lawful version of himself in G Men, once the Legion of Decency turned on the heat in 1934, but he’s always the same guy, even when he’s playing a tapdancer. Various directors and screenwriters have their fun with this persona, but they’re all riffing on the “origin story” that William Wellman and Cagney himself gave us in 1931.

Different aspects of the protean character are emphasized in order to serve the story, and our full appreciation of these variations is dependent upon our knowledge of what has come before. I can’t imagine anyone loving The Strawberry Blonde as much as I do, for instance, unless they grasp the full significance of the fact that, in this film, Cagney’s romanticism, which is always there, although usually in the background, is so much in the ascendant that it actually causes him to lose every fistfight and get taken in by confidence schemes left and right. He still thinks he’s “Cagney”–a guy who always gets the better of his opponents, no matter how much of a physical or social advantage they possess over him–and so do we, but here that cockiness is misplaced, because all of his energy is channelled into this hopeless lifelong obsession with Rita Hayworth. And that makes every reverse he suffers all the more poignant!

And it’s not just the stars of course. Just about every Cagney film has a role for Alan Hale, Frank McHugh, George Tobias, Allen Jenkins, Bogart as arch-enemy etc… They’re just like the supporting cast in a Spider-Man comic… They can be bent to different uses, by different storytellers, and you can perform a similar historiographical reading of the variations in their roles.

Anyway, I must go now!

Have a good weekend friends!


  1. Reminds me of watching some of the documentaries on the Once Upon a Time in the West DVD. Sergio Leone, when working with Deniro on Once… America, said that Deniro was an actor while Clint Eastwood was most certainly “just” a star.

    Course, Eastwood just nabbed some Oscars for his last movie, and Deniro is… doing what, right now?

  2. This sort of dovetails with something I’ve been thinking about for a while, usually whenever anyone compares Diamond’s top ten list with this weekend’s top box-office list and points out that comics’ top ten are all superheroes and the occasional Transformer, while the movie charts range from historical epics to romantic comedies to cartoons about trash-talking donkeys. All this evidence is used to bemoan the lack of genre diversity in comics and wish that comics could be more like other, more popular forms of mass entertainment.

    But I don’t think it’s a very fair comparison, because look at those box-office charts again: they may reflect a diverse range of genres, but with rare exception each film’s success is based largely on its stars. “Troy” is a Brad Pitt movie, not a Wolfgang Peterson film, and certainly not a Homer adaptation. If you think “13 Going on 30” is anything more or less than Jennifer Garner’s Hollywood debutante ball, you’re fooling yourself. Hollywood revolves around a star system, and so does mainstream comics; it’s just that comics’ stars are slightly more fictional. Batman doesn’t equal the “caped urban vigilante” genre; Batman equals Tom Cruise. And Jim Lee drawing “Batman” is the same as Spielberg directing Cruise, whereas the Azzarello/Risso Batman is more like Michael Mann directing Cruise. Ask an average casual moviegoer whether they’d see a Tom Cruise movie or a Michael Mann movie, and you’re likely to get a “who the hell is Michael Mann?” in return. Comics, to a large extent, work the same way.

    And, as David points out, the characters/stars remain essentially the same no matter what story they’re in. Cruise can take an artistic risk like Magnolia, but he returns to his safe Hollywood persona in “Mission: Impossible 2.” Batman can be the star of something as insane as “The Dark Knight Strikes Again,” but pretty soon Leph Loeb will be writing him again.

  3. So would say a George Lucas film or a Steven Speilberg film be compared to a Mark Millar, or Grant Morrison comic? Since they are technically the directors? Would the artists be the cinematographers?

  4. I certainly don’t think it’s an exact parallel Shane–clearly, the idea of superhero-comic writer as director isn’t repugnant to me (and it does explain why the genre has become, as everyone pretty much admits, completely writer-driven) , but I would argue that a good artist’s impact (Infantino say, or Colan, or Cameron Stewart, or, to get a bit remote: Kieron Dwyer!–Kirby and Ditko don’t really fit into this paradigm, because, in most cases, they also plotted their stories…) is more comparable to a charismatic actor’s…this is why I was ranting about Infantino’s female characters and Barbara Stanwyck a while back. The movies I love best are always dialectical clashes between evenly matched directors and stars (i.e. Capra and Stanwyck, Borzage and Gable/Crawford, Cassavettes and Rowlands, Stevens and Hepburn, Powell/Pressburger vs. Livesey, Kerr, and Walbrook, etc.)


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