The contemporary zeal for graphic novels—fiction, let us remember, equipped with drawings and speech bubbles—has, to this spectator, encouraged the emperor to parade before an adoring public in a threadbare Speedo, if that. For filmmakers, they’re smokin’ assets, serving as ready-made storyboards as well as trailing a pre-sold and, dare I say, undemanding readership behind them. Beyond Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, there doesn’t seem to be an American subgenre entry suitable for adult teeth; it’s little surprise that David Cronenberg hadn’t even heard of the comic origins of A History of Violence before he began rewriting the script.
Arguably the luckiest beneficiary of the fad is writer Neil Gaiman, whose new project MirrorMask is first a movie, and an illustrated publication soon enough. Gaiman’s had too much success to think in any terms other than those that have earned him subliterate demigod-hood, and the film galumphs along in static panels, prioritizing flash over thought, hyperextending a story that would barely sustain a children’s picture book (like Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Walls, also designed by director Dave McKean). This new, all-digital Alice in Wonderland variation does have scores of sublimely creepy otherworldly images, from the feline guard-sphinxes with disembodied human faces (and brusque male voices) to the library whose books must be coaxed and stroked like nervous doves. McKean, a popular advertising designer and comics illustrator, has a knack for cubist creatures and a dour, pre-industrial monotonality that at various times thieves from Derek Jarman, Joel-Peter Witkin, and the Quays. (One musical number is a plagiarism from Street of Crocodiles.) My favorite: an acrobatic tribe of albino ape things with pigeon heads, whose beaks fall off at the worst times and who are eventually besieged by flying tar splats that transform into scuttling eyeball spiders.
The blitzkrieg of fantasy concepts is preceded by a laborious setup involving the plucky heroine (Stephanie Leonidas) complaining about her family’s circus life (all tinsel, little sawdust) in time for her mother (Gina McKee) to come down with an unnamed illness. But the passage down the rabbit hole offers nominal relief: Gaiman is no Lewis Carroll, and he works in a decidedly post-Freudian ether. The ideas are arbitrary and rhymeless, the visuals inventive but empty, the good-versus-evil plot simplistic by the standards of Alice, The NeverEnding Story, and even Labyrinth (which shares a Henson Company parentage with MirrorMask, if not Jim Henson himself). The measure of conviction needed to make and read comic books is all that’s brought to bear, and the result might make good dope software, if you can sit still and stay awake.