Comics and Comic Books


The forerunners of comic books in the United States were newspaper comic strips, and filmmakers were quick to capitalize on many of their successes. Appearing nationally in the pages of hundreds of daily newspapers, the best-known comic strips were an integral part of the everyday culture of millions of Americans. Moving the antics of these characters to the screen was an obvious way to launch successful film franchises. Starting in 1902, for example, Biograph created a series of film versions of Frederick Burr Opper's Alphonse and Gaston comic strip. In 1904, Edwin S. Porter (1870–1941) directed an adaptation of Richard F. Outcault's Buster Brown , and in 1915 Larry Semon (1889–1928) directed a version of George McManus's popular strip about Irish immigrants, Bringing Up Father . Based on the comic strip by Chic Young, Columbia released twenty-eight Blondie films starring Penny Singleton (1908–2003) and Arthur Lake (1905–1987) between 1938 and 1950, making it the most successful film series that originated from golden-age comic strips. These films demonstrated the extent to which popular comic strips could be successfully adapted to the screen in the studio era.

Not all strips, however, were the subject of their own features. The ongoing nature of many newspaper comic strips, particularly action-adventure strips, were strongly suggestive of weekly film serials. Among the most notable strip that was adapted to the screen in this way was Ace Drummond , which became a thirteen-part Columbia live-action serial (1935–1940) based on the strip by Eddie Rickenbacker. Chester Gould's extremely popular strip, Dick Tracy , was the source for three Republic serials in the 1930s and 1940s, as Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon was for five Universal serials starring Buster Crabbe.

Serials also drew on the newly emergent comic book format. The first popular comic book characters, Superman and Batman, were created in 1938 and 1939 respectively, in the midst of the serial era. Batman was the subject of a relatively unsuccessful Columbia serial in 1943 and remained neglected until the 1966 television show and its spin-off feature. Superman, portrayed by Kirk Alyn (1910–1999) in a 1948 serial, was a larger transmedia success after the comic book had already spun off a newspaper comic strip, a radio show, and a series of animated short films. These Fleischer Studios Superman shorts were not the only animated films based on popular comic strips of the period. Beginning in 1913, Bud Fisher's strip Mutt and Jeff became the subject of more than three hundred animated shorts, some of which were directed by the cartoonist himself. A similarly enduring series of animated films was derived from the Popeye characters created by Elzie C. Segar. Fleischer Studios created 234 Popeye shorts between 1933 and 1957, making Popeye one of the most enduring characters in animation history. It is likely that the animated versions of the Popeye characters are now far better known than the original source material.

The adaptation of comic strip characters has continued despite the demise of the serial form and the cinematic animated short. Since the 1990s, many adaptations have sought to expand the typical three-panel daily gag into a full-length feature. This is often accomplished by filmmakers who attempt to capture the spirit of the source material without being faithful to the short's formal structure. Dennis the Menace (Nick Castle, 1993) strings together a plot from a variety of stock situations featured in Hank Ketcham's long-running single-panel daily strip. Similarly, Garfield (Peter Hewitt, 2004) expands on the primary themes of Jim Davis's extremely popular gag strip. Arguably, the most successful films of this type were the Addams Family films (1991 and 1993) directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (b. 1953), which were based on The New Yorker cartoons of Charles Addams. The success of these films, however, may be more dependent on the sensibility of the television show (1964–1967) that was also derived from Addams's work.

Strips with stronger continuities have also been the subject of feature films, often with palpable nostalgic feelings about them that are derived not only from the strips themselves but also from the derivative media. It is striking, for example, that three golden-age comic strips that were adapted as serials or shorts later became features. In 1980, Mike Hodges (b. 1932) directed Flash Gordon , an homage to both the Alex Raymond strip and the famous serials that it had inspired. That same year Robert Altman (b. 1925) directed an adaptation of Popeye using a screenplay by Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer (b. 1929) that stayed closer to the sensibility of the Segar comic strip than to the better-known Fleischer cartoons. In 1990, Warren Beatty (b. 1937) directed and starred in a hyperstylized version of Dick Tracy that paid close attention to the unique visual styling of Gould's comic strip.

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