From the Pulps to the Big Screen

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Spider-man, Spider-man, does whatever a spider can. Spins a web, any size. Catches thieves just like flies. Look out. There goes the Spider-man…

One of the largest box-office hits, Spiderman (2002) ranks as the one of the top-grossing movies in its three-day opening period; bringing in roughly 115 million in the United States alone. Its sequel Spiderman 2 (2004) had similar success in its opening weekend. After the release of Spiderman numerous other superhero franchises were tapped in order to bring comic book heroes to the big-screen. However, this was not the first time comic books had been so connected with the movie industry. Comics have long influenced the way movies have been made, from being the material for scripts and stories, to indirectly influencing writers and directors. Comic books have been influential in starting some of the most popular genres of film and have also reflected popular film movements. From the early days of film noir and the detective movie, horror, sci-fi to current day superhero blockbusters, comics have taken a part in feature films.

Noir film has its roots in German Expressionist cinematography, though in America the heavy black and white uses of shadowing prevalent in the originally European form of film was used primarily to showcase tales of crime and detectives torn straight from pulp (so-called due to the cheap pulp wood material they were printed on) fiction novels and comics. The noir movement in film directly coincides with Depression-era America, a time when Americans delved into the gritty realism of crime stories. Newspapers often played up the importance of trivial stories solely based on the content of sex, violence, and scandal they had. The movies of this era reflected that, taking the works of such popular stories already established in pulp fiction. Nearly 20 percent of the films noir made between 1941 and 1948 were adaptations of hard-boiled novels written by American authors (Belton). The popular pulp magazines such as Detective Story Magazine and The Black Mask cropped up during the 1910s and the early 20s and would establish a significant fan base. The first hard-boiled detective story in pulp comics was created in 1923 by Carroll John Daly; it was called Three Gun Terry. After the success of the story numerous other pulp fiction magazines began to imitate the formula of the private eye that solves crimes with his fists and gut instinct. This led to novels, scripts, and by the 1930s and 40s, film adaptations of those stories. These crime stories all involved similar traits: the femme fatale, the fall guy, the morally ambiguous anti-hero, and plenty of violence. Strangers on the Third Floor (1940) is considered to be the first true film noir while Touch of Evil (1958) is considered to be the last during the “classic period” of film noirs. While the detective film used the visual concepts of the German Expressionists, the stories they were based upon came straight from the comics. Comics continued the detective stories, even utilizing the noir-style lighting and angles to create comics (Daredevil, Hellboy, Batman, and Sin City among the most prominent to use these techniques. Each of these would later become movies, Daredevil (2003), Hellboy (2004), Batman (1989, 1992, and 2005; the other two do not merit mentioning), and Sin City (2005). Sin City especially uses the film noir technique of heavy black and white shadowing as well as the detective story conventions of narration, tough guy heroes, femme fatales, and overblown violence in both the comics and the movie based upon them.

Another film movement, one that goes mostly unappreciated, is that of the early B-rated horror films that also borrowed from pulp comics. While the first horror films took from novels such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, B-rated horror films of zombies, monsters, and creatures from other worlds that terrorized the general public would influence the horror comics of the 1950s, such as Crypt of Terror (which would later become known as Tales From the Crypt. A few movies, like Demon Knight (1995), and Bordello of Blood (1996), were released under the Tales From the Crypt moniker). During the 50s, the Dracula line of movies were beginning to play up the sensuality and sexual nature of vampires in order to push movies at audiences, though it was not until after the release of the comic book Vampirella (1969), an adult-oriented comic book accredited with being the longest running vampire-themed comic, that movies began to be blatant about sexuality in vampire films with such movies as: The Vampire Lovers (1970) which was a screen adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Camilla, Countess Dracula (1970), and Lust for a Vampire (1971) that played at drive-ins. This is not to say that all movies of this genre followed suit, though later more critically acclaimed movies in the same vein, such as The Hunger (1983) contained a soft-core lesbian scene. A huge part of the horror genre is the zombie movie, starting with White Zombie (1932). However it was George Romero that would popularize the zombie movie with Night of the Living Dead (1968), its sequels Dawn of the Dead (1978 and a remake in 2004), Day of the Dead (1985), and Land of the Dead (2005). These movies influenced new villainous characters in the superhero world such as Solomon Grundy, a zombie-like villain in the Green Lantern comics (first appearance in 1944, before the Living Dead series, but after an outpouring of B-rated zombie films and other horror films), Morbius the Living Vampire in the Spiderman comics (1971), and the creation of the Tomb of Dracula series out which spawned the vampire hunter Blade, later the hero of the movies Blade (1998), Blade II (2002), and Blade: Trinity (2004). The movie Alien (1979) utilized the noir concepts of heavy shadowing to showcase a foreboding sense of doom as the crew of an interstellar mining station are dispatched by an alien creature. The plot, however, was derived from the B-movies earlier in the century, where the ‘monstrous alien invader’ was a commonplace thematic device. Alien would not only go on to spawn multiple sequels (Aliens in 1986, Alien 3 in 1992, and Alien: Resurrection in 1997), but it also started a very successful comic line by Dark Horse Comics including the initial concept of the creature from Alien going toe-to-toe with another terrifying movie monster. In 1989, the Alien vs. Predator comic was released, though it would not be the first time the aliens or the predator crossed over into different comics. Both creatures have appeared in numerous other cameo roles in the comics such as Superman vs. Aliens (1995) and Batman vs. Predator: Bloodsport (1991). However, it was the Alien vs. Predator franchise that was turned into a line of video games and eventually in the movie Alien vs. Predator (2004). While not as directly influential as the detective stories of the pulp comics had been on American noir, horror comics still coincided with the popular movements in B-rated movies, either creating ideas for the movie industry to work off of or reinventing movie conventions that had already been established.

Science fiction movies owe their flashy, futuristic special effects and shiny laser guns to the first science fiction comic Buck Rogers (1929) and the popular Flash Gordon (1934) created to compete with the success of the Buck Rogers character (although only one would merit a feature film, Flash Gordon in 1980). Both stories involved present-day men from Earth placed into an unfamiliar futuristic setting. This basic plot premise, along with the rockets, blazing space battles, and even swords made of light would all be reiterated in some of the most popular and memorable movies ever made. The entire Star Wars series (1977, 1980, 1983, 1999, 2002, and 2005) utilized all of the futuristic technology set forth in the comic book world. The blasters and light-sabers are both straight out the panels of the Flash Gordon comics while the scrolling text is pulled from the Flash Gordon television series. Hyper-drives, faster than light travel, and giant death rays forever changed the movie and comic industry, creating a new niche of futuristic comics including a Star Wars series (that were so popular that they saved the comic giant Marvel from bankruptcy in the late 70s and are still being produced by Dark Horse Comics). There is not a superhero comic book in existence today that has not had some form of light ray during the run of the series, giving homage to the influence of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Not all movies based on or influenced by comics had success as anything but cult classics, or just plain campy features such as Barbarella (1968) that, while based on the comic of the same name, is only memorable as being the movie where Jane Fonda is scantily clad and as Duran-Duran’s inspiration in choosing a band name. However the movie to spawn a slew of comic titles Blade Runner (1982) was based on a novel entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Phillip K. Dick. The dark, gritty atmosphere of a future in which rogue androids, called replicants, are hunted down and ‘retired’ was the key to a deluge of cyber-punk comics, especially from overseas. Ghost in the Shell (1989), a manga comic from Japan, is set in a futuristic cyber-punk world where everyone has direct ‘jacks’ to a cyber-brain implanted in their head that emulated the same gritty noir feel that Blade Runner had established (Two movies, Ghost in the Shell in 1995 and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence in 2004, were released, though only played in a limited number of theaters). Through the basic conventions of lasers and flying through space to the further exploration of humanity in artificial intelligences, comics have been right along-side movies in pioneering the field of science fiction.

The most recent collaboration of the comics and movies has been movies based directly on stories from some of the most popular, and sometimes not quite so popular, superhero comics. Studios are currently buying up every superhero property than can after the overwhelming success that Spiderman and Spiderman 2 brought (more sequels are currently in the works), the superhero franchise has become a hot ticket in Hollywood. While DC comic fans were able to see their heroes on the big screen with the Superman (1978), Superman II (1980) and the Batman series (1989, 1992, 1995, and 1997), Marvel fans had to wait until the new millennium to see Blade (1998 with two sequels in 2002 and 2004 respectively), the X-Men (2000 with a sequel in 2003), Daredevil (2003), The Hulk (2003), and of course the Spiderman movies (2002, 2004). This resurrection of the superhero movies had begun, bringing back the heroic figures of the Golden and Silver Age of comic books. The surge is so popular that new superheroes are being created to cash in on the genre’s success with movies like The Incredibles (2004) and Sky High (2005) while old ones are being brought back with movies like Batman Begins (2005) and Superman Returns (slated for 2006). These hugely successful movies not only have a large fan base to draw on, but also pre-established stories that have been fine-tuned and reworked over the years and continue to be successful (Superman, Spiderman, the X-Men, and Batman comics are still released on a regular basis). Even unknown or less popular heroes such as Ghost Rider (Marvel), the Sub-mariner (Marvel), and The Flash (DC) have movies in the works (all slated for 2006).

From helping start the detective and crime films of the 30s to having screen translations of their comic book counterparts, the comic book industry has long been influential on the movie industry and the current trend in taking stories directly from comic pages is the climax of the relationship between both industries. As opposed to taking vague ideas like vampires, monsters, and aliens and incorporating them in various stories, mostly involving lame plots and scantily clad women, the movie industry has begun to turn to this era’s Homers, Dickens, and Vernes in order to create feature films that are not only visually entertaining, but also have character depth, exciting pacing, and interesting plot devices. With the next slew of comic-based movies ready to be released in 2006 it only confirms the pop-culture binds between the Hollywood studios and the comic industry giants as well as the need to ask Santa for theater gift certificates.

Works Cited

1. Belton, John. American Cinema /American Culture: Second Edition. McGraw-Hill.

New York, NY 2005.

2. Jones, Gerard. Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic

Book. Basic Books. New York, NY 2004.

3. Graffix Multimedia. “Birth of the Pulp.” 2002. (http://www.pulpworld.com/history/

history_01.htm).

4. Dirks, Tim. “Horror Films.” 2005. (http://www.filmsite.org/horrorfilms.html).

5. 20th Century Fox and UGO Networks. “Alien vs. Predator Comics by Darkhorse.

(http://avp.ugo.com/comics/).

6. “Film noir.” 1 Nov 2005. (http://en.wikipedia.org).

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