An increasing number of film directors, writers and even stars are getting their own comics series, making having your own comic book a status symbol in Hollywood. While most of the celebrity comics creators have long been interested in the form—from Nicholas Cage to Rosario Dawson—some are newcomers. That would include actor/director Edward Burns, whose Dock Walloper recently debuted from Virgin Comics. Co-written with comics vet Jimmy Palmiotti, the book is an entertaining yarn of gangland warfare and opium smuggling. Artist Siju Thomas is in India, one of several Virgin comics artists with a background in animation. Burns is a longtime innovative filmmaker, and his reasons for coming to comics reveal much about the comics-as-film storyboard trend.
Dock Walloper tells the tale of John "The Hand" Smith and his sidekick, Bootsy, two down-on-their-luck longshoremen who run afoul of Prohibition-era gangsters and other lowlifes of New York in the ’20s. Its origins lie with Burns's long-gestating film idea for an Irish gangster epic about the life of Owney Madden, a real-life street thug who rose to become head of the Irish mafia. Knowing that such a film would have a sizable budget, Burns was intrigued when his agent suggested a meeting with Virgin's Gotham Chopra, who was working on a series of comics by directors and other celebrities.
While he's had high-profile film roles, including Saving Private Ryan and the just opened One Missed Call, Burns is also an indie filmmaker who isn't afraid to try a new approach. His first film, the Irish-American family saga The Brothers McMullen, was made for $28,000, and his last movie, Purple Violets, was the first movie to debut on iTunes. Thus, the idea of producing a comic to use as a potential sales tool for a film wasn't much of a leap for him.
Burns wasn't a big comics reader as a kid, but getting him on board for a comic wasn't a hard sell, he reports. "The movie business is changing so dramatically and people are going to the movies for very different movies than they used to. My genre of filmmaking has all but died out: the small character-driven films. The new John Cusack movie, Grace Is Gone,got great reviews, but it died. Nobody went [to see it.] And yet Beowulf is a massive hit."
Burns is upfront about the appeal of doing the story as a comic: "If the book is any good, we can use it as a storyboard. After the success of 300, that's the way to pursue this type of project."
Palmiotti, a longtime industry veteran whose works ranges from creator-owned projects such as New West and Painkiller Jane to DC's massive crossover Countdown, was brought on to do the scripting and help navigate Burns’s maiden comics voyage. Both Burns and Palmiotti immersed themselves in research for the era; much of what seems familiar territory is so because many of the characters and events aretrue.
Palmiotti read many slang dictionaries of the era—much of the dialogue reflects the way people spoke then, including the use of several racial epithets, since the book deals with racial issues of the time. "I'm trying to use the words that work in the context of the story," said Palmiotti. "Classes were separated by money and language. I used some words I don't [usually] use, like racial slurs, but the more I read about the era, the more I realized that these were everyday words. They were used to get a reaction, as weapons, and I didn't want to shy away from [them]."
Burns and Palmiotti decided to open up the story from purely historical reality—for instance, John Smith has an oversized hand, which gives him an almost mythical attribute and makes the conflicts a bit larger in scope. Finding conflict wasn't hard because the time period was so volatile.
"The city was split up in a lot of different ways," said Palmiotti. "The police were Irish, but the Italians were coming in and settling in Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx. There were also Russian immigrants. There were gang fights over the ownership of coal. There were a lot of territorial fights going on, and Prohibition fueled it. In issues two and three, we see the influx of opium coming into the city through China."
However, at its core it's a buddy story, as John Smith and Bootsy, who became friends growing up in an orphanage, try to survive in the gang war-ridden landscape of New York's seedy docks, with the addition of Smith's freakish hand.
"He's always relied on it, but it isn't what he's about," said Palmiotti. "Smith is very smart and streetwise, but very brooding and really doesn't speak unless he has something to say. Since John Smith was an orphan, we don't know what he is. We made him the everyman—he could be anybody you want to be and that's on purpose."
Burns was inspired by classic Cagney and Bogie gangster films as well as On the Waterfront, which inspired Smith's hand. "I immediately thought of the great scene where Eva Marie Saint's father talks about working on the docks and his right arm is longer than his left."
He admits that opening up Dock Walloper with the larger-than life elements was a new way for him to think about his work, but now believes it has altered his own filmmaking and writing. "It's really freed me up. Everything I've written before has been character driven and dialogue heavy, and the plot only advanced via dialogue. I'm not writing any of the dialogue here, I'm really the plotter, and I was free to make it bigger than I ever would have imagined or allowed myself. If I thought this was a film that I needed to find financing for, my original version of the Dock Walloper would be sitting in the hull of the ship talking for hours!"
Burns's thinks Hollywood will continue to look at comics for inspiration. "The more escapist the movie, the more people come. You don't need to see a quiet drama in the movie theater—you can watch it on your flat-screen TV and have it Netflixed to you. People go to theaters for the big experience of big action, big horror, something that requires a little bit of group participation."
"It' a trend that can grow stronger if the product is great and can grow weaker if it isn't," said Palmiotti. Of the current celebrity-driven comics boomlet, he said, "Some are projects of passion, some of development. I think a guy like Ed Burns brings a lot more to the table."