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Philip Baker Hall is… Crankshaft!: 14 comic strips that should be films

Philip Baker Hall in "I Never Sang For My Father." Credit: Daniel G. Lam
Philip Baker Hall in "I Never Sang For My Father." Credit: Daniel G. Lam

1. The Family Circus (1960–present)
Is there any comic strip more iconic of the weird suburban bubble that most American comic strips are trapped in than Bil Keane’s The Family Circus, now running for 50 years and counting? It’s even shaped like a bubble, a circle where we are all trapped in 1961 and stupid Billy won’t stop tracking mud over the carpet.) The Family Circus is one of those strips that can make one regret reading the paper, but it’s done with enough dry, perverse humor that it’s begging to be turned into a film examining the messed-up family dynamics that makes the comic strip worthwhile. Following Keane’s 2011 death, the strip was handed off to his youngest son, Jeff. Similar to what Wes Anderson did for Fantastic Mr. Fox, but with a twist of self-referential amusement, the film version would have Bil Keane, who used his own family as subjects in The Family Circus, looking to retire, and having to choose which dysfunctional child inherits his comic strip. The three (no longer) children, are now jaded adults vying to impress him, all while sneaking drinks from the family brandy snifter and lamenting the childhoods they sacrificed to their dad’s dumb brainchild. Daddy Bil has to be played by Bill Paxton—bland, floppy-haired, smarmy. Jane Adams can be his doe-eyed, beset-upon wife, hiding years of resentment under her cute exterior. And have the kids played by Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, and one of the Jonas Brothers. Instant blockbuster. [SS]

2. FoxTrot (1988–present)
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot has, since its inception in 1988, been a look at the trials and troubles of a middle-class family with three kids and a weird lizard. But while strips like The Family Circus look at everyday life through an “aw shucks” lens, FoxTrot has a little bite, often driven by the family’s youngest child, Jason, who’s like Family Guy’s Stewie, but nerdier. A FoxTrot movie could follow Jason (some up-and-comer who looks like a lot like the kid they cast as Dennis The Menace in that adaptation) as he hitchhikes to Comic-Con or to Skywalker Ranch, where he hopes to somehow become famous strictly for being a total nerd. Chris Hardwick would cameo, of course. [ME]

3. Nancy (1933–present)
In her 80-plus years of existence, 8-year-old Nancy has been through a World War, a Cold War, and countless sets of high jinks with Sluggo Smith, her lazy, napping boyfriend from the wrong side of the tracks. And while the snot-nosed Nancy is nothing to really write home about, the styling of the strip could make for an interesting film, especially if someone like Lena Dunham was brought in to play a quickly-aged Nancy, no longer under the hippie fist of her aunt Fritzi Ritz and instead thrown into the real world and forced to face the real world consequences of having such prickly, oddly-bobbed hair. [ME]

4. Hagar The Horrible (1973–present)
While Hagar The Horrible is a lovable oaf of a Viking warrior, actual Viking life wasn’t all that sunny. That’s why the ideal Hagar adaptation would take a cue from History Channel’s Vikings and give the titular character a sharper sword and a thirst for blood. While Hagar (played, ideally, by a vicious John Goodman) would still love wife Helga, she’d also receive a badass upgrade, making her less of a foil for the lazy warrior and more of a shield maiden anxious to protect her home and her children, the dumb but pretty Honi and Hamlet, who’ll ultimately be turned against his father by Lucky Eddie, Hagar’s idiot pal, and Dr. Zouk, who’s clearly known what’s up all along. [ME]

5. Ziggy (1968–present)
No one’s a bigger loser than Ziggy, the big-headed comic strip character whose sexless body doesn’t even require him to wear pants. While Ziggy seems happy enough, cohabitating with his cat, dog, parrot, fish, and duck, he’s constantly wronged by the system, not that he seems to care. His life is full of parables and advice, something that could translate well to a direct to DVD Christian movie. In Ziggy: The Movie, Jon Voight would play the titular character, who, after years of torment by the world around him, would finally be validated for his patience and fortitude as he’s brought to heaven while the rest of the world (and their pants) are left behind. [ME]

6. Crankshaft (1987–present)
Fresh of his screen-stealing role in the Funky Winkerbean movie, Philip Baker Hall would slap on the red meshback hat again for the title role in Crankshaft. Hall’s an Ohio native, as is the strip’s creator, Tom Batiuk, meaning he’d really get the widowed school bus driver’s tortured Rust Belt existence, struggling to stay close to his family as everyone around him—including biddy neighbors Lillian and Lucy McKenzie, die off. Not unlike the actual strip, Crankshaft the movie could be a bleak examination of what it’s like to get older, to struggle to stay relevant, and to face down your own mortality. [ME]

7. Octopus Pie (2007-present)
Meredith Gran’s Octopus Pie is actually some of the best illustrated storytelling around right now—which means if it were to become a film, it would have to be a pretty great one. Her story focuses on two roommates and friends in Brooklyn, Eve Ning and Hanna Thompson. Eve works for an organic grocery store. Hanna sells baked goods she creates while stoned. They both have misadventures with urban sledding and biking the five boroughs and trying to fall in and out of love, all while being very funny. Octopus Pie is sort of like the comic-book version of Broad City that came first—but in the interests of authenticity, we’d cast differently. Brenda Song is a little too adorable for Eve, but if she could play a little more reticent than some of her other roles, she’d be a solid lead. And a messier Greta Gerwig would make a great Hanna. (Provided she can be snarky and stoned at the same time.) [SS]

8. Sally Forth (1982–present)
Sally Forth is one of those oddities that always make the comics page a little better, even though it’s not typically all that memorable. And yet its style—both illustration and writing—are more like a self-aware soap opera than a comic strip. Sally and Ted and their daughter Hilary make for a contained family unit with continuing and evolving issues, ones that seem more like they’re rooted in the modern world than many of the other comics in the newspaper. Sally and Ted could make for a relatable film about balancing work life with family life. It would be punctuated by long stretches of just talking to each other about stuff, like music on the radio. Richard Linklater would probably have to direct it, just for that. Fantasy casting: Olivia Williams as the no-nonsense Sally; Josh Holloway as the love of her life, who sometimes can’t totally be trusted. Only child Hilary is played by Jane Levy, who spends most of her time sassing her parents. [SS]

9. Zippy The Pinhead (1971–present)
A long-time underground comix fixture, Bill Griffith’s Zippy The Pinhead has failed to follow the path that took contemporaries like Fritz The Cat and American Splendor to the big screen. That’s not for lack of trying: Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Hollywood attempted to get a hold on Griffith’s notoriously oblique creation, with the Aspen Film Society going so far as to plant a full-color, two-page Zippy ad in Variety, an attempt to attract investors that was sadly in vain. The ad touts whichever version of the film was being peddled at the time as a “NEW LIVE ACTION COMEDY WITH VISION…”—but that vision never came into focus. Given Griffith’s penchant for elliptical dialogue and his attention to visual detail, David Lynch is likely to be one of the directors considered for the project—why couldn’t a 21st century Zippy movie be Lynch’s grand return to cinema? Failing that, he’s got the right hair to play Griffy, the logical yin to the pinhead’s yang. [EA]

10. Momma
As noted by Josh Fruhlinger, proprietor of the essential funnies blog The Comics Curmudgeon, the true undercurrent of Momma is the deep-seated, borderline-homicidal tension between titular matriarch Sonya Hobbs and her no-good children. As portrayed by Margo Martindale in a film adaptation of Mell Lazarus’ strip, that antipathy would simmer to the surface—made more understandable by Adam Driver’s needling performance as do-nothing middle child Francis. On a single, minimalist set intended to replicate the blank void of Lazarus’ daily strips, Martindale nags a shiftless Driver, hitting on a number of subjects: his mooching, his taste in women, his inability to hold down a job. In the thrilling third-act twist, Momma can take no more, smothering Francis with a pillow in a grueling 15-minute long take. Final line, direct to camera: “Now every day is Mother’s Day.” [EA]

11. The Lockhorns (1968–present)
After 46 years of single-panel vignettes chronicling the funnies’ most hateful marriage, The Lockhorns’ problem is simple: There’s no more humor to be found in the loveless, sexless, joyless lives of Leroy and Loretta Lockhorn. What the strip needs is a shot in the arm from a real-life couple that’s madly in love, yet still adept at playing people who are either going to tear each other’s clothes off or tear each other’s jugulars out. Enter Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally, transposing the self-destructive romance of Ron Swanson and Tammy II onto jokes about rubbery dinners, bad driving, and inappropriate cocktail-party flirting. At the very least, casting a mustachioed Offerman would once and forever clear up questions about Leroy’s seemingly serrated upper lip. [EA]

12. The Far Side (1980-1995)
At first, the idea of a Far Side film makes no sense: Gary Larson’s brilliant cartoon was nearly always one joke in one panel. But he told complex, absurd stories in just a few words: An organized crime informant is accidentally outed by a thoughtless janitor, a dopey warrior is distracted by goldfish while storming a castle, your family pets are just fucking with you. Any of those premises could make a great live-action comedy, though the filmmakers would need to take great care to keep things weird. And while there’s no obvious main character, somebody with the spirit of the late Leslie Nielsen—total deadpan—would be required for most roles, but particularly those of Larson’s frequently clueless scientists. [JM]

13. B.C. (1958–present)
Though B.C. means “before Christ,” the long-running comic strip—it debuted in 1958!—eventually found Jesus, after creator Johnny Hart did. So a live-action movie version of B.C. should star Kirk Cameron as the witless title character (the caveman, not Christ). Cameron has the witless thing down already, since he practices every day anyway, and the faith-based material is simple enough for him to understand. Cameron’s little sister—Candace Cameron Bure, of Full House fame—should definitely play one of the strip’s two female ideals: There’s The Fat Broad or The Cute Chick. (Their names, not ours.) [JM]

14. Nimona (2012–present)
Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona was originally her art-school thesis project, but in the space of just a couple of years, it’s already one of the most action-packed yet completely charming webcomics around—especially for one that only features three primary characters. Although adapting for the big screen would lose the sarcastic final line from the author that’s posted at the end of each entry, that’s okay. Everything really hinges on casting that title role. The actress should probably be a natural redhead to pull off what is truly one of the weirdest hairstyles ever seen on a fictional character, but she also has to be convincing as an eager young shapeshifter/villain-in-training. Perhaps this could be the breakthrough role Felicia Day has been waiting for. Another tricky casting question has to be Lord Ballister Blackheart, a world-weary supervillain with an ax to grind. Who but Robert Downey Jr. could pull off all the affectionate wisecracking required of this part? His indelible ability to pull off carefully sculpted facial hair without looking like a complete asshole also factors into this decision. As far as Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin goes, let’s dream big and slap a truly fabulous wig on Michael Fassbender. [AB]