Sunday, 27 May 2007

Obligatory Star Wars 30th Anniversary Post

Back in the 1970s, even blockbuster films took six months to cross the Atlantic. So by the time Star Wars opened here in Britain, the publicists knew how well it had done at the US box-office, and made a big effort (by the standards of the day) to hype it in advance.

One part of this was a big, fat magazine with the Hildrebrandt poster art on the cover, which went on sale a couple of months before the film opened outside London. In some ways, this made a bigger impact on me than Star Wars itself, because it included a lavishly-illustrated potted history of science fiction in the cinema, putting the 1950s movies and Flash Gordon serials I already knew from TV into context, and introducing me for the first time to the likes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

I liked the film Star Wars well enough, but I never really got sucked into the phenomenon. I lost interest in the sequels about half-way through The Empire Strike Back, and I never bought the toys or the comics.

Which presents a bit of a problem when writing about Star Wars in a comics blog. What I do have to hand, however, is “Star Roars”, Mad magazine’s parody (or first parody – I imagine that others have followed over the years).

“Star Roars” used the first Mad art I remember seeing from Harry North. North was a British cartoonist who had been drawing sitcom adaptations (such as On the Buses) for Look-In. Just as Star Wars started the trend of filming American movies in Britain, its parody was an early instance of British talent working on American comics.

Fittingly, the British publication of “Star Roars” ended up with a transatlantic flavour.

Notice that, although the speech balloons have been adapted for British readers – “Electricity Board” (as we had before privatisation), “£4 million” – the bill in George Lucas’s hand remains American – “$4,000,000”.

Such attempts to pretend that comic strip reprints were really British always baffled me as a child. I remember a reprint of a Casper the Friendly Ghost story in which Casper visits what is clearly drawn as New York, but which is referred to in the captions as “London City” (the phrase itself is an oddity – it’s just “London”, “London Town” if you want to be twee, or “City of London” if you are referring to the financial district, but never “London City”.)

To this day, children are told by the English-language editions of the Tintin books that Captain Haddock’s home at Marlinspike is somewhere in England, even though the local police look like this:

Similarly, when the British free newspaper Metro reprints Nemi by the Norwegian cartoonist Lise Myhre, the references are Anglicised.

It all seems rather pointless. Our sympathies are surely not so narrow that we only want to follow stories set in our own countries – as the international ubiquity of Star Wars itself demonstrates.


Superman’s Metropolis by Randy Lofficier, Jean-Marc Lofficier and Roy Thomas (script), Ted McKeever (art) and Bill Oakley (letters), DC Comics, 1996

“Star Roars” by Larry Siegel and Dick de Bartolo (writers) and Harry North, in Mad British edition issue 191, Top Sellers Ltd, 1977

The Seven Crystal Balls by Hergé, 1948, English-language edition translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner, Methuen Children’s Books, 1962

Nemi by Lise Myhre, Metro newspaper, 2006


Sean Kleefeld said...

As absurd as it seems to me, marketing folks often cater to the lowest common denominator and assume that people want more of what they've already been sold. It boils down to risk aversion. The thought is that consumers know Product X pretty well, so they're more likely to buy Product X+1 over Product Y. And, to be fair, there is some truth to that notion, but I think it goes utterly too far more often than not.

On this side of the pond, for example, we're shown "Are You Being Served Again" instead of "Grace and Favour." Just in case you couldn't recognize nearly the entire cast of the original or any of the characters. Or the fact that it's generally shown on the same channel in the exact same time slot as the original.

Of course, examples abound. The BBCAmerica news readers are shown in front of an image of the U.S. Capitol. The Harry Potter books have "corrected" the British spellings and adjusted many colloquialisms to American phrases. Adding Tom Sawyer to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie.

Now me? I'd prefer to see what other cultures have to offer and if I don't understand a reference, I'll look it up. My wife has gone out of her way to pick up the British versions of Terry Pratchett (her favorite author) books for the same reason. In my mind, everything that's wonderful about the originals is wonderful precisely because it stems from a mindset not rooted in the same background as my own.

Sadly, history repeatedly shows, though, that most people don't think that way and would rather embrace what they already have more familiarity with regardless of the actual level of quality.

Tahrey said...

It's probably so the largest body of readers can understand the jokes, or follow the story more easily as it relates to something they're already familiar with and can understand. In many of the cases it matters little where the story is actually set, but having that bit of home identification can help set the scene more efficiently.

EG a common brit will have little idea what the real value of $4m is, but has a fairly good handle on what £4m will buy them (even though in that case it's a fairly random figure). Or particularly in the case of Nemi, where you can sometimes pick up on it having been hurriedly translated because of occasional awkwardness in the text, it's a one-gag strip in a free newspaper and isn't really the place to be challenging people with the sporting politics of Scandinavia. Who sitting on a bus on a rainy tuesday in Birmingham knows how strong the feeling between supports of the Norwegian and Swedish teams would actually be? Whereas the semi-friendly antagonism of scottish and english football supporters is far more readily identified with.

I don't support it in more serious works or those that are plainly more alien, such as it's feared may happen to the live action film version of Akira (americanising that - or making it irish, even, as it's got an irish director - would be a real travesty), where the distinctly japanese Neo-Tokyo setting is both a big part of the story and adds a certain something probably both for the home crowd and the outside western observer... where it's something global/outright otherworldly, or fairly generically european like the Mad Star Wars and Nemi examples, it doesn't matter quite so much. Import the original Norwegian language one if you like :)