While Tokyopop the manga publisher will cease to exist in North America at the end of the month, Tokyopop the media company still lives on. In fact, its first major film release opened on Friday. “Priest” is set in the far future and focuses on a soldier in the war against humans and vampires called back into duty to face a dire threat. Though the ads state that it’s an adaptation of the manhwa (Korean comic) by Min-Woo Hyung, anyone who has read the series can immediately see that it bears little resemblance to its source material.
“Priest” the manhwa is the story of Ivan Isaacs, a Catholic priest who is on a quest to stop the machinations of the fallen angel Termozarela after he was released from captivity by a secret order of priests who used Ivan to further their own ends. In releasing the fallen angel, he also freed his captor -- a former priest of the Inquisition who turned himself into the demon Belial -- and now has to work with him and use his powers to stop this supernatural threat. What makes this series unique for a comic published outside of the U.S. is that it takes place in the wild west of America in the mid 1800’s. This, along with the nature of Ivan’s powers, and the way the story is told causes it to best be described as a mash-up of Kentaro Miura’s “Berserk” and “Preacher” by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon (the latter in both Jesse Custer’s quest, and more specifically the “Saint of Killers” mini-series).
Sixteen volumes were published by Tokyopop before Hyung stopped work on the series for unknown reasons. Even though it took a while to get going -- things don’t really click until the fourth volume -- it was still a very entertaining mix of theological debate and bloody supernatural action. While manhwa has been criticized for being too derivative of the style and conventions of manga, this series showed me that Korean creators are just as capable of producing works as compelling as their Japanese counterparts... At least, it’s proved to be the exception to the rule. Every other manhwa I’ve read hasn’t really come close to the high standards “Priest” has set.
Now in all honesty, if I wasn’t familiar with its source material I might have been willing to give the movie a shot. Its mix of sci-fi kung-fu action may be executed well enough to serve as good shut-your-brain-off entertainment for a weekend afternoon. Some people who I respect were certainly excited about its prospects. Unfortunately I can’t help but look at the ads and previews and come away a little depressed. Not only do we live in an age where comic-book-movies are a major cultural force, but the majority of them are also delivered with a genuine enthusiasm for the source material. While the films in the “X-men,” “Spider-Man,” and “Batman” (Christopher Nolan editions) franchises, as well as Marvel Studios’ own productions, don’t adapt specific stories, they still do an excellent job of cherry-picking the best elements from them to produce works that distill the essence of the characters in an entertaining fashion. The same goes for the “Hellboy” movies, and other works like “300,” “Watchmen,” “The Losers” and “V for Vendetta” were, at the very least, faithful enough for you to see that the filmmakers appreciated and respected the original comics. Works like “RED” and “The Surrogates,” where the creators used the core idea of the comic as a starting point and then go off in a completely different direction are thankfully the exception these days. “Priest” appears to be a particularly egregious example of this as its most direct link to the manhwa appears to be an animated introduction by Gennedy Tartakovsky done in the style of Hyung’s art. Beyond that, only the barest trace of the comic’s plot and characters seem to have survived the transition to film. Yes, I could go buy a ticket and see if the connections go deeper, but the reviews are currently at 21% “rotten” over at Rotten Tomatoes, and I’ve already made up my mind to spend my money on “Thor” this weekend.
It’s also depressing to see this as Tokyopop’s first major film effort. Here’s a company that started the “manga revolution” by promoting its line as “100% Authentic” and offering unflipped editions of its series. While I have no idea about the development process this film went through, you’d think that Stu Levy (who’s credited as an Executive Producer on the film) and the rest of the Tokyopop crew would’ve worked harder to see at least the basic concept of the series represented on film. After all, there has to be SOMETHING from the manhwa that they thought would make a good movie.
Still, if the early Friday numbers are anything to go by, Tokyopop’s life as a media company may be one that is not long for the world. While nothing has been said about their next project, I’ve heard rumors to the effect that the return of the rights to the global manga series (“Dramacon,” “East Coast Rising,” and the like) they’ve published to their respective creators is being held up by the possibility that Levy and co. are looking to turn them into films/TV series. So if one of those properties is picked for future development, one can only hope that its adaptation is a more faithful and respectable effort. Personally, I’m not optimistic about Tokyopop’s future at this point and if failure in their attempts to start a new media empire means the return of these properties to their respective creators, then I can only see that as a good thing.