Spencer: Back to the Future is my family’s favorite movie. Every member of my family has, at one point or another, mentioned how they can watch that movie over and over without ever getting tired of it. Parts II and III are also great films — if not as effortlessly perfect as the first — and together they create a rather complete, fulfilling story. Despite my profuse love for the franchise, I’ve never once clamored for more because, well, what would more Back to the Future even look like? It’s a question that even the trilogy’s writer Bob Gale asked himself when first approached to work on IDW’s Back to the Future mini-series. Ultimately, he chose to use the series to answer fan questions about the characters and explore new aspects of their backstories. Given the book’s audience, it’s probably the right move.
What I mean by that is that the Back to the Future comic isn’t going to be winning the franchise any new fans; it’s too focused on filling in untold stories from the films to be engaging to a new reader. But let’s get real: is there anyone who hasn’t seen Back to the Future who would be buying this book? Chances seem slim. Moreover, a comic book can’t capture everything that made the films classics — the performances and Alan Silvestri’s iconic score especially — and it would be risky to attempt to reopen a story that had already been rather thoroughly finished, at least in its original incarnation. To me, then, it makes sense to instead direct the focus of the comic on various stories that would be interesting to the hardcore Back to the Future fans, even if not to newbies.
With that in mind, Gale (and co-scripter John Barber) use the book’s main story to tell the tale of how Doc Brown and Marty first met, thereby answering one of the most commonly asked questions about the movie. The answer isn’t mindblowing — answers to these kind of questions rarely are — but the story is charming enough nonetheless. 14-year-old Marty McFly is cajoled into stealing a piece of musical equipment by neighborhood bully Needles, and eventually attempts to break into the mysterious Doc Brown’s garage. The break-in turns into more of a game; Marty solves the Doc’s clues and makes his way into the garage, where he’s caught, but instead of getting mad, Doc Brown offers him a job.
This story does a lot to explain what Doc Brown and Marty first saw in each other, as well as why they eventually click so well as a duo. Brown is initially impressed by Marty’s resourcefulness, while Marty just thinks it’s cool to be the only guy who’s actually met Emmett Brown (and he immediately uses that newfound notoriety to scare Needles out of his pants). The first panel, though, also emphasizes the privacy and love for their creative endeavors that Marty and Doc Brown have in common, and that’s the seed of their bond which would eventually deepen to the point where, finally, at the beginning of the first movie, Brown does discuss his work with Marty when he reveals to him the time machine and the Flux Capacitor. Exploring that kind of growth is the main benefit to the whole “untold tales and alternate timelines” concept behind this series.
Brent Schoonover handles pencils for this story, and does an adequate job. I love the way he draws children — there’s something idyllic about young Marty (even if he doesn’t much resemble Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown’s kids — but Schoonover does have some problems remaining consistent on that front — the girl member of Needles’ gang looks like she’s thirty at one point, and the big guy’s mullet comes and goes throughout the scene. There’s some less-than-perfect parts of his posing and staging as well.
Marty is supposed to look surprised there, but just looks slightly apprehensive (there’s a much worse example of the same problem later in the issue when Needles is supposed to be scared, but looks like he’s dancing a jig instead). Also, this is about the least dynamic way to portray Einstein leaping onto Marty I can think of — putting Einstein in profile while Marty looks at the camera feels amateurish, and something about Marty’s pose makes it looks like he’s standing back further in space than Einstein; the dog should fly right past him.
Dan Schoening takes over art duties in the back-up, and the 1940s setting gives he and colorist Luis Antonio Delgado a chance to show a bit more personality in their work. It’s still not perfect — Schoening’s Doc Brown is so wild-eyed that he looks cross-eyed a few times — but Schoening is much better at depicting Doc’s physicality than Schoonover.
The plot in this tale (by Gale, but scripted by Eric Burnham) finds Doc Brown recruited into the Manhattan Project. It’s a strange fit for Doc Brown, and this chapter is mostly set-up, but it also feels like the stronger hook. What would working on the first nuclear bomb do to Doc’s personality and conscience? Is this why he went from being a teaching professor to a brilliant-but-feared recluse?
Back to the Future 1‘s stories aren’t essential, but if they can continue asking (and answering) questions like that, I’ll be a satisfied reader. Michael, I’ve got no clue what your experiences with Back to the Future are, so I’m curious to see what you thought of this issue. Did you find something to like in it, or are you not the target audience?
Michael: Spencer I’d say that I’m a casual Back to the Future fan at best. I have seen the original movie as many times as anyone who had cable in the ‘90s did, the sequel two or three times and the third movie probably once. That being said I am certainly not a Back to the Future naysayer. In all honesty, I think the current nostalgia-reaping, Facebook posting, transparent corporate marketing that is inescapable at the moment has turned me cold to the franchise; so I’m a little jaded at the moment. Having a comic book that equally cashes in on that buzzworthy fame doesn’t really help matters, but as Spencer said, they’re not exactly trying to draw in a new audience; which is a plus. So as a comic book of related short stories, Back to the Future 1 presents us with a decent companion piece to the movies. Since I’m not a diehard fan, maybe this book isn’t for me – I personally wasn’t chomping at the bit to see how Doc Brown and Marty McFly started working together. One thing I do find comforting about this Back to the Future series is that screen-(and comics)-writer Bob Gale is the person telling us these tales. Knowing that someone who is familiar with the characters is behind the wheel often sells the piece better; for me at least.
While Back to the Future Part II is enjoyable and Back to the Future Part III is passable, they both follow the same formulaic sequel pattern. Sequels attempt to recreate the scenes we loved from the original movie in new and unexpected ways; giving us the same amount of entertainment for an additional price. Like Part II and III, Back to the Future 1 presents us with familiar moments: Marty can’t back down because he’s called a chicken, Marty employs a “skateboard ex machina” and familiar places like “the clock tower” are referenced and revisited. Like I said, it’s the same type of pattern that Hollywood uses for sequels over and over again to put butts in the seats. Maybe I’m just too cynical to fall for it at this point? Or at least too cynical to label the whole thing as “falling for it.” Something that I found equally pleasant and jarring about his book was its insistence on its adherence to standards and practices of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. I think I say that because I’m so used to reading outlandish tales from the cape and spandex crowd that I might not be able to swallow the same story from characters who don’t respond to bat signals. In our modern society its completely insane that a teenager would attempt a break-in at the crazy old man’s house and end up accepting a job. In 2015 (the real 2015), that story would never happen. But it makes complete sense in the Back to the Future world of 1985. It’s not an indictment – just an interesting observation of telling an ‘80s tale to the modern audience.
The second story, featuring a young Doc Brown as a hopeful candidate for The Manhattan Project, seemed to be less of a one-off like the “origin story” and more of an ongoing narrative. Initially I thought that this story was going to be a one-note joke about how the government didn’t want Doc Brown because he was just “TOO WACKY.” As I finished reading the story however I (like Spencer) found myself very curious as to how Doc being involved with The Manhattan Project was going to play out. Just like the first story that Gale presents us, it’s interesting to read this story through the modern lens. In 1985, “terrorists” were just another shadowy evil group of villains who wanted a bomb; 30 years later “terrorists” are a more serious threat. Maybe Gale is trying to use that very same lens to show us The Manhattan Project – give us the benefit of time and distance to truly recognize the horrors of that particular thing. Or maybe it’s just a story about how Doc Brown doesn’t need to pretend that he knows needlepoint. I dunno.
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