From page to screen 

Comic books make the leap to movies

Comic books make the leap to movies
It’s surprising that we don’t see more movies based on comic books and graphic novels. The format is arguably the easiest to translate onto film. Traditional novels and non-fiction books, still the most common source for big-screen treatments, generally contain far too much material for a 90-minute to two-hour movie. To fit the limited run-time, characters and subplots must be dropped or radically altered. Fans howl in protest, and filmmakers shrug and bemoan the limitations of their form. Comic books and graphic novels, on the other hand, are considerably more inviting. With fewer pages, and with graphics taking up most of the space, writers are forced to make fewer words pack maximum punch. And the artwork is neatly arranged in panels that resemble the storyboards many filmmakers use to map out their work. Filmmakers have visited the world of comics and graphic novels repeatedly, but mostly for superheroes or cartoon-style characters. The results have been mixed. We’ve seen the good: Superman (despite the dreadful time-travel cop-out ending), Superman 2, Batman, Batman Returns, X-Men, Spider-Man and Popeye (yes, Popeye). We’ve seen the fair: Daredevil, The Crow, The Mask and The Rocketeer. And, oh my, have we ever seen the poor: Superman 3, Superman 4: The Quest for Peace (shudder), Supergirl, Batman Forever, Batman and Robin (The Dark Knight, now all warm and fuzzy, ends up part of a massive homoerotic Ice-Capade gala. Thanks, Joel Schumacher.), The Shadow, Spawn, The Phantom, Judge Dredd, Captain America, Fritz the Cat and the infamous mega-bomb Howard the Duck. This week brings the highly anticipated X-2: X-Men United, and The Hulk hits screens this summer, along with Alan Moore’s acclaimed literary-figures-as-historical-quasi-superheroes creation, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The future may bring new takes on Superman and Batman, as well as adaptations of Ghost Rider, Iron Man, Sub-Mariner and The Fantastic Four. Prospects for other fan favorites, including Alan Moore’s incredible limited-series Watchmen, appear less likely. Of course, comic books and graphic novels deal with more than superheroes and cartoon-style characters. So why do filmmakers ignore offerings that deal with everything from child savants to the Holocaust? Snobbery perhaps, but more likely they have yet to become aware of what’s out there. Still, a few get noticed. Out of Japan came 1988’s Akira, which took a graphic novel about teen bikers in futuristic Neo-Tokyo and turned it into a massive hit there and a cult phenom here. 1997 brought Men in Black, a dandy flick that maintained the sense of cool so crucial to the source comic. Last year’s sequel, Men in Black 2, kept the cool, but was far less fun than the original. In 2001, Ghost World made its way from page to screen, with most fans of the alienated teens saga pleased with the results, and From Hell (another from Alan Moore) took an atmospheric look at the Jack the Ripper story. One of the highlights of 2002 was Road to Perdition, based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Set in the 1930s, it portrayed the rites of passage between fathers and sons in the form of a mournful tale of Irish gangsters in the Chicago area. With evocative art direction and magnificent cinematography (by the late, great Conrad L. Hall), it was a work of art that actually looked like a graphic novel sprung to life. In the wake of Perdition’s success, look for more filmmakers to turn to non-traditional comic books and graphic novels for material. And this summer has another treat coming. American Splendor, the film adaptation of Harvey Pekar’s ongoing comic biography, will reach Indianapolis in September. I’ve seen the movie and it perfectly captures Pekar’s accounts of the ups and downs of his funky life. Funny, sad, peculiar, dour, frustrating, surprising and — who would have dreamed — even life-affirming, it’s a hell of a film. Want to see a good movie before it gets made? Head for your comic book shop.

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