12/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

My "Surrie" With the Fringe on Top

I love opening weekend for new comics movies. Not because all (most?) of the movies are good, and certainly not because the vast majority of them are even half as good as the books from which they were adapted. No, I love them because for these brief but increasingly frequent moments in the course of a year I have a perfect excuse to evangelize about comics.

The opening of the new film Surrogates this past weekend was particularly scrumptious, because in this case the movie is adapted from a truly splendid book that many of my friends -- even the comics-readers among them -- have never read. Written by Robert Venditti and illustrated by Brett Weldele, The Surrogates tells the story of an all-too plausible future in which people have increasingly turned over their daily lives to robotic avatars, living vicariously through their surrogates (or "surries") from the comfort of their own homes. In fact, by the time our story begins, the technology that was originally developed to allow severely disabled people to live fuller lives has become, for the vast majority of the population, as ubiquitous and seemingly necessary as the iPod. Of course, not everyone has bought into the idea that surrogacy is just like "Life... Only Better" (as the ad campaign way-too-persuasively puts it) -- and in major cities across the country surrogate-free "reservations" have emerged, loosely organized by a charismatic leader known only as "the Prophet."

Part of the great pleasure of the book -- and a pleasure inevitably diminished in translating the story to film -- is that Venditti goes out of his way to avoid the usual sci-fi formula we would expect: the seemingly utopian techno-future that turns out to be rotten at the core, manipulated by an evil corporation conspiring to destroy humanity. In the book the corporation, Virtual Self, is no more evil than such entities are by definition: That is, it seeks to maximize its profits with no regard (beyond litigation) for the well-being of its customers. In the film, of course, the corporation is involved in assassinations, cover-ups and other misdeeds requiring action-typing and briefcase snatching. In the book we don't have much in the way of heroes or villains, and still less in the way of clear answers. Like the best speculative science fiction, The Surrogates offers us a chance to inhabit fully the possibilities and choices of an alternative society, to weigh their ethical dilemmas in our own virtual scales.

Unlike the vast majority of comics that become movies, The Surrogates was not published by Marvel or DC, but by a small independent comics company, Top Shelf, more familiarly associated with black & white autobiographical comics by folks like Craig Thompson and Jeffrey Brown -- which is to say, with comics that didn't seem likely to wind up on the big screen starring Bruce Willis. And unlike the majority of comics, it was not written by a life-long comics geek, but by a young man who came to comics very late -- primarily through his job in the mail room at Top Shelf. And there is no doubt that the unique perspective on graphic storytelling that Venditti and Top Shelf's publisher, Chris Starros, brought to the project has much to do with why it sticks to the ribs long after the book is closed (and much longer, it must be admitted, than the movie).

I had the chance to talk to Venditti a couple of weeks before the film's opening, and he spoke passionately about his desire to avoid writing "stories where I feel like I'm making a decision for the audience": "As a viewer, as a reader, I think you sense when you're being preached to. So, I wanted to tell a story that very much presented both sides of the coin--that just sort of posed questions and let the reader answer them or not answer them for themselves." In fact, in The Surrogates Venditti makes our job doubly complicated by giving us an actual preacher, who is either a righteous voice speaking truth to power, or a self-serving con man manipulating anti-surrogate sentiment for his own ends.

Comics are a highly compressed narrative form, leaving huge narrative gaps between the panels that require the reader's active engagement to fill in. Good comics creators have long figured out how to make the limitations of the form its greatest asset. Venditti might have come to comics writing late, but he got this aspect of the form on his very first attempt. In leaving these questions unanswered, the book is personalized, activated by the answers the reader brings to fill in the gaps and render the details. Weldele's unique expressionistic overlays of paint, pen, and digital textures adds to this quality in the script. And the result is a very good comic.

Film -- or at least the Hollywood version that has dominated the enterprise for the past 80 years -- doesn't do gaps well. Everything in the Hollywood continuity system is about making those gaps go away, making certain that questions are answered and that viewers walk away knowing what to think. The film Surrogates is no exception. The film offers the dystopian science fiction parable Venditti worked so hard not to write. It is an indictment of our obsession with appearances and our technological insulation from the messiness of other peoples' bodies -- and our own. The film is satisfyingly preachy in all the ways the book refuses to be. I walked away hating surrogates and desperately relieved that our protagonist would finally get a chance to hold his "real" wife and begin anew. Rereading the book immediately after finishing the movie, I was once again plagued by the doubts, uncertainty the film had sought to resolve for me.

The film version of Surrogates is actually quite good, and the changes made to the comic were probably the right changes to make for a production responsible for making good on an 80 million dollar budget. And the movie has made it possible for Venditti and Weldele to develop the world of The Surrogates further, most recently in a prequel set at the dawn of the surrogate age and with further installments planned.

So I have no complaints. I know a lot of fanboys like to gripe about how Hollywood changed their favorite comic, as Hollywood inevitably does. But for me, these increasingly frequent adaptations of comics are always events to be celebrated, because for a brief moment I can envision a world where everyone acknowledges that the most interesting storytelling mode of our time is not film, television, novels, and most certainly not video games (which, with few exceptions, has still not found a way to tell a tale worth retelling). The storytelling geniuses of the 21st Century are comics writers.

Hollywood has accepted this reality. It has looked hard in the mirror, acknowledged its seemingly constitutional inability to come up with an original idea in the 21st Century. And, to its credit, it has done the only logical thing: set up a permanent outpost at the San Diego Comic-Con waiting for the comics industry to roll the next Big Idea in their direction. They don't do this because comics bring a vast audience. A best-selling mainstream comic book might sell around 250,000, while a trade paperback from an independent comics company like Top Shelf will often be looking at significantly more modest sales -- basically a captive audience big enough to pay for the extras' lunch (maybe) in your average superhero movie. No, Hollywood has increasingly turned to comics because this is where the stories are, and where the stories are being told in the hybrid language of text and image that is the narrative mode of the digital age.

And in the months ahead it looks like Hollywood will be giving me many opportunities to celebrate. Not all of them will be movies as enjoyable or books as satisfying and rich as The Surrogates. But even the inevitable disasters on the horizon will provide an opportunity to think about the possibilities and power of a narrative form that until very recently was all-but ignored by Hollywood and looked down on by the vast majority of adults as a puerile and vapid medium. Now, at least, only the latter is still true.

[My review of Venditti and Weldele's prequel to the original story, The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone (2009), can be found at]