Saturday, January 5, 2013

Welcome to the Little Shop of Horrors by J.R. Williams and Gene Fama

Welcome To The Little Shop of Horrors is one of the most strange, unusual and enjoyable comic book adaptations I’ve ever read. This may sound like damning with faint praise; the standards for their illustration are usually up to professional levels but inherent compromises between the two mediums almost always leave the comic book version of a moving picture lacking by comparison.

What makes Little Shop different is that the minimalist elements that made the original film so sublime are perfect for creative riffing and rearrangement, like a jazz standard in the hands of a skilled musician. Indeed, the film was already famously reconceived as an off-broadway musical and subsequent big-budgeted musical film. 

Under the official Roger Corman banner, this comic book acts like that film never existed and instead remakes the original 1960 film with the benefit of 35 years’ appreciation – and hindsight for the limitations of the film’s paltry budget. As with the musical, the biggest benefactor of a revamping is the man-eating plant itself, which was never more than a floppy pair of jaws in the original.

“Audrey II” has been a Jim Hensonesque puppet onstage and a special effects powerhouse on film under the direction of Muppets veteran Frank Oz, but in comic book form this is handily the most convincing that “Audrey Jr” has ever looked. The covers by Killian Plunkett are handsome and gruesomely arresting: issue #1 depicts Audrey Jr’s famous first utterance of “FEED ME,” issue #2 captures the all the lunacy of the infamous Jack Nicholson masochist dentist scene, and issue # 3 is the best of the trio: a portrait of Seymour Krelboine in the depths of ruin that his plant has wrought. An increased quotient of gore is markedly evident on the latter two covers, portending the comic’s other big liberation from the film in the arena of special effects on top of a more animated plant. Little Shop was never a bloody or violent film; the only truly gross horror-film imagery comes when Seymour drops a prop hand into the nascent Audrey Jr’s jaws (a still from this scene is probably the most replicated piece of promotional material.) The few deaths in the story – and subsequent feeding times for Audrey Jr – are all bloodied up, but not too gratuitously.

Opening issue one brings the mild shock of seeing a splash page and subsequent art for the series done by another artist – and simply not as good of one as Plunkett. Gene Fama has a short list of credits as a penciller, mostly from the 90s, but on some well-respected titles: Real Stuff, The Spirit, and in the early 2000s, Mike Allred’s Madman. He seems to have dropped out of the game after that, probably because as his bio at the end of the first issue states, he's an investment banker who "only moonlights drawing comics." Fama lets you know you’re in for more grotesquerie on the human side of the story than the vegetable.

In the first few pages we’re introduced to the story’s whole range of characters and types: beyond star schmuck Seymour there’s the old biddy Mrs. Siddie Shiva, the curmudgeon Gravis Mushnick, the average-looking joe Burson Fouch and sweet young lady Audrey. The principals Seymour and Mushnick fit well into Fama’s over-the-top style and he obviously spent some time constructing their design. Burson Fouch looks well enough like Dick Miller but in some weird attempt to make him more caricatured, Fama adds about 20 pounds to the size of his head and the weight isn’t distributed evenly. Where the art runs into trouble is pretty girls like Audrey or the lithesome Leonora Clyde. Drawing Mrs. Shiva or Seymour’s mom - who is particularly horrific under Fama’s pencil – the ugliness is appropriate but when we see Audrey or Leonora they don’t seem to have solid facial construction and their features melt all over the place.

When the two teenage girls from Kukamonga High show up to buy flowers for their Rose Bowl parade float, they look more like middle aged pinheads in some panels.

Fortunately the overall bizarre nature of Little Shop's menagerie of miscreants excuses a lot of these technical blemishes and when Fama gets to draw characters like Jack Nicholson's infamous masochist Wilbur Force, his renditions are really terrific to look at. Ironically, the only reason the characters in this comic are able to resemble the actors who played them - even Jack Nicholson - is because one of the primary motivations for creating the film in no time flat was that the laws regarding a film producer's ownership of actors' performance and likenessness were about to change. And then Corman let the film slip into public domain anyway! Whoops!

Where Fama excels most is simply in opening the story up, visually. Famously to its reputation, the film had two days and one night of principal photography and main scenes in Mushnick's flower shop were shot using two camera rolling simultaneously, rather like a television sitcom than a movie with time for coverage of different angles. The inclusion of simple perspective changes like closeups and over-the-shoulder shots make the storytelling more involved than the original's aesthetic while using almost exactly the same dialogue and scenes. The initial "Feed Me" scene, for instance, is beautifully composed and paced from panel to panel.

The script adaptation by cartoonist J.R. Williams is what brought my attention to this comic in the first place, and its a real editorial achievment. Roger Corman's Cosmic Comics label - and to understand how trendy comic books became in the 1990s, all you need to know is that a pinchpenny like Roger thought there was a buck in them somewhere - could've handed off the job of transcribing and shortening the original film's dialogue to a janitor without anyone noticing. At an hour and eleven minutes, there isn't even a whole lot of subtraction to be done. Someone in the office of Cosmic Comics, however, must have been a fan of good underground comix and offered the job to Williams, who at this time was drawing a regular anthology series for Fantagraphics called Crap. As a fan of the original and a skilled cartoonist with an ear for dialogue, Williams' adaptation of Charles B. Griffith's brilliant screenplay has a polish for which the film simply didn't have time. Almost all the best lines are included and the weaker scenes like those involving Seymour's mom are mercifully truncated. At three issues, Welcome to the Little Shop of Horrors has the perfect length to showcase the best moments of such a brief viewing experience. It's a singular achievment and makes me glad that those in charge had enough confidence in the project not to follow the usual edict of larger publishers that a comic book adaptation of a film shouldn't go longer than two issues.

J.R. Williams' other contribution to the success of Welcome to the Little Shop of Horrors besides tightened writing is allowing comic book grammar to flesh out characters and sell some of the fancier flights of logic in the story more convincingly. Even in a comic farce where outrageous coincidence can be expected, there's a few incidents of convenience that you have no choice but to forgive Griffith for - mainly the accidental deaths caused by Seymour that result in more chow for Audrey Jr. Just before Seymour accidentally puts a railroad cop in the path of an oncoming train, a few new thought balloons by Williams put us in Seymour's shoes and actually give him a reason to be chucking rocks about.

Later at Dr. Farb's office, the impromptu duel with dental tools is altered just slightly to make Farb's death MORE of an accident, which helps keeps our "hero" sympathetic. Seymour's "I didn't mean it" culpability in the deaths of others was always the thorniest issue in the plot of Little Shop, something which Howard Ashman put a lot of care into making palatable when he and Alan Meken turned the story into a musical. By the end of Corman and Griffith's story, they're desperate enough to grant Audrey Jr. the power of hypnosis so that Seymour can go out looking for one more victim. Williams keeps this third act contrivance but makes it work in a way the film didn't - by taking advantage of cartooning's limitless potential to give Audrey Jr. a visual aid for his mind-control and adding a gag to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the plot turn.

Thought bubbles and a few extra lines of dialogue sprinkled here and there by Williams do a lot to make the whole story more well-rounded and interconnected. When Seymour asks out Audrey, for instance, Mushnick is justifiably concerned for her safety in the hands of the possibly homicidal flower shop boy.

Then there's this perfect metaphor for Mushnick's folly.

At the climactic junkyard chase from Sgt. Joe Fink and Frank Stoolie, Williams adds a great groaner of a punchline to the iconic shot of Seymour's toilet hideout that would've been right at home in the original film.

Only once or twice does Williams make a questionable alteration. The scene wherein Seymour feeds the remains of his accidental railroad cop's death to Audrey Jr is given a more ghoulish mania that doesn't befit Seymour's meekness.

In the film, his half-crying attempt to take his mind off the awfulness of the situation by stammering through "Deck the Halls" was pitch perfect, but this is the sole egregious example of Williams not changing something for the better. All in all, his revision is a love letter to the original with a keen awareness of its strengths and weaknesses. Any extra lines he gives to Audrey Jr, for example, speak to the hilariously sardonic nature of the tale.

Offsetting that bone dry nihilism, suprisingly, is a new note of redemption at the conclusion: Seymour is still eaten by Audrey Jr, but his first deliberate attempt at murder actually succeeds. Come what may, the plant is finally defeated.

With all respect to Gene Fama for doing a fine and funny job on illustration, the only thing that could've made Welcome to the Little Shop of Horrors better is if J.R. Williams had been chosen to draw the entire thing himself. The first issue "Behind the Scenes" afterward from editor Robert Boyd reveals the writing process as such:

"Because J.R. hadn't written comics for other artists before, I suggested he "write" the script by doing very rough drawings of all the action and dialogue. This method worked great. His script was such a lively piece of cartooning that we could have almost printed it as is. But since we wanted much more realistic and detailed type of art, we called in Gene Fama…"

Fama's art is certainly more detailed but to say it's more realistic is debatable - what's realistic about cartoon syntax like dollar bills in Mushnick's eyes or the constant bulging eyeballs in general? Having a tantalyzing sample panel of Williams' comic-adaptation sketches and knowing it'll never see the light of day is almost unbearable but for the saving grace at the end of each issue - ALL NEW single page gag strips drawn by Williams!

I love these not only because they show how well Williams gets inside the comic rhythms of Seymour, Mushnick and Audrey Jr. but also for the fact that the strips are period 1960 - witness this refugee from Corman and Griffith's pre-Little Shop beatnik horror-comedy, A Bucket of Blood.

These gag pages show what a full-length Little Shop comic drawn by Williams might've looked like, but oh well. I admire Robert Boyd and the other editors at Corman's short-lived comics outfit tremendously for allowing him to showcase his talents. Another juicy bone thrown to devotees of the movie is the bonus of interviews with Seymour and Mushnick themselves, Jonathan Haze and Mel Welles. At this point the making of the film has been well documented but I can't ever tire of reading about its serendipity and legacy.

Welcome to the Little Shop of Horrors was never collected into a single volume, so to enjoy it you'll need to hunt down the three separate issues on Amazon or eBay. I highly recommend doing so, because rather than feeling like the cheap and unnecessary merchandise which comic book tie-ins of films tend to be, this is a sincere tribute to the original The Little Shop of Horrors and stands on its own. If you want a rationale, it isn't hard to justify. Stop and take a look around - this is a superb little work that belongs in any fan's collection - as long as there's copies to be found.

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