Thursday, January 3, 2013

The History of Comic Book Adaptations to Film (Part 1: 40s and 50s)



What we think of today as comic books were created in 1933. Their popularity really took off in 1938, with the creation of Superman, the first superhero.

Only three years later, Captain Marvel, published by Fawcett Comics, was the first comic book character to be adapted into film. In 1941 Republic Pictures began a serial entitled, “The Adventures of Captain Marvel.” They had tried to make a Superman movie, but DC (called National Periodical Publication at the time) refused. 


The serial was twelve chapters and directed by John English and William Witney. Compared to many of the serials that followed, the production values weren’t that bad, and the film isn’t that cheesy. Obviously not as good as a high budget production of the time, but not terrible either.
The title character was portrayed by Tom Tyler, who had appeared in some John Ford westerns. In the serial, Captain Marvel fights a villain called The Scorpion. Some characters created just for the movie eventually found their way into the comics. ( This is the first of many examples of comic book adaptations affecting the source material.
The serial can be watched on Youtube. Here is a link to the first episode.
Captain Marvel had only been created two years earlier in 1939. In both the serial and the comics, Captain Marvel’s alter ego was Billy Batson. Billy gets his powers from an old wizard named Shazam, and must say the name “Shazam” to transform into Captain Marvel, which is also true to the comics. In the 1970s, Captain Marvel was bought by DC and integrated into the DC Universe.

Also in 1941, Superman was made into a cartoon serial by Fleischer Studios. Fleischer Studios were famous for making Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons. They made the first 8 episodes of Superman; the first one was nominated for an Academy Award. The final 8 were made by Famous Studios. The serial was completed in 1943. In the serial, Superman fought a variety of villains, including robots, dinosaurs, and Nazis.
The Superman cartoons were notable for being one of the earliest uses of the Rotoscoping technique where animation is done over live-action footage. This method would later be used by filmmakers such as Ralph Bakshi and Richard Linklater (in A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life). They also contained the first use of the famous lines, “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!”

The cartoon shorts were actually very influential on the Superman character in the comics. They were the first time Superman could fly, prior to that he was simply an excellent jumper.
In 1942, the Fawcett Comics character, Spy Smasher, was the basis of a Republic serial. There were 12 chapters released. According to the Unofficial Guide to DC Comics (, Spy Smasher first appeared in 1940. He used a vehicle called the Gyrosub that travels through the air as well as underwater. After WW2 ended, he became Crime Smasher. However, Fawcett stopped publishing all superhero comics in the early 1950s. In 1972, DC bought the rights to all Fawcett comic characters, including Spy Smasher. Spy Smasher and the other Fawcett characters were designated to be part of the DC multiverse on Earth-S.
Uncommonly for this era, Spy Smasher featured a villain that was actually from the comics, The Mask.They did make some changes, such as giving Spy Smasher a twin brother. Spy Smasher featured opening titles in the same style as The Adventures of Captain Marvel, as made by Republic. Spy Smasher functioned as wartime propaganda; the serial begins with him getting captured in Nazi-occupied Paris.

The earliest portrayal of Batman on film was the 1943 serial made by Columbia Pictures. The whole series is available on Youtube as of this writing. Batman (Lewis Wilson) is portrayed as faking a playboy persona. Robin and Alfred both appear. Batman and Robin look pretty goofy in their costumes, but I guess they are somewhat faithful to the comics at the time.
Unfortunately, they don’t have a Batmobile (budget problems says IMDB trivia), they just use a Cadillac. According to the IMDB trivia section, other changes were the result of censorship. Instead of being vigilantes, Batman and Robin are FBI agents and none of the villains from the comics could appear.

 The Batman serial also introduced elements that would eventually become iconic parts of the Batman character such as what was then known as the “Bat’s Cave”. In episode two, Batman and Robin bring a gangster back to the Bat’s Cave, which is just an actual cave with a desk in it. There are some bats flying around, and they get him to talk simply by threatening to leave him alone with the bats. The gangster says he was hired by a guy named “Smith”. Batman responds, deadpan, “That name sounds phony.”
The serial contained some crude racial stereotypes of Japanese people. The villain, Dr. Daka, is a white character in Asian makeup that claims to serve Hirohito and has a terrible fake accent. Many racial slurs are used.

The first Marvel character to be adapted was Captain America, for a 1944 serial. This would be the only theatrical adaptation of a Marvel character until Howard the Duck was released in 1986. In the serial Captain America’s identity is not Steve Rogers, but rather Grant Gardner. He also wears an incredibly lame looking costume, even for the times.

Hop Harrigan was a DC character created by Jon Blummer. He wasn’t really a “superhero” per se, as he had no powers and didn’t wear a costume. Hop was just a really good pilot who had fought in World War Two. The character was used in a fifteen chapter serial (1946) starring William Bakewell as Harrigan. According to AllRovi, in the serial Hop fights an insane professor named Dr. Tobor.

The Vigilante serial (1947, director: Wallace Fox) was released by Columbia Pictures based on the DC character. It starred Ralph Byrd as the titular character, a singing cowboy who also fought crime on his motorcycle. In the comic book, The Vigilante’s sidekick was a young Chinese boy, but in the serial this character was changed to be white.
The Vigilante first appeared in comic form in 1938 and according to, and went on to appear in Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985. He appeared in the cartoon Justice League Unlimited as well as Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

In 1948, Superman was portrayed in live action for the first time by Kirk Alyn. The 15-part serial was directed by Spencer Gordon Bennett (who would go on to direct the Batman and Robin serial the next year) and Thomas Carr (also directed Congo Bill with Bennett). Columbia Pictures distributed Superman.

Also in 1948 another DC hero was given his own serial, Congo Bill. Bill first appeared in 1940 and in the fifties would go on to become known as Congorilla. Congorilla was even a member of the Justice League at one point. In the serial, Bill is an adventurer that must rescue a missing girl in Africa.

1949 saw the 15 chapter Batman and Robin serial released by Columbia. It featured Commissioner Gordon for possibly the first time, as well as comic character Vicki Vale. Sadly, the film was quite low-budget. It could have been very interesting to see a 1940s filmed version of Batman if done right. The costume, like in the previous serial looks pretty goofy. There also several continuity errors and it the whole thing looks cheap.

In 1950, the Atom man vs. Superman serial was released, which was a sequel to the 1948 serial. It kept Kirk Alyn as Superman and Bennett as director. This film contained the first filmed portrayal of Lex Luthor by Lyle Talbot.

            Superman and the Mole Men (1951) was the first full length (only 58 minutes) movie based on a comic book character. George Reeves starred as Superman as he would in the television series released next year. The show aired until 1957 and spawned a TV movie titled, “Stamp Day for Superman (1954)”.

In 1952, a Blackhawk (Quality Comics) serial was made. This was the last theatrically released serial based off a comic book. It was also released by Columbia Pictures and starred Kirk Alyn as Blackhawk. Spencer Gordon Bennett again directed, this time with Fred F. Sears.
Blackhawk was published continuously from 1941 to 1968, first by Quality, then by DC. There were also a few short series with the character printed in the 60s and 70s.
By the mid-1950s, serials were no longer commonly made. This meant the end of superhero and comic book films for the time being. This would be the case until the mid-1960s.

1 comment:

  1. Cookie Monster's review of Superman and the Mole Men: