Some Thoughts About Making “Gritty” Comic Remakes

Where you get to do cool things like wear shades at midnight during thunderstorms.

Where you get to do cool things like wear shades at midnight during thunderstorms.

Even though this will be an article about making (or, rather re-making) comics, I’m going to be talking about TV shows and short films quite a bit. This is because they provide some of the best examples of good “gritty” re-makes and because there are a lot of lessons that can be learnt from them which can also be applied to comics.

At the time of writing this article, I’m watching the short-lived re-make of “Bionic Woman” and I finished watching the excellent modern version of “Battlestar Galactica” a week or two earlier. Although I haven’t really seen that much of the two shows that these remakes are based on, both shows are a lot gloomier and more serious than their original 1970s counterparts apparently are.

However, shortly before writing this article, I happened to see a really interesting unofficial fan film (starring Katee Sackhoff) based on a cheesy 1990s sci-fi/action TV show called “Power Rangers” that I used to love when I was a kid.

The fan film, which is very slightly NSFW, can be seen here (there’s also apparently a very slightly censored version on Youtube, which is about two or three seconds shorter but is still -to use an American phrase – a “R-rated” version of “Power Rangers”).

This film re-imagines “Power Rangers” as a “gritty” modern mega-budget thriller movie and, for an independently-made fan film, it’s still better than most Hollywood remakes are.

In this case, the “gritty” remake works really well since “Power Rangers” was originally a slightly futuristic action series, so to make a modern version of “Power Rangers” seem as badass now as it seemed when we were kids, it pretty much required slightly more realistic violence, characterisation and dialogue.

This brings me on to my first point about making “gritty” re-makes, you should only do it if the original story has the potential for grittiness. If there isn’t so much as a hint of darkness in the original story, then don’t re-make it – because it’ll just look silly.

For example, although the original “Battlestar Galactica” was a fairly ‘family friendly’ sci-fi adventure series, the storyline of the show revolved around the last vestiges of humanity searching for a new home, whilst fighting an army of evil robots. To make the modern re-make “grittier”, all the writers had to do was to handle these same themes in a slightly more realistic way. So, the story you’re retelling needs to contain themes that would be considerably darker if portrayed realistically.

The second thing to remember with “gritty” re-makes is not to over-do it. The goal of a “gritty” re-make is to make a slightly unrealistic story seem a bit more realistic. This means that your characters’ reactions, personalities and dialogue should be as realistic as possible. This means that violent or shocking events should be depicted in a more realistic way (and their consequences should be more realistic too). The key word here is realistic.

In most circumstances, covering every page of your comic with blood and/or punctuating literally all of your dialogue with four-letter words won’t make your remake “gritty”. It’ll make it hilariously cartoonish (even if you’re using a realistic art style, which you don’t have to – more on that later).

For example, a good rule with violent scenes in your “gritty” comic remake is to portray them in a way which would be dramatic or shocking even if there wasn’t any blood and then to add a small to moderate amount of blood. You need less than you probably think.

Likewise, with the dialogue, just try to keep it realistic. In other words, try to make it slightly more like subtle understated everyday speech than melodramatic theatrical speech. Yes, you can use four-letter words in your dialogue, but only use them when you’d realistically expect someone to use them (this is more often than some people think, but less often than you might expect).

The third thing to remember about “gritty” comics remakes is that the art doesn’t have to be hyper-realistic. Yes, it sometimes helps to use black & white artwork, but at long as your artwork doesn’t look too cartoonish, then you can be as unrealistic as you like. The thing to remember here is that the “gritty” parts of your comic remake come mainly from the story rather than the art style.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (17th December 2015)

Well, today’s fan art painting has been a surprisingly long time in the making. Sometime last year, I tried (and kind of failed) to make a painting of Claudia Black and Lena Headey after realising that, for some bizarre reason, they’ve never actually both been in the same sci-fi/fantasy TV show.

Anyway, I was thinking of re-visiting this idea recently, but I’d been watching the final season of “Battlestar Galactica” too. So, I decided to make a painting of several badass sci-fi/action heroines (Aeryn Sun, Sarah Connor, Starbuck and Ellen Ripley) instead. Plus, it gave me a chance to draw a xenomorph/cylon/terminator/pilot hybrid too.

Since this is fan art, this painting will NOT be released under any kind of Creative Commons licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] "Fan Art - Someone Needs To Make This Movie" By C. A. Brown

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Fan Art – Someone Needs To Make This Movie” By C. A. Brown

What Can “All Along The Watchtower” Teach Us About Minimalist Storytelling?

2015 Artwork All Along The Watchtower article sketch modified

Even though this is an article about minimalist storytelling, I’m going to have to start by talking about music, TV shows and about the strange ways that my mind works sometimes. There will be a point to this and I’m not just rambling about music and about myself for the sake of it.

A day or so before I wrote this article, I found myself obssessed with listening to a particular song. This is nothing new or spectacular – if I find a song I like, I’ll usually end up listening to it repeatedly until it’s either almost permanently etched into my memory or until it loses all fascination for me.

This time, the song was “All Along The Watchtower“. Surprisingly, the first time that I heard this song was last year when I finally got round to watching the last episode of season three of “Battlestar Galactica“.

Although I’d watched the rest of the season in 2013, I couldn’t afford either of the fourth season DVD boxsets at the time – so, like I often do, I didn’t watch the last episode of the last season I had, since I knew that it would end on a cliffhanger.

Anyway, season three of “Battlestar Galactica” has one of the most stunningky powerful and shocking endings that I’ve ever seen in a TV show. I don’t want to spoil too much, so I won’t go into the detail about it.

But, as you may have guessed, a cover version of “All Along The Watchtower” plays during that particular scene. I was naturally interested in the song for a while, but I only really rediscovered it earlier this year.

It’s one of those songs where almost every version of it is both unique and brilliant. Jimi Hendrix’s version is absolutely sublime and, even though it was recorded in the 1960s, it sounds timelessly modern. Bob Dylan’s original is oddly haunting and yet brilliantly fascinating, since it evokes long dark nights and painted mental images of torchlit medieval buildings [Edit: I’ve just changed the Youtube link for the Bob Dylan version of this song to the latest official video, since the official one when I originally wrote this article is now unlisted for some reason].

The cover by Bear McCreary from “Battlestar Galactica” also obviously reminds me of one of the most emotionally meaningful scenes I’ve ever seen in a TV show.

So, why am I talking about “All Along The Watchtower”?

Well, it’s because the lyrics of the song are a brilliant example of minimalist poetic storytelling.

The song tells a strange story about boredom, nihilism and anticipation. It tells a story about a night which could either be just another meaningless night or it could be the eve of an apocalypse, or even the eve of better times. It contains interesting characters and fascinating locations…. And it does it all in less than two hundred words.

So, how do you tell stories like this?

Well, for starters, you should only include a couple of characters at the most. These characters need to be universal enough to be instantly recognisable, but also unique enough to be memorable.

For example, the two characters in “All Along The Watchtower” are a joker and a thief. Everyone has their own idea of what a joker and a thief look like (eg: a medieval jester and a mysterious handsome man who wears a cloak), they’re fairly generic stock characters. As such, Bob Dylan doesn’t need to describe what these characters look like or even to describe their backstory.

From their names alone, the audience can work out who they are and the lives that they have lived. As such, Bob Dylan has more room to actually tell the story.

However, if you listen to the lyrics of the song, it begins with the joker talking seriously to the thief about how depressing he finds life to be. Not only does the joker not even joke once, but he has the kind of nihilistic attitude that you’d probably expect the thief to have. The thief, on the other hand, is friendly, reassuring and optimistic. This is about the best example of dramatic irony that you’re going to find anywhere.

So, if the characters in your minimalist poem or story have to be stock characters, you also need to make sure that these characters are different enough to be interesting or memorable. You can do this through showing their personalities, or through brief descriptions – but there must be something interesting or unusual about your characters.

Likewise, the majority of Bob Dylan’s song is taken up by dialogue. This is one of the best ways to tell an interesting story in a short space, since you can include both characterisation and descriptions in dialogue. Likewise, overhearing a fragment of a conversation is inherently interesting, because it forces the listener to try to work out what the rest of the conversation will be like. So, dialogue can be a brilliant way to tell a fascinating story using a small number of words.

In addition to this, although most of “All Along The Watchtower” is taken up by dialogue between the joker and the thief, Bob Dylan also manages to create a really atmospheric setting through a just few brief descriptions. Interestingly, Bob Dylan never actually describes the watchtower itself – instead, he describes some of the things that are happening in the location (eg: a cat growling, servants walking through rooms, riders approaching etc…).

By describing actions, rather than the location itself – not only does Bob Dylan keep the story moving at a fast pace but he also forces the audience to use their imaginations to work out what the watchtower itself looks like. After all, if you describe an action, then your audience is going to have to imagine it. But, they’re not just going to imagine it in isolation – they’re also going to have to imagine where it happens too.

So, if you describe actions instead of locations – then your audience will automatically have to think about where those actions happened. As such, you don’t actually have to describe the setting itself.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “Battlestar Galactica (Season Two)” (TV Show)

Well, since I finished watching season two of “Battlestar Galactica” recently, I thought that I’d write a review of it. This season of “Battlestar Galactica” picks up pretty much straight after the dramatic cliffhanger at the end of the first season and it keeps on going right up until it’s own shocking conclusion.

Much like the first season, season two focuses on both humanity’s escape from the Cylon fleet and also on the politics and problems of life on board the ragtag fleet of ships which are carrying the last remnants of humanity. If you haven’t seen season one or this description doesn’t make sense to you, then go and watch season one (but be sure to watch the mini-series first) because, unlike some other shows, you should watch every episode and season of this show in the correct order.

One of the first things I will say about season two of “Battlestar Galactica” is that it gets fairly dark, tragic, harrowing and depressing in some parts. In fact, in terms of bleakness, even the mini-series looks positively cheerful and reassuring by comparison. There are a a fair number of lighter moments in this season and the occasional in-joke too (they manage to include the theme tune from the original 1978 series in one scene and there are a couple of subtle “Blade Runner” references in one episode), but this season certainly isn’t light entertainment and there are a few scenes in it which will shock and horrify pretty much everyone.

But, this is kind of the whole point of “Battlestar Galactica”. Unlike many other sci-fi sshows, BSG tries to be as “realistic” as possible and it doesn’t shy away from showing the darker side of life amongst the last 50,000 humans in existence. Unlike, say, “Star Trek: Voyager”, this show shows what life would probably really be like if a large group of people were stranded in space.

As with the previous season, all of the many characters are deeply complex and flawed individuals and I honestly can’t praise the characterisation in this series enough. In fact, the excellent characterisation is exactly what makes some of the darker parts of this season so harrowing, since you will probably end up caring about the characters in “Battlestar Galactica” a lot more than you might do with the characters in quite a few other TV shows.

As with season one, this season deals with a whole host of fairly heavy issues. These include the nature of democracy, religion, press freedom, reproductive rights, discrimination, torture/abuse of authority, the role & limits of the military, terrorism and a whole bunch of other subjects. This is a series which will make you think a lot and, although it sometimes comes to clear conclusions about some subjects, there are plenty of things which are left fairly ambiguous and are designed to provoke thought. If you want an intelligent sci-fi show which treats its viewers like mature adults, then this season of “Battlestar Galactica” certainly won’t disappoint you.

Unlike season one, season two has twenty episodes rather than thirteen. But, like season one, it manages to pack a lot of storytelling into these episodes. There are more storylines and sub-plots than I can count and they are all expertly woven together throughout the season in a way which makes it feel like none of them have been neglected by the writers. This season is extremely compelling too, if you get this show on DVD, it’s pretty much impossible to just watch one episode and then stop watching.

In addition to this, the DVD (or the UK version of it at least) includes an extended version of the final episode of the season. This version is about fifteen or twenty minutes longer than the other episodes and it never really feels like any of the additional material is “filler”. In fact, I’m not quite sure how they edited this episode down to 45 minutes when it was originally shown on TV. Although I guess that they probably cut quite a lot of the last quarter of the episode.

Visually, this series is as spectacular as ever and there are more dramatic space battles and even more variety in terms of settings than there was in the first season. Although quite a lot of the story still takes place on The Galactica, this utilitarian and functional military ship usually serves as a blank canvas to emphasise the drama which is taking place between the various characters.

All in all, if I had to give season two of “Battlestar Galactica” a rating out of five, then it would probably get a five.

Review: “Battlestar Galactica (Season One)” (TV Show)

After I finished watching the excellent mini-series , I pretty much moved straight on to watching the first season of “Battlestar Galactica”. This excellent sci-fi series picks up pretty much directly after the events of the mini-series and, although there is a short re-cap, you should really watch the mini-series before you start watching this show (otherwise it won’t quite make sense).

Anyway, the first season of “Battlestar Galactica” takes place on a military ship called The Galactica which is protecting a fleet of civilian ships which are fleeing the destruction of several human-occupied planets in a distant part of space by a race of cyborgs called Cylons. The Cylons were created by humanity many decades before the events of the series in order to serve as slave labourers. However, the Cylons rebelled and, after disappearing for forty years, they have returned to destroy humanity and exact vengeance. Not only that, in those forty years, their technology and biological engineering has advanced to the point where they can almost flawlessly appear to be human.

The first season mostly focuses on The Galactica’s attempts to avoid and repel repeated Cylon attacks as well as the politics of life aboard the flleet of refugee ships. In addition to this, there are a few interesting story arcs and sub-plots. I probably haven’t done the series justice with this brief description, but it is a lot more dramatic and compelling than it probably sounds.

One of the things I will say about season one of “Battlestar Galactica” is that, like “Star Trek” and “Charlie Jade”, it is sci-fi for people who think. Yes, there are some spectacular space battles and fight scenes but this is all supported by a whole bunch of interesting themes and issues which are explored (and left open to interpretation) in a nuanced and complex way. The first one of these is to do with the role of the military in a democracy – since one of the civilian ships contains the President of “the twelve colonies” (Laura Roslin), who is technically in command of the fleet. However the commander of The Galactica, Commander Adama, frequently clashes with her and there are more than a few moments where it seems like the fleet is on the brink of a military coup.

Plus, since the Cylons can infiltrate human ships fairly easily, there are a lot of scenes which explore the issue of terrorism and raise questions about the “war on terror” (the show was filmed in the early-mid 2000s) and what the limits are when it comes to dealing with terrorism. Interestingly, it does this in a fairly challenging and complex way – such as in a few chilling scenes where some of the more sympathetic human characters are shown brutally, remorselessly and mercilessly torturing suspected Cylon agents (who look completely human).

Another interesting theme in this show is religion. Whilst some sci-fi shows have explored this subject before, “Battlestar Galactica” begins to explore it in a fair amount of depth in the first season. Interestingly, the humans follow a polytheistic religion which is loosely-based on Greek mythology whereas the Cylons follow a monotheistic faith with a few similarities to the three Abrahamic religions. Although I’m guessing that this subject will probably be explored further in the other seasons of the show, the contrast between these two belief systems is extremely interesting (especially since the humans’ religion focuses more on free will and tradition, whereas the Cylons’ religion seems to focus a lot more on obedience, faith and divine will).

Another thing I will say about this season of “Battlestar Galactica” is that the characters are absolutely superb – every character has a surprising amount of depth and complexity and unlike in , say, “Star Trek”, all of the characters are flawed in one way or another and there isn’t a stock character in sight. This lends the series a sense of realism which more utopic and stylised sci-fi shows can only dream about. I could write an essay about all of the characters in this show, but I’ll restrict myself to saying that it contains one of the best examples of characterisation that I’ve ever seen in a TV show.

Interestingly, the first season of “Battlestar Galactica” only contains thirteen episodes, unlike later seasons of the show. However, every one of these thirteen episodes is compelling, innovative and dramatic and it feels more like a “full-length” American TV season purely on account of this. Even though some of the episodes have self-contained plots, they should be watched in order since there are a few sub-plots which run through the entire season.

Unlike the mini-series, season one of “Battlestar Galactica” contains an absolutely perfect mix between uplifting and depressing scenes and they’ve thankfully done away with the unremitting bleakness of the mini-series in order to give the series a much more varied, realistic, unpredictable and interesting tone. This is a vast improvement and it works seriously well.

All in all, season one of “Battlestar Galactica” is an extremely dramatic, compelling and intelligent sci-fi series which is well-worth watching if you want to watch something truly original and immersive. Yes, you should watch the mini-series before you watch this show but, even so, it is still an absolute sci-fi masterpiece.If I had to give season one of “Battlestar Galactica” a rating out of five, then it would get a five.

Review: “Battlestar Galactica” (Mini Series)

Well, since I finished watching “Farscape” a few weeks ago, I needed to find another sci-fi series to watch obsessively and geek out about. Although I’d heard of “Battlestar Galactica” before and I’d seen one episode of the original 1970s TV show, the recent remake of this series seemed like it could be an interesting thing to watch.

However, I read somewhere that in order for the beginning of the first season to make sense, you apparently had to watch the three-hour mini-series which preceded it. And, since second-hand copies of the mini-series are absolutely dirt cheap on Amazon, it sounded like it was worth checking out.

The “Battlestar Galactica” mini-series has a slightly complicated plot, but it is basically set in a future where humans have settled on several planets (Caprica seems to be the main one, but there are several planets). Forty years before the events of this mini-series, humanity fought a large war against the Cylons – these are a race of mechanical/cybernetic beings who were originally created by the humans to serve as labourers/slaves.

After the war and the armistice, the Cylons retreated and no-one has heard from them for forty years, until one of them makes contact with a space station at the edge of human space.

Meanwhile, The Galactica, an obsolete battleship which fought during the original war against the Cylons is in the process of being decommissioned and turned into a history museum. However, during the decommissioning ceremony, the captain of The Galactica (Captain Adama) receives word that the Cylons have begun to attack Caprica and the other human planets….

I’ve left a lot out of this description and it only covers about the first hour of this mini-series. For a three-hour mini-series, it certainly packs a lot of story into such a short space of time (a bit like “Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars” did) and the show has a fairly large cast of characters.

Unlike a few other sci-fi series (such as “Star Trek”), most of the characters in “Battlestar Galactica” are fairly realistic and flawed individuals, which lends the series a very different atmosphere to what I expected (based on seeing one episode of the 70s TV series).

It’d take quite a long time to list all the characters on here, but my favourites are probably Starbuck (an excellent combat pilot who is fairly rebellious and vaguely reminiscent of “Tank Girl” too), Captain Adama ( played by Edward James Olmos), Laura Roslin ( a politician) and Gaius Balthus (a genius scientist). Yes, my descriptions of the characters might sound slightly generic, but this is only to avoid giving away spoilers. Still, I honestly cannot praise the acting and the characters in this mini-series highly enough.

Another thing I will say about this mini-series is that it is fairly dark. No, forget that, it’s “how the frak did this DVD get a 12 certificate?” dark. Yes, this isn’t a particularly uplifting or cheerful show, despite the surprisingly upbeat tone of the first half-hour or so. This totally caught me by surprise and, as I mentioned earlier, it was very different to what I expected from a remake of the original show.

Then again, at it’s heart, this mini-series is about war and it presents the impact and effects of war in a fairly realistic and emotional way. Thinking about it, this is probably a lot better than turning it into a gung-ho action/thriller series – although it was probably a fairly risky creative decision.

But, even though this mini-series gets fairly depressing, it never gets boring. Originally, I’d planned to watch it over two days, but I ended up watching the whole thing in a single sitting without a second thought. Even though it begins fairly slowly, once the main story gets going, you won’t be able to take your eyes away from the screen. As a drama series, it is an absolute masterpiece. And, although there are a few spectacular space battles and explosions, this is a drama series about war rather than a “war movie” as such.

I should probably mention that this mini-series was pretty much designed to introduce the premise of the TV series (which I haven’t started watching yet), so it’s probably a good idea to have a copy of the first season nearby before you start watching it. But, even so, this mini-series still has an extremely compelling and self-contained plot too. I honestly cannot praise the writing in this mini-series, since it is refreshingly original and it goes in all sorts of directions which you wouldn’t expect it to.

All in all, this is an incredibly dramatic mini-series with an excellent plot and superbly complex characters. However, it isn’t light entertainment. Even so, as I said earlier, it’s incredibly compelling and, at the end of it, I’m intrigued enough to watch the first season of the TV show.

If I had to give “Battlestar Galactica” a rating out of five, then it would get four and a half.