It’s that time again, boys and girls – time for me to hop on my soapbox and tell you what comics are in need of translation to the big screen. As the superhero trend continues unabated, let’s not forget that some of the best comic-to-movie adaptations involved properties you might never have suspected were originally comics… stuff like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Men in Black, The Mask, and Road to Perdition, just to name a few. So while superheroes are still great, what other comics might Hollywood benefit from taking a closer look at?
The best description I can give you of Bone is to say that it’s one of the most amazing, ambitious fantasy novels I’ve ever read, comic or otherwise. The epic story (9 books broken into 3 parts, clocking in at a whopping 1332 pages) chronicles the trials and tribulations of cousins Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone. Cast out of their hometown after one of Phoney’s scams goes wrong, the cousins become separated, each making his way into the uncharted territory of the Valley. And so begins the most eventful year of their lives, as the Bones struggle to reconnect, avoid becoming dinner for Stupid, Stupid Rat Creatures, and meet up with the kindly Thorn and her Gran’ma Ben. But it isn’t until Fone Bone discovers Thorn’s true heritage, and her connection with the Great Red Dragon and the demonic Lord of the Locusts, that things really begin to get interesting…
With Bone, Jeff Smith accomplishes what only the most successful of children’s authors have done: what begins as a whimsical tale filled with humorous misadventures (think DuckTales) gradually metamorphoses into a grand tapestry of heroism, sorcery, and dire peril in the same vein as The Chronicles of Narnia or the Redwall series. It’s amazing to realize, midway through Part 2, that the Rat Creatures – previously so comically inept — have become a truly chilling menace without you even noticing the transition. Women in particular should enjoy Bone (quiet, there’s nothing wrong with that sentence) because of the incredibly strong female leads. While Fone Bone is our POV character and does get his heroic moments, he’s just a regular little dude — the true ass-kicking is carried out almost exclusively by Gran’ma Ben and Thorn.
I don’t think a single movie could do justice to the Bone saga – there’s too much backstory and so many events to chronicle, you’d have to skip almost all of the comic relief and character moments that make the story fun. But a series of 3 animated films would be just right… start with a fairly light first movie, humorous and cute for the kids but with hints of gathering dread, like the first couple Harry Potter books. From there, go completely Empire Strikes Back with the second, and close things out with an epic, appropriately bittersweet final chapter. All that’s left to do is to cast the voice actors and give Jeff Smith as much creative control as he wants, and this one’s in the bag.
“Quiche?! What kind of food is that for a monster to eat?!”
~Stupid, Stupid Rat Creature
“Scott Pilgrim is dating a high schooler!”
So begins the first true “graphic novel” (a comic first published as a full book instead of in serialized installments) on our list. Scott Pilgrim is an unemployed 23-year-old living in Toronto and playing in a band with his friends. None of that really changes when Ramona Flowers enters his life… what does is the minor detail that to date her, Scott has to fight and defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends. Oops. Can a slacker (most overused word of our generation) with little connection to reality get it together and triumph, or is he doomed to a life of… well, continuing to bum around aimlessly. But, y’know… alone.
That description, while accurate, doesn’t really do the series justice. Last time I mentioned that Blue Monday‘s characters described themselves as “like Archie on crack.” If that’s the case, then the only way to classify Scott Pilgrim is “like Freaks & Geeks on Nintendo.” What makes it one of the funniest comics being published today is that Scott and his friends live in a strange hybrid world that’s about half reality, half video games/anime, and writer Bryan O’Malley juggles both to incredibly humorous effect. We’ve all worried at one point or another about our current significant other meeting one of our exes; what makes Scott’s life difficult is that if that happens, there’s going to be a Street Fighter-esque brawl in a public library.
The comic is certainly a fun romp that can be read purely for humor, but there’s also subtle depth to Scott’s fears, dreams, and attempts to overcome obstacles, be they mundane (winning Ramona’s heart) or eccentric (fighting a guy with vegan psychic powers). For instance, Scott’s dating of a 17-year-old, initially played for laughs, is later shown to stem from being so messed up by his last breakup that he can only handle a completely chaste, fake relationship. And if that’s not enough to convince you, consider one final detail – SP features Scott’s gay roommate Wallace. The only thing you need to know about Wallace is that he’s gay, he owns everything in their apartment, and he gets all the best lines.
Wallace: So what do you think, Jimmy? Do they rock or suck?
Jimmy: They… they haven’t started playing yet.
Wallace: That was a test, Jimmy, and you passed.
Honestly, I have a hard time seeing the more surreal elements translating well into live action (can you picture a 64-hit air juggle in real life?), and a lot of the humor comes from pop-up video style captions that would work better in animation. On the other hand, the more grounded elements might carry more weight if performed by real actors. I’m thinking computer animation, something along the lines of The Incredibles, would make for an appropriate compromise. Rating: Awesome!
Fun Fact: All of the bands featured take their names from video games, including Sex Bob-omb, Sonic & Knuckles, Crash ‘n the Boys, The Clash at Demonhead, Shatterband, and Kid Chameleon.
It’s become fashionable in recent years to retell fairy tales with a modern, satirical slant — Shrek and Wicked are the most famous examples, but by no means the only ones. They all vary in nature, but most take the approach that the stories we’re familiar with are biased, that the “heroes” and “villains” weren’t really who you thought they were. Fables is different, in that it expands on fairy tales rather than rewriting them. The concept itself is a clever one: that the storybook characters we read about as children are alive and well, living in a downtown neighborhood in New York. Driven from their worlds by a mysterious conqueror known as the Adversary, the Fables live their exile among us, the unsuspecting mundies (for “mundane”), all the while dreaming of the day they’ll retake their homelands.
But as with any great series, the strength of Fables lies not in the ideas but the execution. Rather than satirizing fairy tales, writer Bill Willingham chose to delve deeper into what was already there, deriving incredibly rich characters out of familiar 2-dimensional archetypes. Prince Charming? Still a suave, witty charmer… and a philandering idler who inspires his ex-wives to meet for lunch just to confirm that, yes, he’s still an unrepentant [bleep]. (And yet, perhaps with just a glimmer of potential for more…?) Or take Bigby Wolf- Sheriff of Fabletown; smart, tough, cool; and a horrible monster who devoured thousands and terrorized the 3 Little Pigs and Red Riding Hood back in the day. And therein lies one of Fables’ greatest concepts – the notion that everyone has shades of grey, and that near-immortality grants even classic “good” and “bad” guys the opportunity to change. (Just ask Hansel, Grand Inquisitor of the Salem Witch Trials.)
Perhaps the most intriguing character of all is deputy mayor Snow White, who has potential to be the strongest female movie heroine since Ripley. Great examples abound, including putting down an armed rebellion (ever seen Mr. Toad with an Uzi?) using nothing but a dragon and a few choice words. “You dumb bastards! I’m Snow White! I run Fabletown and I’m never outgunned!” Nor is she alone- the nice thing about an ensemble book is that as characters die or lose prominence, others come to the forefront. As a result, Cinderella, Frau Tottenkinder, and Beauty have all come into their own as women of incredible cunning and fortitude.
So what would make it a good movie? Variety, for one. Willingham patterned early story arcs after different genres – mystery, political thriller, caper flick – which would translate great to the silver screen. Plus the book’s boundless creativity ensures that viewers would never get bored. (One of the funnier arcs had a reporter discovering this community of immortals with fantastic powers and coming to the only logical conclusion: vampires.) And literary buffs would love the cameos, as backgrounds and minor speaking roles abound with obscure storybook characters, some you’d recognize and many you almost certainly wouldn’t. When all is said and done, it’s an incredibly strong property just waiting for a good ensemble cast and some clever writers. Grab a few English majors (hell, they’re not doing anything else) and let’s make it happen!
“I always truly love a woman when I’m first chasing her. But I’m only good at the chase. My love quickly faded once I had to settle down to the tough business of actually living with her. I’m just no damned good at the happily ever after part.” ~Prince Charming
Similar to Bone, the beauty of Zot! lies not in its originality – the space hero with jetpack and laser gun is nearly as cliched as the medieval fantasy world of dragons and elves – but in how it’s handled. After moving to a small town with her family, geeky teenager Jenny Weaver laments that there’s nothing to do. But when a portal to another dimension opens in front of her and out flies a blond teenager being pursued by killer robots, things get a LOT more interesting. Soon Jenny is joining Zot (aka Zachary T. Paleozogt) on adventures in his dimension, which resembles nothing so much as a utopian version of “our” world’s 1930s sci-fi imagery, circa Metropolis or Flash Gordon.
What makes Zot so fun to read about is that he’s boundlessly optimistic, an actual hero hero who counterbalances the brooding Jenny. Not perfect, not a boy scout, just a genuinely nice guy. Whether searching for the key to the Doorway at the Edge of the Universe or battling electronic assassin 9-Jack-9, Zot does it with a smile on his lips and a spare charge in his raygun. As creator Scott McCloud put it, “Zot is honest; Zot is courageous; and Zot is the only hero in all of comics who regularly lets people with fewer items go ahead of him in the supermarket check-out line.” Well said. And yet, the most mature and arguably best part of Zot’s 36-issue run occurs when he’s trapped in Jenny’s (that is, our) dimension and is forced to confront the same issues we do of poverty, racism, homophobia, etc. After life in utopia, will a flawed world break Zot’s spirit, or just make him even more determined to do what’s right?
I think you could easily do Zot! justice with an animated movie, but live action might be possible… the thing is, you’d need a lot of CGI to handle the ultra-bright colors and retro-futuristic feel of Zot’s world. Something akin to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, probably. Meanwhile, as he proved in Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud understands the differences between mediums better than most, so I see no reason not to have him pen the screenplay. Once that’s done, give it to a director who likes bright space age adventures – someone like George Lucas circa 1977 – and Zot! will be ready to fly.
Here’s an exercise for you: take popular comic strip Bloom County, chuck all the political and social commentary, give it better artwork, and tack on a love story. Do all that and you’ve got Liberty Meadows, a strip about humans and animals coexisting in the titular animal sanctuary. Created by writer/artist Frank Cho for newspapers, it ran for 4 years before Cho made the unprecedented decision to switch it over to comic books. Loyal readers have continued to follow the strip, which alternates between three general plotlines: veterinarian Frank’s unspoken love for animal psychiatrist Brandy (and repeated failures to ask her out); the comic misadventures of the animals, notably midget circus bear Ralph’s inventions and chauvinist pig Dean hitting on anything with a pulse; and the funny but sweet friendship between Truman (a duckling) and Oscar (a dachshund).
There are two main reasons to read Liberty Meadows, and one is the amazing art. The winner of numerous awards, Cho possesses a grasp of anatomy (human, simian, dinosaurid) that eclipses most biologists; it’s impossible to read one of his strips without marveling at the fluidity with which the characters seem to move across the page. He has a (deserved) reputation for making his female characters absolutely stunning, but unlike most comic artists, Cho’s women are gorgeous but vaguely believable. That is to say, their breasts are large but don’t defy gravity, their waists are slender but realistic, and when they inevitably slug Dean, he looks like he’s getting punched. And the other reason is that Cho is one of us, a pop culture-obsessed nerd. The number of unlicensed guest appearances numbers in the dozens, including such diverse characters as Dilbert, Binkley, the Little Mermaid, the cast of Star Wars, etc. And frankly, I like a guy who appreciates the simple beauty of giant apes fighting Tyrannosaurs.
I actually think Meadows might work best as a TV show, but you could certainly do it as an animated film instead. Start by introducing the residents through one of Brandy’s therapy sessions, then divide the action into three intersecting plotlines: in the days leading up to the Liberty Meadows wiener dog race (Oscar vs. Wiener X!), it falls to Frank to train Oscar while Julius, Ralph, and Leslie are busy trying to catch Khan, the biggest, meanest catfish in the tri-state area. (KHAAAAN!!!!!) But – holy buckets! – while all that’s going on, will Brandy’s ex-fiancee Roger swoop in and win her back before Frank can get up the nerve to ask her out? Throw in a few of Dean’s patented pick-up attempts (“I’d like to do to you what Congress is doing to the American people”) and you’ve got yourself a movie!
So there you have it – 5 comic properties that are ripe for the picking. Will we ever see them in movie format? Who knows… Hollywood is a fickle mistress. But rest assured that all of them are deserving of the cinematic treatment, and there’s an easy way for you to increase the odds of that happening: start reading ’em! So take that cash Gran’ma gave you for your birthday, head on down to your local bookstore or comic shop, and check some of these titles out. I promise, you’ll thank you later.