100+ years of Cinema and the Sequential Art, A Primer

22 Aug

Blondie Movie PosterBy Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)

Movies based on comic strips/books are big business, and not all of them were based on superheroes. The idea to adapt popular titles began way before Marvel and DC comics formed and this essay offers a highlight reel of these other popular works. In the early days of cinema, French journalist Georges Sadoul believed Louis Lumière‘s L’Arroseur Arrosé (1895) was an adaptation of L’Arroseur (The Gardener), a strip by artist Hermann Vogle. [1] The next work which followed was based on the British comic Ally Sloper (1867). Three films were made.

In the golden age of cinema, superheroes did not command the screen. Instead, these projections were humourous looks at everyday life. Harold Teen (1928) may well be the first to arrive on the big screen in North America. Blondie (1930) was immensely popular because of its look at middle-class suburbia. The early years followed the romance of this eponymous character to Dagwood, the comic relief, and the media buzz upon their marriage is comparable to the media hoopla when Peter Parker aka Spiderman married Mary Jane.

To be fair, certain key heroes like Batman and Superman will be explored. Also, television played an important role in popularizing this genre. Periodic looks at what happened on this front will also be offered.

The Pulps helped give rise to the superhero [3] with characters like The Shadow — whose origins began radio. He appeared in shorts starting in 1931 and got a full-length film ’37. His cinema career sat in limbo until ’46 and his reawakening didn’t occur until ’94. Attempts to bring him back this century have not been successful. This era when this group of films got an awkward start never did give any of the big sellers at the newspaper stand a fair shake.

The Shadow Strikes Movie Poster

While attempts to realize a superhero film had its problems from a Hollywood filmmaking perspective, the studios did manage to adapt them to a workable format which was budget friendly. Very few will remember the cinematic take of Mandrake the Magician (1939). Later films were turned into serials. The 1943 version of Batman interpreted this cape crusader as a government agent. Its 1949 sequel, Batman and Robin tried to keep to the spirit of the comic, but that never really worked.

Even the 1944 version of Captain America gave the hero the day job of a district attorney. Of the three, only George Reeve’s Superman (1952) was faithful to the source material. The only other character which received a quick cinema treatment is Whiz Comics Shazam! aka Captain Marvel (starring Tom Tyler). This work was first released in 1940. A 12-part serial produced by Republic Pictures flashed onto screens, proving interest for these heroes is there. Nerds excited for the latest imagining (due to arrive in theatres in 2019) may well feel this update is going to be feel like Greatest American Hero.

For certain flagship characters to get realized in live-action again, the wait was longer. The Batman movie from 1966 was designed to bolster the TV series. During this time, the output of films based on simpler titles was few and far between. Archie had an attempt in the television world with a pilot in the 60’s [4] and an ABC special appeared in the 70’s. The success of Sabrina, The Teenage Witch in the 90’s proved the television was easier to work with — even though vast changes were made to create Riverdale (2017)

Although the superhero genre tends to dominate what gets made, Japan saw phenomenal success with its historic Lone Wolf and Cub, which ran from 1972 to 1974. This collection is archived by Criterion. [5] During this era and in North America, only two films stood out — the live action Spiderman and Doctor Strange. Interestingly, the pulps did save the day with films like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Since this mainstay is not likely to change what printed works gets adapted, perhaps the pulps had a better influence back then since the divide was not huge. Children could see what their grandparents were into when they were young.

Superman_(1978)

The character of Superman is timeless, and the success of the 1978 movie showed not only how a man could fly but also how the blockbuster format is a must to ensure this genre’s success in a money-making sense. These heroes had to be larger than life if they are to succeed in the box office. Since then, more adaptations appeared throughout the 80’s. In contrast, television proved to be the better medium to explore the idiosyncrasies of what makes a person a superhero. The most notable work is The Incredible Hulk (1978-82), a humanist look at man versus beast. A special mention must be made for the comedy, Greatest American Hero (1981-83). It had no comic book to be inspired by despite allegations by DC that it was much like Superman. Instead, it looked at the day to day challenges of facing a life of mediocrity or being a hero.

In the 90’s, the defining films which did not always depend on big name characters were The Crow (’94) and Tank Girl (’95). These two properties had a huge cult following and had to be produced.

With a new century, opinions in what defined a comic book film changed. X-men (2000) showed staying faithful to the work was not mandatory.  Gone were the gaudy costumes and movies like Ghost World (2001) and Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2010) proved not every adaptation has to be about superheroes. The former gained cult status and the latter spawned three sequels. As the 21st century got into full swing with more blockbusters, especially with Marvel Entertainment leading the charge, attempts to bring smaller properties felt never got enough of a spotlight to be noticed.

diary-of-wimpy-kid-poster2

Thankfully, these mega films have not stopped auteurs. Hits like Christopher Nolan‘s Batman trilogy is a standout because it offered a different take on the Batman mythology. Despite a troubled long franchise run, Tim Burton‘s two films are still memorable. They are comparable to the works of James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok). Both went beyond the source material and fans loved it.

DC’s Fables and Sandman are still in development, and to make them stand out will be tough. Usagi Yojimbo is a piece that will certainly challenge Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the style. Since it will be animated instead of fashioned into live-action, time can be spent in creating a truly memorable period piece.

Attempts to bring such works like The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, Solomon Kane and Dylan Dog to life were met with critical failure. They were not bad but did have a limited appeal when compared to the powerhouses who see this medium as easy cashback investments. Delivering a comic book film for the masses to enjoy is tough these days. They do not have to be Marvel or DC. Neither does it involve Sony, Fox or Disney (merger-driven or not). As long as it has more substance than style, people will flock to it.

[1] Burke, Liam. “Introduction.” Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s Leading Genre, Univ Pr Of Mississippi, 2017.

[2] http://www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/graphicnovel/rogersabin.htm (retrieved 2018-02-18 07:00)

[3] http://www.thepulp.net/pulpsuperfan/2013/05/13/the-pulps-and-comics-connection/ (retrieved 2018-02-18, 08:00)

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAWw7_gwKFk

[5] https://www.criterion.com/boxsets/1217-lone-wolf-and-cub

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