A lot has been written about “comic book adaptations”—taking a comic book character and making it into a movie, as has now been done extensively in the theaters with Superman, Batman, the Avengers characters and X-Men, and to a lesser extent with Hellboy, Green Lantern, Fantastic Four, and on the small screen with Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and several others. What hasn’t gotten as much attention is the art of successfully translating of a movie into comic book form.
For years, comic book publishers have teamed with movie studios to co-market a new film with a same-day or early release adaptation of the movie or to take advantage after the fact on the public’s desire to view the movie again later. The recent term is the movie “tie-in”. This has been done in fiction novelations as well, sometimes to positive effect and sometimes not. A striking example is an early attempt to create a novelization for Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner, itself based on a Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? That didn’t fly for the original creator and the novel issued with the movie release was actually a re-issue of Dick’s original work. This lent some confusion to viewers of both the book and movie because of the many changes made for the film.
In comic books, studios and publishers have been cross marketing movies extensively back at least to the early 1950s, with the Dell Four Color comic books series, which included movie adaptations of John Ford’s The Searchers, Moby Dick with Gregory Peck, and dozens of others, to the Gold Key series of the 1960s, which delivered the popular Star Trek and other TV series adaptations in addition to movies, to Marvel Comics in the 1970s with adaptations of Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Logan’s Run, and even into the 1980s with adaptations of films like The Last Starfighter. For some movies, rights issues prevent a movie from making it into comic book form. This is the case with the James Bond movies and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Getting a comic book adaptation right involves the same sensibilities as that required for a good novelization. Story must always remain the key focus, but with comics you get the added bonus of the visual re-presentation of the film. Often the writers get advance looks at what the filmmakers are doing, but sometimes they don’t get to see as much as would be helpful for rounding out the adapted work. In the 1977 Star Wars comic book adaptation, one page featured a first look at Jabba the Hutt, who we would later meet in the movie Return of the Jedi and find to be a giant slug. In the original Star Wars adaptation he is a yellow, whiskered biped, a humanoid–an example of preparation and timing not allowing for an accurate translation of what ends up on screen.
In 35 years I still have not seen a comic book adaptation that was as well done as Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson’s The Empire Strikes Back, published by Marvel Comics (cover at the top of this article). Where the Star Wars adaptation was a stylized sci-fi epic, Empire featured a stunningly drawn adaptation of characters, aliens and places, and even characters that looked like the actors playing the characters. The Empire adaptation was released in a giant over-sized book in the same way the Star Wars adaptation had been released. As a kid, I had repeatedly checked out the hard-bound library version of the Star Wars adaptation—to get that taste of the movie in the days when you had to wait years to see a movie re-released in the theater, long before video tapes. So when I got the Empire version in the same format for my birthday, it became a well-worn companion that stuck by me until Return of the Jedi premiered. Incredibly it is still available for sale on eBay and at Amazon.com.
Why did the Empire adaptation work? Preparation clearly played a key role, with the writers and artists having full access to the complete director’s version of the film, including scenes that eventually were cut from the film. An artist who stuck to the film and refrained from unwanted elaboration also helped. Clearly, compared to the Star Wars adaptation that had been quickly drawn, the Empire adaptation benefitted from on artist who had the time to include great detail. And just as Star Wars was issued in single issues over a period of four months, so was Empire, and the plotting and chapter divisions also reflected a film that was paced well, lending itself toward a good adaptation. What followed suit would be years of similar high-quality adaptations, including a superb three-issue Marvel Comics series adapting Raiders of the Lost Ark, and later, a four-issue adaptation of Return of the Jedi. From then on adaptations would stick closer to the films they were adapting.
A few recent comic book projects will be featured in the following days. These works are not adaptations as much as science fiction movie tie-ins, but they are also some of the most creative and interesting bridging between movies and comic books to ever hit the shelves.