Thursday, May 30, 2013

The History of Comic Book Adaptations to Film (Part Two: 60s and 70s)

You can watch a video version of this essay here as well.




In the late 1950s and early 1960s, comic book heroes faded from the public eye. This all changed with the massive popularity of the Batman TV series. The series ran for three seasons from 1966 to 1968. It starred Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin.
The show was incredibly popular and a main reason that Batman has been such a cultural phenomenon. However, the show was very campy and was basically a comedy. This led to many people perceiving comic books and their filmed adaptations as silly.  The campy tone was likely inspired the earlier serials.
The producers originally wanted a theatrical release to drum up interest for the Batman show. However, the movie (simply titled Batman) was not filmed until after the first season. It was directed by Leslie H. Martinson (PT-109 and Fathom) and released on July 30, 1966.
Batman features the four major villains working together: The Joker, The Riddler, Catwoman, and The Penguin. Some of these villains, such as Catwoman, had not been used since the 1940s. The earlier serials did not use villains from the comics.
The villains have a device that turns people into dust, which they use on members of the United World Organization (an ersatz United Nations).  Don’t worry about the details too much; the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. In fact, the film is dedicated to “Funlovers everywhere.”

The movie is completely ridiculous throughout, and the characters seem to realize this. It verges on self-parody at times, as there are some quotes could be taken in a metareferential way. For example, in the bat cave, all the machines are labeled with large signs. When the Penguin is taken in, he asks Batman for some water. To this, he replies deadpan, “The drinking water dispenser is clearly marked.” Almost as if he realizes the ridiculousness. Another example could be found when Batman is talking to a Vice Admiral, trying to ascertain if any submarines have recently been disposed of.  He finds out that one has been given to a man named “P. N. Guin” and he only left a PO box number. The Admiral asks, “We haven’t done anything foolish, have we?” Batman, through gritted teeth, says, “Disposing of pre-atomic submarines to persons who don't even leave their full addresses?! Good day, Admiral!” West finds the perfect way to deliver these quips.

Almost everything that Batman uses is given the Bat- prefix. He uses Batpoles, Batcopters, a Batboat, and he even has Bat Shark Repellent. The film also might be the source of the jokes about Batman and Robin being homosexual. In the movie, Robin seems a little jealous when Batman is making out with Miss Kitka. Robin and Alfred are watching over a camera, and Robin wants to turn it off, which he claims is out of decency. Alfred seems keen to watch however, and says it might not be wise to stop snooping.

While the series rocketed to popularity, it had an equally quick decline. The show only lasted three seasons. According to Batman Wiki, ratings were declining by the beginning of season three, leading them to introduce Batgirl.
            Nonetheless, the Batman series made Batman a household name, basically on the level of Superman. Some Batman fans don’t like the series because it “essentially reinforced the notion that comics were inherently silly and for five year old boys alone.”(blog post on However, as that same blog post points out, the character of Batman would not be where he is today without the series.


The next movies to be based on comic books came in 1972. The first of these was Tales from the Crypt. Tales from the Crypt was published from 1950 to 1955 by EC Comics, the company that went on to create Mad Magazine. The horror comic saw its demise when censorship took hold of the industry.
The film was shot in England and directed by Freddie Francis, who saw more success as a cinematographer. He won two cinematography Oscars, for the 1960 film Sons and Lovers and the 1989 U.S. Civil War film Glory. Francis also worked with Martin Scorsese on Cape Fear and with David Lynch for Elephant Man, Dune, and The Straight Story.

Tales from the Crypt features a few well-known actors. One of these is Peter Cushing, known for his portrayals of Dr. Van Helsing and Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars. Also starring were Joan Collins and Patrick Magee, who had roles in two Stanley Kubrick films, A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon. The film received a sequel in 1973, titled Vault of Horror.

In April 1972, Fritz the Cat was released, based on the character of the same name created by Robert Crumb. Crumb is perhaps the most well-known of all the underground comic book artists. His comic, Fritz the Cat, featured talking animals and, as was usual for Crumb, lots of sexual content. The film version was the first animated movie to get an X rating. Before this, animated films didn’t really deal with violence or sexuality. This led to marketing that exploited the sexual content, as at the time, X rated movies were usually associated with pornography.

The film was the directorial effort of Ralph Bakshi. He would go on to gain somewhat of a cult following as the director of animated films such as The Lord of the Rings, Wizards, and Fire and Ice. Surprisingly, given the subject matter, the film was actually quite successful. It ended up making over 100 million dollars at the box office.
Crumb apparently didn't like the film and made comments disparaging it. One of the things he didn’t approve of were negative comments made in the film towards liberals. He claimed, “They put words into his [Fritz’s] mouth that I never would have had him say.”
In 1974, a sequel was released, titled The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat. It was done without the involvement of Bakshi or Crumb.

In 1973, a pornographic film named Up In Flames was made. Underground comic characters were appropriated for the film without the permission of their creators. The characters included Mr. Natural, a Robert Crumb creation, and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.


The previous films were adaptations of comic books, but they did not feature superheroes. However, the original superhero, Superman, was about to get a big-budget adaptation.

A group of producers, Alexander Salkind, his son Ilya, and Pierre Spengler bought the film rights to Superman in 1974. They hired Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather novel, to write the script. The studio was planning on filming two Superman films at once, so Puzo gave them a massive 500-page script. The script was eventually rewritten and supposedly none of Puzo’s script survived to the finished product.
Many well-known directors were considered, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Sam Peckinpah. The job eventually went to Richard Donner, who had just directed the hit horror film, The Omen. Donner would go on to direct such films as The Goonies and Lethal Weapon.

At first, they also looked for a big name to fill the role of Superman. The role was reportedly offered to Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Burt Reynolds. It isn’t entirely surprising big stars would turn down the part, seeing as a Superman movie was far from a safe bet at the time. Comic book movies were pretty much just seen as fluff. The role ended up going to Christopher Reeve, who was not well known at the time.

Superman: The Movie was highly influential, and set the standard for superhero films for years to come. It cost 55 million dollars, but made over 300 million. It is somewhat campy by the standards of today’s audiences, but for a comic book film of its time, it took its subject matter seriously.
Superman, along with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both released the previous year), is often credited with reigniting the market for science fiction films. Superman: The Movie went on to have three direct sequels, and a Supergirl spinoff. The last film in the original series was released in 1987. In addition, the 2006 film Superman Returns was a sequel to the first two films of the Reeve series, while ignoring the last two.


So far in these essays, I have mainly discussed English language films adapted from comics. However, during the 1970s, several films were made in Japan based on manga (Japanese language comics). One of the earliest manga films was the anime Cyborg 009 (1966). Cyborg 009 was a science fiction manga that originally ran from 1964 to 1981. The film and its sequel were released by Toei Animation, later known for Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon.

In 1970 and 1971, there were four live action movies released using the manga Harenchi Gakuen as its source material. Harenchi Gakuen was created by Go Nagai in 1968. According to Wikipedia, it is sometimes considered the first hentai manga despite its lack of explicit sexual content.
The Lone Wolf and Cub series was translated into live action film 6 times between 1972 and 1974. The manga is about an assassin who is accompanied by his young son. Other manga to get live action adaptations in the 1970s were Lady Snowblood, Ai To Makoto (Love And Truth), The Rose of Versailles, and The Circuit Wolf.


There were also films based off popular French comics that were released in the 1960s and 1970s. One series that received this treatment was The Adventures of Tintin. The first Tintin movie was actually the hour long stop motion film, The Crab with the Golden Claws, released in 1947. After that, there were two live action Tintin movies in 1961 and 1964 and two animated films in 1969 and 1972.

Many Americans may not realize that the popular cartoon, The Smurfs, was based on a French comic. The first animated film featuring these characters, Les Aventures des Schtroumpfs, came out in 1965. A much more popular animated Smurf film, The Smurfs and the Magic Flute, was made in 1976. The Smurfs became a successful Saturday morning cartoon in 1981 and the film was dubbed into English and released in 1983.
Another popular French comic to be adapted into movies is the Asterix series. Asterix is the story of a village of Gauls resisting the Romans, and it was first published in 1959. In 1967, an animated film came out called Asterix the Gaul. A sequel, Asterix and Cleopatra, was made the next year. It was better received and unlike the first one, was overseen by the creators of Asterix.

Lastly, the 1968 French/Italian film titled Barbarella was based on a French comic series of the same name. The film starred Jane Fonda and was directed by her then-husband, Roger Vadim. The film was a failure upon release, but became a cult classic over time.

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