Superheroes are synonymous with comic books thanks to their domination of the medium from the golden age of comics until recent history. Originally, comic books were published as a vehicle for adventures like westerns and detective stories, or they were filled with comedies starring anthropomorphic animals without pants. Marvel and DC dominated comic books for thirty years and marginalized most things that didn’t feature disproportionate lads and lasses in tights.
Marginalization isn’t even close to a deterrent for a motivated independent artist. Often, marginalization is motivation. So as any great medium of art will, comic books have evolved to where few people under the age of 80 discount them as mere “funny books.” They have returned to the westerns and comedies and detective stories of yore. They’ve ventured beyond those stories until now nothing is taboo to the four color print process. And some of those stories have made it to celluloid.
1. Ghost World (2001)
Steve Buscemi, Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson
Thanks to loud vocal support from legions of disenfranchised young female fans, Ghost World is one of the most famous nontraditional comic book movies. Thora Birch plays Enid, a moody, hopeless young woman slowly giving up. Scarlett Johansson is her only moderately more optimistic best friend, Rebecca. Steve Buscemi is Seymour, a lonely middle-aged man that likes old albums. Enid decides she likes Seymour and their impossible relationship causes a rift between Enid and Rebecca.
The film certainly isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but the characters are richly drawn and the script is just light enough to make tagging along fun. Some of the best bits, like “tampon in a cup,” are drawn from a different source material than Ghost World – Art School Confidential. Art School Confidential is a four page story by the same author that got widely circulated. It also got turned into a film, but the best bits aren’t in it because they’re in this movie. This better movie.
2. Blueberry (2004)
Vincent Cassel, Michael Madsen and Juliette Lewis
Franco-Belgian comics have a history as long and as storied as American comics. Jean Giraud, better known as Mœbius to the comic book community, was their Stan Lee. American fandom knows him primarily from his work on game changers like Star Wars (he did the story boards for Empire) and Alien, as well as his amazing collaboration with Stan Lee on one of the greatest Silver Surfer stories – the Eisner Award-winning 2-issue eponymous miniseries.
Hardcore comic fans, especially those back home, know him as a comic artist. One of his most popular books was Blueberry, a western with a no-nonsense, nontraditional hero that stood up for the rights of everyman. There was much rejoicing when word of the film was released and much crying and gnashing of teeth when it landed. The film Blueberry maintains the settings and characters of the books, but turns a hard-edged action story into a spaghetti western inspired Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.
Jan Kounen, the director, used his extensive knowledge of tripping his nuts off to his advantage and filmed lengthy sequences of people on hallucinogens. Allegedly, the depictions of ayahuasca rituals are spot on, but they ultimately bog the story down. The film has some strong admirers, but most diehard fans were disappointed.
3. Red (2010)
Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman
The Red comic book was a gritty, realistic CIA story written by Warren Ellis. The film is a straightforward action-comedy that doubles as an excuse for us to watch Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman and the rest of the gang have fun. It helps that it is executed seamlessly.
The film opens on Frank Moses (Willis), a retired CIA agent with a boring life that has a desperate phone relationship with the customer service agent that deals with his pension check. She is far away, at a call center in Kansas City. Then, mercenaries are hired to kill him in the middle of the night. He makes them all dead and the fun begins.
The story is no letdown. The pendulum pace of action beats is punctuated by gags and one-liners. During the course of things Helen Mirren fires large weapons, John Malkovich chases people with a bomb strapped to his chest and lots of bodies pile up.
And this one time, John Malkovich shot a rocket launcher in the face!
4. When the Wind Blows (1986)
Peggy Ashcroft, John Mills and Robin Houston
If this weren’t strictly a comic book movies website and I were to write a 6 list composed of the things I find most beautifully depressing, this film would make the list – along with “Romeo and Juliet,” internet dating and the guy that got his hands chopped off by a helicopter because he was happy.
When the Wind Blows is the story of an elderly couple caught in a third world war. The government announces an impending nuclear attack by the Soviet Union and the couple are forced to learn how to survive the attack and the resultant fallout. The couple is incredibly naive about the consequences and that allows time for gentle laughter during a story that gets steadily darker.
The soundtrack by David Bowie and Roger Waters presents the mood impeccably. The book was written by Raymond Briggs, who also wrote the legendary, wordless Christmas story, “The Snowman.” His storytelling skills are translated to the screen perfectly and the result is one of the saddest tales everyone should see.
5. Fritz the Cat (1972)
One of the first anthropomorphic animal cartoons certainly not for kids, Fritz the Cat threw wide the door on both the comic book and animation worlds. Fritz was filthy and unashamed, the very definition of hedonism.
Thanks to its X-rated veneer, many detractors passed Fritz the Cat off as poorly-drawn porn, a statement doubly incorrect. While Fritz was a clear example of life gone terribly wrong, he worked as a shocking vehicle for a sociopolitical message that has since been heard by millions.
Robert Crumb, Fitz the Cat’s creator, began drawing the original comic strip in the 60’s, as a way to get his voice heard in the underground magazines of the day. He went on to self-publish his own comic books and that decision created a groundswell of creativity in the comic book community that has led to the medium gaining mainstream credibility.
And all it took was a pornographic cat.
6. Casper (1995)
Bill Pullman, Christina Ricci and Cathy Moriarty
Shocked Road to Perdition isn’t here? Don’t be. There are enough examples for me to fill a second list like this (and someday I might) and it might be on that one, but this time we’re talking Casper. Millions of young boys fell in love with Christina Ricci when she was in The Addams Family, but Wednesday Addams made it a creepy kind of love that you couldn’t talk about in gym. Casper made it a right out there in the open kind of love.
Casper is a big screen franchise still waiting to happen. The first film was a huge success. It grossed as much as some superhero films and only cost $55 million to make. Unfortunately, it was a slightly uncomfortable film – it is a happy cartoon ghost, so death jokes are bound to arise – and it didn’t go over well with critics and there was never another go-round.
The acting was pretty top notch in the film. There were appearances by Eric Idol, Dan Ackroyd, Ben Stein, Rodney Dangerfield, Fred Rogers, Clint Eastwood and a semi-sane Mel Gibson. Brad Garrett sounded just like the Fatso I imagined from reading the old Harvey comics.
Casper deserves another movie. An appearance by Wendy the Witch or Hotstuff is wanted for us to share with our generation’s kids. Even Spooky (with Pearl!) would be nice.