1. Frank Miller, Ronin
More than 20 years after the first publication of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the book has finally made it to the big screen, in a surprisingly faithful form that wouldn’t have been technically possible when the book first came out, and possibly wouldn’t have been narratively possible even a few years ago, when various people attached to the project wanted to recast it as a 9/11 film touching on terrorism or Iraq. Apparently it found the right place and time to make it to the screen mostly as Moore wrote it. With that in mind, we’re letting ourselves have high hopes for other books that should rightly make it to the big screen similarly intact, like Frank Miller’s Ronin. Miller doesn’t have the best track record with Hollywood, especially not with his directorial debut, The Spirit, hanging over any project bearing his name. But surely financiers can still remember what a payday Watchmen director Zach Snyder got out of Miller’s 300. Besides, Ronin was practically written for the screen to begin with, and it fits particularly well into the current blockbuster-action aesthetic. Samurai, demons, robot battles, shifting realities, explosions, sex, and above all, massive mindfucks as the story behind the story keeps changing—Miller’s breakout book looks dense and muddy on the page, but it’d look terrific on the big screen. A few years ago, Stomp The Yard director Sylvain White was reportedly attached to a Ronin project… so where is it?
The current boom of superhero movies isn’t likely to help Jeff Smith’s Bone hit theaters, but maybe the increasing sophistication and variety in animated films will—surely a world that can bring Persepolis to the big screen intact can handle Smith’s fantasy world. Smith’s series, which takes some of its cartoony look from Pogo and some from Disney classics, should in theory be an easy sell for a producer: It starts out as a cheery Looney Tunes comedy, suitable for younger viewers, and develops into an exciting epic fantasy full of dragons, magic, and walking corpses, without ever losing that sense of kid-accessibility. Maybe John Lasseter should nab it for Disney’s revitalized traditional-animation unit, which is desperately in need of an old-school Disney hit. Better yet, someone sign Henry Selick up to adapt Bone now that Coraline is done—he’d work wonders with Smith’s dense backgrounds and simple yet tremendously expressive characters. Smith himself put Bone on hiatus for nearly a year to develop the series into a film, but came away disillusioned and ready to devote himself to creator-owned work again. Still, working with someone of Selick’s talents and respect for a good story might get him back into the silver-screen mood.
Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid On Earth is like watching a snuff film without the murder: There are painfully few bright spots in Chris Ware’s devastatingly affecting (and semi-autobiographical) story of Jimmy Corrigan, an awkward, middle-aged empty soul who meets his father for the first time over a Thanksgiving weekend. It’d be hard to write a character more lonely or alienated from society; he’s both pitiful for his helplessness and contemptible for his defeatism. There would be certain challenges in any screen adaptation—for one, capturing the quiet, hollow silence of Ware’s many dialogue-free frames—and the plot isn’t exactly a roller coaster, but using the novel’s vivid flashbacks and fantasies, the right director (Darren Aronofsky, perhaps?) could pull off an accessible, immensely compelling cinematic study in family estrangement.
Watchmen is, among other things, about deconstructing the dynamic of the superhero team. But in movies, there isn’t that much to deconstruct; outside the X-Men flicks, cinematic groups of the spandex set are sorely underrepresented. What better way to fix that then to bring to the screen one of the most venerable teams around, the Justice League Of America? With Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman at its head, the JLA represents the best and brightest of the DC Universe, and in spite of the “edgier” turn that universe has taken since Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ masterpiece hit stores, there’s still enough idealism in place to make it feel fresh. The trick is in deciding which stories from the JLA’s vast continuity to adapt. Year One, a 12-issue maxi-series by Mark Waid, would make a good jumping-off point; it’s a refined look at the League’s formation, focusing on the five of the original members (Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, and Black Canary), their developing friendships, and the alien force that ultimately makes them the world’s last, best hope. The only problem is, Year One relegates the team’s most famous members to cameo roles, which could make it a harder sell; imagining a perfect world where character rights are easily negotiated, New World Order could provide flashier (and potentially more commercial) source material. The Grant Morrison-penned arc brought the JLA back after a decade-long absence, and it has all the heavy hitters, plus a world-spanning plot and Batman kicking ass. Audiences could use some irony-free heroics, and both Year One and NWO provide that in spades; the hardest part would be making sure Michael Bay was busy making Transformers 3: Shiny Crap Explodes before shopping around for a director.
One of the most celebrated comics stories of all time, Maus is regularly cited alongside Watchmen as a pinnacle of the medium’s potential. The main barrier here is its creator’s reticence: RAW co-founder Spiegelman is notoriously irascible, and isn’t likely to consent to any adaptation of his most famous work. But aside from its length, Maus would be a pretty easy adaptation; Spiegelman even patterned it after the Mickey Mouse cartoons of his youth. The way the story shifts back and forth in time, in tone, and in mood, from the chilling story of Spiegelman’s father’s agonies at the hands of the Nazis to Spiegelman’s own difficult relationship with the man who survived the Holocaust, would lend itself uniquely to an animated adaptation intercut with live-action sequences. And though Disney would never allow it, the studio’s style would effectively channel Spiegelman’s simple but powerful use of cartoon animals to portray the Jews, Poles, and Germans. It would be the ultimate artistic rebuke to the Nazi theorists who rejected Mickey Mouse as decadent and tainted by Jewishness.
The latest project by the brothers behind Girls and Ultra isn’t even done yet, but neither was Watchmen when it was first optioned as a film. And while it’s possible that The Sword’s story will eventually wander off into unfilmable territory, so far, it has all the makings of a gangbuster action film. There’s a charismatic but troubled heroine, a series of ghastly murders, a series of malevolent beings with godlike powers, a sequence of fantastic cinema-ready battles… The Luna Brothers’ work has always looked like a series of storyboards or animated still-frames, just waiting to be set into motion, and The Sword so far seems like the most compact, iconic, and screen-ready book of the lot.
Craig Thompson’s 600-page black-and-white memoir Blankets, released as a single graphic novel in 2003, played with the medium’s expectations of form and content. Similarly, a movie adaptation of this young man’s journey through religious and romantic failure and redemption might seem like a risky move in the current climate of big-budget comic-book blockbusters. But less action-oriented efforts like Persepolis and Ghost World suggest that there’s a place for Blankets’ take on small, personal joys and sorrows amid all the big-screen spectacle. It almost certainly wouldn’t inspire anything even remotely like the mania surrounding its superhero brethren, but in the right hands, Blankets’ time-tested (and indie-movie-approved) themes of teenage self-discovery, first love, and familial struggle would connect with the sort of audiences that like their movies (and graphic novels) to be insightful, wrenching, and emo as they come.
Debuting in 2005 as part of Marvel’s doomed Tsunami line of young-readers titles, Runaways follows the trials of six kids who discover their parents are members of a supervillain cabal that’s monopolized crime on the West Coast. Featuring cinematic spectacle, quiet character moments, and a telepathic velociraptor (hello, CGI), Runaways combines superheroics and teenage drama, two things that have proven reliable box-office draws lately. Hits like Juno and Superbad have shown that there’s an audience for quirky teenage characters who are well-versed in pop culture—which the Runaways gang certainly are—and there’s no doubt that the Marvel Universe is a good place to make movies right now. Hollywood seems to agree: The series has been optioned and is currently in the scripting stages, overseen by its creator—and current Lost scribe—Brian K. Vaughan. Throw in a couple of big-name stars as the parents, maybe an Iron Man cameo, and you have a potential blockbuster whose appeal transcends typical genre films.
The restlessly talented Kyle Baker, who’s worked with film and television before, has created a number of graphic novels that would make good movies, from the taut neo-noir I Die At Midnight to the broadly funny farce The Cowboy Wally Show. But Why I Hate Saturn, his 1990 satire, may be the best-suited to film adaptation. It’s laid out cinematically, with smoothly executed chapter breaks and a director’s sensibility (not surprising from a man who went on to direct animated music videos), and its charismatic leads—a hip but self-loathing young writer, her delusional hippie sister, and her inappropriately cocky best friend—are juicy comic roles for up-and-coming actors. While some of its humor is grounded in its time and place (the main character’s employment with a Spy magazine parody is likely to be lost on younger audiences), its relationship humor and portraits of hilariously self-destructive bohemians are pretty timeless, and its endless digs at the phony “bridge-and-tunnel dicks” of the New York hipster scene have only gotten more relevant. In the hands of the right cast, and with Baker (or someone appreciative of his sensibilities) adapting the screenplay, Why I Hate Saturn could be a terrific urban comedy.
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ excellent noir series Criminal is written and drawn with the vivid grunginess and weary cynicism of a ’70s crime movie. All it needs is someone to actually film it. Because each story is mostly self-contained—a minor character from one story might be the lead in the next—Criminal doesn’t even have the intricately detailed backstory that can make comics difficult to bring to the screen. Since this series explores and restores old, tired archetypes with double doses of realism and fatalism, it will seem familiar even to people who have never picked up a comic. The book that best exemplifies the greatness of Criminal is The Dead And The Dying, which intertwines the tales of a vengeful Vietnam vet, a damaged femme fatale, and a boxer who’s too good for his circumstances and too dumb to transcend them. The point of the story: how much of a bitch fate can be. With the right director, The Dead And The Dying could be a Sin City-style comics-anthology film for people who hate comic books.
Conventional wisdom is that superhero movies have to start with the origin story; it’s the easiest way to get an audience invested in a character, and most origins have a self-contained arc. But sometimes conventional wisdom isn’t all that wise. A big-screen adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman has been bouncing around the pipeline for years now, but the discussion has generally centered on bringing the first two major storylines (collected in Preludes And Nocturnes and A Doll’s House) to the screen. It might be time to look elsewhere. The Season Of Mists arc takes some resonance from events in the rest of the series, but on its own, it’s got a tremendous hook: Series star Morpheus, the embodiment of the concept of dreaming, goes to Hell to free the love he himself damned. There, he finds Lucifer closing up shop, leaving behind his post, and handing the keys to the nonplussed Dream King. Cinematic fantasy could use something that doesn’t rely on wizards and elves, and in the hands of a gifted visualist like Guillermo Del Toro, Season could be something to behold. It’s got a colorful cast, rich mythology, and a plot full of satisfying surprises. The only trick would be finding a way to insert the minimum of exposition needed to keep viewers from getting lost in all the gorgeousness.
Like Kyle Baker, Dan Clowes has written a number of works that are well-suited to film adaptation, and he’s also got the Hollywood experience to back it up. He’s already provided screenplays for two adaptations of his work, both with Terry Zwigoff behind the camera, and while the less said about Art School Confidential the better, Ghost World was strong evidence that his storytelling sensibilities could make it to the screen intact. Any number of his longer stories would likely make a fine movie; Ice Haven, Caricature, and David Boring are all strong candidates, and Clowes has been working on a screenplay for The Death Ray for a few years already. But maybe the most intriguing possibility is his surreal, unsettling Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron; it’s probably the most David Lynchian comic ever created, the works of David Lynch notwithstanding. Seeing the two work together on this eerie, unhinged story, which blends elements of Twin Peaks and the Manson family’s worst nightmares, would be a rare treat—or a total disaster. Luckily, Clowes has already anticipated the latter possibility; in the pages of Eightball, where Velvet Glove first appeared, he wrote a hilarious what-if story of its Hollywood adaptation, complete with happy ending, product placement, and cheesy classic-rock soundtrack.
There’s already been a Hellblazer movie; Constantine hit theaters in 2005, to mixed reviews from critics and fanboys alike. On its own, it’s better than its reputation suggests, but as a vehicle for the titular anti-hero, it leaves a lot to be desired—changing the character from British to American and then casting the less-than-ideal Keanu Reeves in the role made for a compromised production from the get-go. Given the latest successes of darker comic franchises, now is the perfect time for a reboot, and Freezes Over is the perfect place to start. The Hellblazer arc by Brian Azzarello has John Constantine at a diner in the middle of nowhere, hunkering down against a blizzard. During the storm, a gang of armed thugs busts in and takes the whole place hostage, forcing John to handle the situation with his wits alone. The storyline is light on the occult elements generally associated with the character, but stripped of his flashier tricks, Constantine is pared down to his essence: clever bastard all the way through. Movie-wise, all you’d need is a director capable of getting the most tension out of the snow-swept surroundings, and a screenwriter who can take all Azzarello’s best lines and make his plotting flow better for the screen. No CGI light-show required; it’s just one smart son of a bitch doing what he does best.
Justly celebrated when it debuted in 2001, James Sturm’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing is great enough as a comic book, with a simple but powerful narrative and clean lines—reminiscent of the New Yorker house style of the 1940s and 1950s—that perfectly suits the action. But as a movie, it’d have “prestige picture” written all over it. The story of a barnstorming Jewish baseball team in the Prohibition Era, The Golem’s Mighty Swing focuses on the choices team captain Noah Strauss makes to keep his players competitive. He eventually colludes with a showy promoter and agrees to dress up his best hitter, a towering Negro Leaguer, as the legendary Golem of Hebrew legend to draw a crowd during a crucial game. This decision leads to consequences no one anticipates—and sets up not only a classic, thrilling sports story that would easily translate to the big screen, but also a profound look at the religious, social, and racial prejudices prevalent at the time. (A good screenplay adaptation would also lose the comic’s baffling coda, a cryptic 10-years-later bit that only muddles the story’s razor-keen focus.)
It’s tempting to start a Cerebus adaptation project with the rollicking, easy-to-grasp “barbarian aardvark” tales Sim told in the series’ first 25 issues, but few of those ran long enough to support a feature film. High Society, on the other hand, is probably too long, running 25 issues and containing more made-up information about post-feudalism parliamentary politics than many viewers would care to absorb. But amid all the comic-book and movie parodies (many of which could be excised without losing much), High Society tells a cohesive, nuanced story about a reluctant man of the people who gets thrust into the spotlight, and subsequently takes the people for all he can get. An adaptation would be an incredible challenge—and would likely have to wait until the prickly Sim dies—but given that High Society is one of the four or five greatest graphic novels ever published, it would be a shame if no one ever tried to expand its audience. Plus, wouldn’t a black-and-white animated Cerebus movie look gorgeous? (As for Cerebus’ voice, Sim himself once said in a letter column that the aardvark sounds like George C. Scott. Perhaps Scott’s son Campbell is available.)
Though he went on to do work for all the big comics companies, Canadian writer-artist Ty Templeton arguably did his best work early in his career. Stig’s Inferno is the ridiculously funny story of a young man killed by a collapsing piano lid while attempting to woo a girl; he awakens to find himself in hell, and through a series of hilarious misadventures, accidentally sits on Satan’s throne and finds himself absolute ruler of the damned. Meanwhile, his would-be girlfriend and a squad of incompetent cops investigating his death likewise find their way to hell, and the search is on. It’s the very definition of a cult comedy, and it’s acquired a near-legendary status since—after bouncing back and forth between several indie comics companies, including Vortex and Eclipse—it abruptly ended without concluding. Taken on by a director with just the right combination of absurd humor and surreal visuals—Terry Gilliam, anyone?—Stig’s Inferno could be a cult classic on the level of Repo Man or The Big Lebowski, and a clever screenwriter could also give it the ending it’s long deserved.
French-Canadian graphic novelist Michel Rabagliati has a cartoony drawing style and an autobiographical bent, which he combines to tell gentle, truthful stories about the pains and pleasures of everyday living. His Paul Goes Fishing is about a camping trip from more than a decade ago, though the story digresses frequently to include incidents from the title character’s boyhood, pieces of Quebecois history, and even a jump ahead to the present day to consider how the events of that vacation have continued to resonate. If Paul Goes Fishing were a movie, it would be a slice-of-life indie along the lines of The Squid And The Whale or You Can Count On Me—spiced with the structural play of Y Tu Mamá También—and it would likely be a shoo-in for lists of the year’s best films. Instead, it’s a moderate-selling book that even most comics fans haven’t read. If nothing else, Rabagliati deserves the kind of career boost that a big-screen adaptation could bring.
Paul Chadwick initially recounted the origin of his best-known character in the middle of the first 10-issue run of Concrete, in which he explained—somewhat sketchily—how political speechwriter Ron Lithgow was abducted by aliens and had his brain transplanted into an oversized, rocky android body. Chadwick adapted that story into a screenplay that was never filmed, then adapted the screenplay into the five-issue miniseries Strange Armor, which expands on the themes of displacement, alienation, and fatal misjudgments that Chadwick only hinted at the first time around. Generally speaking, it might be difficult for Hollywood to wrap its collective head around the concept of Concrete—a superhero-like character who uses his gifts to engage social issues and undertake amazing expeditions, not to fight crime—but Strange Armor is Concrete at its most fantastical, and if handled right, it could introduce the viewing public to a hero who thinks more than he acts.
The main difficulty with adapting the offbeat DC superhero series Starman in 2009 is that so much about the character is quintessentially ’90s. Starman ran for 80 issues between 1994 and 2001, and the advantage it has over other superhero stories is that it contains easily excerpted storylines—“Jack Knight fights an old nemesis of his father’s,” “Jack tours outer space,” and so forth—that add up to one master narrative. So if the first movie is a hit, there’s a whole franchise in place, with a logical endpoint. But some minor updating might have to be done to Jack, whose thrift-store costume and obsessions with retro pop culture are a remnant of the Gen-X era, itself now consigned to the nostalgia bin. (Also, moviegoers might be confused to learn that Robinson’s series has nothing to do with the 1984 Jeff Bridges alien romance Starman.) Still, there’s a timelessness to the character: a superhero’s son coming to terms with the family legacy, and traveling far from home to gain an appreciation for where he’s from.
A similar yet notably different story plays out in Robert Kirkman’s superhero-crowded Invincible series, in which the son of a superhero abruptly comes into his hereditary powers and starts fighting crime alongside his famous, universally beloved, Superman-esque old man. Then the old man finally tells his son the truth—that he’s really on Earth to scope it out for alien invasion and conquest. Battles ensue, both physical and emotional. The story of Mark Grayson and his father is chopped up into segments throughout the ongoing series, so there’s no one graphic novel to adapt; rather, there are slices of the series’ most poignant plotline that would have to be excised from a lot of other business, involving Mark’s girlfriend, various other superheroes’ trials and tribulations, and the occasional old-fashioned hero-on-villain punch-up. But assembled correctly, Invincible: The Movie could have all the poignancy and punch of Hancock, but with a mid-story switch-up that feels far more organically bound to the story.
Blockbusters like The Dark Knight draw more attention, but the success of comic-book adaptations has brought out less commercial material as well. So why not Black Hole? Charles Burns’ story of teenagers, sexual discovery, and a nasty STD simply called “the bug” would make a perfect antidote to crap like College and Fired Up, showing us a young adulthood that’s less based on endless parties, and more realistically centered on uneasiness, embarrassment, and mutations that can disfigure the unwary for life. The last word had Hole at Paramount as David Fincher’s next project, and as far as director-source marriages go, this one is nearly ideal. Fincher has already shown himself adept at capturing the ’70s trappings that form the novel’s setting, and anyone doubting he’d have the guts to follow through on the story’s body-horror imagery needs to re-watch their copy of Seven. In less-good news, the Neil Gaiman/Roger Avary script originally attached to the adaptation has been junked, and Hole’s unsettling intimacy isn’t exactly Fincher’s stock in trade. Still, best-case scenario, this will see the director return to form after the pretty but stultifying The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, while provoking nightmares in anyone expecting a remake of the 1979 Disney science-fiction clunker of the same name. What’s not to like?
Richard and Wendy Pini spent decades trying to bring the terrific initial volumes of their early indie masterpiece Elfquest to film or TV, though it seems like those decades were largely wasted in trying to convince various producers that nuanced characters could actually transfer to the screen intact, even if they didn’t follow obvious, strictly limited gender boundaries (a tough girl? a smart, introverted boy? Scandalous!), and even if they did sometimes engage in kid-unfriendly sex and violence. Still, it’s all but impossible to see those early, beautifully colored Warp Graphics volumes of Elfquest, featuring Wendy Pini’s gorgeous anime-meets-Nouveau art, without thinking about what it would all look like in motion. As our culture slooowwwly edges into the idea that occasionally animation might be appropriate for adult audiences too, it starts to seem barely possible that Elfquest might someday see theaters. Unfortunately, the best story arc, the 20-issue “original quest,” is sprawling and ambitious enough that it’d be hard to bring across in just one movie. The self-contained original five issues, repeatedly collected as Fire And Flight, might make for a more manageable initial feature film. (In theory, Elfquest: The Movie is in the planning stages again, this time at Warner Bros., but much as with Watchmen, we’ll believe it on opening day, and not before.)
Such a pity that no one has ever managed to actually adapt Alan Moore’s reference-packed literary mash-up to film. Someone really ought to try that one of these days, huh?