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Comic Book Celebration – Comic Bliss by Larry Curtis

Friday, June 1, 2012

Larry Curtis shares a personal story about falling in love with comics, and his enthusiasm for their big screen adaptations. Stay tuned for more comic celebrations as we countdown the days to SAN DIEGO COMIC-CON!

Story by Larry Curtis

I was six years old when I discovered the joy of comics. I picked a mild horror themed comic off the 7-11 rack during a Cuculich family vacation pit stop. My best friend’s clan was taking me along on their lake resort summer excursion. The memory of reading about the WWI fighter pilot ghost story is irreversibly linked in my brain with Billy Joel’s “Moving Out” playing on the eight-track tape deck. The poignant scent of a lighted cigarette being smoked out the cracked window and the road thrumming under the Thunderbird’s tires. What a time!

Next I was eight, headed for Missouri on an excruciating 20-hour road-trip caravan with cousins, aunts and uncles to visit my grandparents. Bob and Bill, each older and wiser to the ways of in-car entertainment, bought some comics at a gas-station and probably to keep me quiet. After a switch to their car, they let me read some of their stash. There was an Archie I think, maybe a Sad Sack, but what I remember was Daredevil (later I learned #155). I immediately loved reading about “The Man Without Fear.”

The whole thing was cemented for me when I was 10 and had just moved from a familiar neighborhood full of friends into a new setting with few children – all of them strangers. Once again at the convenience store I found Daredevil, issues #170 and #171 and I figured out that these things had numbers and stories that continued from issue to issue. The cover blurb read “NOW MONTHLY!” and clued me in on when to look for the next one. Scripting those issues was an upstart writer/artist named Frank Miller who was in the early stages of changing the world of comics (and entertainment). Even in fourth grade I knew a damn good story when I saw it. His run on Daredevil and later Batman matured the story telling possibilities of the whole industry and helped inspire the 1989 Batman movie. I was lucky to catch him early.

I soon located a comic book store of sorts, located in the back of “The Cosmic Aeroplane,” a bookstore legend in Salt Lake City. Ten months later I was reading the landmark #181, the death of supporting character Elektra, and I remember crying in the car while I was waiting for my parents shopping. Comic ink was in my blood by then and I haven’t missed an issue of Daredevil since. The issues I don’t have, since it was first published in 1964, can be counted on one hand with fingers left over.

Imagine then my surprise when years later Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner starred in a major Hollywood film about “my guy” in red tights. Miller and the other landmark writers that have helmed the title were all given nods in the film, often with characters named after them. The writer and director, Mark Steven Johnson, might be open to criticism for his execution of the film, but his passion for the material is beyond reproach and is evident in every frame. (If only he had consulted me to hammer out some script problems!)

People still ask me how I liked the film and I can never really answer. What they don’t understand is that my satisfaction with the film is almost irrelevant. What I long to yell at them, almost every single time is, “THEY MADE A FREAKING DAREDEVIL MOVIE!” That fact still seems impossible, even years after the film was released.

Spider-Man, Superman and Batman, well they are all no-brainers. Movies named after characters that every man, woman and child on earth are familiar with tend to make money. But somehow the world evolved enough between the Daredevil comic almost getting canceled (before the young upstart Miller took over in 1979), and a film studio spending $100 million to make a blockbuster movie about the same character in 2003. Comic books are big movie business these days – big, big, big.

And not every comic book adaptation features a hero in tights. There are plenty of comic-inspired films that maybe viewers don’t realize are from comic books at all. A significant subset tends to be horror-based: Man-Thing, The Crow, From Hell, the Blade films, Constantine. Add to that 300, Alien vs. Predator, Men In Black, The Mask, Wanted, American Splendor, and on and on. I hate to mention A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, because the comic was so brilliant while the movie had – well, considerably less brilliance in my opinion, but that one too was an adaptation.

So why has the comic book medium become such a hot muse in Hollywood circles? There may not be one answer, but there are a few solid explanations.

Think about the way comics and film tell their respective stories. There are many similarities that tie the two formats together. Each uses images and words; a comic’s words are written or illustrated while a movie presents them in an audible format but in the mind of the reader the experience can be largely the same.

Using the film format’s vocabulary, each medium is able to cut from an establishing shot to an extreme close-up and even slide into “impossible” close-ups of things too small for the eye to see, such as blood cells, nerve endings or atomic particles if it serves the story. Various techniques allow character dialog, audible (or written) thought and narration to tell the story. The movie director and the comic creator have similar choices to make regarding how a story is told. Hollywood even uses the storyboard to pre-visualize the story before shooting film. With the technological leap of realistic CGI, comic book movies quickly became more feasible for both budgets and production.

So, the story-telling formats have a lot in common but that alone doesn’t explain all the crossovers. Another factor may be that comic readers grew up to become movie-makers.

Mark Steven Johnson, previously mentioned writer and director of the Daredevil film, had only a single film to his credit – the underwhelming Simon Birch – but his persistence and passion won him the job. Affleck has commented in many interviews that he couldn’t pass up the chance to appear as his childhood hero Daredevil and director Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy, Mallrats) turned his name recognition as a director into comic writing credits on Daredevil and The Green Arrow, fulfilling his childhood wishes.

When Sony decided to wager its money on a Spider-Man film it selected the passionate, but relatively unproven, Sam Raimi to direct it. At the 2001 Comic-Con in San Diego Raimi showed up to reveal some of his footage for the first time and told his enthusiastic audience that he, like them, was a veteran comic book reader and making the film was his geek’s-dream come true. For mainstream Hollywood but to let him head-up a $100 million production was a gamble at the time.

Director Bille Woodruff talked about what he would like to do in future projects to MTV.com, “…Maybe a comic-book-inspired movie. I love comic books. I have like 5,000 of them at home.”

As kids who grew up with comics grow into film-creating adults, more favorite franchises will see the light of day. The list goes on and on and will probably grow as more creative people ‘come out’ as comic aficionados. In fact it recently came to light that Orson Wells, the film master himself, was prepping a Batman film, which was sidetracked when the studio suggested James Cagney play the lead instead of Wells himself.

Still the biggest factor in all the comic books moving on to the silver screen comes down to money; big, big money. Boxofficemojo.com lists 102 comics-to-screen adaptations since 1978. Of those, 39 have grossed over $100 million U.S. The Dark Knight leads at $533 million. Neither of these figures take into account the increasingly important non-U.S. markets, where they also perform well.

Since money talks in the world of business and especially in the world of movies, the comic book movie is here to stay, at least for a while. The public may lose interest and the flood of films may slow down to a trickle, but the comics genre will always remain fertile ground for the imagination and thus fertile ground for Hollywood to harvest from.

Comics themselves meanwhile will continue to allow unbridled imagination to creative folks. Scott McCloud said it best in his landmark book Understanding Comics, “Comics offer tremendous resources to all writers and artists: faithfulness, control, a chance to be heard far and wide without fear of compromise…It offers range and versatility with all the potential imagery of film and painting plus the intimacy of the written word.”

Like many who admire the form of sequential art (or comic books) my inner-child and my genre-loving adult self – both reader and movie lover – couldn’t be happier.

About the Writer: Larry D. Curtis is a reader of nearly everything he can get his hands on but especially in ‘genre’ fiction. He is also a writer and makes his living working for a newspaper, writing about video games, books, pop-culture and sports. He enjoys variety and also does work for websites and magazines. He dabbles in photography and enjoys the company of those who are passionate about their hobbies including film.

Join the conversation! Send us an email about how you got into comic books and collecting, and we might publish it here during our 2012 Comic-Con celebration.

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