? Comic books are mined by Hollywood like a toddler mines for nose candy: all the time, even for minimal returns. Comic strips, however, often don’t make it to the screen. After all, since most strips in your local paper are less about story and characters and more about getting to the usually lame gag at the end, there’s not much audience for a live-action Family Circus film, or The Lockhorns cartoon. Plus, only old people read newspapers anymore, and they’re hardly a hot movie demographic. So movie studios usually leave comic strips alone. It’s for the best, really.
But sometimes, for some reason, some movie exec has greenlit a movie based on a comic strip. It happened more often in the past when the funnies were more popular (and funnier) but it can still happen today — heck, even at this very moment, a Marmaduke movie is in theaters, and that’s a one-panel strip about an obnoxious Great Dane owned by Hitler. Here are 10 other films that came straight from the funny pages.
Maybe you’ve seen the 1982 film, or maybe you’ve seen the staged musical, but in either case, Annie is one of the better adaptations of a classic strip. Granted, the film/play is less about an adventuring orphan and more about how a street kid relates to privileged living, but the music is both memorable and solid, and the cast of Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters, and Tim Curry are great to watch. Plus it was directed by Academy Award winner John Huston!
Not many people know the truth, but Blondie originally began as tales of a carefree flapper girl in 1930. Only when she married Dagwood (whose rich parents disowned him for it) did the perpetual tale of suburban life start. And believe it or not, there were 28 Blondie and Dagwood films made between 1938 and 1950. While modern fans might disagree with its greatness, it certainly did well on volume.
When asked what his regrets were in the movie Zombieland, he said, “Garfield.” The most successful cartoon feline ever (sorry, Felix and Sylvester), the Garfield film mixed live-action with CG, with Murray voicing the title character. Odds are that if original Garfield voice Lorenzo Music was alive he would have gotten the role in a heartbeat, but Murray was a close enough approximation. It even landed a sequel in 2006, Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties.
7) Brenda Starr
Brenda’s been riding the funny pages for 70 years (even being drawn by Aquaman artist Ramona Fradon for a while), and has appeared on-screen a handful of times. The most famous adaptation of the female adventurer/reporter was the 1989 bomb starring Brooke Shields and Timothy Dalton. This turd, while trying to stay true to the character and throw in some dumb fantasy elements, sat on a shelf for five years before grossing only $30,000 at the box office.
6) Dick Tracy
1990’s Dick Tracy was a summer blockbuster that hit all the right notes with fans. Directed and starring pretty boy Warren Beatty and guest-starring the comic detective’s entire rogue’s gallery, this stylish action film is still very enjoyable to watch today. Stephen Sondheim and Danny Elfman did the music! All the colors were based on the original colors used for the comic strip, and layers of prosthetic make-up were used to make Al Pacino into “Big Boy” and William Forsythe into “Flattop.” It definitely merited all the action figures that came with it.
5) The Phantom
No one can quite put their finger on why the big Phantom movie failed in 1996. Billy Zane was into the role, the cast included lookers Catherine Zeta-Jones and Kristy Swanson, and it was actually based on some Phantom strips. Even the reviews were positive, but it only grossed 17 million and the proposed sequel never materialized. Look for the Phantom to return on SyFy in June, in a 4-part miniseries.
Another instance of an Academy-honored director handling a comic strip movie, Robert Altman directed and plotted this scattershot version of the EC Segar classic strip in 1980, with a screenplay by Jules Feiffer and soundtrack by Harry Nilsson. Popeye the Sailor Man was played by a young Robin Williams, and Shelly Duvall played Olive Oyl perfectly. Altman’s direction and Feiffer’s script went off in weird places, and the production ran out of money by the end, but it’s generally a pretty straight pick-up of all the classic Popeye elements. Do yourself a favor and read the original scripts instead.
3) Flash Gordon
The same year as Popeye came the Queen-fueled big-screen adaptation of Alex Raymond’s space hero. Trippy special effects merged with one of the best hard rock scores ever to produce a film that’s purposefully cheesy and excellent. Everything is dialed up to 10, including Max Von Sydow’s maniacal Emperor Ming. Worth it just to hear Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan shouting, “DIIIIIVE!” to his Hawkmen.
2) Dennis the Menace
The Dennis comic strip really only had one main tenet: Dennis always annoys his neighbor, Mr. Wilson. And the 1993 movie stays faithful to that tenet. Walter Matthau does a great job as the beleaguered Mr. Wilson, and Christopher Lloyd does one of his classic creepster roles as the creepy drifter, Switchblade Sam. Worth watching for Lloyd in the best make-up out of perhaps all of these films, but really not made for adult audiences. Unless you like blond little boys breaking things.
1) The Spirit
Originally a forgettable TV movie in 1987 (bootlegs anyone?), the big budget return of the Spirit into the public consciousness was highly anticipated and deeply reviled. Will Eisner’s detective got his familiar gaggle of hot girls, including Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes, and Paz Vega, and even a classy villain in Samuel L. Jackson’s The Octopus, but the emphasis on nonstop, highly stylized action got really tiring really quick. Shot entirely on green screen, The Spirit plays like a parody of Frank Miller being his Frank Miller-iest. Plus, it lacked Ebony White.