Top Ten Non-Superhero Comic Films

A column article, Top Ten by: Nick Hanover, David Fairbanks, Zack Davisson, Dylan Garsee



As far as mainstream audiences are concerned, comic book movies exclusively feature grown ass men and women parading around in odd fashion ensembles while using amazing/silly special effects to beat one another senseless. And based on the numbers that little Avengers movie is doing, people love that shit. But here at CB, we want to take this week to focus not on the giddy excess of Big Two adaptations but on great films you may not have even realized were based off of comics.

Some of these were huge hits, like Luc Besson's Moebius mash letter The Fifth Element and the Oscar extravaganza that was Road to Perdition. But most of these are beloved in a less monetarily epic sense, with works like Oldboy and Ghost World appreciated by sizable cults that grow each year. These are works that show the variety of comics and while many audiences likely don't think of them when thinking of comic book movies, they're uniformly excellent with arguably more potency than their cape and spandex clad brethren.



Oldboy (2003)

Superhero comics are filled with revenge. Revenge for traumatic childhoods. Revenge for past transgressions. Revenge for schemes gone wrong, for backstabbing, for constant attempted murder. But few, if any, superhero stories depict revenge as well as Oldboy, Park Chan-wook's masterful adaptation of the titular manga which sits at the center of his "vengeance trilogy" and stands as one of the darkest, most haunting explorations of man's desire for payback in the history of film.

Oldboy's potency comes from the way it establishes Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) as a figure who isn't motivated by revenge but consumed by it; that's at first understandable, since he's been locked away for fifteen years with little else to sustain him but the notion that he will one day get vengeance on whoever confined him. Most people in such a situation would be similarly thirsty for vengeance and the story easily could have been structured as your typical "man hunts down all who wronged him" story, with the requisite action pieces and snappy one liners. But instead, Park Chan-wook depicts the emotional and physical toll hatred can take on a person and how the blindness that results can radically alter one's perception of the past.

Park Chan-wook succeeds because he is unafraid to show the ugliness of Oh Dae-su and the despicable actions that aren't so easily excused as mere payback, ultimately resulting in a macabre collision of parallel revenge plots as Oh Dae-su's tormentor reveals his own revenge plans. In the world of superheroes, revenge typically falls along black and white lines, with right and wrong reasons for vengeance unfolding as needed for the story. But in Oldboy, as in life, revenge is much more complicated, with no clear solution and end results that aren't anywhere near satisfactory for anyone. Oldboy's final twists show the truth of that old adage that when you set out for revenge, you should first dig two graves, but in this particular case, only one of those graves is for a person while the other is for an entire past, one that has been killed in favor of a fresh status quo that hides the ugliest of truths. It's devastating and sickening and nothing could be more fitting.

by Nick Hanover



Persepolis (2007)

Marjane Satrapi's autobio comic, Persepolis, is her coming of age story during the Iranian revolution. It's taught in college classes, listed in magazines like Time, and received praise from professors at institutes such as Oxford.

It can be tempting to cast a live action version of these kind of stories; we are, after all, a country that is only slowly learning that animation isn't automatically children's faire. That they decided to animate Persepolis, though, gives it an almost otherworldly feel that sets it right in line with Satrapi's art. It was the right decision, and Persepolis is one of the most beautifully animated movies I have ever seen.

Satrapi chronicles her life, from her childhood until she becomes an expat at 24. There's not really a lot more to say that wouldn't be a play-by-play of the film, and I feel like I'd be robbing you of the experience of enjoying the film if I did that.

In short, Satrapi grew up in Tehran and wanted to be both a prophet and Bruce Lee. She spent time in Vienna, as a teenager, because her parents feared that she would only end up getting arrested under the war-torn Iranian regime of the '80s.

Satrapi's life is one of politics and punk rock, homelessness and brushes with death. It's beautiful, painful, hopeful, and one of my favorite comics-turned-movies.

It was nominated for Best Animated Feature, losing to Ratatouille (which, really, feels like a crime), but it deservedly won the jury Prize at Cannes. And it deserves your attention.


by David Fairbanks



A History of Violence (2005)

I have only read three comics in my life: 52Forgetless, and A History of Violence. Yes, I write for Comics Bulletin, yet I have only read three. I'm not sure why I write for them either; I guess it's my penis.

Post-9/11, Cronenberg has been rather hit or miss. Eastern Promises and A History of Violence have held up incredibly well compared to the very mixed responses to A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis. Of those films, I have only seen three, because the week Cosmopolis played in Austin, I was doing something better, like sleeping. A Dangerous Method was poorly paced, and Eastern Promises suffered from similar, but not as drastic, pacing issues leaving A History of Violence as my favorite non-Fly Cronenberg film.

While only partially based on the titular graphic novel, the film captures the essence of the nature of double identities that serves as the theme for both works. The focus may be on Viggo Mortensen's violent other half, but for me the more striking element is the exploration of the relationship between husband and wife. Their complicated, loving and, for lack of a better word, violent relationship presents what feels like a more typical domestic relationship blown up to extreme but nonetheless truthful levels. Like all Cronenberg films, A History of Violence is also an exploration of the invasion of bodies. But rather than The Fly's biological invasion, it instead brings to light one's past self to infect the current self to show that one's worst enemy is most always themselves.

by Dylan Garsee



Ghost World (2001)

Thanks to his previous comics-inspired work, Crumb, Terry Zwigoff had at least a passing familiarity with the independent comics scene, although I don't know that I would've thought of him to bring Ghost World to the silver screen.

That said, he managed to do a pretty impressive job, explaining why Clowes would go on to collaborate with him on Art School Confidential.

Ghost World centers on the lives of two high school friends, played by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson, who have just graduated and are struggling to keep their friendship together. Enid and Rebecca feel like variations on Jane and Daria for anyone familiar with MTV's Daria (which very well could've taken inspiration from Clowes' Eightball stories).

They're alienated teen girls, Enid (Birch) more so than Rebecca (Johansson), and the bulk of the events spring out of the two of them contacting a man who placed a personal ad looking for a woman he'd seen recently, to play a joke on him.

I'm pretty sure that Steve Buscemi was destined to be a Daniel Clowes character. Not only does his appearance mesh perfectly with the character of Seymour, but his voice and mannerisms make me think he was destined for this role.

Ghost World is the story about growing up and discovering that maybe high school was better than you thought it was. It's got commentary both from and about the outcast kids you knew/were in high school. It's touching, frustrating, and angry, and nobody is particularly redeemable in the film or the comic, which is at least part of what makes it such a great movie.


by David Fairbanks



The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (2010)

If The Fifth Element was Luc Besson's love letter to Moebius and his fanciful surrealist futurism, then his (legal) adaptation of The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec is his love letter to Jacques Tardi's own obsession with the imaginative heights of the pop fiction of the early 20th century. Situated somewhere between Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Herge's Tintin stories, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec follows the eponymous character, a journalist and traveler who is surrounded by fanciful happenings.

While Adele Blanc-Sec is as impeccably designed and imagined as The Fifth Element, what really brings the story to life in ways Tardi couldn't have even imagined is the incredible lead performance by Louise Bourgoin, who manages to shine even as she's surrounded by phenomenal special effects. A strong hit in Europe, Adele Blanc-Sec is unfortunately overlooked stateside, but for fans of Tintin and modernist surreal films like City of Lost Children as well as pulp adventures like the Indiana Jones series, Adele Blanc-Sec should be a natural fit, following a plot across France and Egypt that features a dinosaur, mummies and even the Titanic.

Most of the other works on this list are well known and beloved, but Adele Blanc-Sec deserves further attention, both in film form and in its original comic form. It's that rare film that can be loved by people of any age and helps show how little filmmakers have scratched the surface of comics.

by Nick Hanover



Lone Wolf and Cub (1972-1974)

We constantly see news about comic creators getting screwed over and unacknowledged in movie deals. There is no worry about that in Lone Wolf and Cub. In what should have been a template for all comic-to-film adaptations to come, comic author Koike Kazuo was hired to write the screenplays for the films that would transform his wandering ronin and son into internationally known characters.

If you have never seen Lone Wolf and Cub, you might be surprised by just how … cartoony it is. Even though Koike’s comic takes a more serious, dour approach, the film version is pure over-the-top Cinematic Samurai. Sword never touches flesh without a garden hose of blood shooting forth—more blood than a human body can conceivably hold. Attackers leap as if gravity can’t hold them. Aerodynamic principle can’t interfere with a well flung sword. A wooden baby cart transforms into a mechanized death machine. The only physics this film series obeys is the Rule of Cool.

Even more strange then, in the mix of this cacophony of chaos, that the actor playing the Lone Wolf himself is one of Japan’s most accomplished swordsmen actors. Tubby and middle-aged, Wakayama Tomisaburo can wield a katana like few since the age of the samurai. It’s amazing to see a guy that looks not unlike a surly, drunken uncle you are embarrassed to be seen with whipping around a yard of heavy, folded steel like he is fly fishing. Sure, Wakayama may not have the natural charm and charisma of his brother Katsu Shintaro (also known as the blind swordsman Zatoichi), but if the two of them ever threw down there is no doubt who would be sliced into pieces and served on the dinner table.

There are six Lone Wolf and Cub films in the series, which barely touches the 28 volumes of the comic. But it is a testament to Wakayama that, no matter how popular the series remains, they have never been remade. They got it right the first time.


by Zack Davisson



American Splendor (2003)

American Splendor is a strange movie, but that's not too surprising, considering that Harvey Pekar was a somewhat unusual man. His comics are some of the best-known, earliest examples of autobiographical comics in the medium, but they seem like a strange thing to adapt into a film.

I mean, it's difficult to adapt someone's whole life, and the bulk of Pekar's stories, aside from The Quitter and Our Cancer Year are short stories, so you're left with a bit of a conundrum, telling his story in American Splendor.

So Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini pieced the film together as part film adaptation, part documentary. So it feels a bit weird, going back and forth between Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Pekar himself talking to the camera, and the same goes for Hope Davis as Joyce Brabner, Pekar's wife.

It's this strange, fourth-wall breaking experience where you see Giamatti re-enecting some scenes from Pekar's comics with Pekar and Brabner offering commentary on just how strange it is to have their life out in the open in comics and being depicted onscreen by actors.

Adding extra authenticity to the series, American Splendor was shot entirely on location in Pekar's home town of Cleveland. It's been described as being not unlike a Woody Allen film, where you get a somewhat down and/or out protagonist who probably makes his life harder than he needs to. And yet, we're swept in anyway, because he's just so damn human.

The film nabbed a bunch of awards, including the FIPRESCI award at Cannes, and was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, losing out to Return of the King.

If you have any interest in Harvey Pekar, or really comics or humanity in general, you should check out American Splendor. You'll probably find yourself moving on to the wealth of his comics too; I know I did.


by David Fairbanks



The Fifth Element (1997)

Let's first get one thing clear: The Fifth Element is the best existing adaptation of a Moebius work, even if it isn't legally described as an adaptation. Moebius may have lost the case that alleged that The Fifth Element is an unlicensed adaptation of his and Jodorowsky's masterpiece The Incal, but in much the same way that without The Invisibles there probably wouldn't have been The Matrix, without The Incal there wouldn't have been The Fifth Element. To make matters even more complicated, director and co-writer Luc Besson also based many of the story elements off of a different French comic called The Circles of Power, a volume of the long running French series Valerian and Laureline, by Jean-Claude Mezieres, who also did concept art for the film.

Despite its complicated origins and legal issues, The Fifth Element is a striking and lovingly designed ode to French sci-fi comics, full of mesmerizing costumes and breathtaking gadgetry. Essentially a romantic sci-fi epic, The Fifth Element is the story of Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), a sad sack taxi driver who used to be a hotshot special forces Major who is forced to realize his potential after a beautiful, mysterious woman literally falls in his lap. It's a typical Willis performance, filled with smirking cynicism and resignation, but like 12 Monkeys before it, it's enlivened by its gritty futurism and apocalyptic plot.

That plot is of course marvelously convoluted, but the gist is that Dallas must protect and assist the mysterious femme fatale who landed in his lap, named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), and the ancient cult that has guarded a secret about a pending threat to all of humanity. Opposing Dallas and company is Jean-Baptiste Zorg, played by a wickedly campy Gary Oldman, who manages to be entirely menacing and completely ridiculous at the same time. The Fifth Element is by no means high art, but it's a continuously entertaining film that rewards multiple viewings, especially since so much of its appeal comes from the phenomenal design work, which is impossible to take in in one viewing. Like Moebius' art, the world of The Fifth Element is filled with rich, microscopic details and crammed with impossibly fantastic ideas. It may not be a clearcut adaptation, but no other film has quite nailed the tone and excitement of a Moebius work like The Fifth Element.

by Nick Hanover



Ichi the Killer (2001)

Based off Hideo Yamamoto’s comic, Ichi the Killer (Koroshiya 1) is a stylistic, well-made film about killing for the sake of killing, by those who love doing it with style and a sexual passion. It is a brutal film. In a country with few boundaries, none stretch those boundaries quite as far as director Miike Takeshi.

Japan is an enigma to those who see violence in entertainment as having negative social impact. One of the safest countries on Earth—with a close to zero violent crime rate—Japan at the same time creates some of the bloodiest, most brutal, vomit-inducing media available. Free from the threat of actual violence and rape, Japan has more license to play with it as fantasy. Rape films. Slaughter films. Cannibalistic gore fests. Incest-rape-slaughter-cannibal-films. Some of what passes for casual entertainment in Japan is illegal to import into the U.S.

Violence as a genre has a respected pedigree in Japan. Stretching from entrail-covered Edo period kabuki theater to classic ‘60s sex/fight flicks like Sezuki Seijin’s Elegy to Fighting (Kenka Ereji) to Miike’s lovingly crafted gore fests, the Violence genre represents an idea that seems strange to most non-Japanese; the idea that violence—especially extreme violence—can be beautiful. As long as it is full of love.

Love is the key, and the key to Ichi the Killer. At its deepest heart, this is a nihilistic romance film. Like some twisted personal add, the ultimate masochist seeks the ultimate sadist. The masochistic, yakuza killer Kakihara—the scary guy featured on the box cover—has a difficult time finding anyone who can satisfy his needs. While receiving a beating, Kakihara complains that "There's no love in your violence." To commit violence without love is like having sex without emotion, and empty physical act.

Kakihara is undoubtedly the star of the film. He is brash and beautiful. But it is the eponymous Ichi the Killer who is the true protagonist. Mentally unstable and boyish to the extreme, Ichi is a deranged assassin who wears a superhero costume with a bold Number 1 ("Ichi" means "Number 1" in Japanese) emblazoned on the back. Ichi is an almost-controllable tool of Jijii, who plays the gangs against each other for a mysterious motive. Jijii aims Ichi like a gun, then pulls the trigger. Kakihara’s deepest fantasy is to be slain by Ichi, the ultimate killer, but not before the time is right.

Ichi the Killer is a trip into a dark underworld of sadomasochism and lustful violence. Without Miike’s guiding hand, the film could easily slip into parody and irrelevance. But Miike the auteur delivers up a stunning, controlled exploration of the dark places of human nature. Places that most people would not willfully venture into. It is, without a doubt, the finest film in the genre.


by Zack Davisson



Road to Perdition (2002)

Gangsters, particularly of the 1930s’ Chicago variety, are pure American mythology. The long coats and sharp hat, the rattling Tommy Guns, the bank jobs and desperate get-aways clinging to the running boards—these as much a part of the American landscape as dust-covered cowboys and wide-open deserts.

Yet, Road to Perdition owes as much to Japan as it does to America. The original graphic novel—and yes, I am using the term correctly—by Max Allan Collins is a reimagining of Koike Kazuo’s brilliant comic Lone Wolf and Cub (whose film adaptation also appears on this list). When English director Sam Mendes made the film version of Collins’ comic, he was heavily influenced by Japanese director Kurosawa Akira’s silent film aesthetic. One of my favorite scenes in Road to Perdition—the silent slaughter shattered by the sudden burst of gunfire—comes directly from Kurosawa’s Ran.

[This is something of a tradition; An Italian director once adapted Kurosawa’s samurai flicks and completely revolutionized the Western genre. Sometimes I think it takes an outside to truly see us for what we are. Not to mention that the lonely, wandering warrior is something Japan excels at—the themes are universal, and it only takes a costume change to make ronin and samurai into cowboys and gangsters.]

But all that is just abstract film theory, really. You can watch Road to Perdition without the slightest bit of knowledge of its Japan-roots, or its comic book roots, and still be completely swept away by it. In fact, people tend to still be surprised when they find out that the film is based on a comic at all. The idea that comic book = superhero is still pervasive in the U.S., and if the lead character isn’t flush with superpowers and a tight costume most people don’t think of it as a comic book film.

The real point of all this is that Mendes took all of these influences, threw in a few more—such as the lonely artwork of American Ashcan School artist Edward Hopper—assembled a cast of incredible actors; Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, and Daniel Craig in his pre-Bond days; and created one of the most beautiful gangster films ever filmed. And one of the best non-superhero comic-to-film adaptations.


by Zack Davisson


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