COMIC STRIPS ON FILM – Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film

The forerunners of comic books in the United States
were newspaper comic strips, and filmmakers were quick
to capitalize on many of their successes. Appearing
nationally in the pages of hundreds of daily newspapers,
the best-known comic strips were an integral part of the
everyday culture of millions of Americans. Moving the
antics of these characters to the screen was an obvious
way to launch successful film franchises. Starting in
1902, for example, Biograph created a series of film
versions of Frederick Burr Opper’s Alphonse and Gaston
comic strip. In 1904, Edwin S. Porter (1870–1941)
directed an adaptation of Richard F. Outcault’s Buster
Brown, and in 1915 Larry Semon (1889–1928) directed
a version of George McManus’s popular strip about Irish
immigrants, Bringing Up Father. Based on the comic
strip by Chic Young, Columbia released twenty-eight
Blondie films starring Penny Singleton (1908–2003)
and Arthur Lake (1905–1987) between 1938 and 1950,
making it the most successful film series that originated
from golden-age comic strips. These films demonstrated
the extent to which popular comic strips could be
successfully adapted to the screen in the studio era.
Not all strips, however, were the subject of their own
features. The ongoing nature of many newspaper comic
strips, particularly action-adventure strips, were strongly
suggestive of weekly film serials. Among the most notable
strip that was adapted to the screen in this way was Ace
Drummond, which became a thirteen-part Columbia liveaction serial (1935–1940) based on the strip by Eddie
Rickenbacker. Chester Gould’s extremely popular strip,
Dick Tracy, was the source for three Republic serials in
the 1930s and 1940s, as Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon
was for five Universal serials starring Buster Crabbe.
Serials also drew on the newly emergent comic book
format. The first popular comic book characters,
Superman and Batman, were created in 1938 and 1939
respectively, in the midst of the serial era. Batman was
the subject of a relatively unsuccessful Columbia serial in
1943 and remained neglected until the 1966 television
show and its spin-off feature. Superman, portrayed by
Kirk Alyn (1910–1999) in a 1948 serial, was a larger
transmedia success after the comic book had already spun
off a newspaper comic strip, a radio show, and a series of
animated short films. These Fleischer Studios Superman
shorts were not the only animated films based on popular
comic strips of the period. Beginning in 1913, Bud
Fisher’s strip Mutt and Jeff became the subject of more than three hundred animated shorts, some of which were
directed by the cartoonist himself. A similarly enduring
series of animated films was derived from the Popeye
characters created by Elzie C. Segar. Fleischer Studios
created 234 Popeye shorts between 1933 and 1957, making Popeye one of the most enduring characters in animation history. It is likely that the animated versions of
the Popeye characters are now far better known than the
original source material.
The adaptation of comic strip characters has continued despite the demise of the serial form and the cinematic animated short. Since the 1990s, many adaptations
have sought to expand the typical three-panel daily gag
into a full-length feature. This is often accomplished by
filmmakers who attempt to capture the spirit of the
source material without being faithful to the short’s
formal structure. Dennis the Menace (Nick Castle,
1993) strings together a plot from a variety of stock
situations featured in Hank Ketcham’s long-running single-panel daily strip. Similarly, Garfield (Peter Hewitt,
2004) expands on the primary themes of Jim Davis’s
extremely popular gag strip. Arguably, the most successful films of this type were the Addams Family films (1991
and 1993) directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (b. 1953), which
were based on The New Yorker cartoons of Charles
Addams. The success of these films, however, may be
more dependent on the sensibility of the television show
(1964–1967) that was also derived from Addams’s work.
Strips with stronger continuities have also been the
subject of feature films, often with palpable nostalgic
feelings about them that are derived not only from the
strips themselves but also from the derivative media. It is
striking, for example, that three golden-age comic strips
that were adapted as serials or shorts later became features. In 1980, Mike Hodges (b. 1932) directed Flash
Gordon, an homage to both the Alex Raymond strip and
the famous serials that it had inspired. That same year
Robert Altman (b. 1925) directed an adaptation of
Popeye using a screenplay by Village Voice cartoonist
Jules Feiffer (b. 1929) that stayed closer to the sensibility
of the Segar comic strip than to the better-known
Fleischer cartoons. In 1990, Warren Beatty (b. 1937)
directed and starred in a hyperstylized version of Dick
Tracy that paid close attention to the unique visual
styling of Gould’s comic strip.