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 continue to talk about the world of alternative comics and the impression they made on movie screens.
To call American Splendor the Seinfeld of comic books would do a disservice to both the comic book and the sitcom. True, both dealt with the mundane events of everyday life—were about “nothing” if you will—but each approached it from different angles. Jerry Seinfeld’s self-named sitcom featured exaggerated parodies of himself and his friends pointing out the foibles of everyday life and human nature, often through extreme situations. Harvey Pekar’s comic book was a slice of his life told in a compelling way without having to resort to exaggeration or aggrandizement. It was simply him relating his everyday life—him going to work, paying bills, and dealing with health issues.
The comics were published by Pekar himself, but his partnership with legendary underground cartoonist Robert Crumb led to Pekar’s work gaining a bigger audience, notable collaborators such as Alison Bechdel, Spain Rodriguez, Drew Friedman and Joe Sacco, and mainstream attention in the form of him becoming a regular guest on Late Night With David Letterman. The film American Splendor was less an adaptation of any particular issue of the comic book, than telling of Pekar’s rise to fame. The film was audacious by conventional film standards. Directed by documentarians Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini with Paul Giamatti doing a masterful acting job of portraying Pekar, it mixed Pekar’s life story with animation and with documentary cut-ins featuring the real-life Pekar commenting on what was going on in the movie. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and Springer Berman and Pulcini garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Giamatti was criminally snubbed for his work, one of many to come in the actor’s career.
Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes reunited in 2006 to bring another one of Clowes’ stories to the big screen, Art School Confidential, which originally appeared in Eightball #7. While the original comic story was only four pages long, it was chock full of scathing observations about the institution of art school, from the failed artists that make up the teaching staff, the pretentious students that take classes there, and the ultimate fact that success at school has no bearing on being a successful artist post-school.
The comic story packs pertinent observations into those four pages, but that is all it does. There is no narrative, no protagonist, and no conflict. The story was just panel after panel of art school tropes that Clowes could puncture with his wit for their hypocrisy. So, for the film, Clowes added a protagonist—a freshman art college student by the name of Jerome (Max Minghella)—to act as a lens for further examination/deconstruction of art school life and what seems like a tacked on murder mystery subplot.
The film was a commercial ($3.3 million worldwide gross versus a $5 million budget) and critical (only 36% Fresh at Rotten Tomatoes) flop. I liked the film, but I had the good fortune to see it with someone who was an art major in college. It was much more enjoyable to see how close Clowes’ and Zwigoff’s satire cut to the bone.
The Scott Pilgrim series was the closest thing comics had to the Harry Potter novels. Each installment was a self-contained story that played part in a larger, finite epic, each installment was eagerly anticipated by its loyal fan bases, and was talked about endlessly by said fans during its duration.
Many people, including the comic’s author Bryan Lee O’Malley, were surprised by Scott Pilgrim’s popularity, but, looking back, it wasn’t very hard to see why it became popular. The series was an amalgamation of a number of cult cultures—video games, manga, indie/bar bands, superheroes, etc—combined into an epic romance. It had something for just about every audience that buys comic books. Taking this into consideration, it was no wonder that the series would be adapted for the big screen.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World might take its name from the second volume of O’Malley’s six-volume epic, but it manages to adapt all six books into one film. To purists, this might seem outrageous. After all, it took eight films to adapt the Harry Potter series onto the big screen. But in the expert hands of Edgar Wright, the film, in my opinion, became even better than the comic books.
Wright and co-screenwriter Michael Bacall were able to cut just enough from the volumes to keep the plot moving without ever losing the feel and themes of the original story. Certain installments of the graphic novel, especially volume three, felt a bit padded. Wright and Bacall did a great job of tightening up the narrative to keep the film motoring along at a great pace.
Add to that Wright’s masterful directing, which melded live-action versions of O’Malley’s kinetic visuals with his own unique style, and you have one of the best comic book adaptations to come down the pike. However, the film was a box office disappointment ($47 million worldwide against a $60 million cost) which I lay at the hands of piss poor marketing on the part of Universal. I am holding out hope that the film eventually becomes a cult favorite with future generations, because it really deserves a long life in the pop culture consciousness.
Next, we take a break from covering comic book adaptations and take an extended look at what happens when Hollywood tries to come up with its own superhero properties.