'Cowboys & Aliens' movie lifts graphic novel's high concept

By Andrew A. Smith

Scripps Howard News Service


'Cowboys & Aliens' movie lifts graphic novel's high concept


Another comic-book concept makes its movie premiere July 29: Cowboys & Aliens. And therein hangs a tale.


Cowboys & Aliens debuted as a standalone graphic novel from Platinum Studios in 2006 by writers Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley, penciller Luciano Lima and a host of inkers. The story involved an expansionist alien species crash-landing in 1870s Arizona and annexing it while building a transmitter to contact their fleet to finish the job. Apache warriors, gunslingers and pioneer settlers joined forces to battle them, stealing alien equipment where they could to equal the odds.


While the thrust of the story was action, action, action, there was some social commentary too. One gunslinger remarked that the aliens had no right to conquer our turf just because they had better weapons, which resulted in a sheepish “Oh” after a stern look from the Native Americans. The “all men are brothers” theme was underscored by some cross-racial romance, as a gunslinger and a (female) alien science officer fell in love, as did a (white) female gunslinger and an Apache warrior.


None of which seems to apply to Cowboys & Aliens the movie. Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde, the film seems to take very little from the graphic novel except the name and the high concept.


But what a concept it is! It’s almost impossible to look at the GN cover, the movie posters or movie trailers and not have a thrill of anticipation. A cowboy shooting at a UFO with a sixgun? That begs the who, what, why and how response.


Which answers in part this question I hear a lot: How come Hollywood has come to rely so much on comic books as their source material? This is especially remarkable when you consider how comics were once fiercely snubbed by pop culture in general, especially the much-maligned superhero genre. For this 40-year comics reader, it’s a 180-degree turn from my youth, when I had to hide comics to avoid getting beaten up.


So what’s changed? A recent “Simpsons” episode depicted Bart explaining, “Hollywood has run dry of ideas.” While that may be partly true, I think some other things are going on here:


  • Comics have really grown up. And I’m not just talking about more sophisticated themes in superhero comics (which are also on display in the X-Men and Spider-Man movies). What I mean are terrific non-superhero comics that have been turned into occasionally terrific movies like 300, Constantine, Kick-Ass, Ghost World, Hellboy, A History of Violence, The Mask, Priest, Men in Black, Red, Road to Perdition, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Sin City, V for Vendetta, Wanted and many more. Regardless of their medium of origin, these are just good stories.
  • Movie F/X have caught up to comics. It used to be that if you wanted to see an exploding sun or a plausible space ship, you’d read a comic book (or a science fiction book and imagine it). Now the movies can do it – which means they can finally do comic books and science fiction right.
  • Comics concepts come pre-vetted. If you’re writing a Batman movie, for example, you’re standing on the shoulders of giants. The Dark Knight has appeared in hundreds of thousands of stories over more than 70 years, and has had hundreds, if not thousands, of writers. That means all the mistakes have been made; those authors have found what works and what doesn’t, and have discarded the dross. They’ve already done the focus groups, involving millions of readers over decades. If a concept is still in a long-running comic book, that means it’s popular and it works and movie writers should use it. No thinking required.
  • Comics are basically movie storyboards. Comics do all the work for a director. The pacing, camera angles and storytelling have all been thought out in advance.


Movies that ignore these lessons do so at their peril. When you compare a list of the worst comic-book movies with a list of comic-book movies where the writers jettisoned or fundamentally altered the existing mythos, many names appear on both. (See: Catwoman, Elektra, Jonah Hex, etc.)


That deviation from source material is happening with Cowboys & Aliens, but here we’re talking about a single graphic novel, one which was a a fairly pedestrian take on what is clearly a cool concept. This time, the movie-makers might be right to start over.


And, honestly: Cowboys shooting at UFOs! How can you go wrong?


 Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com.

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Comment by Captain Comics on August 8, 2011 at 10:17am
For some reason, they always come for our wimmin! (And, for the record, I agree with Lumbering Jack that the graphic novel wasn't very good.)
Comment by David N on August 7, 2011 at 5:12pm
Cowboys & Aliens? That comic came out in the 1950's, it just had a different name.

If I was John Belfi I'd sue their pants off...
Comment by Figserello on July 29, 2011 at 2:39am
How could the film not have political commentary on the wrongness of stealing other peoples' countries?  It's the first thing that comes to mind when you mention cowboys and Native Americans vs invaders.
Comment by Lumbering Jack (M'odd-R8-Tr) on July 28, 2011 at 3:26pm

"Cowboys & Aliens" the comic was just not good. I happened to read it about a year and a half or so ago, just prior to the big casting announcements and other pre-publicity of the film. It was clear even then that the film producers were just buying the name "Cowboys & Aliens," and nothing else.

Wasn't Platinum's whole reason for being so they could create comics that served as movie pitches? Well, they certainly succeeded!


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