❉ Jon Arnold reviews Dan Watters and Dev Pramanik’s atmospheric recreation of David Bowie’s most uncanny film role.
“The big gift of Nicolas Roeg’s film to Dan Watters and Dev Pramanik’s graphic novel is how visually striking Bowie was: A barely human stick man with a mane of limp fire who didn’t need prosthetics to suggest alienation; thanks to Pramanik and Jordi Escuin Llorach’s sympathetic, intelligent colouring Bowie’s Newton is every bit as striking as he was on film.”
There have been fewer more perfect matches of leading man to material than David Bowie and the film of The Man Who Fell To Earth. Bowie, of course, was not primarily an actor by trade but his SF-influenced work and well-documented addictions made him perfectly suited to the role of Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien character originally devised as a thin analogy for the addiction to alcohol of Walter Tevis. You could be forgiven for not knowing where Bowie ended and Newton began in 1976: stills from the film adorn consecutive albums which echo the film’s cold dislocated atmosphere, and Newton is practically just the next mask for Bowie to don after Ziggy, Aladdin Sane and Halloween Jack. The film remains the only truly successful adaptation of Tevis’ novel: a late ’80s TV movie and a recent small-screen “continuation” of the movie starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Naomie Harris and Bill Nighy have come and gone without unduly attracting public attention. Bowie’s Newton casts a long shadow which those subsequent takes on Tevis’ novel couldn’t escape.
It’s a wise move then that Dan Watters and Dev Pramanik’s graphic novel concentrates on adapting the film and recreating the peculiar atmosphere that Bowie and Nicolas Roeg conjured up: artist and writer intelligently present shifts of time and space within the story as often sudden and disorienting, indicated only visually, intelligently using the medium itself to help tell the story. The big gift of the film to Pramanik is how visually striking Bowie was: A barely human stick man with a mane of limp fire who didn’t need prosthetics to suggest alienation; thanks to Pramanik and Jordi Escuin Llorach’s sympathetic, intelligent colouring Bowie’s Newton is every bit as striking as he was on film. Other characters only dominate the frame in the sequences set in the modern day, again a thoughtful visual realization of Newton’s descent into hell meaning he’d left the story to others to tell.
It’s striking how well the film’s almost nihilistic vision of humanity as needy and grasping is followed, with Newton surrounded by characters needy for sex and companionship, money and power and mainly willing to violate ethical standards to get them: Watters rightly picks out Newton’s rejection of Mary Lou on morally pure grounds as the key point of his innocence being corrupted: he cannot relate to or enjoy the better aspects of humanity so the tragedy must play out. While this version maintains the deliberately hollow non-ending of book and film, Watters device of characters being interviewed about their involvement with Newton works beautifully, layering a modern-day conspiracy aspect to the story which is entirely appropriate for the story of how Newton and his mission are swallowed by the monolithic mass of humanity and its culture. Not only did Newton fail, his failure has let down his own race and may well have doomed it thanks to capitalism. The device gives the story a slightly more satisfying and conventional structure than the film, widening the scale of individual futility to add consequences beyond the personal.
It’s mildly odd to read this in a world in which Bowie is a spectral cultural presence, and perhaps no other cultural work outside his own music is so haunted by the man and his personality. This graphic novel is undoubtedly an act of homage, maintaining Bowie’s legacy and looking to retell the story for a post-Blackstar world. Bowie/Newton is a ghost at the feast here, and that we know how Bowie’s story ended perhaps only shades Newton’s plight with further tragedy, particularly when Bowie’s musical Lazarus, which revisited Newton’s story, is taken into account. This might not have a great crossover appeal beyond fans of Bowie or Roeg, but it’s a smart attempt at ensuring the ghosts of Bowie’s achievements don’t fade away as the mortal man had to.
❉ The Man Who Fell to Earth: The Official Movie Adaptation (Writer: Dan Watters. Artist: Dev Pramanik) was published 25 October 2022 by Titan Comics, RRP £26.99. Click here to order from TITAN COMICS.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jon Arnold is the author of four volumes of the Black Archive series including ‘The Black Archive #1: Rose’ and co-editor of Me and the Starman, (now available by Cult Ink on Amazon)