As we all know, you can’t swing a cat in a multiplex without hitting a comic book movie of some kind (or without being prosecuted on animal cruelty charges). So far in 2014, “I Frankenstein,” “300: Rise Of An Empire,” “Noah” (kind of), “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” “X-Men: Days Of Future Past,” “Edge Of Tomorrow,” “Snowpiercer” and “Hercules” have all leapt from the page to the big-screen, with this Friday’s Marvel movie “Guardians Of The Galaxy” soon to join them, not to mention “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Sin City: A Dame To Kill For,” and Helen Mirren vehicle “The Hundred-Foot Journey” before the month is out. Ok, not the Helen Mirren one.
With Marvel shifting to three movies a year from 2017 onwards, and Warners/DC ramping up their game as well, we’re only going to be getting more. The field seems increasingly formulaic, with “Snowpiercer” and the enjoyably bonkers ‘Guardians’ as the exceptions to the rule. But the comic book is a broader church than Hollywood sometimes gives it credit for, and when you look away from the countless superhero titles, the medium is undergoing one of the most creative periods in its history, with all kinds of exciting and imaginative new titles, often creator-owned, hitting shelves each week.
The comic book movie genre isn’t going anywhere any time soon, but if we have to have some, why not dig a little deeper? So, with Comic-Con in the rear-view and to mark the release of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” we’ve picked out some of the best recent titles that most seem suited to big-screen adaptation. Our picks avoid the traditional superhero titles (though there’s some good work to be found there, with the current “Hawkeye” and “Daredevil” series particularly strong), we’ve kept the picks mostly to those that emerged in the last few years, and we’ve tried to go for titles that are particularly suited to movies rather than TV. Take a look below, and let us know what you want to see translated to the big-screen in the comments section.
What? Horror-noir hybrid from Ed Brubaker (whose work on “Captain America” influenced the recent movie) and Sean Phillips, the pair behind the classic “Criminal.” “Fatale” focuses on Josephine, a seemingly immortal femme fatale with the ability to wrap men around her little finger. The story spans the 1930s to the 1990s, following Josephine as she flees from a terrifying Lovecraftian cult.
Why? A love letter to one of the great cinematic archetypes, as you might imagine from the title, it’s only fitting that something like “Fatale” should return onscreen at some point. Melding horror with noir isn’t exactly a new idea, but it’s rarely been done as effectively as Brubaker and Phillips have done here. Compelling mystery and genuinely unnerving edge conjoin. Lovecraftian horror has rarely translated well on screen, but a solid basis in classic noir could make it more palatable. And best of all, it’s one of a number of books here with a strong female lead: the writers re-invent the femme fatale archetype, cannily making her story into an examination of the wrongs men do to women. The structure of the book (concluding this week with issue 24) might present a screenwriting challenge in terms of compressing the story into a couple of hours, but it’s not impossible, and it’d be a shame to see something so rooted in classic cinema relegated to the small screen.
Who? Having just mixed crime and horror to huge success, “True Detective” helmer Cary Joji Fukunaga would be one of the obvious picks to direct, but we’d be intrigued what “House Of The Devil” director Ti West could do with this sort of scope.
What? Image Comics upended the industry once in the 1990s when a number of major creators left Marvel and/or DC to go into business for themselves, wherein writers and artists would retain rights to the new series. But the company’s been responsible for a new, quieter revolution in the last few years: since 2009, under publisher Eric Stephenson, Image has published a string of hugely acclaimed new titles, letting creators off the leash, and it’s no coincidence that a bulk of the titles on this list come from that imprint. And it’s also no coincidence that the first series Stephenson himself created is a cracker. “Nowhere Men” imagines a world where science occupied the cultural space otherwise filled by rock and roll in the 1960s, with a quartet of scientists achieving world-wide fame through their innovations. Rivalry and drug-addled madness tears the four apart, but an accident on a space station soon forces them back together again.
Why? Riffing equally on "Fantastic Four" and The Beatles, Stephenson (with artist Nate Bellegrade) has created an incredibly dense and detailed alternate world (the books are packed with faux-found-material like magazine clippings and the like, bringing a strong sense of verisimilitude), that’s enormous fun to swim in so far. The four central figures, from Syd Barrett-style acid burnout Thomas to giant asshole Simon Grimshaw, are all compelling, and while we were intially a little disappointed at the more traditional superheroics, the series is playing neatly against expectations. "Nowhere Men" has been stricken by delays (Bellegrade wrote movingly about why here), so it’s hard to see the end-game at this stage, but so far, this is one of the most stylish and imaginative series currently publishing, and has real cinematic potential — it’s “The Social Network” by way of “The Fly.”
Who? Short of giving Shane Carruth a blank check (an idea we fully endorse), “Splice” helmer Vincenzo Natali could be a fun pick for this one.
What? Jonathan Hickman’s become one of the most in-demand comic book writers working right now. While he’s become a big Marvel go-to guy, his best work has been on the titles his own creations: both the nutso alternate-history “The Manhattan Projects” and the “Dark Tower”-ish spaghetti western “East Of West” are must-reads. But in terms of translation to the screen, “Pax Romana” is probably the obvious choice. The conceit is that a few years into the future, with Catholicism dying out, the Holy See manages to invent time travel, and sends a cardinal and a group of mercenaries back in time to the era of the Emperor Constantine to ensure that Catholicism always remains the dominant religion. As you might imagine, things don’t exactly go as planned…
Why? Across all of his oeuvre, Hickman’s shown himself to be ferociously bright and gloriously weird, and this is his masterwork, an incredibly dense, text-heavy treatise, indicating long and hard thought about the implications of its premise (which is fascinating, and which, as Hickman himself says, is about sociology more than it is about religion). The concept might sound worryingly “Timeline”-esque, but the book marries action and brains in a deeply satisfying way, and would have the potential to be a rare tentpole with something substantive to say. The closed-ended story (it’s only a four-part miniseries) obviously would make a relatively manageable film adaptation. The book is in the works to be adapted as a Syfy miniseries, but given the network’s inability to follow up “Battlestar Galactica” with anything of the same quality, we’d rather this went back to the drawing board as a movie.
Who? Kathryn Bigelow would be the dream, but she’s not all that likely to have much interest in any comic book movie (though she was behind “Near Dark” and “Strange Days,” we guess). So what about Tobias Lindholm, helmer of the excellent “A Hijacking”?
What? It won’t surprise you to learn that the comic book field is still overwhelmingly male-dominated, but inroads are starting to be made, not least with “Pretty Deadly.” An all-female creative team (writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, artist Emma Rios and colorist Jordie Bellaire) have created one of the most striking and artful books in some time, and have been rewarded with multiple Eisner nominations. This mythological Western sees Ginny, the daughter of Death, stalking the plains in search of a blind man known as Fox and the mysterious young girl he travels with.
Why? Terrible title aside, “Pretty Deadly” is what would happen if Jodorowsky and Neil Gaiman teamed up for a feminist Western, and so it’s therefore pretty great. Minimalist and almost abstract in its gorgeous art style, the book manages to feel both intimate and epic, with a real sense of lyricism that’s rare for the comic book Western. As with many of these books, one might argue that the level of gore could be toned down a bit, but this is such a confident and visually striking comic, synthesizing a wide range of influences into its own milieu, that it practically demands to be filmed. "Pretty Deadly" might be a tough sell, given the hit-and-miss record of Westerns of late, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried.
Who? Andrew Dominik would make the visuals sing, but we’d love to see what Kimberley Peirce would do in a Western environment, or maybe someone like Park Chan-Wook.
“The Private Eye”
What? Writer Brian K Vaughan has been a leading light of the comic-book world for over a decade, with several of his books (including “Y The Last Man,” “Runaways” and “Ex Machina”) having been considered for screen adaptation, and he’s got a foot in Hollywood, having written for “Lost” and “Under The Dome” in recent years. But he’s had a real resurgence in comics of late too, both through his hugely popular series “Saga” (which might be the best single title on the market right now, but is basically unfilmable – more below), and through the title under consideration, which takes a Radiohead-style pay-what-you-can approach to the market. The book’s a future-noir set in a world where years earlier, the Cloud burst, spilling everyone’s personal details and peccadilloes for all to see. Decades on, the internet no longer exists, and people are so committed to their privacy that they spend their adult lives in a series of masks and disguises, but a murder discovered by private investigator/paparazzi P.I. looks to upend this particular status quo.
Why? Vaughan’s one of the best in the business, and his collaboration here with artist Marcos Martin, while it hasn’t attracted the same level attention as “Saga,” is much better suited to screen transition. Lifting classic “Chinatown”-ish neo-noir and placing it a bright, wildly colorful future, the book has a tremendously compelling character in its bisexual, mixed-race protagonist (complete with a sleeve-tattooed grandfather who can’t understand why his iPhone doesn’t work anymore), and a legitimately engrossing plot. It also wouldn’t necessarily be hugely expensive with the right budget-conscious filmmaker in charge, aside from an astronomical costume budget. Light and fun while keeping the stakes high, "The Private Eye" feels like a perfect summer movie to us. You can see for yourself: the first collection is available for however much you want to pay right here.
Who? Rian Johnson would be perfect, but he’s going to be busy in a galaxy far, far away for a while. But maybe this’d be a good project for Drew Goddard to consider once he’s done with “Sinister Six”?
What? It’s not even that comic books are aimed at teenage boys anymore: they’re aimed at thirty-to-fortysomethings who were teenage boys back when teenage boys still bought comic books. But in the movie world, the power balance is starting to shift, with movies aimed at younger women like “Frozen” and “The Hunger Games” becoming increasingly gargantuan at the box office. So studio executives looking to draw a younger crowd might be better off looking away from superheroes and towards something like “Rocket Girl.” A new series by Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder, it follows DaYoung Johansson, a jetpack-wielding teen policewoman from an alternate 2013 who travels back to scuzzy pre-Guiliani 1986 New York to take on a sinister corporation.
Why? So many comics, including many on this list, are brooding, dark and violent: the shadows of Alan Moore and Frank Miller dominate the medium after 30 years. That’s what makes “Rocket Girl” so much fun: it’s unashamedly bubble-gum, bright and silly and disposable, like a really great three-minute pop song. The storytelling is probably the least refined and oddly structured of any of the books here. But those are minor problems that a movie adaptation could fix easily, and in the titular Rocket Girl, the series has an immediately iconic heroine that could prove a irresistible model for younger kids. With Katniss on her way out, and the old white dudes in charge of studios puzzled as to how to tap into this market, "Rocket Girl" feels like an obvious answer.
Who? It was unpolished, but the fun riot grrl energy Drew Barrymore brought to “Whip It” could work here if she felt up to taking on the bigger budget. Or for a more established visual hand, what about “Frozen” helmer Jennifer Lee?
“The Royals: Masters Of War”
What? What if the royal families of the world weren’t just figureheads whose ancestors seized power long ago, but were in their positions because their very, very blue blood gave them superpowers? That’s the I-can’t-believe-no-one-else-thought-of-this-before conceit of “The Royals,” a relatively new series from Vertigo. For centuries, these blue-bloods have had an agreement that they wouldn’t get involved in their nation’s conflicts. But after watching his people suffering through the Blitz, Britain’s Prince Henry rashly takes on the Nazi invaders, only to see his incursion to inspire greater conflict.
Why? Look, if Hollywood can’t find an audience for something with the elevator pitch of “The King’s Speech” meets “The Avengers,” they might as well just go home. This is a rare new take on the superhero genre, a concept that’s both ingenious and gloriously stupid, and walks that line successfully. Creators Rob Williams and Simon Coleby could have made the book a queasy celebration of royalty, but they dig into the socio-political implications of super-powered but mostly apathetic royalty in a satisfying manner (mostly through Prince Arthur —basically an amped-up, sleazier take on Guy Pearce’s monarch in “The King’s Speech”— while mixing it up with some truly spectacularly-drawn WW2 action. This isn’t high art —far from it— but it’s just smart and politically aware enough to avoid the potential pitfalls of the conceit, and undoubtedly delivers on the blockbuster front. Warner Bros (Vertigo’s parent company) are undoubtedly focused on their “Justice League”-related plans, but if they were tempted to look away, this feels like a home run to us.
Who? Screenplay by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Michael Bay. Lorde on the trailer. Collect dump-truck of money.
What? It’s been four years since the final installment of “Scott Pilgrim” hit bookstores alongside Edgar Wright’s pop-culture fever dream of a screen adaptation. Scott’s creator Bryan Lee O’Malley has spent the following four years at work on a follow-up, and when “Seconds” hit shelves a few weeks back, it proved to be more than worthy. A self-contained graphic novel that takes on difficult-second-album syndrome head on, it revolves around Katie, a 29-year-old chef who’s been running a successful restaurant, and is preparing to open a second storefront. But after causing an accident, she finds a batch of mushrooms that enable her to go back in time and fix mistakes: but as with the best fables, what seem like solutions end up causing more problems.
Why? Lee O’Malley is one of the more distinctive voices to emerge in the medium in the last decade, and “Scott Pilgrim” only got better and better over time (the latter three volumes were leaps and bounds above the first three). He’s taken another exponential leap forward with “Seconds,” which contains the same self-reflexive feel, gorgeous Manga-ish artwork (doubled down on here, with a distinct Miyazaki vibe), and lightness of touch, but with a much more mature point of view: it’s appropriate for a protagonist that’s pushing thirty rather than in their early twenties. The high-concept premise seems ripe for screen adaptation, and the execution is as tremendous as we’ve come to expect from the writer/artist. The underperformance of “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” (which was really down to poor marketing) might be giving filmmakers and executives pause about optioning this book, but it’s arguably a more accessible and broadly aimed piece of work, while retaining what made “Scott Pilgrim” special.
Who? Obviously “Scott Pilgrim” helmer Edgar Wright did a cracking job on that film, but we’d like to see someone else grapple with Lee O’Malley’s voice this time around. What about “Obvious Child” helmer Gillian Robespierre, or Stephane Lafleur, who helmed our Cannes favorite “Tu Dors Nicole?”
What? Aside from having a really cool name, Matt Fraction has become a comics A-lister thanks both to his top-tier work with Marvel (including the aforementioned and terrific “Hawkeye”), and his own properties, most notably psychedelic spy caper “Casanova” and recent noir mystery “Satellite Sam.” The provocatively-titled “Sex Criminals” might be his best work yet, though, as the Eisner Award it just won for Best New Series might indicate. Co-created with artist Chip Zdarsky, it’s a raunchy comedy-drama following Suzie and Jon, who each have grown up with a strange condition — when they orgasm, time freezes, enabling them to move around in what they call "the Silence" until they’re… ready to go again. After hooking up at a party, they’ve overjoyed to find someone with the same abilities, and soon use it to turn to a life of bank robbery in an attempt to save the library that employs Suzie.
Why? As you’ll have noted from the likes of “Neighbors” and “22 Jump Street” this year, the R-rated comedy genre continues to be a big money-spinner. Consciously influenced by the Apatow-com, Fraction and Zdarsky have come up with something that’s very much the comics equivalent, but done especially well: it’s frank, legitimately laugh-out-loud funny, snappy and formally experimental, centered on two characters you love despite their flaws. But the creators are equally influenced by Billy Wilder, and so there’s real pathos and pain to be found, and their depiction of Suzie’s sexual awakening is particularly well done, especially given that the book has been created by two men. Studios might balk at the title, but this feels like a hugely commercial concept, and if they don’t throw out the source material, "Sex Criminals" has the potential to be a bona-fide genre classic.
Who? Nicholas Stoller would be a strong choice, or Jordan Vogt-Roberts or Lake Bell, but we’d also love to see what David O Russell would do with material like this: it’d be a throw-back to his early fare like “Flirting With Disaster.”
What? With projects like “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and Fox’s Ellen Page vehicle “Queen & Country” (both based on comic books) joining the pantheon populated by Bourne, Bond, Ethan Hunt and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E,” the spy genre is looking increasingly crowded. But that’s not to say that there isn’t room for another, and while “Zero” isn’t doing anything new on the surface, it manages to push its disparate parts into something new. Somewhere between “The Bourne Identity” and “Never Let Me Go,” the book is set in a sci-fi tinged near-future, where Israel and Palestine battle with modified super-soldiers, and centers on Edward Zero, a veteran spy trained virtually from birth to be a perfect assassin. He relates his story in non-linear flashback to a younger killer sent to terminate him, and it’s a story full of twists and turns…
Why? Ales Kot was a name new to us before we picked up “Zero,” but we’ll definitely be keeping an eye on him. This book, created with artist Will Tempest, takes familiar tropes and wraps them in savvy 21st century geo-politics, light but never-intrusive sci-fi, crunchy action and some very smart character work. We weren’t expecting much in the way of pathos to begin with, but there are a couple of moments here that brought real gut-punches, and even the villains and targets are textured and well-drawn. It’s got a very distinctive look and feel, which if translated to the screen could help it stand out from the pack. Reportedly, Kot is actually penning a TV pilot for the book, but the story feels (just) contained enough so far that a movie (or two) feels sufficient to capture the tale on screen.
Who: He has a tendency to bail from studio gigs, but if he ever does want to take on something bigger, Nicolas Winding Refn feels like an excellent fit for the material here.
Honorable Mentions: So, to reiterate, we tried to stay away from older fare, from mainstream Marvel/DC properties, from properties already in development and seem better suited to TV. That means there are undoubtedly a few notable absences from this list. First among them: Brian K Vaughan‘s "Saga," which as we said, is the best comic in an age (and rightly just picked up a brace of Eisner awards). A bold and uncompromising space opera delivered with endless wit and imagination, it was essentially written by Vaughan and designed by artist Fiona Staples to be unfilmable, and they pretty much pulled off: its mix of odd non-human characters, frank and explicit sexuality and epic storytelling means that the only way to tell it would be as a "Game Of Thrones"-style cable series, but this would appear to be out of even their budgetary reach for the foreseeable future.
Vaughan’s older "Y The Last Man" is also great, but has always struck us as better suited to TV than to movies, despite repeated attempts to bring it to the big-screen. It’s surely only a matter of time before someone seeking the next "Walking Dead" makes it happen. Also more suited to the small screen are Joe Hill’s horror comic "Locke & Key" (actually filmed as a pilot by Mark Romanek, but not picked up: it’s now under development as a film trilogy), "Harry Potter"-influenced literary tale "The Unwritten," Warren Ellis’ long-unfinished crime tale "Fell," and school-bound ongoing series "Deadly Class" and "Morning Glories," the latter of which would surely be huge on the small screen. Ellis’ "FreakAngels" and "Ignition City" might be better movies. "DMZ" is another book that would seem to make a good TV show, and indeed, it’s under development right now, while Kieron Gillen‘s "The Wicked & The Divine," which debuted a few months ago and focuses on Gods coming to earth as pop stars, will surely be snapped up for TV soon.
Otherwise, Matt Kindt‘s psychic spy tale "Mind MGMT" is one of the most acclaimed comics of the last few years, and surely would have made our list if it wasn’t already under development by Ridley Scott‘s company. Similarly, "Rust" is terrific, but that project had Joe Cornish attached for some time, though he was recently replaced by "Rio" helmer Carlos Saldanha. Jonathan Hickman‘s aforementioned "The Manhattan Projects" and "East Of West" could also work if anyone was bold enough to take them on.
Finally, we liked the idea of "Real Heroes," about the movie stars of an "Avengers"-style franchise forced to become superheroes for real, and "Five Ghosts," about an Indiana Jones-type adventurer possessed by the ghosts of Robin Hood, Merlin, Sherlock Holmes, Dracula and Musashi Miyaamoto. But neither title was as well-executed as their premise, though that’s not to say that a movie couldn’t work in the right hands… Anything we’ve missed? Let us know what you’d greenlight in the comments.