Welcome back to We Want Comics, a column exploring various intellectual properties—whether they’re movies, TV shows, novels, or video games—that we would like to see adapted into comic books. This time we’re taking a look at a film that won Best Animated Film at the Golden Globes and was nominated for Best Animated Film for Sunday’s Academy Awards, the stop-motion animated Missing Link from LAIKA Studios.
When I first pitched the idea of doing Missing Link for We Want Comics, I was immediately asked why this particular film. After all, LAIKA has five films under its belt. Surely any of those could be comics. But, this column is called We Want Comics, not This Could Be a Comic. Coraline is a fantastic film, but I bristle at the idea of it being a comic. For one thing, there’s already a Coraline comic by P. Craig Russell based on Neil Gaiman’s original book. For another, Coraline’s story is finished. Yes, you could have the Beldam come back, but why would you want to? Yes, you could have Coraline have another adventure, but it would just be another adventure that could be done with any character—the only reason Coraline would be involved is to leverage an existing property. My god, the cynicism of it makes me feel ill.
The thing is, this is true for all of LAIKA’s other films to varying degrees. ParaNorman, The BoxTrolls, and Kubo and the Two Strings all end with a definitive period. However, Missing Link ends with an ellipses. . . The end credits actively make us think about what other adventures Lionel and Susan will have. More importantly, both Lionel and Susan have begun a journey together that will challenge them, that will provoke character-motivated story.
So before we go any further, let’s go back to the source material. In Missing Link we meet Sir Lionel Frost, an English gentleman determined to make a name for himself as a cryptozoologist. He is singularly obsessed with being “the Great Sir Lionel Frost” in the eyes of the world, in particular in the eyes of the Optimates Club. The film makes it plainly clear the kind of people that Sir Lionel Frost looks up to and wants to be are terrible role models, and the kind of person he wants to be would have a destructive impact on the world. Ultimately, Sir Lionel learns to value his friends foremost and not to chase the approval of others.
But the thing is, he really just takes his first step. Sir Lionel, though he doesn’t see it, is a tremendously flawed person, and while many of those flaws are pointed out by the film, they aren’t challenged. Right from the first scene we see how he has trouble recognizing the wants and needs of other people. A distraught Mr. Lint, after nearly being eaten by a sea monster, screams, “What is wrong with you? I’m a human being!” and Sir Lionel barely bats an eyelid.
Later, when Adelina challenges Sir Lionel about how he treats Susan, the problem barely seems to register with him. It’s simply not something he’s ever thought about before and he doesn’t even understand why he should. Adelina is the catalyst for change. In trying to win her over, he’s forced to change convincingly, and it’s in the pursuit of being convincing that he actually changes. Empathy is not something that comes naturally to him, it’s something he has to work at.
While Adelina was around, he was pushed to be better. We see this most clearly in the scene when Susan chooses a name for himself. Sir Lionel’s first impulse is to reject it, but knowing he’s being watched by Adelina, he sets this aside and accepts Susan’s name. The thing is, after that scene, he never calls Susan his chosen name again. It’s always “Mr. Link.”
Speaking of Susan, this is another character that has a lot more growth ahead. He’s taken from the forests of Washington State, where he lived alone, to London, a location that’s the most removed from the natural world in the entire film. The fish-out-of-water aspect of the story practically writes itself, and while that would certainly be fun to explore, I’m more interested in challenging a fundamental part of Susan’s character.Continued below
Susan wants to belong, and so he is excessively accommodating. People routinely cross personal boundaries with him and he lets them because he’s not good at saying no. When faced with a strange chicken, he tries to blink at it the same way it blinks at him just to fit in. He’s often made to do things he doesn’t like and isn’t comfortable with for the sake of others. Even his clothes don’t accommodate him. And, most importantly, he calls himself Susan and his closest friend still calls him Mr. Link.
Susan needs to learn to stand up for himself. I’d love to see a story that ends with him wearing a suit that’s tailored for his body, that has him finding his place in London, that challenges Sir Lionel not to be content with the first step he took toward being a better person, but pushes him to take more. We have the beginning of a friendship, now lets see how it grows without Adelina acting as a catalyst. When she doesn’t call out Sir Lionel’s bad behavior, can he still learn to recognize it? When she doesn’t push Susan to stand up for himself, can he still stand his ground and get the respect he deserves?
Which brings me to Adelina. She’s so much a part of the film, I can’t imagine the comics without her, and yet I feel like Susan or Sir Lionel need to grow without her. Also, having her stick around stunts her own growth. She’s been a bird in a cage for too long—I want to see who she can become when she can stretch her wings and go on her own adventures. I imagine it’d be fun to keep her and Susan as penpals, acting as support for each other from a distance, allowing them to have separate, but still connected adventures.
One thing the film doesn’t really challenge is the Victorian notion of “the missing link,” that Susan is lower on the evolutionary ladder than homosapiens. This is utter nonsense, of course, but just the sort of thing a Victorian like Sir Lionel would believe. He needs to learn to see Susan as a contemporary evolutionary branch that shared the same ancestor as humankind. Susan is different, but not lesser. They are cousins.
And if Sir Lionel makes that leap, how will that affect their lives in London? We know that Sir Lionel is from a privileged background, one that has certain expectations of his behavior, but now that he’s no longer trying to be like the “great men” of London, what will London think of him? What will the other Frosts think of him?
I’d also like to see Sir Lionel grow a sense of responsibility for his discoveries. We see a bit of this in how he tried to help Susan, but as he discovers Atlantis or Loch Ness, if their best interests are pitted against his need for fame and glory, how will he weather that conflict? What would happen if he disappoints Susan?
In the film, there’s a moment when Willard Stenk, a man that hunts rare creatures, besmirches Sir Lionel’s name, claiming he’ll never find the sasquatch. Sir Lionel, knowing Stenk is a murderous fiend, knowing Susan is scared, decides to reveal Susan as the sasquatch and cast off the slander against him. I’d like to see what the Sir Lionel at the end of the film would do in this situation. Could he wear the slander to keep his friend safe? Or could he wear it to keep a creature like Nessie safe?
So that’s why I want Missing Link comics. There’s still plenty of meat on these bones. Plus, there’s a great line near the end of the film, when Sir Lionel is told great men shape the world, “I actually used to think that, but now, I rather think the world shapes us.” This thought, that the world shapes us, would be the heart and soul of the comics.
As for the comics themselves, well, I’d love to see some of the original creators involved. Chris Butler, who wrote and directed the film, is obviously the first person I’d want involved. Warwick Johnson-Cadwell, who worked to define the film’s look, also has a background in comics. Most recently he wrote “Our Encounters with Evil,” which shares a lot of tonal similarity to Missing Link. His sense of humor certainly aligns with moments from the film such as when Sir Lionel and Stenk are involved in a slap fight while dangling over a precipice. Or playing the bagpipes down a tube into the Loch to summon Nessie.Continued below
But a film such as this has so many artists involved, and so many I could imagine being involved in the comics: Max Narciso, Juliaon Roels, Chase Nichol, Brian Ormiston, Dave Vandervoort. . . And then there’s so many artists that weren’t involved in the film that’d be great for it too. You can see some of them pop up on LAIKA’s instagram account when they repost fanart. (Sara Fornì did one recently I loved.) There are so many directions the comics could go.
That said, there are certain elements from the film that I feel have to survive into comic form for it to work. Most importantly, composition and movement used to reinforce the story. My favorite example from the film was Lord Piggot-Dunceby walking down a hallway bringing both a literal and metaphorical darkness with him.
The film was also interested in small details of character acting. Take a look at all the beats in the moment when Nessie roars at Sir Lionel and Mr. Lint.
Darwin’s finches! It practically screams comics.