HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: So Good You Won’t Know They’re From Comics

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. Today, we look at films that got good reviews and award nominations paradoxthat many people have no idea were adapted from graphic novels.

Paradox Press, like Piranha Press before it, was sort of a boutique imprint established by DC Comics. You wouldn’t find Superman and Batman in the pages of a Paradox Press book, but you would find stories that didn’t quite fit in with the mainstream comic book world. Whether it be a scholarly dissection of the art of making comics or “Big Books” devoted to cult topics such as conspiracies or urban legends, tales of a mental patient who thinks he’s Humphrey Bogart or realistically violent crime-dramas, quality works that were too outside of the typical comic book genres found in DC’s regular line-up found a home here.  And it was from this imprint that DC experienced some of its most successful film adaptations, although many filmgoers had no idea of the film’s origins.

road_to_perdition_xlgIt is only natural that Road to Perdition not be considered a comic book film because in 2002, no comic book film at that time had people of such caliber involved in its making. It was championed at Dreamworks by Oscar-winner Steven Spielberg. It was directed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes. Its two biggest roles went to Oscar winners Tom Hanks and Paul Newman. The villain was Oscar nominee Jude Law. And if that wasn’t enough, the film featured a pre-Bond, heck, pre-Layer Cake Daniel Craig. Arguably, it could be the only comic book film that people that hated comic books saw, because they had no idea of its comic book origins.

But it did start as a 1998 graphic novel written by crime novelist Max Allan Collins and drawn by English comic book artist Richard Piers Rayner.  It was an ode to Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub (which we talked about here) which took place in Depression-era Illinois. It centered on a mob henchman by the name of Michael O’Sullivan who works for the real-life crime boss named John Looney. When O’Sulivan’s eldest son witnesses Looney’s son Conor kill a business rival, the Looney’s put a hit out on the rest of O’Sullivan’s family. Michael and his eldest survive and begin a cross-country trek to pay the Looney’s back for their betrayal, leaving a trail of bullet casings in their wake.

The film changed the Looney’s to the Rooney’s (Why? I don’t know), turned O’Sullivan into simply Sullivan (Maybe they thought it would be easier to remember?), increased the screen presence of Jude Law’s character,  and toned down the violence from the comic. The result was a great film that garnered six Oscar nominations (including one for Paul Newman as John Rooney) and one win for Best Cinematography.

Back in January of 2013, David Cronenberg rose my ire by saying that films adapted from comic books could never be considered art because the source material is so juvenile. So I guess he was just slumming when he directed the next film on our list, History of Violence.

history_of_violence_xlgPerhaps Cronenberg simply didn’t know that the story was adapted from another Paradox Press graphic novel written by John Wagner and drawn by Vince Locke. Perhaps since the text is graphically violent and deals with mature themes, he felt that it couldn’t be from the kid-friendly world of the graphic novel. Or maybe because the ending changed so much from the book, he though the film raised above the level of hackdom.

The first half of the film adapts the comic with a few minor changes. It tells the story of a man by the name of Tom Stall (changed from McKenna in the book) who lives in a small town in Indiana (changed from Michigan) who gains a small amount of fame after he defends his coffee shop from a robbery. The fame brings Carl Fogarty (John Torrino in the book) to town. Fogarty claims that Tom really is Joey Cusack (Muni in the graphic novel), a man who had run afoul of the Philadelphia Irish Mafia (It was a New York Mafia in the comic). Tom protests, but when Fogarty kidnaps Tom’s son, Stall must drop the charade and reveal the truth to his family.

It’s here where the narratives split and go in different directions. The book reveals that Tom/Joey was a two-bit crook who ripped off a crime boss with his friend Ritchie. Tom/Joey skipped town and left Ritchie holding the bag and to get the lion’s share of the punishment. In the film, Tom/Joey was a contract killer for the mob who got tired of the life and walked away. Ritchie is now his brother, and has put a hit out on his “broheim” because Tom/Joey cost him a chance to rise up the ranks of the crime family.

Cronenberg might have a dismissive view of comic book films, but he did alright by this one. He created a better than average thriller out of the material, and the film was nominated for a Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and it also received two Oscar nominations.

Next time, we’ll begin the tumultuous journey to the screen of Marvel’s most iconic character, Spider-Man.

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About William Gatevackes 1936 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.

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