Mining old ideas and repackaging them for rabid audiences has clearly become the Hollywood way… especially when it comes to comic book adaptations.
Adaptation in any form, whether you’re taking the source material from plays, books, short stories or other mediums, can be masterfully done. No argument there. But some comics should be explored, entered and thoroughly enjoyed on their own turf.
The continual release of comic book movies means that more comics will be mined for material big and small. Is there some superhero fatigue in the air? In some quarters, perhaps, but if Marvel and DC have anything to do with it, it won’t happen for quite some time.
Still, readers are fiercely protective of the books they love and often go into a movie theater with some trepidation as to how their beloved characters, stories and settings are portrayed—it’s a very personal affair. A good example of this was 2009’s Watchmen.
Watchmen has been described as the Citizen Kane of comics; it is, for many, sacred ground. Consequently, the Watchmen movie was going to happen whether Zack Snyder signed on to do it or not because Warner Bros. wanted it to happen, and the results were mixed at best.
Now, compare that to the source material.
Watchmen the graphic novel was a complex weaving of prose, journalism (articles), a comic within a comic and other oddments, which all dovetailed into a head-trippy experience that could only really happen in comics. The Watchmen movie is nothing more than a visually tantalizing appetizer, while Alan Moore’s magnum opus is a full-course meal with sides and, yes, desert.
Some stories simply live beautifully within their original mediums and should be encountered there, between the panels. Here’s a list of the best comic books that should never be made into movies.
Neil Gaiman’s titular character (The Sandman), Dream of the Endless, has been in some form of development since the monthly comic ended in 1996. The richly entertaining series remains one of the best examples of a comic book that should be left alone. Gaiman’s book used a variety of artists to tell a long story that eventually ended in 75 issues (although the author has revisited the Sandman world often, most recently with Sandman: Overture.) It does things that only comics can do, and some things actually better than cinema (and novels). Even so, Hollywood is determined to get this one in production (it’s currently being developed—yet again).
Few comics are as visceral, timeless and complex as 100 Bullets. The dialogue reads at times like something out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. It’s crime story with a simple premise (what would you do with 100 untraceable bullets?) that’s actually much larger as you start filtering through the complexities of the unfolding drama and mounting conspiracies unfolding within the pages. A movie version might give a nod to Eduardo Risso’s imagery. A screenplay might capture the flavor of Brian Azzarello’s crackling dialogue. But it wouldn’t be really be 100 Bullets.
Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing
The year 1982 might have been the year of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, but it also saw the theatrical release of Swamp Thing. The movie was little more than a B-movie excursion into the Swamp Thing’s origin story: A scientist becomes a creature after a terrible accident and fuses with the surrounding swamp. Comic book mastermind Alan Moore (Watchmen, V Is for Vendetta) took the character back to formula with the opener, “The Anatomy Lesson,” which is a fine example of what Harvey Pekar once said about comics—you can do anything with words and pictures. While Moore’s run on The Saga of the Swamp Thing is highly admired, it’s difficult to imagine a comic book movie adaptation that would have the gravitas, complex narratives and pure weirdness of the original.
If you want to see exactly what comics can do as a visual medium, you should try out Alan Moore’s Promethea. You don’t always read it from left to right, and oftentimes, the action bleeds out across the page, and you just have to stay actively involved as a reader. Stripping this down to just “a teenager girl gets powers” Hollywood version would be criminal. Promethea might be the Ulysses of comics thanks to artist J.H. Williams III, as it provides a master class into how to use every trick of the comic medium to tell a compelling story.
Chosen (a.k.a. American Jesus)
Mark Millar is a writer known for his imaginative concepts and knack for creating widescreen “big budget” action on the page. Best known as the creator of the comic (and movie) Kick-Ass, Millar’s creator-owned line dubbed Millar World pushes the boundaries of what comics stories can be. Chosen follows a kid who discovers he has messiah-like powers. With its deconstruction of religious precepts, it’s difficult to see how Hollywood would properly adapt the comic without conceding some ground to conservative Christians.
With Warren Ellis, science fiction comics are alive and well. While Transmetropolitan (his other futuristic comic) might have put him on the map, Planetary is Ellis’s finest achievement (to date) in the medium. The science fictional speculations are both heady, wild, science-based and an awesome mishmash of the superhero team. Moreover, there’s no need to hire a Hollywood director to bring this one to life. John Cassaday’s artwork is so streamlined, so artful and well directed that a film version would be superfluous, not to mention completely unnecessary… it lives—and breathes—on the page.
When writer Brian Wood embarked on a different kind of comic that felt more like a series of indie films with super-powered angst in 2003, there was nothing like it on the shelves. The stark black and white imagery provided by artist Becky Cloonan appropriating a different art style for each self-contained storyline makes this the classic blend of indie comics sensibility (a heavy emphasis on character, slice-of-life) that would be hard to translate to the big screen.
Grant Morrison’s greatest title for Vertigo (an imprint of DC Comics) takes the chosen-one genre, flips it squarely on its head, turning it into a psychedelic romp into history, the future and societal anarchy. It’s got some politics, a kick-ass transvestite and the coolest mentor since Morpheus (The Matrix) in the acerbic King Mob. Morrison’s wild imagination is visually arresting, yet it’s doubtful that a movie could contain all the goodies The Invisibles cooks up.
The premise seems tailormade for the big screen. However, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City often takes a Watchmen approach to comic-book storytelling, using various mediums to present a myriad of stories. Many are standalone; all converge in a large mosaic that still continues to hit comic shelves today (the series first appeared in 1995). It takes the superheroes living amongst us premise that NBC’s Heroes squandered and lifts us right off the page.
Y: The Last Man
Not that this wouldn’t make a great TV series (it would, same as 100 Bullets), but there’s something even more than episodic about Y: The Last Man. It’s the ultimate male fantasy of becoming the only man in a world of women thanks to an unexplained plague, a hellish apocalyptic world where women rule the world. Yorick Brown, the title character (and his pet monkey Ampersand), alongside some great supporting characters, make a superb example of how accessible sequential art can be.
It’s a story about an aardvark—a talking aardvark, but there’s so much more. So far, it’s running at 6,000-plus pages of comics. Written and drawn by Dave Sim back in the ʼ70s, the comic will return next year. It’s a comic book about story, a labyrinthine construction that truly has no end. Sure, a gifted screenwriter might come up with a decent screenplay, but why bother? Everything you need is right there on the page.
Main image by Greg Gossel.