Released last week, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film Django Unchained is already most likely to end 2013 as one the years most talked about and most successful movies, even with the year not yet a month old. As with most high profile cinema, releases a range of merchandise has hit the market in support of the feature, including a range of controversial (and already discontinued) action figures, an excellent soundtrack compiled by Tarantino from both old and new tracks and, in a more unusual move, a comic book series of the film, with the first issue of a five part run having been released prior to the film in December via Vertigo Comics, though a second print will be available from early February 2013.
Although graphic adaptations of both films and television shows are not uncommon some would argue that quality ones remain few and far between, many having a tendency to slip into the trap of compressing their source material to fit the medium and focusing on attempting to create visual facsimiles of events and actors above all else, leaving the artists involved little space to place their own mark on the work; this is certainly not the case with Django Unchained.
As explained by Tarantino in his introduction, this was produced from his full and untrimmed script and therefore contains scenes either cut from the final film or that were never filmed at all. Having previously indicated his distaste for the concept of director’s cut in interviews, this comic version can almost be seen as a director’s uncut of sorts. The elements featured in the comic that are absent from the film give deeper insights in the motivations and histories of the characters involved and expand upon interactions seen on screen, enriching and highlighting the importance of some scenes that could be argued have less of an impact on the big screen.
The two excellent artists involved in this project, R M Guera (Scalped, Le Lièvre de Mars) and Jason Latour (Loose Ends, Captain America) have not looked to recreate the likenesses of the cast or re-render the action shot-for-shot. Instead, their reading of the script and bold styles blend together to help bring a somewhat different feel to events than seen in the movie, making this not simply a tribute but a unique interpretation. Where at times some of onscreen violence could be more hilarious than horrifying, captured in the still of a comic panel it is colder and harsher; its remorselessness nature brought to the fore.
The absence of cinematography and editing to conjure particular emotions also leaves more room for the reader to linger on expressions and come to their own conclusions to the impact of proceedings on the characters, providing Tarantino’s script a harder edge, emphasising the difference between seeing the snappy and often witty dialogue as written rather than performed by Django Unchained’s excellent cast. The charisma of actors such as Christoph Waltz lends much to the expletive-filled and at times shocking words on screen, which when presented on the page and shorn of subtle inflections take on a rawer character.
Much has been made of the heavy use of a certain racial epithet in the movie in some quarters, but when faced with its presence on a comic book page and being asked to imagine its use in the context of the tough world conjured by Guera and Latour its horrid nature and the terrible connotations that come with it seem even more vivid. This can be marked as a major credit to Tarantino’s original script in that when seen in this form, with no visual coating of cinematic homages to the style of his beloved spaghetti westerns and exploitation movies, the story, characters and events in Django Unchained stand for themselves and even take on a different feel. This comic is a more sinister and possibly more thought-provoking proposition that its silver screen sibling, which is a strength and a strong reason for anyone interested not just in the film but great comics in general to pick up this book.
On the evidence of this first part Vertigo could and should have a hit on their hands, and if it continues to be as excellent executed as its debut issue, then Django Unchained may be one of the finest comics as well as films of 2013.