When Is A Movie Not A Movie? The Beauty Of Comic Book Adaptations

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You can’t escape the current superhero cinema takeover that is happening at the moment, especially with ‘comic book’ movies everywhere. They are breaking sales records, overloading the shops with tie-in merchandise, and generally making their presence known. The one thing this surge in superhero cinema doesn’t seem to be affecting is the sale of monthly comics, the source of all of these movies.

At one time, the river of ideas ran the other way, with the comic book movie adaptation being an event of its own. Especially if you remember a time before streaming and almost instant releases on DVD/TV/Internet. The comic book adaptation served a purpose beyond merchandising: they existed as a replacement for the film after it had left the cinema. If you were a fan of Planet of the Apes, for example, then the only way to enjoy the characters between movie releases was to buy the comics.

Times have changed, and the need for direct replicas of movies in a comic book format has been disappearing for a few decades. However, adaptations haven’t gone away; instead they too have evolved over time.

Below, I look at a handful of movies that have made their way onto the pages of a comic. I am not interested here in continuing stories, although some of the examples below have spun out into ongoing comics, I am focusing on comics that are direct adaptations of a specific film. The choices I have made highlight how different approaches can produce very different products, and even enhance the original source material.

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Blade Runner Adaptation
Blade Runner Adaptation from Marvel

Blade Runner

As a movie, it is well renowned almost to the point of worship. Often cited as one of the best Science Fiction movies ever made, Ridley Scott’s vision is beautiful to behold.

When adapting such a visual treat, the writers and artists over at Marvel were left with a very difficult task. However, in September 1982 Marvel published their adaptation which captured the image of the movie in a very direct way.

Adapting the story proved to be easy in the end. Archie Goodwin took all of the major scenes and condensed them down to a few pages and panels, streamlining the scope of the movie into easily digestible chunks. Goodwin used the, now much maligned, voiceover to give the reader all of the information that was lost via the transition from screen to page. Whereas Harrison Ford wanted the character to ‘do’ more in the movie instead of relaying all of the information via voiceover, Goodwin did the opposite. This meant that scenes were compacted and lost some of the long, establishing shots that made the movie so memorable.

However, almost to counter this, the artists Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon attempted to capture the specific look of the movie. They did this by choosing to recreate the movie almost like a series of stills, with each panel representing a single shot of the film. They stretched the borders and changed the height and width of the panels to give the comic the same sense of vastness of location but also to heighten the claustrophobic character interactions. The cast are rendered as close to the actors’ appearance as possible, again embedding the impression of movie stills.

The comic is a colorful, engaging accompaniment to the movie but offers nothing more, and in some aspects less, than the source material. There are some beautifully drawn panels, but they just remind the reader of the excellent scenes that they are mimicking and as a result, remind the reader what they are missing out on by reading the comic instead of watching the film.

Planet of The Apes Adaptation
Japanese Adaptation of Planet Of The Apes

Planet of the Apes

When the first Planet of the Apes movie came out in 1968 the concept of watching the movie when ever you wanted to or even owning a copy was still years in the future. Out of all of the comics on this list, the Planet of the Apes adaptations were primarily replacements for the movies, an attempt to keep the franchise in the public eye for as long as possible. There wasn’t any real artistic agenda behind them.

Or was there?

The thing about Planet of the Apes is that even at the start, there was massive interest in the designs and concepts. When Pierre Boulle’s novel ‘La Planète des singes’ was first optioned for a film no-one, the author included could imagine how popular those apes would become. So popular that in 1974, Marvel Comics published a Planet of the Apes magazine that would eventually include adaptations of all five original movies.

This was not the first adaptation of the movie however. In 1968 a Japanese magazine, Bôken’ô, printed the first comic book Apes, written and drawn by Jôji Enami. Elements of the design were different, partially because the final designs were not available at the time the manga comic went in production, and some of the story elements were also changed. Most notably, the scene with the Statue of Liberty reveal was omitted to keep the ending a secret: even back then spoilers were a big thing.

Despite these changes, Saru no Wakusei (Planet of Monkeys) is a faithful adaptation but given the Manga treatment. The recognizable elements of the movie are kept intact; for example, the Apes look like the characters played by Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall, albeit simplified. However, the usual traits familiar to Manga readers are also there within the art: limited backgrounds, concentrations on characters’ faces, and motion lines. Jôji Enami has taken an American movie and turned it into a Japanese science fiction fable.

Over the years, different adaptations of Planet of The Apes have been published. Marvel’s comic was a fairly straightforward transition from movie to comic. The publisher also adapted the follow-up films and attempted to link them with a continuing comic strip. Later, a new movie was made by Tim Burton with a new adaption published. Most recently, in 2018, BOOM! Studios released a beautiful illustrated hardback graphic novel based on Rod Serling’s original script.

Comparing the different takes on the franchise would be an entirely different article, but the commitment by the comic creators to produce engaging comics has kept the franchise alive for over 50 years.

Dick Tracy Adaptation
Dick Tracy Adaptation

Dick Tracy

Dick Tracy started as a comic strip way back in the 1930s. As it grew in popularity it was adapted many times, on radio, television and, of course, for the big screen. In 1990 Disney, bullied by Warren Beatty, made a big budget, brightly colored comic book action movie adaptation. To complete the circle the movie itself got the comic book treatment but instead of aping other adaptations, or even mimicking the original Chesteer Gould strips, the comic by Kyle Baker went in a different direction.

It stands out for two reasons. Firstly, it was the third part of a trilogy. The movie adaptation formed the closing part of the story, which was expanded on in two prequels. This approach is all the rage these days with Marvel releasing prequel comics for all of their big-budget movies, but this wasn’t the norm back in 1990.

The first two parts of the trilogy, Big City Blues and Dick Tracy Vs The Underworld, set up the world that the movie inhabited, expanding the character arcs and adding context to some of the more unexplained plot points. They act as wonderful lead in comics but also stand as great stories by themselves.

The second reason the Dick Tracy adaptation stands out is because of the sublime artwork by Baker. There is no desire to create lifelike images of the cast like in the Blade Runner comic, or even to create a realistic world for the narrative to exist in. Instead, Baker goes all out on creating an atmosphere that captures the postmodern playfulness of the Disney movie while acknowledging the violent nature of the original strips. The emphasis is on the concepts inherent in the story and the emotional aspects of the characters. Vast swathes of color indicate a character’s presence within the interchangeable backdrops.

The narrative follows the movie plot pretty closely, but this was easy to achieve because the movie is as close to a moving comic as you are likely to get. This makes the transition of narrative simple from screen to page without suffering any loss or discomfort between the two mediums. Baker then captures the energy of the actors within his singular style. The end product is a fluid, dynamic collection of panels that almost move before your eyes.

The movie might get mixed reviews but the adaptation is pure modern comic book gold.

Bram Stoker's Dracula Adaptation
Bram Stoker’s Dracula Adaptation from Topps

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Everyone knows Dracula. The crafty vampire gets into everything from german expressionist films, Hammer Horror movies set in the 1970’s, Marvel Comics, and even an alluring appearance in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. In 1992 Francis Ford Coppola, inspirational director and Marvel Universe Movie hater, brought his own take on the character to the big screen, It was a highly erotic, visual spectacular than tweaked known Vampire Lore. However, it was the Topps Comics Production adaptation written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Mike Mignola and John Nyberg that really pushed the boundaries of the Dracula story.

Whereas the majority of the dialogue was taken directly from the script of the movie, the heavy shadowed art style of Mignola gives the comic a unique look, besting even Coppola’s visual flair. The impression of horror is gouged out of the page, leaving large black recesses for the characters to get lost in. This darkness, a reflection of the hopelessness of the titular character, takes over every page, Brief flashes of white, or moments of lighter tones, interrupt the overpowering darkness but ultimately this is a story set in the depths of night, on the verge of a new age that is about to begin with a horrific world war.

Modern fears are explored within the subtext of the story. The danger of sexual predators from within as well as without is a topic that is as relevant today as it has been since the day Stoker wrote his original novel. Thomas and Mignola take the essence of the film, the underlying themes, and accentuates them. The characters have a resemblance to the actors, but the expressionistic style creates a distance that the film fails to achieve. The story becomes about the struggles and relationships of the characters, not about spotting the guest appearances or wondering if Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves are expertly portraying suppressed Victorian’s or simply wooden actors.

Whereas the film has some trouble escaping the actors’ limitations and Coppola’s emphasis on style over substance, the comic is able to bring character back into the tale. More so than other titles on this list, the adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula uses the movie as an inspiration and surpasses that source material in visual storytelling. Sitting down for a couple of hours to read this comic is ultimately more satisfying than watching the film.

Aliens Newt's Tale Adaptation
Adaptation of Aliens entitled Newt’s Tale

Aliens

Initially it might not be clear what makes the Aliens adaptation that much different from many other comic books of its time. The Dark Horse comic, written by Mike Richardson, was published in two parts and told the story of the movie with the twist being, it was told from the point of view of Newt, the annoying little girl that just got in the way.

Aliens: Newt’s Tale allowed the writer to adapt the screenplay written by James Cameron but give everything a slightly new angle. It was new but old at the same time. The scenes that the reader knows from the film are given different emphasis or importance because it is all relayed through this young girl who, obviously, doesn’t have the same view on the world as the gung-ho marines or their reluctant guide. Richardson uses this opportunity to look at the Aliens story-line and give it a fresh new spin.

The other aspect of Newt’s Tale that makes it stand out among other movie adaptations is the fact it includes many of the deleted scenes which have been included in later, extended cuts of the film. Richardson got the chance to cut and paste the original working script into the finished product, thus expanding his story without altering the overall narrative too much. All of Newt’s experiences before the Marines show up gives the story a more human element that was lacking from the film. As a war film Aliens is tremendous, but for character motivation or empathy, it is sorely lacking. Richardson is able to inject the narrative with a bit of the human character it needs to distinguish the humans from the xenomorphs.

By taking this approach with the adaptation, Dark Horse was able to sell the concept of the comic as a movie tie-in but also as something new, buying into that completist nature that many comic and science fiction fans have. You haven’t seen the full Aliens until you have read Newt’s Tale.

Bram Stoker's Dracula
More Bram Stoker’s Dracula artwork by Mike Mignola

Adapt Or Perish

Over the years strong bonds have grown between the Movies and Comics. At various stages one of the mediums has feed the other, fuelling a spring of ideas and creativity. At the moment most of that traffic is heading one way, from the page into the multi-plex but in the past the comic book industry has gained from its big screen counterpart.

The Movies that have filled the cinemas have inspired a host of writers and artists to experiment with his or her craft to create new ways of telling a story. The differences between the live-action Dracula and it’s comic book counterpart expresses more than just personal interpretation but also differences between the mediums. There are somethings that a movie simply cannot do that a comic book can, and by comparing adaptations to its source material, you begin to get a sense of what those differences are.


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Darryll Robson
Darryll Robsonhttp://www.comiccutdown.com
Comic book reader, reviewer and critic. Waiting patiently for the day they announce 'Doctor Who on The Planet of the Apes'.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks!
    Rod Serling wrote the initial screenplay but it was re-written for a smaller budget after the screen tests proved how expensive the visual makeup would be. If you’re a fan of the franchise the BOOM! Visionaries graphic novel version of Serling’s original screenplay is fascinating.

  2. Nicely done. Good choices, well researched. Interesting about the manga Planet of the Apes! (Also: I did not know that Rod Serling wrote that movie.) And I remember really liking the Dick Tracy comic books related to the movie; will have to check those out again.

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