How the comic book format allowed Travis Beacham to expand on the 'Pacific Rim' universe

Posted by · 4:21 pm · June 29th, 2013

When Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” crashes into theaters on July 12, you’ll only be getting part of the story. The universe of the film was too big for one movie, you see. It inevitably spilled over the edges and left an excess of material without a home, but with so much to say.

Luckily for screenwriter Travis Beacham, that material wouldn’t go homeless forever. It turned out Legendary Pictures, which financed and produced the film, wanted a comic book tie-in, and so the idea of a graphic novel was taking flight. But there weren’t any specific ideas about what it should be. The immediate, unspoken assumption was to do an adaptation of the film, but very quickly, when Beacham was approached to write the graphic novel (something he’d never before attempted, by the way), he had a bright idea.

“I was like, ‘Sure, I”d love to write it but, let”s do something that”s sort of additive as opposed to adaptive,'” he tells me. And so “Pacific Rim: Tales from Year Zero” started to take shape.

The 112-page book, currently on shelves, is a prequel to the upcoming film, filling in shades and information only alluded to via glancing blows on the screen. Following the exploits of a news reporter writing a bit of a puff piece on the shuttering of the Jaeger program, the graphic novel collects stories from individuals in the “Pacific Rim” universe recounting the brief history of disaster that has become a matter of course by the time the film begins. And one of the things it did was allow Beacham to salvage some of the elements that may have been workshopped out of the screenplay as the film project developed and give them a new purpose and life.

“Early on, we knew it should have a few episodes,” he says. “Like it should have a sort of historical, episodic sort of thing happening in it. But we needed something to tie it all together. And there was no real framework story at first. Then I thought, ‘Oh, we jettisoned that reporter thing from the first draft. I could just use that, sort of ‘Citizen Kane’-style. She”s going around interviewing people for this article that she”s writing.”

But mostly it was a way to build on the world and employ what Beacham calls the lingering “dark matter” of the story that never found an organic way into the screenplay. We learn about “K-Day,” the day the first kaiju monster made landfall in San Francisco. We learn about Stacker Pentecost’s Air Force roots and how seeing a boy playing with toy robots and monsters sparked the idea for the Jaeger program in a Dr. Jasper Schoenfeld. All of this was part of a larger mythology that Beacham had always hoped he could include in some way, peppering in the detail where he could like one of his favorite world-building authors, China Miéville.

“The graphic novel was just a perfect chance for it,” he says. “And Guillermo was definitely on the same wavelength. I think that was probably something that he”d been picturing from the graphic novel the whole time. And there wasn’t a lot of resistance to it. Nobody was like, ‘No, no, no. This has to be an adaptation. We need people to see this as the movie that they already watched.'”

The format of writing a comic book took a little while to get used to, but it was ultimately an interesting way for Beacham to further explore the humanity of his story. When you’re thinking about a movie script, there’s a lot of consideration of movement and sound, the experience of events taking place before you. But it just doesn’t work the same on the comic book page, he says, and that was a bit enlightening.

“It”s funny because if you look at storyboards and then you look at comic book pages, you see they look really similar,” Beacham says. “But a screenplay isn”t written in such a way where you”re describing a storyboard. And that”s really different in the comic context because you literally are describing like, you know, ‘here”s what this panel shows’ and ‘here”s what this panel shows.’ And you”re really trying to put a story together as a fuse of images as opposed to something with a sense of movement. The peculiarity of the format focused on the details and the intimacy of it, having this book that”s in your hand as opposed to this giant screen that”s in front of you.”

He also felt it let him talk about character in a different way, allowing for more subtlety than a blockbuster movie might allow. “In movies, it”s so paced and it”s so deliberate that you have to be sort of blunt at times with what your character is saying and what they”re feeling. In the comic book I feel like you can get away with being not quite as blunt, because somebody can sit there and look at the page for a really long time. And [when developing a graphic novel], you”re really only talking to like a handful of people as opposed to a movie script, which is a letter to, you know, an army of people.”

That love for the format extends to the book’s supplementary pages as well, which feature a brief education on the process, from script to pencils, inks to colors and lettering.

Given the wealth of “dark matter” floating around from the “Pacific Rim” universe, waiting to be served up as greater context, Beacham says he would love to explore further adventures on the comic book page.

“I think they’ve only published graphic novels, so I don”t know if that”s Legendary’s bent, you know, or if they”re planning on doing single issues or anything,” he says. “But I would totally be up for it. And I think that”s sort of the way I look at the entire property. The movie is fantastic and I love it with all my heart and all my soul. But also I see it as sort of being one of many shadows cast by this thing, which is the ‘Pacific Rim’ universe. And coming to it as a fan of that sort of thing, as the kind of person who looks up stuff on like ‘Game of Thrones’ wikis and ‘Aliens’ wikis and ‘Star Wars’ stuff, I just always try to think in terms of the universe outside the movie. I think my sense of curiosity just goes there automatically.”

More from Beacham on the “Pacific Rim” universe next week when we dig in on the movie itself.

“Pacific Rim” opens nationwide on July 12.

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