Hollywood's criminal neglect of non-superhero comics
Superheroes are thriving on the screen. Why aren't other kinds of comics?
We're just a few months into 2017, and Marvel Comics is still dominating the pop culture conversation. March saw the release of Netflix's Iron Fist, the streaming service's latest addition to an interconnected TV universe that also includes Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage — and the first of this bunch to receive almost uniformly bad reviews. It hasn't helped Iron Fist's cause that it's hitting the small screen at the same time as FX's Legion, a stylishly psychedelic superhero show about a mutant who can't distinguish his telekinesis from mental illness; nor has it helped that one of the most popular movies out right now is Logan, a crisply executed science-fiction/western hybrid centered on the latter days of the X-Men stalwart Wolverine.
So there's a lot of chatter right now about superheroes, and about whether the whole "based on a comic book" boom of the past decade has reached a new evolutionary phase, where writers, directors, producers, and actors worry less about making these characters plausible and more about doing something fresh and original with them.
Meanwhile, this past weekend another comic book movie came out, based on Wilson, a widely beloved graphic novel by one of the best cartoonists of this era, Daniel Clowes. Not only is the film not receiving a lot of attention, but its very existence seems anomalous. Wilson feels like a forgotten relic from an earlier time, when "alternative comics" creators like Clowes were hailed as the future of the medium, pushing superheroes aside for good every time they landed on The New York Times bestseller list or inked a movie deal.
Wilson is a fairly mediocre film. It debuted at Sundance back in January, where it failed to stand out from the pack of quirky, inconsequential American dramedies that make up a substantial percentage of film festival programs. Despite a Clowes script, and a funny lead performance by Woody Harrelson as the title character — a loudmouthed eccentric loner on a post-middle-age quest to become a family man — the movie lacks the stylistic experimentation and sharp sting of the book. The big-screen Wilson settles for being cute instead of cutting. It's not terrible, but it's pretty forgettable.
That's a shame, because just as non-superhero comics have struggled to maintain a cultural presence, so non-superhero comic book movies have been fading of late, after a brief stretch when they seemed like they could become an entirely new cinematic sub-genre.
To be fair, defining what "alt-comics" are — let alone what constitutes an "alt-comics movie" — can be tricky. The 21st century has seen a slew of non-superhero genre films, based on comic book series and graphic novels: A History of Violence, Road to Perdition, Sin City, Snowpiercer, Whiteout, From Hell, V for Vendetta, etc. There have also been multiple excellent foreign imports whose comics origins aren't as widely known in the United States as they might be overseas, including the French lesbian romance Blue Is the Warmest Color, the Swedish teenage punk romp We Are the Best!, and the British adaptations of Posy Simmonds' serialized newspaper strips Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe.
In a way though, the stealthy nature of so many of these alt-comics translations only points out the wealth of characters, stories, and sensibilities that are just sitting on bookshelves, waiting to be optioned. Like cinema, cartooning is a visual medium, and the best ongoing comics series and graphic novels exhibit a clarity of vision that should make an adapter's job easier.
Some of the best alt-comics movies take full advantage of the distinctive imagery of their sources. Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff did that with 2001's Ghost World, a live-action version of the cartoonist's slim, elliptical novella, which on the screen popped with vivid colors and strong personalities, like a comic's page come to life. The tale of two aloof teenage pals coming of age and learning to be more emotionally exposed became a cult hit, and is getting a Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition this May.
Similarly, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's 2003 film of writer Harvey Pekar's American Splendor comics used different visual approaches and pulled scattered pieces of Pekar's work into a cinematic mosaic that captured both the pleasure and the meaning of his curmudgeonly autobiographical stories. Writer-director Marielle Heller's 2015 take on Phoebe Gloeckner's The Diary of a Teenage Girl replicates the at-times-alarmingly intimate nature of the book, while weaving in animated interludes that make the sexually adventurous adolescent heroine's experiences feel more fantastical. And Edgar Wright brought cartoonist Bryan Lee O'Malley's singular hybrid of slacker comedy and video-game-inspired action to life spectacularly in 2010's Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
Even more interesting have been the rare attempts to literalize the comics page through animation. That's a tradition that dates back to Ralph Bakshi's X-rated 1972 adaptation of Robert Crumb's freewheeling Fritz the Cat stories, and has continued in the 21st century in work as diverse as Joann Sfar's 2011 version of his own whimsical and subtly political The Rabbi's Cat, Marguerite Abouet's 2013 rendition of her vivid African soap opera Aya of Yop City, and — perhaps most notably — Marjane Satrapi's Oscar-nominated 2007 film of her Persepolis, about growing up in Tehran in the '70s and '80s.
Satrapi and her cinema collaborator Vincent Paronnaud followed Persepolis with a wonderful and under-seen 2011 adaptation of her modernist fable Chicken with Plums, which they realized in live action, albeit with sets and digital effects that made the image more cartoonish. And then Satrapi directed screenwriter Michael R. Perry's darkly funny serial killer thriller The Voices, which debuted at Sundance in 2014 and was released to minimal fanfare in theaters in 2015.
Satrapi's career arc typifies what's happened to what once seemed like an unstoppable wave of alt-comics movies. The highest-profile titles — Ghost World, American Splendor, Scott Pilgrim — came out over seven years ago. Since then, the best adaptations have been barely noticed by the culture at large, or have been so stealthy about their roots that the "based on a graphic novel" angle seems almost incidental. These days, if comics artists have an interest in making movies (or television), they seem to be better off leaving their own books on the shelf and doing something original, as acclaimed cartoonist Dash Shaw has done with his delightful upcoming animated feature My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, or Lisa Hanawalt has done by serving as a producer and production designer on Netflix's BoJack Horseman.
Meanwhile though, the list of contemporary comics geniuses whose best work still remains largely unadapted is long and impressive: Art Spiegelman, Chester Brown, Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, Jessica Abel, Joe Sacco, Paul Chadwick, Chris Ware, Megan Kelso, Lynda Barry, Adrian Tomine, Rick Geary, Charles Burns, Gabrielle Bell, Rutu Modan, Carol Tyler, Paul Hornschemeier, Craig Thompson, Bob Fingerman, Peter Bagge, Ben Katchor … and on and on and on.
Having a book turned into a movie or TV show is hardly the ultimate goal for great artists. Their comics still exist, and are still terrific; in fact, they're almost certainly better than they'd ultimately be on a screen.
Still, when a movie like Logan gets hailed for adapting a superhero comic in a different way — by putting its characters into a smaller-scale, more character-driven plot — fans of the medium should wonder why the guys in costumes keep getting all the attention. Want gripping, heartbreaking comics stories, filled with humor and insight and realism? Stop asking the folks at Marvel to do it. Tell Hollywood to call Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf, First Second, or any of the dozen other publishers and imprints who are printing page after page of the stuff, every day.