Part 1, in which we take a look at some of the Wachowskis' earliest work...
It may not seem like much at a casual glance, but Ectokid #3 - a near-forgotten Marvel comic from the early nineties, now likely warming the quarter bin at a comic shop near you - had a significant impact upon popular culture at large. In its own warped and roundabout way, Ectokid #3 wound up being the spark that changed cinematic history forever.
How is it that the third issue of a failed imprint of a comic book company during the most shameless period of its existence is so “important” to our filmic landscape? Well, it just so happens to be co-written by one Larry Wachowski, known nowadays as Lana Wachowski, who along with her brother Andy (now known as Lilly) makes up the visionary directing duo of - wait for it - the Wachowskis. Taking up the writing reigns with the third issue and continuing on the series for another six before its cancellation, Larry (and an uncredited Andy, for the siblings hardly ever work without each other) was paired with a young artist by the name of Steve Skroce, who would later be drafted by the duo to storyboard a little sci-fi superhero project they had of their own, which would be a key factor in giving The Matrix the green-light over at Warner Brothers.
So, yeah… culturally significant, blah-di-blah, but how does the comic itself hold up? Not terribly well, I’m afraid. Ectokid was a part of Marvel’s “Razorline” imprint, a collection of comics ideas dreamt up by Clive Barker - who, it should be noted, didn’t actually write any of the comics himself, but rather provided series outlines and sort of oversaw the line while other creators worked on the actual books. As such, much of the Razorline feels like a disparate collection of half-interesting ideas all thrown together in stew of 90’s era, Image Comics-styled “edgy” claptrap, featuring angst-ridden heroes, confusing plot-lines in service to little more than protracted scenes of ultraviolence and lots of bad guys dressed up as nuns ( …blame Frank Miller). Ectokid was no different, sort of the Peter Parker/Spider-Man of the line, which sees 14-year-old Dex Mungo discover his father was a ghost his mom once schtupped, and now finds that he has supernatural powers that grant him access to the “Ectosphere,” sort of an alternate Earth that exists concurrent to our world, but which houses all sorts of demons and other assorted beasties.
The Wachowskis were no stranger to comics at the time, as they had already contributed work to Barker’s other series, Hellraiser and Nightbreed, but Ectokid was their first chance at an ongoing. Being that they were picking up a series in media res by previous writer James Robinson and were working off of Barker’s ideas anyway, it’s somewhat hard to see where in Ectokid the “Wachowski” begins and the rest of it ends. There is certainly a talent on display, a wild imagination that is faithfully represented on the page by Skroce’s art. Also, under their pen, the series takes on a more of a Neil Gaiman vibe, as Dex encounters the spirits of Edgar Allen Poe and Cyrano de Bergerac in his jaunts through the Ectoshpere. But still there’s a half-heartedness to the whole concept that, no matter how many interesting twists are thrown into the mix, just can’t be escaped. As such, Ectokid is probably best remembered as a cultural artifact rather than a story on its own, but it does hold worth for those interested in tracing the development of some of the few filmmakers who have truly earned the title of “visionary.” It’s definitely worth a handful of quarters.
While writing for Marvel Comics, the siblings were also hard at work on a number of screenplays, eager to break into a world that maybe wasn’t so different from the weird and frightening Ectosphere itself: Hollywood. The first one to break through the gate was 1995’s Assassins, starring Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas and directed by Richard Donner. The film seems to be one that the siblings are eager to forget, as Donner had Brian Helgeland rewrite much of the script to tone down the darkness and make it more palatable for the popcorn munchers, to the extent that the duo lobbied the WGA and Warners to get their names taken off the film.
Watching Assassins, it’s easy to see why. Although not dreadful, the film is notable for being an exceptionally bland action thriller produced in a decade where bland action thrillers were the order of the day. With Sylvester Stallone headlining the movie with another top action star, there was the hope that Assassins could capture that fun, buddy-movie feel of Tango & Cash *, but almost no joy is to be had in watching Stallone and Banderas share the screen. Sly spends the whole movie gruff and bored, while Banderas way overcompensates for his character’s profound lack of depth, as the two play a game of cat-and-mouse as assassins hired to kill the same mark in a plot that suffers both from pacing issues and a severe lack of originality. There are enough bones left of the original script to see where a possible subversion of all these stock action elements might have been possible, but the final film winds up being the very thing it sought to subvert.
If there’s one through-line we can trace through all the Wachowskis’ work, it’s this desire to work in popular commercial art and turn it on its head. Even though little of their early work does much to show their true promise, there are still just enough elements on display to show that these kids were a thoughtful pair, and they had some ideas about our popular entertainment and just how far they could exploit it to say what was really on their minds.
* If you don’t like Tango & Cash, then there’s probably no hope for you **.
** Oh no, wait: it’s me there’s no hope for.