In case you didn’t know, this coming Saturday is Free Comic Book Day, the annual celebration of comics where stores across North America give out special edition comics made just for the occasion. Many of the best stores have gone so far as to make this event a sort of mini-convention, with tables for writers, artists and media folk to sit, chat, sketch, and interact with the fans. In fact, I’ll be at BSI Comics in Metairie, Louisiana Saturday with my podcast and promoting my novels.
But this year, we’re stretching the celebration out. This year, the days before FCBD have been declared Comics Kick Ass Week, a time for everyone to spread the word and talk about how great comics are. Now, I do that all the time on my main blog and in my position as a columnist and podcaster for CXPulp.com, but I know the Reel to Reel blog reaches a slightly different audience. So I decided that here, to help get folks in the mood, I’d run down some movies or franchises you (probably) didn’t know were based on comic books. Then, check out the Comics Kick Ass Week Tumblr page to see how other bloggers and podcasters are celebrating.
This graphic novel, originally published by DC Comics’ now-defunct Paradox Press imprint, tells the story of Michael Sullivan Jr., a young man horrified when he discovers his father is a hitman for the mob. When his father’s boss, John Looney, finds out that Mike Jr. knows what his father does, he tries to have the family killed. Mike Sr. and Jr. both survive, and begin a road to revenge for the murder of the rest of their family.
Collins is a great novelist and comic book writer who does some of the best old-school crime drama being published today in either medium. He also takes great lengths to make his books as true to life as possible, including real historical figures and events whenever possible. The film, directed by American Beauty’s Sam Mendes, starred Tom Hanks as Mike Sr., Tyler Hoechlin as Mike Jr., Paul Newman as John Rooney (they changed his character’s name for the film) and Jude Law as another hitman sent out to take care of the Sullivan problem. I’ve always enjoyed this movie, even though it can be kind of difficult to accept a hardcore Tom Hanks, and the graphic novel has several sequels, both in comic book form (which tell additional stories about the Sullivans’ time on the road) and in prose form (which focus more on what happened to Mike Jr. when he grew up).
Ghost World focuses on a pair of teenage girls, Enid and Rebecca, the summer after their high school graduation. A practical joke on a lonely man named Seymour sends Enid into an unexpected friendship, a relationship neither of them seem to particularly understand.
Terry Zwigoff, who had previously directed a film about indie comic legend Robert Crumb, helmed this film, casting Thora Birch as Enid, Steve Buscemi as Seymour, and a pre-superstar status Scarlett Johansson as Rebecca. The graphic novel is far more episodic in nature than the film, showing assorted short stories featuring the girls without as much connectivity as Zwigoff gave them on screen. It’s an acceptable compromise, though, making the film feel unified in a way that wouldn’t have happened if he had made a strict adaptation. That sort of anthology feel works much better in book form than it does in a movie.
Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson achieved a long-held dream in 2011 when they directed and produced the motion-capture Adventures of Tintin. Most American audiences were unfamiliar with the character, though, or if they knew him at all knew him only through the cult favorite 90s animated series. Most audiences didn’t know that Tintin is over 70 years old and, in fact, one of the most popular comic book series of all time… it’s just that most of its success has been overseas.
Created by Hergé in 1929, The Adventures of Tintin featured a young boy reporter going on incredible adventures all over the world. Hergé filled the comics with intensely-researched artifacts and cultures that Tintin and his large cast of friends would get involved with on a regular basis. The comic is criticized sometimes for some culturally insensitive portrayals of different races, depicting them as primitive in comparison to the White-As-The-Driven-Snow Tintin (who, like Hergé himself, is Belgian). Considering the time period Hergé was working in, though, it’s something I’m willing to give a partial pass. Tintin is one of those properties with a huge cultural imprint, inspiring later adventure characters like Indiana Jones, another Spielberg co-creation. It’s worth giving the original a look.
Remember that awesome HBO horror series Tales From the Crypt? Every week it was like a new horror movie, presented by one of the greatest creepy movie hosts ever. This too, though, was based on a comic book series (in case you missed it somehow). In the early 50s, horror and crime comics were among the most popular titles being published in America, with the EC Comics line dominating sales. Then came a nationwide panic about the effect comic books were having on children, a congressional hearing, a psychology book of extremely questionable pedigree, and the comic publishers got together and wrote a content code that was so restrictive EC went almost completely out of business, eventually ceasing publication of all of their titles except a humor magazine you may have heard of, Mad.
Many of the episodes of the TV show were based on stories pulled straight from the comic books, and like the comics, they maintained their warped sense of justice. Criminals usually received a suitably karmic punishment, victims were rarely completely innocent in the first place, and through it all the Cryptkeeper would hit us with deliciously deadpan puns. The TV series was enormously popular, spawning three movies (not counting two earlier movies made before the HBO formula got it right) and an animated spin-off for kids, Tales From the Cryptkeeper. And that’s not even mentioning the huge stamp the property had on horror fiction in general over the last 50 years, influencing the likes of Stephen King and Sam Raimi and producing plenty of imitators, such as the Creepshow series.
I know what you’re thinking. “Blake, you can’t tell me DuckTales was based on a comic book. The Disney Ducks were cartoon characters first!” Well, Mr. Smarty Pants, that’s true of Donald Duck and his three nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie. But what about the rest of the cast of DuckTales? Scrooge McDuck? Crazy inventor Gyro Gearloose? Nefarious villains like Magica DeSpell, Flintheart Glomgold and the Beagle Boys? Just a few of the characters conjured up by one of the greatest cartoonists ever to pick up a pencil, Mr. Carl Barks. Barks worked in animation before finding his niche in the licensed Disney comic books published by Dell. Although he was one of many creators working on those comics, he quickly outshone many of the others… in fact, although at the time the comics were published without creator credits, his style was so distinctive and so much better than his contemporaries that fans sought out his work, and without knowing his name, simply started referring to him as “the Good Artist.”
Barks expanded Donald’s universe immeasurably, not just introducing new characters and concepts, but turning the ducks into globetrotting treasure hunters. Many — hell, most of the most memorable episodes of the DuckTales TV show (which did have a movie spin-off) were lifted straight from Carl Barks comics. He even did a little work on the show for a while. But his best work was in the comics, and those comics were some of the greatest ever made. Fantagraphics Comics is currently publishing an archival series of hardcover books reprinting Barks’s work — if you’re a die-hard Duck fan, you owe it to yourself to read the comics that breathed a new life into the Disney characters and helped spark the renaissance of 80s animation.
Look, I’m not even going to pretend I think the Smurfs movies were any good. But I was a fan of the cartoon when I was a kid, and at the time, I had no idea that the Smurfs, like Tintin, made their original appearance in comic books from Belgium. Originally, they were supporting characters in a Spirou magazine story called “The Flute With Six Holes,” but they soon became popular enough to explode into their own series, many of which are currently being published in English for the very first time by Papercutz Comics. And that’s the reason I’m closing off this list with the Smurfs — because this year, they’re going to be featured in a Free Comic Book Day offering that’s never appeared in the US before. If you’ve got kids who enjoy the movies, here’s a great chance to get them reading.
Check out the Free Comic Book Day website to find the nearest participating store. And while you’re there, look at some of the other books available. Your kids will find recognizable characters from Sesame Street, Spongebob Squarepants, Teen Titans Go!, Adventure Time, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. For you grown-ups, there are comics based on the NBC series Grimm, the British cult favorite Judge Dredd, and the Image Comics publication that inspired the AMC smash hit The Walking Dead. Plus, you’ll find Superman, the Avengers, Star Wars, Tinkerbell, Garfield, the Peanuts gang, the Tick, Sonic the Hedgehog, Archie Andrews and other old friends, and there’ll be plenty of titles and characters you’ve never heard of before, but may turn into a new favorite.
And while you’re there, if you’re a fan of any of the movies I mentioned, browse the shelves of the store and pick up a few volumes, or look for something totally new.
Writers: Ellory Elkayem, Randy Kornfield, Jesse Alexander
Cast: David Arquette, Kari Wuhrer, Scott Terra, Scarlett Johansson, Doug E. Doug, Rick Overton, Leon Rippy, Matt Czuchry, Tom Noonan, Eileen Ryan
Plot: A highway accident causes a barrel of toxic waste to spill into a reservoir in the little town of Prosperity, Arizona, where the chemicals spread to a spider farm. The owner, Joshua (Tom Noonan) collects contaminated crickets to feed his beasts. A boy named Mike (Scott Terra) stops by for a visit, and Joshua shows him the various species of arachnid in his collection. After Mike leaves, Joshua notices some of his spiders have gotten loose. They suddenly attack and destroy him.
A week later, Chris McCormick (David Arquette) comes back to Prosperity after a decade away. His father owned the town mines, and he’s come home to stand against the mayor who wants to sell all the town property and relocate. Meanwhile Mike’s mother, Sheriff Sam Stroud (Kari Wuhrer), has uncovered the toxic waste barrel. On her way home, she pulls over a group of teenagers on dirt bikes, including her daughter Ashley (Scarlett Johanssen). She takes her home, warning her about her boyfriend Brett (Matt Czuchry), who also happens to be the mayor’s stepson.
At a town meeting Mayor Wade (Tom Rippy) tries to convince the people to sell their property to a company that wants to use their empty mines (to dump waste, but he leaves that part out). Chris insists his father saw a lode of gold in the mine before he died, and punches Wade, who orders Sam to arrest him. Sam, who shares a history with Chris, lets him go. His aunt Gladys (Eileen Ryan) mentions that Sam is divorced now, and urges him to tell her the real reason he hated her husband so much he left town.
Sam gives Ashley a stun gun to protect herself while Mike follows spider tracks to the mines, noting that they appear to have grown to enormous size. Hitchhiking home, he’s picked up by Chris, who has been sending miners to look for the lode his father found, at the same time trying to avoid deadly pockets of methane. Mike shows Chris a segment of a huge spider leg he’s found, admitting he fears the spiders are growing and have hurt Joshua. Chris, of course, doesn’t believe him, because “they never believe the kid.” Back in the mine, Chris’s employees are attacked by the giant beasts. Their next attack is on Wade’s ostrich farm, gobbling up birds whole. Local crank radio host Harlan Griffith (Doug E. Doug) starts reporting on stories of pets and other animals being devoured by some sort of creature, which he believes to be an alien.
Ashley, in the desert with Brett, uses the stun gun when he tries to pressure her into sex. She takes his truck and leaves him with his friends, just before the spiders attack. Brett manages to escape into the mines, where he finds several of the miners still alive, webbed into coccoons. Gladys is in the mines as well, through a shaft that opened up into her basement. Chris goes after her, finding an enormous spider leg, and rushes to Sam’s house to talk to Mike. While a puzzled Sam watches, the two of them begin to calculate just how big the spiders are. Down the hall, one of the giants climbs into Ashley’s bedroom. When she screams, Sam and Chris burst into the room and she kills it.
With the phone lines down, Mike suggests they go to Harlan’s radio station and broadcast a warning. They fight their way past the spiders to the station and Sam tells the townspeople to arm themselves, urging them to gather at the mall to make a united stand. With the spiders in force, the people flood the mall and lock themselves in. Their only hope to call for help is Wade’s cell phone, but Chris and Harlan have to climb the antenna on the roof to get a signal. Everyone else raids the mall for weapons. Chris calls the army, but they ignore him, believing it to be a prank call. As he screams at the phone, the spiders begin to punch through the gates protecting the people inside the mall.
The townspeople escape the overrun mall by fleeing into the mines and Chris tries to lead them to an exit. Instead, they find the methane pocket, and Wade and other living people, cocooned to be fed to the queen. Chris tells Sam how to find the way out while he continues to search for Gladys. Before he leaves her, he tries to explain why he left town, but she already knows: his father told her Chris loved her, he knew her husband was cheating on her, but didn’t want to break up her family. She kisses him, tells him to make it up to her later, and they run. Chris finds Gladys, and the vein of gold his father found… but the enormous spider queen is there as well. Afraid to shoot his gun because of the methane, Chris uses advice Mike gave him earlier and spritzes the spider with perfume, driving it back so they can escape. Outside, Sam and Mike fuel the generator that powers the mines, sparking it to life with Ashley’s stun gun. The electricity lights the gas and Chris and Gladys just barely an explosion, which roasts the spiders in the mines, along with the toxic waste Wade had tried to hide, destroying his property in the process. As the cleanup begins, Chris and Sam hold each other, and she tells him she’s glad he came home.
Thoughts: Fear evolves over time, with each generation drawing on the context of its own world to create the things it fears the most: witches in the 17th century, Nazi domination during World War II, trans-fats in the year 2012… but in the 1950s, the big fears were nuclear power and the Soviet Union, which somehow melded in a series of movies where small animals mutated into giant ones and terrorized teenagers and scientists who all smoked pipes. Eight Legged Freaks is a tribute of sorts to that subgenre of the monster movie.
I’m not sure if it says anything about horror/comedies specifically, but looking at David Arquette again certainly brings to mind certain things about Hollywood in general. Just ten years earlier, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Arquette was cast as the punk teenager. By Scream in 1996, he was the punk teenager’s older brother. Now, in 2002, he’s the love interest to the punk teenager’s mother. Either the years were not kind to him, or Hollywood has tacitly admitted he was really too old to play those other parts in the first place. (If he made another movie with Scarlett Johanssen today, ten years later, I’d bet you even money he would be her love interest rather than her mother’s. Hollywood is weird.)
The sweet-natured, awkward character he plays here isn’t all that different from his character in the Scream films, but it happens to be the sort of character he plays very well. You show me David Arquette playing kind-hearted and a little dorky, and I’m totally on board. I rather liked Scott Terra as Mike as well. He’s the sort of kid who could easily turn into an obnoxious know-it-all, but he’s balanced much better than that. Instead, he comes across as a particularly young example of the one sane man in a room full of lunatics, and the moment when Chris recognizes that and implores the townspeople to “listen to the kid, for once,” is a good little meta-commentary on horror movies and a nice character moment for them all. It’s only made stronger by the fact that most of the people actually do listen.
The monsters themselves, to be frank, could have looked better. The movie uses a lot of CGI, and not great CGI at that. It really would have served the film much better to use campy puppets or models, truly embracing its B-movie roots. When the spiders start crawling out of a miner’s mouth, all I can see is a man standing there, jaw agape, while someone sitting at a computer Photoshops lots of little spiders all over his face. It’s even worse when the giant spiders attack the kids on dirt bikes. In broad daylight, the effects team can’t even rely on the cover of darkness to hide just how weak the computer animation actually is. On the other hand, the movie does use practical effects to show an ostrich exploding, and there’s literally no way to complain about that.
The bad effects really hurt the overall charm of the film, and there’s a lot of it. The plot has an old-school B-movie feel, while the production values (aside from the CGI) are pretty good. I also give the filmmakers credit for using a variety of different spiders throughout the film. There are dozens of different looks and feels of creature in this movie, and while I don’t have nearly enough ichthyologic knowledge to tell you how accurate any of the spiders are (in either appearance or behavior), they at least made an effort, which is more than you can say for a lot of movies. There are plenty of good comedic moments here too. The scene in the mall, when the townspeople grab baseball bats and pitchforks and crossbows and hockey masks and suit up for war, is a nice sort of statement on small-town fortitude. Sure, there turn out to be a few cowards in the group, but many of them stand and fight true, getting out some good quips and solid action (CGI notwithstanding) in the process.
And composer John Ottman deserves every shred of credit one can muster for making a creepy version of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” the core of the movie’s musical score. Every time the strains of that tune begin to play, it’s impossible not to smile.
I really want to love this movie, and there are a lot of parts of it that are wonderfully fun. This is actually a case where I wish they could somehow remake the movie with cheaper special effects. The filmmakers overreached, tried to make an A-movie out of a delightful B-script, and it falls a little flat as a result. I do like this movie, I like it a lot, but if only director Ellory Elkayem had stayed true to the cheesy roots of the film, it could have been a classic.