Indie Press Titles On the Silver Screen

Comic Book Movies Score Hits and Misses
Comics have long played a part in movie making, the obvious examples being Superman and Batman. But do the films really capture the essence of the authors' and artists' original creations?

A breakthrough occurred in 1994 when the movie version of The Crow seemed to bring the comic's dark mood and look to the screen, and this spring's Spider-Man wowed audiences with high-tech special effects. But what about the "alternative" comics being published by independent presses, many of which deal with real people, true crime, or teen angst.

Over the past year film adaptations of indie comic and graphic novels have been made: From Hell, Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys, Ghostworld, and Road to Perdition.

"We've seen pretty definitively that movies based on comics lack the depth and gravity of the comics they're based on," says Alan David Doane Editor-in-Chief at Comic Book Galaxy. For example, while From Hell is probably the best, most complex, challenging and progressive work ever created in comics, it became on film a mildly interesting horror story, despite an obvious desire on the part of the filmmakers to create a serious, high-quality film."

Doane feels that lighter weight material like Spider-Man and X-Men seems to fare better, translating their simplistic good vs. evil themes into compelling, if forgettable, popcorn movies.

"Ghost World is probably the best film I've seen made from a comic book, and the key thing there was that Dan Clowes was intimately involved with the movie's production. I think the more the creator is involved the better the chance that the resulting movie will be a work of enduring excellence. No one is going to remember Batman Forever in ten years -- hell, no one WANTS to remember it now -- but Ghost World (the 2001 movie was directed by Terry Zwigoff and starred Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson) is an excellent translation of a comics story that will be well-regarded for decades."

Comics have always been cultural and social barometers, often expressing views and opinions "not ready for prime time." Just like independent films, this raw and impulsive form of expression is somewhat intimidating to consumers, many of whom act more as collectors than art-lovers. But the overall trend has to be encouraging to a genre that's been fighting for respect and shelf space.

"I think that the recent movies based on comics so far, like From Hell, Ghost World, X-Men, Spider-Man, etc., were all quite good," says Chris Staros of Top Shelf Productions and publisher of From Hell. "More importantly, they did well at the box office, which insures that Hollywood will keep their interest in basing movies on graphic novels and comics." Indeed, Staros reports that two new Top Shelf comic book adaptations are underway: Mephisto and the Empty Box and Creature Tech have just been sold to Hollywood.

"For me, the most significant benefit of all of this is the fact that great comics are being re-introduced to the public at large again, showing people the potential of a medium that they've pretty much forgotten over the years," says Staros. "Sales of graphic novel to the bookstores and libraries are on a big upswing right now, and that's fantastic, as this will help comics become on par with film and other media as a source of entertainment for everyone."

Doane is not quite so optimistic: "Progressive and visionary creators are usually marginalized in the marketplace at the time their social commentary is most vital," he says. "When R. Crumb was creating his masterpieces, the most popular comic books were Spider-Man and Green Lantern. While Dan Clowes was brilliantly spearing middle America's lethargic complacency, comics fans were "investing" in fifty copies of Youngblood #1 in hopes of someday buying a second mansion with their profits."

"That's part of the reason why Comic Book Galaxy is so committed to seeking out the diversity in the small press, alternative and independent comics community. Visionary creators like Rob Vollmar, Paul Hornschemeier, James Kochalka, Farel Dalrymple and others are creating works that comment on the vast scope of human experience and selling to an audience in the low thousands, while absolute garbage sells in the tens or hundreds of thousands to a delighted audience of willing suckers. So, yeah, the great, forward-looking comics are out there and always have been, but they're pretty hard to find under all those copies of Uncanny X-Men." "The reason the most progressive creators have the edge over mainstream comics, and over the mass of pop culture in general, is that they are creating intensely personal and visionary work grounded in human experience and with the simple ambition of making a human connection to the readers. The guys doing Spider-Man are looking to entertain some overgrown children while stashing away money to buy a second house or a new TiVo recorder."

Although comics artists responded quickly and powerfully to the Sept. 11 tragedy, Doane doubts that this will have a lasting impact, or that comic book artists at large have developed a stronger social conscience.

"September 11th comic books may have gotten Joe Quesada (Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics) on the Today Show, but I don't think the vast, untapped potential audience for comics was reached because of it. What will change society's (non-)relationship with comics is the creation of works with adult appeal -- stories grown-ups can be interested in and entertained by and want more of -- and getting them into the hands of those potential readers. I see recently an expansion of the graphic novels section in stores like Borders, but discouragingly, the biggest and best independent bookstore where I live has marginalized graphic novels in-between kids' books and science-fiction. So there's work yet to be done."

Does Doane see any rays of hope on the horizon?

"The Internet is bringing about a sea change. Creators are in closer contact with their readers -- and editors and publishers and fellow creators -- than they have ever been at any time in history, because of the Internet and the ability to send large files of comic book artwork out over a broadband connection. The Internet's impact on comics -- and everything else -- has been huge, and it's still at the very beginning stages."

"As connections and computers get faster and more and more people get online, look for even more visionary and personal comics to come out of it, because publishers are also, in a sense, becoming secondary. Any talented creator with a computer and a halfway decent connection can get their work directly to their readers with no middleman at all. It's amazing. Now all we need is a visionary micro-payment system to fulfill that particular potential of comics."

"That said, I'm always going to prefer to have my comics on paper. It's some sort of tactile thing."