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.
Twice a year, on the Showcase podcast, I sit back with whichever of my co-hosts are available and talk about the new movies coming out in the next several months. It’s time for this year’s Showcase Summer Movie Preview!