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. This time, we’ll talk about comic book origins of the Men in Black franchise.
Men in Black is the best Marvel movie that Marvel never published a comic book for.
Okay, there might be a few of you out there who might have been so rocked by finding out that MIB was a comic book film that you just have no energy trying to figure out the puzzle in that first sentence. Allow me to further explain.
In the credits of the MIB films, it states that it is based on a Marvel comic book. It wasn’t There was a comic book that inspired the film, but it wasn’t published by Marvel. Confused? Allow me to elaborate.
As we briefly touched on a few weeks ago, the 1980s was the decade of the black-and-white comic boom. Black and white comic books like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Flaming Carrot showed that you can put out a quality concept in a cheaper package and reap unexpected benefits from it. Creators with a modicum of talent and enough scratch to afford the black and white printing found a new outlet to see their work being published.
And since these black-and-white books were a financial success, a new breed of comic book publisher evolved, creating lines of black and white books, often featuring genres and styles not being examined by the mainstream publishers. One of these publishers was a company called Aircel.
The company that would become Aircel was originally a Canadian insulation company. When a government contract was withdrawn from the business and its future as an insulation installer was in peril, employee Barry Blair convinced owner Ken Campbell that there was money in the black and white comic book biz. Campbell was swayed and Aircel started publishing titles in 1985.
Blair was the creative force behind the company, creating manga-esque titles such as Elflord and Warlock 5 for the imprint. During this time, manga was not as prevalent as it is today and American comics influenced by manga were unheard of. Blair was truly ahead of his time in this aspect.
Unfortunately, booms inevitably lead to busts, and in 1988 Aircel was hitting hard financial times. Enter Scott Rosenberg, publisher of Malibu Comics. We’ll talk more about Rosenberg at a later date, but in this story he’s the man who licensed the Aircel name, combined it with another black and white publisher Malibu picked up—Eternity Comics—and created what would become a porn comic imprint. Yes, you read that right.
Blair stayed with Aircel until 1991, when the debt he accrued was paid off. He left the company, transferring it fully over to Rosenberg’s Malibu. Three years later, Marvel Comics would purchase Malibu, buying Aircel at the same time.
What does this have to do with MIB? Well, while it is true that during the time Aircel was an imprint of Malibu, it was known for publishing such sexually explicit titles as the comic book adaptations of Debbie Does Dallas and Flesh Gordon, they did publish more conventional titles as well. One of those titles was Lowell Cunningham and Sandy Carruthers’ The Men in Black. This title became one of the properties acquired by Marvel, so that’s why the film says that it was based on a Marvel comic when it was really published by Aircel.
While it contains elements that made the transfer to the screen—agents with letters instead of names, people are forced to give up their lives in the real world when they become agents, the comic book, first published in 1990, was far darker. The comic book MIB investigated not only aliens but demons and supernatural creatures too and if you decided to leave the team or go rogue, the end result was usually fatal. Once you were in, you were in. And if you happened to be a witness to any of the paranormal events the MIB investigated, you’d be killed, not mind-wiped. The comic book MIB was no laughing matter.
The film version, however, was. The humor injected into the 1997 film was one of the main reasons for its success. Another one was its star, Will Smith.
Much like The Mask lucked out by featuring Jim Carrey right as he was rising to superstardom, MIB benefited by Smith’s similar meteoric rise. Smith’s Bad Boys had just come out the year before Smith started shooting MIB and Independence Day was released just before filming wrapped. This film started off with a rather unproven lead, and ended up with an international movie idol. And Smith’s role in the film, a cocky fish-out-of-water being schooled in the ways of the agency by grizzled veteran Tommy Lee Jones, only added fuel to Smith’s rocket.
The film was also helped by the direction of Barry Sonnenfeld. The director’s unique visual style, which he honed as a director of photography on a number of Coen Brothers films and that he employed in films such as Get Shorty and The Addams Family. The film made $589,390,539 at the box office, almost guaranteeing a sequel.
The 2002 sequel put a unique twist on the fish-out-of-water concept from the first film, by making Smith the veteran who had to show a “neuralyzed” Tommy Lee Jones the ropes as he re-indoctrinates him into the MIB. “K’ needs to get his memory back because he was the only one knew who knew where an alien “Light of Zartha” is hidden, an item an alien named Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle) is threatening to destroy the Earth unless she receives.
The film was not as well received critically, but its $441,818,803 gross was enough to garner a sequel. However, due to schedules of the various people involved said sequel was ten years in coming.
Although the film’s script wasn’t 100% complete by the time filming began, the film was surprisingly good with a healthy dose of poignancy. And Brolin’s dead on portrayal/imitation of a young Tommy Lee Jones needs to be seen to be believed.
Next time, we take a look at another independent book that made it to the big screen, although this independent got a little more attention than The Men in Black.