Wait, That Was Based on a Comic Book?
Ever since Batman made an obscene amount of money in 1989, Hollywood has escalated its love affair with comic books and superheroes as source material. There’s a pre-existing audience, the characters and premises are already in place and in many cases they’ve already managed to sell lots of merchandise. As CGI has evolved, these movies have gone from cheesy B-pictures to true spectacles of cinema worthy of their fantastic source material. Unfortunately, the glut of caped characters can become tiresome—particularly between May and August, when the box office is dominated by a seemingly endless parade of costumed vigilantes. As a lifelong comic book reader and fan, I’d like to take a moment of your time to bring to your attention some of the terrific films that you may not have realized were based on comic books. Think of this as a primer into the world of an entire medium largely unnoticed by the mainstream public.
Ghost World (2001), based on the comic book by Daniel Clowes
Adapted by Terry Zwigoff in collaboration with creator Daniel Clowes, the film version of Ghost World brings to life the story of high school grad Enid (Thora Birch, who may never have been better). No matter when or where you grew up, chances are you had many a dull day like Enid. Wasting time, wanting something better, uncertain how to transition into adulthood…these are universal themes explored thoughtfully. Bonus: Steve Buscemi stars as reclusive audiophile Seymour.
A History of Violence (2005, based on the graphic novel written by John Wagner, illustrated by Vince Locke)
Want instant cinephile cred? How about being adapted into a film directed by David Cronenberg? Yeah, thought so. Viggo Mortensen plays Tom, a small town diner owner thrust into the spotlight when he foils an attempted robbery. While his community rallies around him as their champion, Tom discovers he has also attracted the unwanted attention of some mobsters who are convinced that he’s a guy with whom they’ve got a score to settle. This is a very intense film, both in terms of its violence (nothing graceful or glorified here) and its sexuality (including two raw scenes between Mortensen and Maria Bello) and not for the squeamish. But if you like a hard-hitting crime thriller, this one’s for you.
Road to Perdition (2002, based on the comic book series written by Max Allan Collins, illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner)
I shouldn’t have to tell you anything more about this except that it features Tom Hanks as a gangster, but if that’s not enough, he’s convincing as a gangster. Road to Perdition isn’t as visceral an experience as History of Violence, but it’s still likely to surprise fans who only think of Hanks as an adorable, sweet paragon of kindness. Max Allan Collins has built a remarkable career penning crime stories for books and comics, as well as film and television, and his penchant for establishing an environment comes through on the screen here.
Persepolis (2007, based on the graphic novels written and illustrated by Marjane Satrapi)
It doesn’t get much further from Metropolis than this autobiographical account of Marjane Satrapi’s youth in revolutionary Iran. It’s not often that we’ve been afforded such an honest glimpse into that society, and Persepolis would be compelling viewing just for its depiction of 1980s Iran, just as the charm and poignancy of Satrapi’s personal story would be appealing in any setting. My only complaint is that there was so much wonderful material left on the pages of the original two-volume graphic novel that wasn’t retained for the film.
American Splendor (2003, based on the autobiographical comic series created and written by Harvey Pekar)
If you've heard of this at all, you likely knew it was based on the late Harvey Pekar's famed underground comic book series but I suspect that you may be oblivious to the film at all (unless you're in that fringe, "I love every indie movie with Paul Giamatti" demographic). This isn't a coming-of-age story at all; it's a story of a man who has already reached middle age and wants to know what the hell difference it makes. Pekar himself is a participant, and the film does a terrific job moving between the man himself and the fictionalized depiction of his exploits. Younger viewers may become squeamish and put off by this film, but anyone who's stared at the calendar and felt helpless may find it cathartic to see the world through Pekar's eyes.
Howard the Duck (1986, based on the comic book character created by writer Steve Gerber and artist Val Mayerik)
Well on its way to cult status, Howard the Duck is either a groan-inducing punch line or a guilty pleasure for an entire generation. Crude Howard is transported from his world of anthropomorphic ducks to ours, determined as much to enjoy himself on Earth as he is to return to his own world. The humor is as cheesy as the production itself, but the likable charisma of Lea Thompson tips the scales in its favor. You just can’t claim to enjoy B-movies without at least seeing—if not appreciating—Howard the Duck.
Tales from the Crypt (1972, based on the E.C. Comics created by William Gaines and Al Feldstein)
The Crypt-Keeper is an iconic figure in the horror world, but what many casual fans don’t know is that he originated in Tales from the Crypt #1 in April/May 1950! The story of E.C. Comics itself is worthy of a Social Network-like film telling, but for now fans of the horror comics must content themselves with the popular film and TV adaptations of these unapologetically wicked works of short horror fiction. (And, yes, I'm aware that this 1972 release predates the post-Batman era I established in my introduction.)
Okay, you probably knew this one was based on a comic book. I’m mentioning it anyway because it’s a testament to the diversity of the comic book medium. Beneath the video game-styled, CGI-augmented violence, 300 is a celebration of the fabled Battle of Thermopylae in which a small band of Spartan warriors resisted the invading army of Persian King Xerxes. Would I use either the graphic novel or film to teach a history class? No. But I would use 300 as a reference point because it does the one thing that visual arts have always existed to do: show us something that we could not have otherwise seen for ourselves.
I encourage you to not only explore these films, but their source material as well. There is a mistaken idea that comic books are a genre unto their own, and that is categorically wrong. It is a medium in which myriad stories have been told. From coming-of-age stories to crime dramas, memoirs to sci-fi silliness, horror to historical, comic books offer every bit the same diversity of storytelling as books, film, music, paint, sculpture and any other conceivable art form.
This post is part of our User Showcase series. You can find Travis as minlshaw on Flickchart. If you're interested to submit your own story or article describing your thoughts about movies and Flickchart, read our original post for how to become a guest writer here on the Flickchart Blog.