It's no secret that pop culture junkie Quentin Tarantino is a comics fan. So it's no surprise that when it came time to bring the Oscar-nominated screenplay for "Django Unchained" for Vertigo (you can see an extensive preview here), he would tap someone who shared his same obsessive love of comics. "I was talking with Quentin, and when we're not talking obscure movies or obscure TV shows, we talk about obscure comic books," Reginald Hudlin, producer of "Django Unchained" and and adapter of the comics version tells me. The duo would geek out together about classics from the big two as well as Gold Key, Dell, and Charlton works, obsessing about Western series like "Gunhawks," or debating the merits of "Rawhide Kid" (Hudlin is a "Rawhide Kid" man) vs. "Kid Colt" (Tarantino was Team Colt).
Many of us comic readers remember Hudlin from his stint on "Black Panther" which he later adapted as an animated miniseries, as well as serving as executive producer for "The Boondocks." While he's jumped back and forth from TV, comics, and film, he's surprised that it's taken so long for Tarantino to make his way into comics too. And for all that, we almost didn't get a "Django Unchained" comic--"We got some offers from different publishers to do an illustrated screenplay," Hudlin says, but Tarantino nixed the idea. "He likes publishing his screenplays, but he thinks they should stand alone with no visual support" (Tarantino's said in the past that he views his screenplays like novels that stand apart from the finished film). But when Hudlin recommended that they adapt "Django Unchained" as a graphic novel, he says Tarantino lit up.
The film--and the comic--tell the story of a freed slave who teams up with a German bounty hunter to find his wife. The film is, in name if not quite tonally, an homage to Sergio Corbucci's spaghetti Westerns featuring Franco Nero in the title role. In Tarantino's take, what he's called a "Southern," buckets of blood are spilled as Django and Dr. King Schultz shoot their way through wanted criminals--white men, all--ultimately getting plantation owner Calvin Candie in their sights.
Making a film with Tarantino can be a remarkably fluid process, Hudlin tells me. The writer-director keeps so much of what he intends the film to be in his head, and at any given time and what started out on the page might not be what they end up shooting when he shows up to set. This was Hudlin's first time working with Tarantino as his producer, and while that level of fluidity might be a challenge to some people in his role, Hudlin almost excited about it, but that it involves being ready for "anything and everything," he tells me. "[Tarantino] doesn't stop. He's never satisfied... [The film's] not a fixed thing--his car will put up to the set, and he's got five pages of new dialog that he's written on the way to work." Hudlin says that as a producer, he had to get used to looking at those pages and realizing that Tarantino made them (and the overall film) work. "You trust that this guy has incredible instincts and you work with him."
What this means for the comic is that readers will be getting something like an alternate cut of "Django Unchained," with scenes that were written but not filmed making their way into the book. "Scenes that we shot and cut and scenes that we never shot will be in the comic book, so you'll see a lot of material that you do not see in the movie in the comic." Hudlin says that it's all part of the idea that like the screenplay and the finished film, "Django Unchained" the comic will be its own thing.
Reaction to "Django Unchained" has been positive at the box office as well as critically, but I asked Hudlin about that outlier group that doesn't just dislike "Django Unchained," but feels that its portrayal of a former slave gunning down slave owners is either too incendiary (that would be the Daily Beast set) or disrespectful to black history (Spike Lee called slavery our Holocaust). What did he make of these people acting as gatekeepers for how blacks can and can't be portrayed in film? Hudlin shrugs off the haters: "I never expected everybody to like the movie. 'Everybody' doesn't like anything. People criticized 'The Cosby Show,' they'd go 'That's not real!'"
"As one of those 'gatekeepers' myself [laughs], the reaction I've been getting is overwhelmingly positive." He cites praise from Oprah Winfrey to Professor Henry Louis Gates, and added that Nation of Islam leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan had positive things to say about the movie (although he has expressed concern that the film could heighten racial tensions). Hudlin adds that with his own work, he's not really looking for consensus, he's just looking to reach the widest audience possible. "The impression I get is huge, overwhelming support, people writing me saying 'Oh god, I haven't felt this way since Obama was elected president.'"
I asked if he thought we might be able to draw any kind of lessons from the success for "Django Unchained" in a filmmaking (and comics) landscape dominated mostly by white faces. Was there something special that made this particular film succeed or was it simply down to the Tarantino factor. He says it's something in-between: "Well that is it. Great storytelling wins. And there's a lot of assumptions about what audiences won't accept, and it's just not true." He considers "Django Unchained" like a Public Enemy record, with just that right amount of crossover appeal.
As for comics, Hudlin isn't stopping with "Django Unchained," following up the adaptation with more creator-owned work as well as "reinventions of classic characters." You can check out the first issue of "Django Unchained" now, with the second issue due on February 13th.