Guest Post: Scott Harpstrite and Comic Book Movies

Scott 1Today I am pleased to welcome Scott Harpstrite as he discusses the evolution of the modern comic book movie. Scott is a Research Lab Supervisor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. I know what you’re thinking: “So he understands liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry, but how does this qualify him to discuss comics?” I’ll tell you. As I’ve mentioned before, I am a recovering comic book addict. On Saturday mornings, I frequently paced the mall (faster than most of the senior citizens, but not all). I did this not for exercise, but in anticipation of the comic book store opening; and Scott strode next to me. In many ways, our addictions fed off one another. This post couldn’t go on forever, so many notable movies had to go unmentioned. Please use the comments section to talk about your favorite (or least favorite) comic book movie. And come back here Friday at 4pm CDT for a companion article about my favorite graphic novels.

The First authorericprice.com Giveaway!

To make this more fun, I’ve decided to give away my unopened Collector’s Pack of the Wolverine/Gambit: Victims mini-series. So please, enter to win and tell all the comic book fans you know. To clarify one of the criteria, you can get entries by commenting on either this post or the one I will run on Friday, but not both…I don’t think. The same giveaway will be connected to Friday’s post. Click the link at the bottom to go to the giveaway (I can’t figure out how to make the giveaway show up here).

I can think of no better way to prove to myself I’ve progressed in my recovery than to give away something I once coveted. I reread my opened copy the other night. Aside from having an interesting “modern-day Jack the Ripper” storyline written by Jeph Loeb, in all of their 1995 glory, issues three and four have autostereograms: One for Spider-man they other for Mallrats. Remember those pictures you’d stare at until a hidden image appeared?

The Modern Age of Comic Book Movies

By Scott Harpstrite

In today’s world, movies based on comics are commonplace.  Previously vetted material, from various genres, with the added bonus of an eager, established audience, provides a straightforward moneymaking concept.  In this spring and summer’s blockbuster season, we’ve seen five movies with origins in comics: Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Red 2, R.I.P.D., and The Wolverine (and who knows, I may be overlooking one or two).  But things were not always like this.  Not so long ago, movies adapted from comic books were rare.

Cover of "Superman - The Movie"
Cover of Superman – The Movie

In 1978, Superman set the bar for modern comic book movies very high.  Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman made people believe a man could fly.  The movie captured the heart and soul of the comic book.  But as the series continued with its three sequels, the quality of the plots declined, their popularity dwindled, and profits decreased.  While the Superman franchise died, the idea of adapting comics into movies lingered.  In 1989 the genre leaped forward with Batman.  Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham City and The Caped Crusader was drawn straight from the comics, dark and serious.  Unfortunately Batman quickly followed Superman’s path.  The franchise saw three sequels, each considered worse than the previous.  Fortunately, the realm of comic book adaptations expanded beyond these two well-known superheroes.  Several other films based on comics debuted: The Mask, Judge Dredd, Barb Wire, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Phantom, Spawn, and The Crow. By reaching beyond the superhero genre, these movies received a broad range of acceptance.

Now it was around this time when I stumbled across comic books.  I instantly became obsessed, reveling in the fantastical worlds, the exaggerated personalities, and the always-epic storylines.  While I gave a great effort to learn about and follow many comic book universes, I lived in the world of the X-Men.  As the Batman movies came and went, I was sinking deeper and deeper into everything X.  Looking at other comic book adaptations, I impatiently waited for the day X-Men would finally hit the big screen.  And just a few years later, an X-Men movie was in theaters; leading to one of my fondest memories…

Cover of "X-Men (Widescreen Edition)"
Cover of X-Men (Widescreen Edition)

Several weeks after opening weekend, my girlfriend and I sat in an almost empty theater. Wolverine, face down in the snow, had just been thrown through his truck’s windshield and slid across the ice. Seconds earlier, Rogue had told him he should wear a seatbelt. We crack up laughing, and the odd sensation of someone watching me set in.  Still laughing, I looked around.  No one else was laughing, and a few of the moviegoers had looked at us, with expressions of curiosity and disbelief on their faces.

As much as they must have wanted to know what we found so funny, I wanted to know why they were not laughing. After a moment of pondering, I understood.  They must have thought that we had already seen the movie and therefore knew what was coming[1].  We had not previously watched the movie.  Yet, we did know what would come next[2].  Wolverine would stand up, grumble, and his wounds would disappear.  We knew the same metal on his claws (adamantium, shown minutes beforehand) covered his entire skeleton, making it nearly indestructible.  We knew any injuries he received from breaking through the glass windshield and skidding across the ground were short-lived, thanks to his mutant healing factor.

At this time, I also understood we watched completely different movies.  I watched my heroes, characters whose struggles I enthusiastically followed.  I watched villains I despised, yet sometimes sympathized with.  I watched my favorite comic books in live-action.  Everyone else in the theater saw something different.  They had just heard ominous introductory narrative on evolution and watched a boy torn away from his family entering a Nazi concentration camp.  They had heard the screams of a teenage girl after a kiss put her boyfriend into convulsions, followed by a Senate debate on the rights of people born different.  They had just witnessed a rough-looking man (whose dog-tag read Wolverine), in a brutal cage fight, a near bar fight where metal claws tore from his knuckles, and a violent crash.  They watched a serious, dark movie.

This difference is the key to comic book adaptations becoming successful movies.  While many people went to see their favorite characters in theaters, many more just went to see a movie, with characters and storylines new to them.  Here were successful comic book characters being tested in the movie format.  If a comic-uninitiated audience enjoyed the movie, it would make money, and justify making another adaptation (i.e. Daredevil, Hellboy, Spiderman, Constantine).

Also, if a particular title turned a profit, a sequel would follow.  If the title failed, it was put back on the shelf…but no longer permanently.  Much like the comic book characters they were based upon, movie franchises can come back from the dead[3].  Almost a decade after Batman Forever ended the series, it began anew with Batman Begins.  Gone for almost twenty years, the Superman franchise returned with Superman Returns, failed, and is now rebooted with Man of Steel.

A new constant for the field developed: several years after a title fails, or even fades slightly, it can reappear to be tried again. This stability allowed the field to expand and experiment.  Now, instead of movies simply retelling popular stories and themes, they sometimes emulate the comic book style, trying to nearly reproduce the comic book on-screen.  Sin City is presented almost entirely in high contrast black and white, very similar to the graphic novels[4].  Watchmen and 300 have the camera angles produce identical views as the comic book panels [5].  These movies are nearly the same as viewing a comic while actors dictate the word bubbles.

Comic book adaptations have changed greatly since the time of Superman. Comics solidified their place in the movie industry through slow and steady expansion. This stability led to some less predictable changes.  Now, movies based on comic books range from a new story for a character originating in a comic book, to an attempt to bring a comic book to life by placing the pictures from the paper pages onto the screen.

Footnotes:

[1] It is also possibly they thought we’re sadistic for laughing at a man getting hurt…which in retrospect does seem a bit sadistic.

[2] My girlfriend, while not obsessed (she didn’t even read comics), had a great knowledge of the X-Men due to us living together.  I believe it is a common occurrence that anyone living with a comic book collector inadvertently (and sometimes unwillingly) absorbs an advanced knowledge of comics.

[3] Death in comics has little meaning.  Returning from death (or perceived death) is far too common, especially for very popular characters with significant deaths: Jean Grey, Superman, Jason Todd (the second Robin), The Flash, Captain America, Batman, Jean Grey again (To tell the truth, I don’t know if she’s currently alive or dead.  She dies and comes back a lot, which makes sense, her codename is Phoenix.).

[4] I don’t want to get into a semantic debate concerning the terms “comic book” and “graphic novel”.  For the purposes of this discussion, I consider them the same type of literature, just packaged differently.

[5] While it is my current favorite comic/graphic novel and movie, I did not mention Scott Pilgrim because it seems to simultaneously be a movie based on a graphic novel and a graphic novel based on a movie.

Don’t forget! You can enter to win an unopened box set of Wolverine/Gambit: Victims 1-4.IMG_20130805_223558_767
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4 responses to “Guest Post: Scott Harpstrite and Comic Book Movies

  1. Regarding the X-Men movie, after reading the X-Men Fatal Attractions crossover (or should I say X-over) where Magneto rips out Wolverine’s adamantium skeleton, I thought for sure Magneto intended to do the same in the movie.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Some Amazing Graphic Novels | Eric Price

  3. Pingback: Guest Post: Katie Carroll author of Elixir bound | Eric Price

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