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5 Movies In 5 Comic Panels: 2017 Indie Films As One Page Comics

Written by: John Matsuya                Art by: Ben Matsuya

Comic Interpretations of The Best Indie Movies of 2017

An annual Matsuya brothers tradition - just as important as Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas Day Movie releases, and New Years Countdowns - is debating and choosing our favorite films of the year. At the end of 2017, Ben and I turned some of our favorite movies into one page comic panels with our Five Movies In Five Comics. We were hoping to share some of our picks in a unique way, get traffic to our friends over at Indiewire, and form a case study for an art-centric content campaign. We were fairly confident about Five in Five as a concept, but we didn't anticipate just the level of enthusiasm we generated across different websites.

We were profiled and interviewed by journalists at nerdist, i09, and Trunkspace, all asking us why we selected these movies and what they meant to us. After some reflection - we collected our reasoning behind picking Get Out, The Shape of Water, Okja, Good Time, and The Florida Project and published it here. We also delve into how we designed the artwork for each of the comic panels and detailed our thought process behind choosing the shots, colors, and angles. Hopefully, we reveal some of the flourishes in each film that we wanted to capture in comic form. Maybe you can tell us something we missed or that you’d like to see. Needless to say, read on with caution as we have massive spoilers ahead.

Get Out; Jordan Peele  

Hands down our favorite film of the year, Get Out played so many keys effortlessly: It was horror. It was satire. It was searing social commentary, but above all it was a brilliant story. Jordan Peele’s film will be remembered as one of the most important films of the 2017, if not the decade. Peele not only leans into the horror genre – he reracks it to make something wholly original. When given so much inventive imagery, the difficulty in distilling the film into a comic page was more about choosing from a lot of great scenes.

We wanted to play a lot with light source. Where does the light illuminate and obscure Chris’ perspective in each panel? In the first panel, we have Chris and Rose walking towards the Armitage estate with the sun presumably facing them; blinded by love so to speak. The single stream of light drops Chris deeper into the Sunken Place. It’s both his path downward but also spotlights the way up and out. Yellow flames leap behind the scheming Armitages as Chris is forced to confront the truth in the full light of reality. In the final panel, police beams flicker behind Chris ominously - ambiguous to what happens next.

For us, Get Out’s most impactful scene was Chris’ fall into the “Sunken Place” and Ben decided to frame the panel’s central piece around the vertical tumble into a representation of a world where you are stripped of so much agency. It is a vortex of deep-rooted racism - where one’s past and future is floating in place and where people of color are “put in their place”. This is the sick fantasy of the Armitage family - the suburban, American upper-elite family. The Sunken Place is a perpetual prison for the victim and an exploitative advantage for the perpetrator. Rose and her family talk a good game on racism, but in reality they’re working to exploit Chris - marginalizing him in his own body.

Racism in the 21st century is no longer as overt as in decades past (although an enabling Trump administration is coaxing a hostile form of it back into the public square), and the Sunken Place shows how buried prejudice lies deep within the subconscious and the poisonous effects it has when it surfaces.

Shape of Water; Guillermo Del Toro

We grew up with a deep love of the Universal Horror Classic “Creature From The Black Lagoon.” One of my favorite film going excursions was seeing an original 1954 print in 3-D. As a spiritual ancestor to Shape of Water, we were excited to see the film Guillermo Del Toro created.

The fluidity and movement of Elisa and the Amphibian Man was the love story in this mostly silent romance between a mute woman and a fish. In a weird way, this made composing the piece a little easier because Guillermo Del Toro consciously made movement so central to his film by placing visuals first. The centerpiece of the comic is the final underwater shot, where the two lovers are floating in an embrace - almost as if in a dance. I’ll admit that we mulled long and hard about including the actual black and white dance sequence in the comic panels - but it felt too out of place in the environment. With only five panels to work with, Ben wanted to weave the logical narrative thread

Ben chose to use text (the sign language of Elisa saying “If we do nothing. Then neither are we”) as the only piece of dialogue in the whole 5 in 5 series. I feel this is particularly notable considering she is a deaf character and that the line drives to the heart of the matter: love makes us.

The Shape of Water asks the audience to put aside their preconceived notions of what love is by way of fairy tale. It’s no accident that Richard Jenkins’ Giles struggles hard to find love in a society that tells him he’s unlovable or that the machismo, dick-swinging villain (Michael Shannon’s Richard Strickland) is very rigid in setting down hard and clear societal norms. The villain has very strict ideas of how to do things, a man who even has rules on how to “properly” wash hands would similarly frown on anything that deviates from his norm. Giles, a gay character in pre-Stonewall America, is the example of someone oppressed by the culture. Both characters serve to show that love is not always easy; there are those who hate people for who they love and those that suffer from conventional norms.

Regardless of what the world tells you, sometimes you just fit. Through a sci-fi, horror, romance, Del Toro validates everyone’s love; in an often lonely world, the ability to find someone that you just connect to is a wonderful gift to be celebrated.

Okja; Bong Joon-Ho

Amid vegan hot dogs at the New Beverly, Ben and I were welcomed to a fantastic surprise as director Bong Joon-Ho held an impromptu, secret Q&A at our Okja screening. There’s nothing subtle about Okja. From the film’s message about humanity’s relationship to animals, to the wickedly funny satire on vapid PR and corporate greed, Okja was a film practically made for us. It’s a broadside against industrial farming, corporate messaging, and violent capitalism. Most importantly, it’s a fable and a plea for compassion. A capitalist culture inculcates us and our society to cordone ourselves off from real human (or piggy) connections. It tells us that everything is a competition and that “we’re not here to make friends.”

Aside from the cute Super Piggy, the biggest challenge in this comic panel was finding ways to incorporate the great ensemble of Okja’s well realized world. The narrative arc of the comic takes Mija and Okja through the dark heart of a system that uses and exploits them. The Mirando Corporation captures them and robs them of their idealism and innocence. Jake Gyllenhaal’s noxiously bizarre reality host, shows how broken these talentless, ephemeral “D-List” fame-chasers are (one wonders the damaging side effects to society of elevating these “reality stars” to our higher social strata). In the guise of a competition, he abducts Okja as the world’s newest protein source.

As Mija finds and rescues Okja, she comes face to face with Bong Joon Ho’s picaresque characters. Tilda Swinton’s ever-sunny Lucy Mirando (by way of Ivanka Trump) is a packaged, polished, inauthentic face of a “friendly corporation”. Paul Dano and Steven Yeun do well playing environmental activists who might be a little in over their heads. Mija finally rescues Okja by trading her for the golden idol that these corporations worship: A profit.

Sandwiching the capture, escape, and survival of our duo are the panels showing the idyllic eden of their early relationship and their life after survival - still standing, but haunted by the terrible industrialism and apprehensive of what the future portends. These businessmen and entrepreneurs have a myopic, selfish concern on their own profits and irresponsibly mortgaging the future to their children and childrens’ children.

Okja’s fairytale is a metaphor for the American society we participate and ignore everyday. An indictment of the unfettered greed of our boomer parent’s generation and a warning siren for our own.

Good Time; Josh & Benny Safdie

“I think I just saw a moment.”

That’s how Ben started his phone call to me. “You have to watch this movie called Good Time, and you’ll know it when you see it.” A “moment” is a scene or a shot in a film that takes full advantage of the form of the medium. It’s that unpredictable, scene, shot, or sequence that is so right for the story, and also so exciting. When I told him I would go watch it, he drove over so he could watch it again. The moment referenced was Buddy Durress’ manic stream of conscious, hilarious monologue in the backseat of a car - describing his drug-fueled run from the cops. A non-actor, just nailing a dialogue; rough around the edges but a moment you can’t take your eyes off. Those are the moments we live for in movies.

For those of you who haven’t seen the film, Robert Pattinson cannonballs through the Safdi Brother’s heist-gone-wrong thriller, as Connie - a small time thief desperate to get bail money for his brother. Absolutely nothing goes right for Connie and he leaves a wake of destruction in his path over the course of one miserable night. The only tools at his disposal is his uncanny ability to improvise (often creating increasingly larger messes) and his fast feet. The manic kineticism of Connie makes you want to believe that he can actually outrun his fate.

In the comic, we tried to capture snapshots of the nights interactions as Connie speeds through each scene propulsed by Daniel Lopatin’s stunning synth score. The music inspired us to emulate Connie’s encounters as brief moments trying to catch up with him. Connie’s wreckless actions will have a profound impact on the lives of these characters, but to him - they are fleeting memories. The final panel is close up of Connie - a still moment in a breakneck film. He’s finally made to process the activities of the night and judging by his character, we don’t quite know if he’s contemplating the past or his next move.

The Florida Project; Sean Baker  

With Tangerine and now Florida Project, Sean Baker has proven himself to be one of the most humanist filmmakers working today. He is America’s cinematic answer to Italian Neorealism. What do I mean by that? Allow me to indulge in a quick film history lesson.

Following World War II, Italian filmmakers turned away from the escapist, idealized studio films and focused their lenses on the working class. These films were extremely humanist. Stories focused on the marginalized, injustice, and poverty. Shot on location, primarily with non-actors (particularly children). Cinematographers wanted to create a more real atmosphere.

We’re a long way from post-war Italy, but in the wake of the economic “policies” of the Bush Administration and the Republican Party, the  shrinking American middle and working class is struggling to survive. Sean Baker tells stories about people on the margins (transgender prostitutes in Tangerine; near-homeless motel residents in The Florida Project). In both films, he also works with non-actors for his cast and never judges his characters. Even in more comedic moments, Sean Baker’s empathy conveys that each character is worth their dignity. He uses natural light, locations, and shoots sequences (if not entire films) on iPhones.

The Florida Project Comic is my favorite panel 5 in 5. The film follows a homeless “motel resident” and single mother Halley who raises her daughter Moonee in the motels outside of Disneyworld in Orlando while trying to provide for her. Moonee is often left to her own devices in the shadow of the Mouse House, oblivious to the conditions of poverty she lives in. She’ll grow up fast, but right now - she’s still an innocent. Everything is an adventure and not knowing any other life, she finds the wonder in everything.

Ben drew single mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) just as Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) would see her - a Disney princess. Every panel is colored with a pink gloss and Disney-esque tropes (the cow or the dancing bath toys), but each panel always belies a hidden danger: the abandoned condos, the pederast stalking the background, one of Halley’s John’s walking in on Moonee’s bathtime. Willem Dafoe’s Bobby is the only person in this harsh world that shows Halley empathy and kindness - even when she treats him with disrespect.

As children we see the world with so much wonder -- I often think grown adults who are obsessed with Disney are desperately clinging to the safe familiarity of myths. I’ve thought more and more about the dark side of nostalgia and the harm that it enables. They prefer to live in an illusion at the expense of their own reality. In the past months, I’ve seen Bernie Sanders rally successfully for a $15.00 minimum wage in my own Orange County, as ten percent of Disney employees who work full time are or have been homeless. Fifty percent can’t cover basic expenses.

Real people live on the margins of the “Happiest Place on Earth” and for those of us who are more fortunate, it’s easier to go to Fantasyland than to do anything about it. When things get real for Moonee at the end of The Florida Project, she takes off and runs for Disneyland. It’s the only panel without the “pixie dust” shine to it. It’s a place where dreams come true when reality is too harsh. But it’s not real - it’s merely a corporate mirage.

These are the indie films of 2017 that stuck a real cord with us. We really love celebrating the beautiful works of filmmakers and exposing them to a broader audience. If you like what you see, please feel free to check out our store and buy a print. Ben is a comic book artist that puts a lot of thought behind the composition of your scene; if you’re looking to convey a particular message or emotion through the page. Feel free to contact us to work on a project together.

John MatsuyaComment