After last week dismissing most movie-to-comic-book adaptations as deadly dull, this week Ken Tucker finds three new books easy to love

By Ken Tucker
July 10, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Three adaptations that rock

No sooner do I blithely assert, in my roundup of Superman Returns prequels, that comic-book adaptations of other media are nearly always foredoomed to be boring, when I get three good ones to review. Always glad to be proven wrong.

Southland Tales: Two Roads Diverge (Graphitti Designs)
Director Richard Kelly, the auteur behind the cult classic Donnie Darko, is unveiling his second film, Southland Tales (which screened recently at the Cannes Film Festival), via graphic-novel form, writing the back story of an action-movie star, Boxer Santaros, who finds himself in 2008 with no memory of how he got there. Soon he’s involved in all sorts of conspiracy craziness with Krysta, a porn star who’s trying to go mainstream with a reality-TV project she’s developing, and David Clark, a California cop who knows a lot more about Boxer’s situation than he’s letting on. The drawings by Brett Weldele are lean and minimal, with slashing lines and washed-out colors that convey the arid aimlessness of Boxer’s plight. Made me want to see the movie. B+

A Scanner Darkly (Pantheon)
A virtual storyboarding of the upcoming Richard Linklater adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s fab sci-fi novel, A Scanner Darkly tells the tale of an undercover cop (Keanu Reeves) who becomes a wee bit too involved with the addictive drug Substance D, which splits one’s personality in half. The movie was made by shooting scenes with actors like Reeves and Robert Downey, Jr., and then converting the action into rotoscope animation, which renders the images both hyper-realistic and yet fluid and shimmering. This book consists of what appear to be beautifully reproduced screen-grabs from the film, along with some narration written by — hello! — Harvey Pekar, master of comic-book realism and not one’s first choice for a sci-fi project, yet who proves to do his usual terrific, terse job. Again, now I’m on board for the movie. A-

Raymond Chandler’s Playback (Arcade Publishing)
This isn’t based on a movie but is instead a graphic novel adaptation of a final work by Chandler — a film script completed in 1948, later turned into a Philip Marlowe mystery, the seventh and last. French collaborators Ted Benoit and Francois Ayroles use the screenplay, with its Inspector Killaine, a grim war hero-turned-lawman, as their protagonist. Killaine falls for the accused party in a murder, tragically gloomy Betty Mayfield. Convicted of killing her husband, she finds her verdict overturned by a judge; the husband’s father-in-law vows vengeance. She meets a gigolo named Larry Mitchell, who pretty soon turns up dead himself. Did Betty do it? It’s a measure of Benoit and Ayroles’ skill at keeping the tone ice-cool and the drawings stark and blunt that they can keep Chandler’s meandering plot moving swiftly enough to hold your interest. Ultimately, though, Killaine is a pompous stiff, and we have a hard time believing that Betty, glum and humorless, is the irresistible siren she’s meant to be. I’d give Marlowe’s plot a B-, but the book itself, sleek and clearly a labor of love, a B+.

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