I’m not sure whether we’ve reached the saturation point of comic book media yet. I do know that we’re now fully into the realm of adaptive choices obscure enough that even I have to start doing preemptive google searches when I notice my internet feeds getting particularly excited about certain cameos. But on the other hand it only took us this long to realize that maybe Wonder Woman should get a movie after all, so maybe my preemptive cringing about all the things that might go wrong with the Deadpool movie is beside the point.
All of which is a very long preamble to saying that the recent avalanche of movies based largely on superhero comics into live action spectacle fests, fun ones or no, has left me hungering for some smaller and more experimental takes on media by way of that beautiful and versatile medium of pictures-and-words.
5. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
A mysterious new villain – the titular Phantasm – is stalking prominent members of Gotham’s underworld with murderous intent and unknown motives, complicated by Gotham PD’s increasing belief that Batman is the murderer and the mob’s desperate bargaining with the Joker to get rid of the threat.
Now I know what you’re thinking, and in rebuttal let me point out that this film had a proper theatrical release back in 1992, making it an extra official part of the Batman film canon, and you almost never hear a whisper about it. Which is an even bigger shame on account of the fact that it’s easily in the top five of Batman’s screen appearances, with a concise and extremely poignant story that’s both a better told version of the Rachel subplot from the Nolan films, and an exploration of Bruce Wayne’s past and present without relying on the crutch of an origin story. It’s also not afraid to question the very core of its hero (particularly in stories that don’t feature the Bat Family); namely, “if Bruce Wayne allows himself to be happy, does Batman stop existing?” But then, perhaps that’s to be expected from the writing team that singlehandedly rewrote Mr. Freeze’s backstory and introduced Harley Quinn to the DCU.
The story is concise and well told, with animation several steps up from the TV series. Most importantly, it retains the dynamic duo of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and Joker. Conroy is the single most undersung Batman performer in the book, and he gets quite a few opportunities here to show off his dynamic chops (by which I mean, his Batman has emotions besides “growl” and “mope”). Hamill takes the role of secondary villain, but every second spent with him is a treat, a worthy reminder that this man created the go-to connection for the Joker’s voice for a whole generation.
4. American Splendor (2003)
A film half about the life of cartoonist Harvey Pekar, and half about the trials of adapting those autobiographical comics to film
On the one hand a fairly simple slice of life movie that came out at a time where you could call a film “quirky” without sending everyone running in the opposite direction, American Splendor might come the closest of any live action film to capturing the feel of a comic book in the process of adaptation. The action twines in and out with panels of Pekar’s work, zooms out to sets and Kraft Service tables and isn’t shy about letting Paul Giamatti (did I mention he’s in this? That’s practically guarantee of a solid, engaging film right there) stand next to the actual Harvey Pekar.
Not only is the visual meta hodgepodge thoughtfully executed, it ties exceedingly well to the comics themselves, which were well known in the indie scene for being consistently written by Pekar and drawn by a cavalcade of different artists, giving each issue a wholly different feel. As for the somewhat easygoing slice of life feel, that was a fairly pioneering move for Pekar too – think of him as Louie decades before Louis C.K. came into the spotlight.
It’s a charming, creative little film whose pleasures are simple but honest, its touch light but unflinching at life’s little moments of ugliness. This is a film that knows and executes its scope with aplomb. Certainly a worthy 100 minutes spent.
3. Barefoot Gen (1983)
An adaptation of Keiji Nakazawa’s semi-autobiographical manga, following the titular character’s survival during and after the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima.
In 20 years of watching anime, I have never seen a single more brutal viewing experience in the medium than Barefoot Gen. Its first half hour is bittersweet and low key, centering on small moments of happiness eked out of the waning days of World War II, making the most out of its aesthetically simple character designs while nodding toward the hunger, desperation, and blind nationalism driving the people of Hiroshima into ruin. Looking only at that early running time, comparisons to Studio Ghibli masterwork Grave of the Fireflies is almost inevitable.
But if Fireflies (released in 1988) is the recounting the loss of a limb once the stump has healed (circumspect and tempered, if no less anguished and tinted by absence and anger), then Gen is the howl of rage and agony in the wake of the initial wound. Even the film’s earliest segments have a pall over them, the art faded and under-contoured as if already faced down by an impossibly bright light (this may be the quality of the print I watched as well, but the film’s overall use of color and design within the medium’s limitations at the time is astounding).
And when it comes to the bombing and the aftermath, there are exactly zero punches pulled (I’ve say through and enjoyed, to various definitions of the term, Perfect Blue, AKIRA, and End of Evangelion, and this has every one of them beat). The simplicity of the design only serves to make the uncanny horror of deforming bodies more potent, and the setup of the first third comes back with unflinching brutality without ever seeming cheap. The film does not flinch for an instant in displaying its subject matter, treading a fine line between being very, very real and feeling like the impressionistic nightmare from our protagonist’s psyche.
The story is notably anti-war as well (though much of Nakazawa’s criticism of Imperialism was toned down or cut from the adaptations), willing without reservation to criticize both the Americans who dropped the bomb and the Japanese government that refused to surrender a losing war before it reached such a horrific point. In fact, the manga’s even been the subject of controversy: while it started out running in Shonen Jump its run was cancelled and moved to smaller publications, and it was removed from school libraries in Matsue in 2013 (on a complaint that it supposedly “depicted atrocities by Japanese troops that did not take place”). And Nakazawa’s father, who the author credited as a huge influence on the manga, was detained by the Japanese government for more than a year for performing in leftist theater productions (you can read a fascinating interview Nakazawa here). A hugely important historical document, in other words. Almost imperative viewing if you’ve any interest in anime or Japanese history. The film has a sequel, Barefoot Gen 2, which was released in 1986.
2. Persepolis (2007)
(This film is available on Netflix)
The story of Marjane Satrapi, and her coming of age in the midst of the Iranian Revolution
Easily the most aesthetically beautiful adaptation on this list, Persepolis is similar to Gen in centering itself around one small individual trying to survive amid an amassing of historical horrors. The sum of its scope, however, is in trying to pin down the internal turmoil of its protagonist. Marji’s story is not just that of a bystander in a war or an ex-patriot abroad (smuggled over the border by her parents to escape the escalating horrors), but of a person trying to orient herself in regards to where she came from, the history of that place, and her conflicting desires to respect and reject that heritage. The animation (rendered in beautiful blacks and whites as Marji herself lives, if you will, in perpetual greys) is flowing, scenes seeming to flow into each other even in cases where the subject matter is thoroughly contrasted. Music, western music specifically, looms large in the narrative, all as Marji’s thoughts keep getting pulled back to the home she left behind.
Richly layered in subjects of feminism, nationalism, politics, and family all while practically flying through its brief running time, Persepolis is a unique and unforgettable film, high in the hallmarks of both “graphic novel” films and the biopic genre in general (at the top, indeed, of the latter).
1. Fun Home (2014)
Allison Bechdel (yes, of the test named oh so many years ago) sifts through memories of her childhood at the titular Fun Home (a funeral parlor), her coming out and her father’s suicide that same year, and her revelation as an adult that her father, too, was gay.
Yes, this is a blatant cheat and no, I don’t have any regrets. Well, perhaps the thought that you readers might not yet be familiar with this show. Yes, this musical is less than a year into its Broadway run and recently took home a mass of Tony Awards, making it the first musical with a female director, writer, and largely female cast to do so. But there’s a very narrow scope to those who don’t live in the Center of the Universe and still have a basic awareness of modern theater (I think it’s just me), so consider this my effort to keep the show from becoming forgotten.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the soundtrack functions more or less as a complete story in its own right, give or take some subplot closure that can easily be picked up from the original memoir. The play’s a very faithful, moving imagining of Bechdel’s work, juggling the overarching frame narrative with a non-linear narrative that paints, in beautiful and agonizing strokes, two lives lived in quiet desperation and one who was able to claw her way out into the open.
The music is far from what one would imagine from a mainstream Broadway hit, almost impossible to divorce from the narrative and often fragmented and melancholy. There’s more Sondheim than Wicked to it, and a listening ear has to adjust accordingly – the music bears close listening, taking its lyrical density in double meanings and thematic threads from the excellent source material. But once one’s expectations are prepared, it’s a rich listening experience informed by impassioned performances – Beth Malone and Michael Cerveris as adult Allison and her father are particular standouts, as well as the incredible Sydney Lucas as young Allison. Cerveris gets a special personal nod for giving a performance so gutwrenching that it not only immediately cleared my mind of my long-standing grudge over his part in that eyebrow-raising Sweeney Todd revival, but rockets all the way to rivaling Javert himself for best final song.
The show’s doing strong success as I type, and due to start a US tour in 2016, opening the experience of the show up to many more people than can access it now. But even still, even as it is now, I cannot pledge enough what a worthwhile investment it is.
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Mask of the Phantasm is one of my favorite movies of all time, bar none. It’s my firm belief that the most haunting moment in any Batman adaptation happens right after that screenshot, when Bruce puts the mask on for the first time and Alfred says “My God…”
I couldn’t get through Barefoot Gen. To me, it was a lot more effective than Fireflies in that it was less outright emotionally manipulative. And more visceral, at least to me.
I wouldn’t call Fireflies emotionally manipulative exactly, no more than Gen (both spend their chips in CUTE HAPPY CHILDREN but both come by their agony honestly – Fireflies is just more in the shape of a parable, Seita being not just a child but something of a metaphor for the nation’s own struggles around him, pushed by pride to ruin). But Gen is definitely the more raw experience – oh, it’s nightmarish. Haunting beyond words.
The part that really got me to start calling it emotionally manipulative is that scene of Setsuko running around and doing cute little girl things after she dies to that wistful tune. Seita isn’t around, so it isn’t a memory. It exists just to make the audience even more sad that Setsuko is dead, down to the salute she snaps at the end. To my memory, Gen never quite broke the fourth wall that badly. It always seemed extremely disingenuous to me.
That scene is pretty on the nose, it’s true. Gen didn’t quite reach that height, though I find some of the early scenes (particularly the carp catching bit) a wee bit groanworthy as far as JUST WAIT TIL WE DESTROY ALL OF THIS. Ultimately pale in comparison to the works as wholes, though.
While I haven’t seen Mask of the Phantasm yet, I’ll always remember the time Siskel and Ebert found about about years after it came out, and couldn’t stop raving about it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_KcFFqLggY
Ah, now I miss them all over again