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Popeye, Ghost World, How to Murder Your Wife, and other favorite comic book movies

Everything I hold dear about movies has no place at Comic-Con

Artists and Models: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis star in Frank Tashlin's madcap sendup of comic books.
Artists and Models: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis star in Frank Tashlin's madcap sendup of comic books.

The banners are down, the fanboys back in their parents’ basements, and the Gaslamp Quarter no longer resembles a giant roll of flypaper used by corporations to ensnare the costumed souls fortunate to acquire the costly golden ticket needed to make it through the metal detector. Who’s up for a movie?

Comic book movies

Everything I hold dear about movies has no place at Comic-Con. Nor do I understand the thrill of dressing as your favorite character. I mean, I could complement a tuxedo with a pair of white socks, dump the contents of an oil tankard in my hair, and go as Jerry Lewis. How about parking a pair of caterpillars over my eyebrows, walking on my knees, and pretending I’m Scorsese? Frankly, I’d rather watch one of their movies than take in the Con. But instead of railing against the annual celebration of everything that’s wrong with contemporary cinema, I will instead offer up ten hangover cures for the common Con. The following list is made up of films either based on comic books/strips or about the artists who create them. There was but one stipulation: other than Superman II – produced long before the superhero fad became Hollywood’s main source of revenue – the works of Marvel and DC were strictly verboten.

10.) Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill, 1938)

Pleasure seldom comes packaged with this much guilt. Who needs CGI when there are sparkler-propelled soupcans held afloat by fishing poles to suspend one’s disbelief? The second installment of Universal’s trilogy of Flash Gordon serials based on Alex Raymond’s comic strip finds our hero up to his neck in Clay People, and feeble comic relief in the form of spaceship stowaway Happy Hapgood. There’s not much to the performances of interchangeable all-American Buster Crabbe and his scream queen galpal Dale Arden (Jean Rogers). But if an intergalactic soap opera is only as good as the villain that powers it, veteran badguy Charles B. Middleton’s Emperor Ming makes Darth Vader look like the voice of CNN.

9.) Popeye (Robert Altman, 1980)

Though not a patch on the Fleischer Studio cartoons of the 1930’s, Altman’s take on E.C. Segar’s mumbling mariner remains strong to the finnich’ due in large part to note-perfect casting (Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Paul Smith), Wolf Kroeger’s unsinkable production design, and a buoyant score by Harry Nilsson.

8.) Modesty Blaise (Joseph Losey, 1966)

Blacklisted expatriate Joseph Losey, best known for his adaptations of Harold Pinter dramas, directs this immodestly mod adaptation of Peter O’Donnell’s comic strip. Andrew Sarris called this role-reversal sendup of James Bond films, “a more serious enterprise than it seems, precisely because of the strenuousness of its levity.” It was Monica Vitti’s first film in America, and the story goes she invited her mentor, Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura, Red Dessert), to visit the set. After Losey caught wind that Antonioni was feeding Vitti with directorial advice, he politely asked his comrade-in-celluloid to stay home. Antonioni complied.

7.) How to Murder Your Wife (Richard Quine, 1965)

Jack Lemmon stars as a nationally syndicated cartoonist whose schtick is to personally enact all of his alter-ego’s capers to make sure they don’t strain logic. He awakes one morning to find — sleeping next to him, and with a wedding ring on her finger — the Italian beauty (Virna Lisi) who hours earlier had entertained drunken revelers by popping out of a cake at a bachelor party he attended. His plan to use his bride’s calculated demise as fodder for his strip proves fatal when the cops peg him as a homicidal maniac. Quine keeps things moving, but George Axelrod’s dark (for 1965) script could have stood even more shading.

6.) V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2005)

The blockbuster that never happened, due in large part to a harebrained mid-March release. Why didn’t Warner Bros. sit the two months out and treat it like a summer thrill ride? That would have at least fooled a few more suckers into buying tickets. Instead, the film, based on David Lloyd’s graphic novel art, barely recouped its budget. McTeigue was an unknown commodity, but the script was written by the sister act responsible for the Matrix trilogy, whose alleged fanbase stayed home. Why did it tank? Turns out it’s set in England (sometimes those foreign accents are tough for Americans to comprehend), proffered a left-wing propagandistic agenda, and featured a hero who never removes his mask. I take it back; they probably could have released it on July 4th weekend and no one would have noticed.

5.) A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)

Cronenberg succeeds at smuggling artistic sensibilities into the multiplex with this crime drama adapted from the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke that stresses the extenuating power of truth. Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello star as a deliriously happy couple whose marriage is threatened when news arrives in the form of menacing Ed Harris that hubby may have a bloodthirsty past. Or does he? Look around the set. Every word, every movement, every everything advances the story. Just don’t make the mistake of confusing the director’s deceptively straightforward approach to a complex thriller with audience-friendliness. There’s no such thing as spoon-feeding on Cronenberg’s watch.

4.) Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)

Based on Daniel Clowes’ biting underground comic and directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb), Ghost World arrived as a poignant, hysterically funny, and unerringly honest antidote to countless botched comic book attempts and lethal teen no-brainers. From the opening strains of Indian composer Shankar-Jaikishan’s toe-tapping arrangement, audiences knew they were in for a unique experience. Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson were their generation’s enfants terribles and Steve Buscemi their Henry Orient. Old souls, memorabilia geeks, fringe-dwellers, and fans of sidewalk-theater are encouraged to rent this black comedy that accentuates the negative.

3.) Superman 2 (Richard Lester, 1980)

At once a sequel that surpasses its original and a comic book movie that leaves all others in the dust. Christopher Reeve’s decision to play Clark Kent as a bumbling oaf flies circles around the otherwise sedulous competition. The villains (Terence Stamp, Gene Hackman, Sarah Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran) pose an articulate menace, the romantic chemistry is palpable, the laughs side-splitting, and the organically grown action set pieces a thrill to experience. Richard Lester’s (A Hard Day’s Night, Petulia) visual wit makes the so-called Richard Donner cut look like the flat series of comic book panels that it is. Almost 45 years and dozens of effect-driven monstrosities later, and Hollywood fanboys have yet to produce anything to rival it.

2.) Artists and Models (Frank Tashlin, 1955)

Was it the Bat Lady or the fat lady? Unemployed artist Dean Martin finds a lucrative future in comic books when roommate Jerry Lewis’s night terrors — the Idiot inexplicably begins screaming classified government secrets in his sleep — provide him with endless pages of story content. Directed by former Looney Tunes animator Frank “Apex” Tashlin, which accounts for all the gravity-challenged gags and impeccable eye-popping use of Technicolor. Even something as simple as Dino crooning to a bunch of kids is made magical by Tashlin’s fluid long takes and breezy open-air compositions.

1.) The Life and Death of Col. Blimp (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1943)

Who knew the best movie to emerge from the funny pages would also be one of cinema’s half-dozen crowning achievements? Find out how robust General Clive Wynne-Candy — aka Colonel Blimp, the celebrated British cartoon character by satirical artist David Low — earned his big belly as Powell and Pressburger (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus) escort us through an exquisitely entwined series of flashbacks that begin with the Boer Wars and end with Hitler’s rise to power. An epic ode to cinematic refinement and one that will keep you guessing until seconds before the final fade out.

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Artists and Models: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis star in Frank Tashlin's madcap sendup of comic books.
Artists and Models: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis star in Frank Tashlin's madcap sendup of comic books.

The banners are down, the fanboys back in their parents’ basements, and the Gaslamp Quarter no longer resembles a giant roll of flypaper used by corporations to ensnare the costumed souls fortunate to acquire the costly golden ticket needed to make it through the metal detector. Who’s up for a movie?

Comic book movies

Everything I hold dear about movies has no place at Comic-Con. Nor do I understand the thrill of dressing as your favorite character. I mean, I could complement a tuxedo with a pair of white socks, dump the contents of an oil tankard in my hair, and go as Jerry Lewis. How about parking a pair of caterpillars over my eyebrows, walking on my knees, and pretending I’m Scorsese? Frankly, I’d rather watch one of their movies than take in the Con. But instead of railing against the annual celebration of everything that’s wrong with contemporary cinema, I will instead offer up ten hangover cures for the common Con. The following list is made up of films either based on comic books/strips or about the artists who create them. There was but one stipulation: other than Superman II – produced long before the superhero fad became Hollywood’s main source of revenue – the works of Marvel and DC were strictly verboten.

10.) Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill, 1938)

Pleasure seldom comes packaged with this much guilt. Who needs CGI when there are sparkler-propelled soupcans held afloat by fishing poles to suspend one’s disbelief? The second installment of Universal’s trilogy of Flash Gordon serials based on Alex Raymond’s comic strip finds our hero up to his neck in Clay People, and feeble comic relief in the form of spaceship stowaway Happy Hapgood. There’s not much to the performances of interchangeable all-American Buster Crabbe and his scream queen galpal Dale Arden (Jean Rogers). But if an intergalactic soap opera is only as good as the villain that powers it, veteran badguy Charles B. Middleton’s Emperor Ming makes Darth Vader look like the voice of CNN.

9.) Popeye (Robert Altman, 1980)

Though not a patch on the Fleischer Studio cartoons of the 1930’s, Altman’s take on E.C. Segar’s mumbling mariner remains strong to the finnich’ due in large part to note-perfect casting (Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Paul Smith), Wolf Kroeger’s unsinkable production design, and a buoyant score by Harry Nilsson.

8.) Modesty Blaise (Joseph Losey, 1966)

Blacklisted expatriate Joseph Losey, best known for his adaptations of Harold Pinter dramas, directs this immodestly mod adaptation of Peter O’Donnell’s comic strip. Andrew Sarris called this role-reversal sendup of James Bond films, “a more serious enterprise than it seems, precisely because of the strenuousness of its levity.” It was Monica Vitti’s first film in America, and the story goes she invited her mentor, Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura, Red Dessert), to visit the set. After Losey caught wind that Antonioni was feeding Vitti with directorial advice, he politely asked his comrade-in-celluloid to stay home. Antonioni complied.

7.) How to Murder Your Wife (Richard Quine, 1965)

Jack Lemmon stars as a nationally syndicated cartoonist whose schtick is to personally enact all of his alter-ego’s capers to make sure they don’t strain logic. He awakes one morning to find — sleeping next to him, and with a wedding ring on her finger — the Italian beauty (Virna Lisi) who hours earlier had entertained drunken revelers by popping out of a cake at a bachelor party he attended. His plan to use his bride’s calculated demise as fodder for his strip proves fatal when the cops peg him as a homicidal maniac. Quine keeps things moving, but George Axelrod’s dark (for 1965) script could have stood even more shading.

6.) V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2005)

The blockbuster that never happened, due in large part to a harebrained mid-March release. Why didn’t Warner Bros. sit the two months out and treat it like a summer thrill ride? That would have at least fooled a few more suckers into buying tickets. Instead, the film, based on David Lloyd’s graphic novel art, barely recouped its budget. McTeigue was an unknown commodity, but the script was written by the sister act responsible for the Matrix trilogy, whose alleged fanbase stayed home. Why did it tank? Turns out it’s set in England (sometimes those foreign accents are tough for Americans to comprehend), proffered a left-wing propagandistic agenda, and featured a hero who never removes his mask. I take it back; they probably could have released it on July 4th weekend and no one would have noticed.

5.) A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)

Cronenberg succeeds at smuggling artistic sensibilities into the multiplex with this crime drama adapted from the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke that stresses the extenuating power of truth. Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello star as a deliriously happy couple whose marriage is threatened when news arrives in the form of menacing Ed Harris that hubby may have a bloodthirsty past. Or does he? Look around the set. Every word, every movement, every everything advances the story. Just don’t make the mistake of confusing the director’s deceptively straightforward approach to a complex thriller with audience-friendliness. There’s no such thing as spoon-feeding on Cronenberg’s watch.

4.) Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)

Based on Daniel Clowes’ biting underground comic and directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb), Ghost World arrived as a poignant, hysterically funny, and unerringly honest antidote to countless botched comic book attempts and lethal teen no-brainers. From the opening strains of Indian composer Shankar-Jaikishan’s toe-tapping arrangement, audiences knew they were in for a unique experience. Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson were their generation’s enfants terribles and Steve Buscemi their Henry Orient. Old souls, memorabilia geeks, fringe-dwellers, and fans of sidewalk-theater are encouraged to rent this black comedy that accentuates the negative.

3.) Superman 2 (Richard Lester, 1980)

At once a sequel that surpasses its original and a comic book movie that leaves all others in the dust. Christopher Reeve’s decision to play Clark Kent as a bumbling oaf flies circles around the otherwise sedulous competition. The villains (Terence Stamp, Gene Hackman, Sarah Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran) pose an articulate menace, the romantic chemistry is palpable, the laughs side-splitting, and the organically grown action set pieces a thrill to experience. Richard Lester’s (A Hard Day’s Night, Petulia) visual wit makes the so-called Richard Donner cut look like the flat series of comic book panels that it is. Almost 45 years and dozens of effect-driven monstrosities later, and Hollywood fanboys have yet to produce anything to rival it.

2.) Artists and Models (Frank Tashlin, 1955)

Was it the Bat Lady or the fat lady? Unemployed artist Dean Martin finds a lucrative future in comic books when roommate Jerry Lewis’s night terrors — the Idiot inexplicably begins screaming classified government secrets in his sleep — provide him with endless pages of story content. Directed by former Looney Tunes animator Frank “Apex” Tashlin, which accounts for all the gravity-challenged gags and impeccable eye-popping use of Technicolor. Even something as simple as Dino crooning to a bunch of kids is made magical by Tashlin’s fluid long takes and breezy open-air compositions.

1.) The Life and Death of Col. Blimp (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1943)

Who knew the best movie to emerge from the funny pages would also be one of cinema’s half-dozen crowning achievements? Find out how robust General Clive Wynne-Candy — aka Colonel Blimp, the celebrated British cartoon character by satirical artist David Low — earned his big belly as Powell and Pressburger (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus) escort us through an exquisitely entwined series of flashbacks that begin with the Boer Wars and end with Hitler’s rise to power. An epic ode to cinematic refinement and one that will keep you guessing until seconds before the final fade out.

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