Tuesday, November 17, 2015

New comic review: Back to the Future #1 (of 4) (IDW, October 2015)

Given the tight lock that long seems to have been kept on allowing official new iterations of the Back to the Future franchise, I was surprised to hear the announcement this past summer that IDW had a BttF comic book mini-series in the works. If it were any one of many other publishers, I'd have been wary, especially in the context of the recent wave of 2015-themed BttF media hype nostalgia, which has struck me as cheap and tacky (if inevitable). Though I couldn't be sure as to what would be the actual extent of Bob Gale's reported authorship of the comic, I could only take his involvement as a good sign, since not only did he write the damn movies, but by all appearances, he has over the past couple decades more so than anyone advocated for and strived to preserve the legacy of the franchise. (He really won me over when I heard him during a DVD commentary spiritedly insisting that he would never re-release any of the films with digital special effect revisions, disapprovingly alluding to the contentious behavior of one George Lucas.)

Given how tightly, integrally, and consummately the films were written and executed, each individually and all three taken as a whole, one would not be wrong-headed in considering any attempted sequel or spin-off ill-advised and expecting it to be extraneous and corrupting. Rest assured, going by his afterword to the first issue (which is what's being reviewed here), Gale has taken into this consideration and arrived at what I would concur is the best approach to this undertaking, boiling it down to a veritable mission statement: "No updates, no reboots, no 're-imaginging' of the characters. These were going to be THE characters." Gale makes it explicit that -- in a decision that might turn some off -- the focus is not going to be time travel, but "the characters and their stories".

Case in point, the self-explanatorily titled "When Marty Met Emmett", #1's 14-page lead story. I distinctly recall DVD commentary in which Gale explained how in the earliest phases of work on the original's screenplay, he and Zemeckis had a clear sense of Doc and Marty's relationship, mentioning that Marty had begun hanging around Doc because he liked being able to "use his amp". It's almost surprising that the movie didn't begin with its teenage protagonist's first encounter with this strange, mysterious figure as a way to establish intrigue. Instead, they took a "show, don't tell" approach -- only the most inept of viewers has ever failed to understand from the first scene that the amp is Marty's reason for hanging out with Doc.

Nonetheless, I'm sure I wasn't the only fan whose appetite was  whet by that bit of DVD commentary for the full details on Doc and Marty first being acquainted... and here, Gale and co-scripter John Barber deliver on the those off-the-cuff verbal teases. Yes, it's a straightforward, simple story, but it's no less nor more than what it should be, and most importantly, it hits all the right notes: Marty's antagonism from the obnoxious "Needles", along with Marty's trademark intolerance of being referred to as "chicken" are recalled/foreshadowed, as is his his electric-guitar-playing hobby. The latter, for story purposes, facilitates the specifics of a demand and deadline threateningly imposed by Needles, sending Marty on a quest for amplifier tubes that leads to Doc's garage, getting into which entails a Goldbergian obstacle course certainly worthy of Doc's nature. The build-up to the reveal of Doc plays off of both his being an elusive, dangerous figure of both urban legend and gossipy, judgmental scandal and rumor, and the fans' anticipating the appearance of a character they hold in high esteem. (Well, speaking for myself...)

Mindful of the tight-knit continuity of all three movies and the parameters they defined for Doc's story, "When Marty Met Emmett" is bookended by, er, a flashback-slash-flashforward that appears to be set in the early 1890's, with Doc preparing for the appearance he and his family make at the end of Part III and filling in some background info on the Brown family lineage and a bit about the history of Doc's house in the movies' 1955 scenes and how he wound up in his 1985 living situation, as further illuminated at the story's center. In his narrating, Doc incidentally skips over how he spent the 1940's, but rest assured, his mysterious, fantastical background alluded to in "When Met" is plunged into head-on with "Looking for a Few Good Scientists", the first part of a serial that looks as though it intends to bare all regarding Doc's involvement in the Manhattan Project, another enticing backstory tidbit brought up during DVD commentary.

Whereas Brent Schoonover's more matter-of-fact, stark-yet-pronounced, stiff-yet-animated art -- bringing to mind "indie"/"underground" cartoonists like those who have worked on American Splendor or perhaps Joe Sacco -- complements the domestic, sitcom-esque trappings of the lead story, Dan Schoening's sleek, dramaticized, cinematic art brings out the conspiracy-heavy, arcane, heightened-reality fantasticism of "Few Good Scientists". Harmoniously, the script, working off of Gale's treatment, is by Schoening's Ghostbusters collaborator, writer Erik Burnham, laying down the environment of academic esotericism and the paranoia-facilitating tiptoeing around elitist power-players and their soul-piercing stone-faced mind games that Schoening brings to life with such theatrical flare.

IDW's Back to the Future mini-series is decidedly on the right track, all indications being that the remaining issues shall be a good time, indeed.

-- Ryan