For the Sake of the Children

The long courtship and short marriage of comics and movies

Comic books and movies were made for each other. They have so much in common, after all; and, like so many couples, each has something the other wants. The people who produce movies are forever hungry for source material, for idea-fuel, for something to feed the machine – and comics, with their sequential, time-based narrative and their panel layout, nearly identical to what’s called storyboarding in the movie business, seem like a perfect match. Theatre is too staid, too limited, too narrow in scope; there’s only so much you can do on stage, especially compared to the universal possibilities and infinite vistas of the comics page. Novels rely too heavily on things that cannot be shown; the interior monologue and the lengthy descriptive passages are too hard to show on screen. Comics are perfect – they combine a time-based sequence, a visual mode of expression, and an unlimited stage on which to work. It’s no wonder that the motion picture industry is so attracted to them. As for comics, they want respectability, legitimacy, and the increased audience that follow. Comics, at least as we know them today, are a 20th-century art form, but movies are the 20th-century art form. It’s a rare comics publisher or creator who doesn’t want some of the validation that goes with seeing your creation up on the big screen.

So how come the relationship’s never really worked out?
Well, for one thing, it took them a long time to get together. For a long time, the “Hey Kids, Comics!” stigma was firmly attached to anything that had both art and text, and since comics were generally considered a genre for children, they only made it to the silver screen in movies equally targeted at children – abysmal, z-grade matinee series and rotten superhero fare that gave pulp a bad name. Adult illustrated stories, from Herriman’s surreal, beautiful Krazy Kat in the 1920s to Harvey Kurtzman’s brilliant, eminently cinematic war comics of the 1950s, were simply considered out of bounds, or, if they were very lucky, managed to find their way into animation. (Animation, then as now, was – perhaps rightly – considered a better match for comics, due largely to the ability to carry over an artist’s skill and feel, but that’s another article.) Comic strips – that is, cartoons rather than comic books – fared slightly better; Disney, to pick the most obvious example, has produced both great movies and great comics, best embodied in the
Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Other comic strips haven’t fared as well in the transition to the screen; for every Little Nemo in Slumberland or Popeye (the animated shorts, not the ambitiously flawed 1980 Robert Altman movie), there’s an iffy project like the Blondie series, a messy semi-success like The Addams Family, or an unmitigated disaster like Dick Tracy or Dennis the Menace. (Peanuts managed to find success largely by staying away from the big screen.) This, of course, created a vicious cycle: comic-based movies were directed at kids, so comic book creators forsook more adventurous fare in favor of producing more kids’ stuff for the studios to buy.

“Comic-based movies were directed at kids, so comic book creators forsook more adventurous fare in favor of producing more kids’ stuff for the studios to buy.”

Something changed in the 1960s. Any number of factors, far too complicated for great detail, fed the change, but leading the way was Stan Lee. His Marvel Comics were, at least in part, a reaction to the stultifying lull that had fallen over DC Comics, the biggest comics company in the country in the 1950s. Almost all their comics, from superhero titles to western stories to war comics to sci-fi, had hit decade-long doldrums; Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, and the subsequent creation of the Comics Code Authority, had sucked a lot of the life out of the industry, which was then producing bland after bland title. Lee assembled a team of talented artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and produced a series of books that skirted the code while striking teenaged comics readers right where they lived. Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four revolutionized comics, for better and for worse. On the good side, they were better-written and better-drawn, they featured heroes with flaws, with problems, with personalities that fans could relate to, and they were ridiculously popular. On the bad side, they pretty much killed off mainstream comics that didn’t feature crime-fighting supermen in skin-tight outfits.

BatmanComic books had revitalized themselves and gained a wider audience, and Hollywood naturally took notice. The flirting was over; it was time for the couple to make their first awkward advances. “Awkward,” however, hardly describes the results. Unsure of the appeal of four-color to reach moviegoers, Hollywood relegated comics-related projects to television – and, worst of all, they were produced by people who had very little knowledge of, or affection for, the source material, resulting in endless animated television shows that play a lot better in one’s memory than on the screen, and the campy disaster of the late-1960s Batman TV show. Deliberately constructed as a joke on itself, it was appealing on a certain level, but it set back the cause of legitimizing comics as an artistic medium by 20 years. It managed to strangle the success of Marvel’s barely-born adult (or at least post-adolescent) superhero titles in their crib, once again reducing comics, in the eye of the public, to the status of campy, juvenile hokum not worth paying attention to. Even now, over 30 years later, it’s still common to find “Biff! Bam! Pow!” used to lead off articles about how comics aren’t just for kids anymore. The phenomenon once again fed on itself; the popularity of the TV show led comics to emulate its campiest qualities, with even Marvel tarring its late-‘60s comics with cover graphics touting them as “A MARVEL POP-ART PRODUCTION.”

It couldn’t have come at a worse time. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the time at which Batman and Cathy Lee Crosby’s Wonder Woman set the tone, a real alternative was beginning to emerge in comic books. While superhero comics – some good, more bad – were still the norm, a wave of creators were starting to appear: men and women who had grown up reading the comics of the ‘40s and ‘50s, but who brought an entirely different style and sensibility to the genre. Robert Crumb, Justin Green, Gilbert Shelton, Spain Rodriguez and Gary Panter, and later, Lynda Barry and Harvey Pekar, began a revolution in what later became known as underground comics. Unfortunately, their subject matter and their existence outside the umbrella of mainstream publishing ensured complete indifference from Hollywood; their work had no chance of being realized as film even if they had sought such attention. Meanwhile, another lull hit; the late 1970s saw the appearance of popular television shows of wildly varying quality such as The Incredible Hulk and Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, but still, almost 70 years after the debut of Little Nemo in Slumberland and almost 40 years after the first appearance of Batman, there had still, incredibly, never been what could be termed a major motion picture based on a comic book.

SupermanThat all changed in 1978 with the premiere of Superman: the Movie. Overbudgeted, overhyped, and overrated, it nonetheless marked a turning point in the rocky relationship between comics and movies. For all its faults, it wasn’t patronizing or ludicrously campy, it wasn’t a write-off targeted explicitly to ten-year-olds, and it was created by people who at least had some understanding for the comic book medium. When it was all said and done, Hollywood may not have believed a man can fly, but they did believe a movie based on a comic book could make a lot of money, and that was good enough for them. From that point forward, after decades of missteps, after so many years of scorn, avoidance and shame, studios couldn’t get enough of comic books. However, the result, as usual, was a disappointment; the Superman movie franchise got worse and worse (as did the Batman franchise a decade later), for every moderate success (like the underrated Conan the Barbarian, drawn far more from the Marvel comic than the Robert E. Howard novels), there was a high-profile bomb like Supergirl or The Rocketeer. But the romance was in full blossom, and like those of friends who tell you you’re involved with someone who’s no good for you, the complaints of detractors fell on deaf ears.

But then, something even more unusual happened. Comic book movies, starting in the late 1990s, actually started to get…well… good. Not great, mind you; look at a list of the greatest comics of all time and you’ll note that pretty much none of them have been made into successful films, just as looking at a list of the greatest movies of all time will show a noticeable dearth of stories that started out as comic books. But they stopped being an embarrassment. They began to be something to look forward to rather than to dread. What happened? A number of things. First and foremost, a generation of talented writers and directors have come of age who grew up reading comics in the 1970s and 1980s. These are people who have a genuine desire to transfer the stories into good movies, people who are not just aware of the existence of comic books, but actually read them. Second, special effects – which for good or ill are the bedrock of a successful superhero story – have reached a point, with computer technology behind them, where they don’t look ridiculous. Movies are now close to having a stage that can match the infinite possibility of the comic book page. Third, comic creators have brushed up against the Hollywood system and lived to tell about it. (See Brian Michael Bendis’ hilarious Fortune and Glory for an account of this.) And fourth, the studios have discovered, thirty years after its birth, the world of underground and independent comics.

All these factors, and many more, have not only given us exciting, well-made, popular movies based on superhero comics, from Spider-Man to the X-Men series, but they’ve created an economic and cultural atmosphere in which it’s possible to make movies like Ghost World, and Road to Perdition – films of varying quality, it’s true, but which prove that movies can be made of independent comics, without the presence of men in tights, that will be satisfying to comics fans and typical moviegoers alike. A film version of Harvey Pekar’s legendary underground comic American Splendor is already garnering incredible raves at festival showings, and The Hulk, though a glorious failure, nonetheless shows that comic-based movies have developed enough of an audience to ensure they’re not going away anytime soon.


Everything’s not rosy in this marriage. Comics give better than they get, for one thing; comic-based movies are tops at the box office these days, but it doesn’t seem to have inspired anyone to go out and buy comic books. In fact, comics sales, in general, are in the tank. The most talented creators are leaving mainstream publishers in droves for the indie press, and there’s a legitimate concern amongst comic writers and artists that the medium they so dearly love is in danger of becoming little more than a development workshop for the blockbusters of tomorrow. The world of non-superhero comics is still ridiculously underrepresented on screen, and at least one film adaptation of a great underground comic (the well-meaning but ill-conceived From Hell, based on Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s brilliant Jack the Ripper saga) has crashed and burned. Finally, and perhaps worst of all from the point of view of a comics fan, not a speck of real legitimacy or validation has been conferred on comics. People who thought that well-made movies based on comics would lend an air of reputability to comics have been disappointed; their hopes that, with the increased publicity and awareness a movie brings, comics would be appreciated on their own merits have been dashed. Comics are still largely invisible, their creators are often left out of the loop when the time comes for a big-screen adaptations, and the recent success of high-profile comic book movies have made a lot of money for the producers but have done next to nothing to improve the reputation or quality of actual comic books. And we still don’t know if anyone is capable of making a decent Batman movie.

But it’s been a long, long courtship and a short, short marriage, and as long as the money’s there and the couple can share a deep kiss once in a while, there’s plenty of people who will give the relationship a chance. They’re willing to celebrate a
Spider-Man, overlook a Daredevil, and let something like The Hulk pass by with a ‘good effort’; no reason to be hurtful. You’ve got to give marriages a chance to work; you know, for the kids’ sake.

Pistol Opera
Before Suzuki, primo Japanese cinema was a Rolls Royce. After him, it was a ’68 Camaro Z28.
The Bottom Shelf
“Reality television is the current favorite whipping boy of the culture”