Most comic book films are based on well-known properties, yet plenty are produced from lesser known or obscure works in the comic book medium. Straight to the Source is a review series aiming to look closely at such works and their merits outside of being the source material for a film. This time, we take a look at volumes one and two of the comic R.I.P.D.
One of the benefits of working in the comic book medium is the relatively low cost of getting a comic published. Yes, there is still plenty of financial risk and difficulty in creating/publishing a comic, but compared to financing, producing, distributing and selling a film, the comic book market is fairly accessible.
One of the downsides of this accessibility, however, is that in recent years comics have increasingly become a way to test run a concept before developing a property in another medium, or have been used to stake a claim on a concept and/or title. At least it seems that way. Did anyone read Cowboys and Aliens and think anyone was really interested in telling that story? Was the Timecop story published in Dark Horse Comics really intended to be taken any further in the comic book medium, or was it published so that Dark Horse could grab hold of the concept and title to later sell to Hollywood? If you are unsure about the answer, ask yourself this question: did we ever see any further comics built on these concepts, or just films/television series/etc. based on them?
What is particularly irksome about these types of comics is the degree to which the cynicism behind their creation is evident in the finished pages. The core ideas behind the stories are often ill conceived or half-baked, the writing is typically shoddy, and the artwork is usually terrible. Assuming some audience members of the film adaptations go out of their way to seek out the original comics, what they will find are books which perpetuate the image of the comic book medium being a lesser art form which aims for the lowest common denominator, peddling cheap “thrills” to undemanding readers.
Which brings us to R.I.P.D..
Originally published by Dark Horse Comics in 1999, R.I.P.D. has been collected and republished in the graphic novel format to capitalize on the film version being released on July 19th. In what will come as a shock to precisely no one, R.I.P.D. is the prime example of the kind of comic I have been talking about: a shoddy, cheap comic produced by individuals whose thinking never went beyond the lazy “joke” title, and who stole the bulk of their story structure and character arcs from the then-popular 1997 Men in Black film.
“Created” by writer Peter M. Lenkov, R.I.P.D. is the story of Nick Cruz, a cop who is mysteriously killed while searching a suburban house suspected of being a drug lab. Cruz ends up in Heaven — presented here a bureaucratic nightmare — where he is given a proposition by God’s lawyer: join the Rest in Peace Department (R.I.P.D.) and receive a chance to solve his own murder. As Cruz finds out after accepting though, joining the R.I.P.D. also means policing the dead who escape back to Earth, 100 years of service, and having to avoid any contact with his wife and child.
Guiding Cruz in his new job is Sheriff Roy Powell, who is just days away from retirement. As the pair begins their investigation into Cruz’s death, they are sidetracked by a demon/spirit/whatever who escapes hell and steals Michael’s Sword, a weapon forged to kill Satan. Their quest to recover the sword leads them into the bowels of Hell itself as they seek to prevent the assassination of Satan and maintain the current “Cold War” status quo between Heaven and Hell.
Reading R.I.P.D. is like taking a refresher course in late 1990s popular culture, as the comic openly swipes concepts and ideas from a variety of sources. I have already mentioned Men in Black, from which the comic lifts much of the general premise, as well as Agent Kay ‘s character arc, here given to Sheriff Powell. Indeed, R.I.P.D. opens and closes much like Men in Black, with Powell losing his longtime partner at the start of the comic and leaving the R.I.P.D. in much the same way as Agent Kay leaves the Men in Black. There is even a direct line lift towards the end of the comic, as Cruz states that he “can’t do this job” without Powell, just like Jay says to Kay towards the end of the first Men in Black film. These moments are so blatantly “borrowed” that it wouldn’t surprise me if writer Peter M. Lenkov wore out his VHS copy of Men in Black while he took notes.
Beyond Men in Black, readers will likely recognize material from other sources as well. The “Underworld Wannabes” concept is a carbon copy of the “familiars” from the first Blade film – which was released a year before R.I.P.D., I might add – and the presentation of Heaven as a bureaucratic hell populated with oddball characters screams Beetlejuice. If material hasn’t been stolen from specific films, it is simply clichéd: the identity of Cruz’s killer will be a surprise to no one who has watched any 1980s/1990s action movies, nor will the presence of the angry chief who is always on Cruz and Powell’s case.
I might not have minded how much of the narrative was stolen from other sources if the creators had managed to effectively set up and explore its premise, but here writer Lenkov completely drops the ball. The simple fact is that the world of R.I.P.D. makes no sense. Why does God have a lawyer? Why do people need to be tricked into joining the R.I.P.D.? If one is already dead, then how can one die again? What does it even mean when one dies a second time? If the R.I.P.D. are God’s police force, why do they need guns and what appears to be other forms of technology? I don’t have any answers to these questions, and I don’t think Lenkov or anyone else involved with this comic does either. Well, to be more specific, they don’t have an answer beyond “cops carry guns.”
Worse, when the comic isn’t just painfully bad, it indulges in moments of complete bad taste. Early in the comic, readers are shown massive line ups of the freshly dead working their way through organized lines as they make their way into Heaven. The most prominent sign reads “First Class”, yet the other two signs appear to be based on the cause of death: “Smoking” and “AIDS.” While the notion of people being organized by cause of death may have been funny, the suggestion that someone dying of AIDS somehow means that they are not worth being in a “first class” line is nothing short of repugnant.
Worse still is a moment where our “heroes” visit the house where Cruz was murdered and find a family living there, consisting of what I assume is a demon father, human wife and hybrid (?) child. Cruz and Powell proceed to kill the family, baby included, in a scene which is played for laughs. It is clear that Lenkov wants the reader to just read the scene as a group of innately evil beings getting their comeuppance, but it just doesn’t work that way for a whole variety of reasons. For starters, it is never clearly established just what exactly these demonic looking beings from hell are: are they the souls of dead humans? Demons? Other monsters? Even if the husband/father needs to be sent back to Hell, what about the child? Yes, it attacks Cruz, but does that mean it is innately evil? For all intents and purposes, it is a baby, so is it not innocent? You would think at the very least Cruz and Powell would be bothered at having to kill an infant, demon or not, but instead they leave the scene on a disgusting joke about kids making a mess. Yes, the comic is intended to be a buddy cop action story, but scenes such as the family massacre carry underlining moral, ethical, and philosophical questions which cannot easily be ignored, particularly given that the comic is dealing with issues of life, death, and the afterlife.
Not helping matters is the inappropriately cartoonish artwork of Lucas Marangon, whose art undercuts any possibility of the comic delivering on the horror elements inherent in the premise. The citizens of Hell look more like rejected Warner Brothers’ cartoon monsters than anything else, and while it shouldn’t come as a surprise after everything else I’ve said about R.I.P.D., the ripping off of Men in Black is also present in the art, with the look of the geared up Powell and Cruz clearly copied from the look of Agents Jay and Kay from the climax of Men in Black, along with their weaponry. I will give Marangon credit however for his artwork being clear in its storytelling, if nothing else.
Now, you might be tempted to say “That’s all fine and dandy, Dave, but all of what you have written could simply mean that R.I.P.D. is a bad comic that was cancelled for not working, not because it was produced just to control the rights to the concept.” A fair point, except for one little detail: creator Lenkov works primarily within the film and television industry, not in the comic book medium. Currently, Lenkov is working as a writer and producer on the Hawaii Five-O update, and his past credits including working on the story for the Pauly Shore “classic” Son In-Law. Lenkov only has one other comic credit to his name, and despite being the creator of R.I.P.D., has no involvement with the second volume of R.I.P.D.
Oh yes, there is a second volume. And while you might be tempted to say “See Dave, there is definitive proof that the comic wasn’t produced just to control the film rights”, I would say the second volume proves my point more than anything else. See, R.I.P.D.: City of the Damned isn’t a follow up to the first volume of R.I.P.D., but is rather a continuation of the film to be released this weekend, with agents Nick Walker and Roy Pulsipher from the film as the lead protagonists instead of Cruz or Powell. Concepts present in the trailer for the film but which were not present in the original comic are featured here, such as how the R.I.P.D. agents do not appear to look like themselves on Earth. Even the R.I.P.D. captain in the comic looks like Mary-Louise Parker’s rather than the grizzled chief in the original. Aside from these details, this volume of the comic was first published between November 2012 and February 2013, well over a decade on from Lenkov’s first series.
As far as its worth as a comic, City of the Damned is a step up from the prior comic, but is nothing spectacular. The story primarily deals with the background of the character of Roy and his first case as a member of the R.I.P.D., and while many of my questions about the universe and how it works remain, it is more coherent than Lenkov’s version. Tony Parker’s art veers more towards the horrific than the cartoonish work of Marangon, which is fine with me. There is nothing in the book worth checking out, but at least it isn’t the slap in the face the original R.I.P.D. is.
So, having read the comics, has my views about the film version of R.I.P.D changed any? Not really. The bar has been set so low by the source material that the film could be considered an improvement by simply being as unlike the comic as possible. For comic book fans, however, R.I.P.D. the comic represents the most shameless kind of misuse of our beloved medium, and is the exact kind of product companies like Dark Horse need to avoid putting out if they want to industry to thrive.
R.I.P.D. Volume One. Originally Published in 1999; Second Edition TPB Published 2013. Writer: Peter Lenkov. Artists: Lucas Marangon and Dave Nestelle. Dark Horse Comics. 104 Pages.
R.I.P.D.: City of the Damned. Originally Published in 2012 and 2013; TPB Published in 2013. Writer: Jeremy Barlow. Artist: Tony Parker. Dark Horse Comics. 104 Pages.