Top Ten Non-Superhero Comic Book Movie AdaptationsA column article, Top Ten by: Eric Hoffman
In the spirit of Rolling Stone's recent article on the Top 50 Non-Superhero comics, Comics Bulletin is proud to present columnist Eric Hoffman’s pick of his top ten non-superhero comic movies.
First, a caveat: This is a list of films commonly available in the United States and in the English language, at least in translation. There are dozens of foreign films based on comics that have not received wide release or are not available in English. I do not include these. And to define terms: what I mean by “non-superhero” is no capes. So while the kids in Akira have telekinesis, or the characters in Sin City and Scott Pilgrim for the most part behave like superheroes, or at least convey basic superhero tropes of awesome strength or death defying acrobatics, or wear “costumes,” however functional (as in The Rocketeer), these are not superheroes in the classic sense or even movies about “real-life” superheroes (see Kick-Ass).
10. Heavy Metal (1981)
There was a time, namely the late 1970s, when this slick American iteration of the French science fiction anthology magazine Métal Hurlant (which actually translates to “Howling Metal”) was de rigeur reading for the more “sophisticated” comic book reader set. Featuring work by notable French illustrators including Jean Girard (aka Moebius), Enki Bilal, Guido Crepax, Phillipe Druillet, and Milo Manara, among others, the magazine, in both its European and American iterations, was foundational for an entire generation of comics writers and artists. The American version would publish work by such notables as Richard Corben, Pepe Moreno and Bernie Wrightson, and its sales and critical raves was partially responsible for encouraging Marvel and DC to publish more experimental and adult-oriented comics during the 1980s.
In 1981, the magazine’s popularity was arguably at its height – it would be cancelled in 1987 before being revived in 1991 under the ownership of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles creator Kevin Eastman – when this feature film adaptation (produced by Canadian Ivan Reitman of Ghostbusters fame) of several of the magazine’s better serials was released. Co-authored by Wrightson, Corben and Dan O’Bannon (the author of Alien, whose main creature was designed by a Heavy Metal artist, the recently passed H.R. Giger), and featuring the vocal talents of Reitman’s fellow Canadians Eugene Levy, John Candy, and the late Harold Ramis, the filmed version rightly retains the sex, violence and explicit language found in the magazine.
Thankfully the film tends not to take itself too seriously, more often opting for irreverence in tone, and while it is occasionally sophomoric (this was produced by the same guy who produced Meatballs and Animal House, after all), it is also a whimsical, funny, weird, and often horrifying motion picture. Though Heavy Metal lacks cohesion (thanks in part to its segmented production) it makes up for it in visual and narrative daring. The film hasn’t aged well – a largely unnecessary follow-up, Heavy Metal 2000, is especially dated – but its visuals, as well as its time capsule, early '80s soundtrack make this an enjoyable late night popcorn movie.
9. Sin City (2005)
When Frank Miller's black and white, neo-noir Sin City began appearing in the pages of Dark Horse Presents in 1991, it was a culmination of Miller's earlier 1980s work for Marvel's Daredevil and DC's Batman, characters that seemed entirely appropriate vehicles for Miller's almost single-minded obsession with crime noir.
Miller is a professed admirer of Will Eisner's costumed crime fighter The Spirit – he would later film an atrocious adaptation in much the same style as Robert Rodriguez's adaptation of Sin City – yet Miller's work lacks the humanist impulse that made Eisner's work so accessible. This shows especially in Sin City. I must admit, I'm not a fan of Miller's grim and gritty work; I find it much too reactionary and its morality oftentimes brazenly (no pun intended) black and white, and yet there is something immensely watchable about Rodriguez's adaptation of Miller’s material. Typical of Miller's work, none of the characters that populate the crime-ridden fictional Basin City where the film takes place are very likable; in fact, most of them are downright detestable.
Yet Rodriguez – whose films are often populated with comic book-ish heroes, heroines and villians, and whose over-the-top violence consistently wows the twenty-something male crowd – manages to exact pathos through these characters by exposing their constant desperation. It doesn't hurt that the actors are almost entirely exceptional – Mickey Rourke really stands out here – and the creative use of a digital backlot to recreate the stark contrasts of white and black in Miller's comic makes this an innovative non-superhero film adaptation. Sin City moves briskly, though its nihilism and glee for gore might prohibit repeated viewings.
8. Lady Snowblood (1973)
Kazuo Koike, the author of the manga on which this filmed is based, also wrote Lone Wolf and Cub (whose film adaptations I’ve also included); this certainly that affords him the status as one of the most distinguished comic book authors in the history of the medium, and, as a result, one of the most influential writers in pop culture history.
The strength of the source material unquestionably elevates the cinematic version of Lady Snowblood to the status of certifiable classics, by any standard. The plot for both comic and film is quite simple: a woman is tasked with avenging the rape of her mother and the death of her father and brother. The film was shot on a minimal budget, often with a shaky hand-held camera, yet director Toshiya Fujita makes the most of his limited scale, extracting tension aplenty in each of the film’s (often almost surreal) set pieces. In many ways, the film is a kind of Spaghetti Western, with samurai as opposed to cowboys. This was an inspired decision on the part of the filmmakers: Koike’s manga explores the marriage of Eastern traditionalism and Western modernism and Fujita’s film complements this by utilizing decidedly Western cinematic tropes that skillfully accentuate the universality of its themes.
The film spawned a somewhat less than satisfactory sequel, Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance, and was a major influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.
7. American Splendor (2003)
Harvey Pekar's underground, black and white, self-published autobiographical comic American Splendor is one of the more unlikely sources for a major motion picture; it's also one of the more enjoyable cinema adaptations of a non-superhero comic you're likely to find, featuring strong central performances by Paul Giamatti as "our man" Harvey Pekar, a working class Veterans Administration hospital file clerk, comic book writer, jazz critic and Cleveland, Ohio native, and Hope Davis as his wife and co-writer Joyce Brabner.
The film does an admirable job of re-creating the tone and visuals of Pekar's comic, with great visuals of the post-industrial wastelands of Cleveland, interspersing the narrative with documentary-style interviews featuring the actual Pekar, Brabner, and the various eccentric real-life characters that populated the comic (Judah Friedlander’s portrayal of the Asperger’s-afflicted Toby Radloff is uncanny). These interpolations only sometimes impede the film's otherwise excellent pacing.
There are some uncomfortably forced moments - I’m thinking mostly of James Urbaniak's painful recreation of Robert Crumb, and despite its somewhat experimental uses of animation and split screens, at times American Splendor comes across as a fairly cookie cutter biopic – and yet the film manages to recreate those same qualities that made Pekar's comic such a winning project: it makes the heroic out of the everyday, finds humor in pathos, and captures the altogether fascinating – and yes, poetic – trials and tribulations of the common man. "Life is pretty complex stuff," Pekar quips. That American Splendor manages to convey this complexity without pretension is one of its many charms.
6. Ghost World (2001)
The early-to-mid 2000s saw a number of excellent independent films; Ghost World remains one of the very best. Helmed by R. Crumb companion Terry Zwigoff, whose previous efforts Louie Bluie (1985) and Crumb (1994) established him as one of his generation’s very finest documentary filmmakers – and one with an uncanny ability at capturing the essence of non-mainstream American culture, from pre-war American roots music to underground comic books – Ghost World is essentially a coming of age tale (refreshingly teenage girls), whose social outcast status lends this film its decidedly jaundiced eye.
Based on a series of short stories by acclaimed indie comic auteur Dan Clowes, this film – which features winning early performances by future Black Widow Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi and Thora Birch – continues Zwigoff’s exploration of the sort of cultural detritus found in thrift stores, swap meets and flea markets; Buscemi’s Seymour, a collector of old jazz records and various other bits of Americana, is a cinematic stand-in for real life Harvey Pekars and R. Crumbs, and in some sense, the film is a thought-provoking meditation on how people, like the objects they collect, can also become castaway, cut adrift, and how their value is finally determined by those willing to find beauty in an otherwise outdated or damaged packages. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” the old saying goes. Zwigoff’s films, Ghost World especially, are a testament to the truth of that clichéd statement.
5. The Rocketeer (1991)
The best comic book movie of the 1990s was this sweetly unassuming, sincere adaptation of Dave Stevens’s celebrated indie comic book series, a paean to 1930s serials (specifically the Rocket Men and Commander Cody) and pinup queen Bettie Page, for legal reasons here depicted by Jennifer Connelly as “Jenny Blake.”
The filmmakers fought a heroic battle against Walt Disney’s producers to retain creative control of the film (including reversing a potentially disastrous decision by then-Disney president Michael Eisner to alter hero Cliff Secord’s iconic helmet to make it look more like a NASA-type space helmet). Similar attention is present everywhere in this film, obviously a labor of love for all involved. Set in 1930s Los Angeles, it’s an effective period piece, and wonderfully evocative of the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema. It’s also a rare example of a film that can be enjoyed by kids from nine to ninety and includes a marvelous cast of great character actors, including Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino, Jon Polito, William Sanderson, Alan Arkin, Clint Howard, and Terry O’Quinn as aviation magnate Howard Hughes.
A sequel was planned but Disney cancelled it, apparently due to poor box office, yet the film made $20,000,000 so I cannot help but think it had more to do with Eisner’s sour grapes than ticket sales. A possible reboot is planned, but I can’t see how this original can be improved upon.
4. Akira (1988)
At the time of its publication in the early 1980s, Katsuhiro Otomo's sprawling cyberpunk post-apocalyptic dystopian manga epic about a group of telekinetic superbeings, some 2,000 pages in length, seemed destined for feature film treatment, and just as the history of manga can arguably be separated into two eras – one pre- and post-Akira, in that it introduced manga to much larger world audience, particularly in the West – the same can be said of anime. In the case of the film adaptation, also directed by Otomo – an all-too rare example of an artist adapting his own material for an entirely different medium – Akira became a landmark in the history of animation, its meticulous detail arguably surpassing anything before or since.
Otomo retained creative control, so in essence his filmed version is an alternate Akira: roughly two hours in length, Otomo necessarily had to excise large portions of the original story, including numerous subplots and characters, and altered the ending considerably. While the film version does not improve upon the source material, neither does it detract. Indeed, most if not all of the manga's themes are retained: including such themes as political corruption and the responsibility of power, bureaucratic inefficiency, youthful alienation and rebellion; the telekinetic superbeings are notably children and teenagers. In fact, the film and book essentially act as a metaphor for the split between the Japanese generation of World War II, whose actions led to the nuclear bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the post-war generation of which Otomo (b. 1954) was a part.
Akira can be enjoyed on numerous levels, as social criticism, as an exercise in postmodernism, or just a kick ass manga movie. Viewed in our current CGI-drenched media of today, the film still looks and feels surprisingly fresh and ahead of its time.
3. Lone Wolf and Cub (series) (1972-1974)
Okay, a bit of a cheat here, in that I’m including all six of the monumental cinematic adaptations of Kuzuo Koike’s and Goseki Kojima’s 8,700-page masterpiece Lone Wolf and Cub. Like Lady Snowblood, Lone Wolf and Cub is a revenge tale that also addresses the transition from the traditional to the modern, in this case from bushido (meaning “military scholar road,” a moral code, a kind of samurai chivalry) to a more ethically suspect modernity, and yet there’s really no way of choosing one film over the other; they’re all of a piece.
At first, the image of a somewhat portly Tomisaburo Wakayama as protagonist Ogami Ittō is jarring, especially when compared with the comic (a classically handsome Toshiro Mifune might have seemed a more accurate choice), yet when one realizes Wakayama was a 4th Dan black belt in judo, and witnesses the the marshall artistry on display here, the choice seems an obvious and deliberate one.
Kenji Misumi directed the first three installments, and as a result these are the most consistent. The films are mostly faithful to the source material, and, as can be seen by the montage linked below, contain moments of raw beauty. Koike and Kojima’s manga was notable for its contrast between a world of beauty and danger – sword fights often take place in astonishingly beautiful natural settings, depicted by Kojima in the ukiyo-e art style of 17th-19th century Japan) - and the films do an admirable job of duplicating these in its carefully staged tableaus. These are films that must be seen in their original widescreen presentation, or not at all. There’s excellent use of wide shots and close-ups; the filmmakers clearly respect the source material and, in many ways, this series acts as a cinematic homage to Koike and Kojima’s epic, historically accurate manga, considered by many one of Japan’s finest.
2. When the Wind Blows (1986)
Raymond Briggs is perhaps best known for his wordless, saccharine-sweet children’s book The Snowman (1978), or his delightfully English working class evocation of Santa Claus, Father Christmas (1973), or the proto-Shrek Fungus the Bogeyman (1977). Yet he’s also penned a number of memorable graphic novels, some of them published long before such a term entered the common parlance, including the autobiographical Gentleman Jim (1980; recently reprinted by Drawn & Quarterly featuring a tribute by comic artist Seth) and Ethel & Ernest: A True Story (1998).
In the 1980s, however, Briggs turned his attention to some decidedly non-childish, political topics, including the war in the Falkland Islands in The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman (1984) (quite intentionally presented as a children’s book), and When the Wind Blows (1982), a harrowing account of an imagined nuclear attack on the British Isles by Soviet forces. In the early 1980s, the Cold War was essentially very hot, as nuclear stockpiles accumulated and rhetoric between the US and the Soviet Union reached a fever pitch. (This was the era of Reagan’s “Evil Empire,” after all.) A number of films and television programs attempted to depict the actual effects of a nuclear attack (physical, environmental, financial and social breakdown), some more realistically than others (Peter Watkins’ BBC drama-documentary The War Game [1965; though not broadcast on that network until 1985] and Threads [1984, also UK produced] are among the most horrifyingly realistic and gut-wrenching), and the 1986 adaptation of Briggs’ graphic novel remains one of the most disturbing and heartbreaking.
Why? Aside from a few splash pages which depict somewhat abstractly – and therefore more ominously – the build-up to nuclear confrontation, and some helpless radio broadcasts, the entire nuclear catastrophe is depicted within the confines of a single English countryside home occupied by an aging couple. Armed with only a hopelessly inept government pamphlet, the couple survives the blast yet is gradually undone by the resultant fallout. Briggs uses characters from his previous Gentlemen Jim, characters based on his own parents, and their feeble attempts to maintain the status quo before, during and after the attack acts as Briggs’ incisive criticism of governmental dishonesty and deceptiveness in its suggesting any possible continuance of civilization following nuclear catastrophe. The filmed adaptation, which also features a haunting progressive rock soundtrack by Roger Waters and David Bowie, is loyal to a fault to Briggs’ work, and features excellent vocal performances by established English actors John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft. Moreover, the filmmaker's imaginative mixture of cel animation with miniature sets lends the film a distinctive look, further grounding the unimaginable in the everyday.
Not an easy film to watch, but certainly among the most memorable and powerful, When the Wind Blows remains a pertinent reminder – particularly in this post-Cold War era of nuclear proliferation – of the terrible consequences of helpless complacency in the face of imminent disaster.
1. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
What began as a smart, hip homage to shōnen-style manga, Canadian comics artist Bryan Lee O’Malley’s black and white, digest-sized Scott Pilgrim – essentially the story of a young man forced to wage battle against his girlfriend’s evil ex-boyfriends – published by Portland-based independent publisher Oni Press, was an unexpected success. Early on in its development, Oni Press presented the property to a Hollywood producer, and the rest, as they say, is history. O’Malley hadn’t yet completed the comic when filming began, and, as a result, the film’s conclusion differs substantially from that of the comic.
Yet with the visually audacious director Edgar Wright (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) at the helm, the filmmakers managed to create a film that remains startlingly true to the spirit of the comic – even repeating some of the O’Malley’s visual vocabulary – yet which does so in a way that is always innovative rather than disruptive. Unlike Watchmen (2009), a film so beholden to its source material that it makes for a joyless and ponderous viewing experience, this adherence to the comics’ visual style complements Wright’s visual flair and only enhances to the film’s virtuosity and adventurousness. In many ways, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a celebration of “nerd culture,” a smorgasbord of various pop cultural references; where O’Malley’s comic includes occasionally deliberate, postmodernist nods to the comics medium, Wright’s film is an altogether more elaborate pastiche of various mass media tropes: superhero, coming of age, boy-meets-girl, and action/adventure movies, video games, and music videos.
In anyone else’s hands this might easily have resulted in a hopeless mess, yet Wright remains startlingly adept at sifting through the cultural landscape and managing to create memorable and immensely watchable films whose various allusions and references only add to their enjoyment and rarely if ever get in the way. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is arguably the most “comic book” movie ever made: like comic books, to all outside appearances it is disposable, superficial, and inconsequential, yet it contains considerable intelligence, originality, verve, and imagination. In twenty years or so, I suspect those in the know will point to this film as a smart and innovative comic book movie done right, while all those Thors, Spider-Mans, Hulks and Captain Americas will be just so many Batman’s nipples.