"You'll believe a man can fly."
Marketing tagline, Superman (1977)
Tommy Luske (as Michael Darling),
Walt Disney's Peter Pan (1953)
It's Oscar season once again, so it seems right to go with one of several strips that Fred drew in the wake of the first Christopher Reeves Superman film. By the way, did anyone else notice that the set design at the opening of tonight's Academy Awards telecast - from the master shot perspective, with the Titano-sized Oscar statue cast against some wing-shaped set pieces - looked startlingly like Batman? Freaked me out, I tell you.
Where was I? Right. Comic books have a rich history of being a springboard for characters to hit large in radio, television and movies. Unfortunately, most of the efforts have.....um....there's no really nice way to say this.....sucked.
Not just sucked as in not very good, but a degree of badness that makes them into cult items circulated on fifth-generation VHS copies at comic conventions. Yes, they're that bad. Trust me, you're not going to find too many people ready to admit to watching Fox's version of Marvel's Generation X a couple of years ago.
Another case in point: CBS apparently made a pilot a few years ago for a live-action Justice League show. To hear people talk about it, it's so cheesy that it's close to being legendary. If it gets any more renowned, I wouldn't be surprised to see CBS market the thing to direct-to-home-video under a "So Bad It's Good!" banner. Look, folks - I'm sorry, I don't care how good David Ogden Stiers was in M*A*S*H, I don't want to see him barechested in green body paint playing the Martian Manhunter. Ick.
One adaptation I can recommend, however, is the VHS compilation of the Batman serials from the 1940s, starring Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft. They're a little hokey, sure, but they're right up there all of the other serials from that era. It's pretty clear, too, that these were in some part inspiration for the later 1960s Batman television series.
Oh, and the Fleischer Studio Superman cartoons from the early 1940s. Those are amazing, too.
I'm not going to try to put together a comprehensive list of comics properties that have gotten the Hollywood treatment; there's just way too many of them. Here's just a partial list, from the live-action category: Superman, Batman, the Flash, Wonder Woman, the Hulk, Captain America, Spider-Man, Blackhawk (starring the late Kirk Alyn, who played the first Superman), the Fantastic Four (never released), Swamp Thing, and Blade the Vampire Slayer. Saturday mornings have also been fertile ground for super-heroes: Superman, Batman, Super Friends, Spider-Man, Captain America, the X-Men, the Hulk, Iron Man, the Avengers, Plastic Man, and many, many others.
Why does Hollywood turn to comic books so often? Partly, it's a question of economics. Movies are reeeeeaaaaally expensive. Mindboggling so. Rows of zeros the likes of which make people drool the way they used to over Anna Nicole Smith. Get the idea? So much money is at stake that minimizing risk is a darn good idea. That's where the comic books come in. Despite the relatively small comics-buying audience (compared to the size of the movie-going audience), the successful properties are pretty obvious (i.e., Sandman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Comics also make a relatively inexpensive staging area to refine innovative concepts and map out story ideas (i.e., Men in Black and The Mask). Yep, both of those last two started out as comic books before they carried over to the big screen. As film director Richard Donner (or maybe it was Terry Gilliam; one of them, at any rate - it was in one of Dick Giordano's 'Meanwhile' columns) said regarding Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbon's 'Watchmen' title, "The whole movie is already storyboarded!", or words to that effect.
So what's the next comic book adaptation to come from the depths of Hollywood? Hard to say - it seems like virtually every property out there has been optioned. The Coming Attractions website lists over 50 comic book adaptations, most of them in Development Hell. Don't get your hopes up for Spidey, though. While the rights may have been settled, clearing the way for a big screen treatment, it's still going to take a few years to get all the Doc Ocks in a row.
Yes, that is an intentional pun. Wordplay is an unappreciated art, dammit.
Left to right in the above strip: Batman, Green Lantern, Superman, Elongated Man, the Flash, Green Arrow, and Wonder Woman. Of them all, only Elongated Man and Green Arrow have never made the leap to Hollywood. Not for lack of trying, though - apparently they auditioned together for the leads in the recent Sonny & Cher biopic. Well, no, not really, but it creates an interesting visual, doesn't it?