Indie Comics That Should Be Movies

I love comic books. Love ‘em. That’s probably not a surprise to anyone — you can’t walk into my apartment or talk to me for more than half an hour without it becoming readily apparent. But stop and take a moment to reread what I said — I love comic books. Not superheroes. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a good superhero story,… on the contrary, I’m a huge fan of lots of them. But if you ask any intelligent comic book reader what he or sh— ah, who’re we kidding, he — would most want to change about the industry, the majority of them would single out the public perception that “comic books” automatically equals “superheroes,” and never the twain shall part. (The rest would say they want Batman to fight Wolverine, but let’s just ignore them and move on.)

And truthfully, we have only ourselves to blame. The fact is that superheroes DO dominate the industry by an incredible margin; it’s the equivalent of turning on the TV at any random time and finding that 98% of the shows on are soap operas. (Which, let’s face it, are just superhero stories without the powers and ridiculous clothes.) But for all that, there ARE a vast number of entertaining, high-quality comics out there that have nothing to do with superheroes and aren’t published by the Big Two (Marvel and DC), and it’s them I’d like to focus on here. The recent surge of comic movies has ensured that we’ll be able to see Spidey and Batman and even Ghost Rider brought to life on film anytime we want… but what about the lesser-known characters? Surely some of them are well suited for cinematic adaptation, aren’t they? The Crow proved it could be done, so today we’ll take a closer look at just which properties might translate well from one medium to the next. And since I read “High Fidelity” not long ago, I present to you my desert island, all-time, top five Independent Comics That Should Be Movies!

BLUE MONDAY

Ever see a John Hughes flick? Good… transfer it from your TV to the printed page and you’ve got Blue Monday, a comic whose characters once described themselves in a promotional ad as “like Archie on crack, with cursing and smokes.” A series of miniseries, BM chronicles the teenage misadventures of Bleu Finnegan and her best friend, the very Irish (and hot!) Clover Connelly, trying to survive high school in the early 90s with a little help from friends/enemies/potential love interests Alan, Victor, Erin, and Monkeyboy. Along the way, writer/artist Chynna Clugston-Major transfers her love of geek-chic style and hipster music to her characters, giving us a motley collection of the coolest outcasts you’ve ever laid eyes on… and the funniest.

Though it does occasionally veer into more fantastic territory (Seamus the Pooka = teh suck), ala Weird Science, for the most part the series stays grounded in real-life teenage issues, which is where it truly shines. For example, the most recent miniseries (Painted Moon) dealt with repressed longing, irreconcilable age differences, sexual orientation, and the fine art of onanism (look it up), but all with a light touch and enough humor to keep things from getting tedious or overly angsty. And while it’s true that some of the viewpoints CC-M expresses in her work are a little out there (Pepsi over Coke? Step back from the abyss…), she’s one damn funny (and hot!) lady and she draws real purdy pictures, so we’ll forgive her.

The bottom line is that BM is probably the closest we’ll ever come to having another Brat Pack movie to call our own, and it’d be a crime for that never to happen. Get a cast of young unknowns together, let ‘em run wild, and watch audiences cheer, “The kids are alright!”

SCUD THE DISPOSABLE ASSASSIN

You’re perhaps familiar with The Tick? The best description I can give you of Scud is to say that it does for futuristic sci-fi thrillers what The Tick does for superheroes — that is to say, it mercilessly mocks and parodies them, while conveying a deep love of the genre at the same time. The concept is brilliantly surreal: in the future, you can purchase robot assassins from vending machines, who will self-destruct (no evidence) after completing their mission. But while battling his target — a monstrous, plug-headed mutant named Jeff — one particular Scud discovers the truth and decides, well, dying kinda sucks. Spying a loophole, he instead blows Jeff’s arms and legs off, then puts her on life support and begins taking freelance assassination jobs to pay her hospital bills. Simple, right?

Okay, maybe not exactly. Over the next 20 issues, Scud would fight werewolves, mobsters, zombie dinosaurs, 80’s jocks, and even Voodoo Ben Franklin, as well as tangling with the sexiest bounty hunter in fictional history, Sussudio. (Which, I don’t care what the mother thinks, WILL be the name of my firstborn daughter. Mark my words.) Finally he was called to heaven itself, where a trio of rebellious angels drafted him for his toughest assignment yet — killing the world.

At which point… well, nobody knows, actually. The planned final issue of the series was never written, and creator Rob Schrab has made it clear he doesn’t think he’ll ever do it. But what better way to finally resolve the story than to adapt it into a motion picture or three? I’m thinking we get all the rogue Pixar guys together — the ones who’re tired of doing kids’ movies and shorts about jackalopes – and put ‘em to work on this bad boy. Maybe some scriptwriters from Futurama and The Tick, with Rob Schrab supervising. And the best thing is, the voice actors have already been cast: Schrab listed the names of who he imagined voicing his characters in early issues, so we already know that Scud sounds like John Malkovich, Sussudio is Gwyneth Paltrow, Woodstock from the old Snoopy cartoons is Drywall, and Adam Sandler would cameo as Scud Lite (“He won’t kill, he’ll just beat the [poop] out of somebody!”). Trust me — if you’ve ever watched an episode of Sealab 2021 and laughed, you want this movie just as much as I do.

Y: THE LAST MAN

The concept: A catastrophic plague instantly wipes out every male on Earth, with the exception of a young man named Yorick and his pet monkey, Ampersand. In the wake of this cataclysm, while his Congresswoman mother helps keep the country together, Yorick sets out with a secret service agent and a geneticist to discover why he’s the sole male survivor, as well as to connect with his fiancée on the other side of the world. That’s if he can escape the Daughters of the Amazon, cultists who feel that the plague was Mother Nature’s way of rectifying her mistake, and who want nothing more than to finish the job. And where does Yorick’s sister Hero fit into all of this?

Why it would make a great movie: Writer Brian K. Vaughan does an amazing job of taking a sci-fi staple and really exploring the ramifications of it. In an instant, supermodels are reduced to morticians, hauling half the world’s population to mass crematoriums while lamenting the three grand they wasted on boob jobs. The Washington Monument (natch) becomes a memorial to the male gender; meanwhile, travel is nearly impossible, with 95% of airline pilots dead and highways hopelessly clogged with crashed vehicles. Vaughan touches on things you’d never think of, yet are obvious in retrospect — as when it’s pointed out that the pygmy shrew, with a lifespan of a year and a half, has just gone extinct, soon to be followed by opossums and rats. Likewise, he’s clearly done his research: as Australia is one of the only countries to allow women on submarines, in this world, they now rule the oceans.

But not content to simply coast on the concept, Vaughan has also crafted incredibly complex characters, from Yorick himself (an escape artist with serious women issues that manifest over time) to his bodyguard 355, and his very confused sister. As a film, it would draw in guys for the apocalyptic theme and, um, 99% female cast, while women would be attracted to the fascinating examination of gender relationships and the affirmation that, yes, the world would still keep turning if we all took a big dirt nap. And if all that’s not enough, it’d also teach an important moral — being the last man alive just might not be quite as much fun as we’d all like to imagine. Sad, but true. So somebody put Zack Braff or Topher Grace on reserve, get Vaughan to sign on the dotted line (wait, he already has… score!), and let’s get this puppy made.

BARRY WEEN, BOY GENIUS

Fans of MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco may recall a young man named Judd Winick, who hoped to make a name for himself in the comic industry. Well, true believers, dreams really can come true, as several years ago Judd catapulted himself into the business with his self-created character, Barry Ween. Granted, the world of fiction isn’t exactly hurting when it comes to cartoon geniuses — Jimmy Neutron, Dexter, the Brain — but what separates Barry from all the rest is one simple fact: he swears. A lot, actually; appearances aside, this is not a comic you’d give your 8-year-old. It is, however, one you’d read yourself if you’re any kind of a fan of off-the-wall, hilarious situations filled to the brim with cartoonish violence and profanity. And, c’mon, who isn’t?

It’s a pretty simple formula, really. Take one 10-year-old supergenius, with a secret lab in the backyard and an atom smasher under his bed. Add a clumsy, foul-mouthed, hormonally-turbocharged best friend. Put them in situations ripped straight from Looney Toons, with scientific gadgets out of every sci-fi movie you’ve ever seen, and let them run wild. It’s impossible to really sum up the genius of Barry Ween because rarely is there any overarching theme — it’s just Barry and Jeremy getting themselves into one bizarre adventure after another, from encountering a tribe of Bigfoots while camping (little-known fact: they’re all hippies) to accidentally turning Jeremy into a Tyrannosaurus “with a white man’s afro.” Will they manage to get everything back to normal before Barry’s parents catch on? Of course, but you can bet your ass some pretty funny crap will go down along the way.

Even more impressively, the occasional forays into more serious territory don’t seem forced in the slightest; for instance, when Jeremy is mistaken for Barry and kidnapped by government agents, Barry’s threat to the head stooge is more chilling than a comic featuring farts and giant monkeys has any right to be. (“If you ever come after me, my friends, my family… you will disappear. They won’t be able to match DNA records to the shoe-sized stain that’ll be your remains. I will wish you away to the [bleep]ing cornfield, dipwad. But before I do… I will HURT you.”)

Film-wise, I envision an animated Barry Ween influenced heavily by South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, giving Judd the freedom he needs to get as many dirty words on screen within 2 hours as is humanly possible. The man loves his work, so let’s let him share it with a wider audience. For as he puts it, “know that somewhere I am writing tales of an obnoxious, obscenity-spewing uber-prodigy and his best friend who likes to make [penis] jokes. God bless America!” ‘Nuff said, my friend.

LONGSHOT

Okay, this one’s a bit of a cheat — it was actually published by industry giant Marvel Comics back in 1985. We’ll ignore that, though, as it’s got the true spirit of an independent comic within it. An amnesiac man finds himself thrust into our world unexpectedly, being pursued by grotesque beings. With no memory of who he is or where he’s from, this stranger discovers a bizarre power: as long as his intentions remain pure, things have a habit of working out for him; but if he falls into selfishness, his good luck reverses itself. In time, the so-called “Longshot” learns the horrible truth: he’s a refugee from another dimension, where his kind are bred as slaves for the dominant race, the Spineless Ones. A former stuntman (in movies where the violence is real and actors genuinely die), Longshot rebelled against his master and was mindwiped for it, but escaped to Earth. However, he’s soon followed by the revolting Mojo, a certifiably insane media mogul bent on reclaiming his property and deriving worship from humanity at all costs…

If you’ve ever read the Narnia books or seen The Truman Show, this one might be right up your alley. In an amazing blend of fantasy, sci-fi, and media parody, Ann Nocenti crafted a tale that reads more like a modern fairy tale than a superhero comic, topped off by stunning art. The characters are incredibly three-dimensional and complex, including Longshot, who gradually shifts from a naïve amnesiac to a Christ-like figure in a completely natural manner; not bad for just six issues. For the film version, we’d need to get Christopher Nolan to direct; his experience shooting Memento should serve him well in documenting Longshot’s recurring memory flashes. Live action, but ready to bust out the CGI at a moment’s notice, like the Star Wars prequels done right. And speaking of which, get me Mark Hamill as the voice of Mojo and we’re good to go on this movie-within-a-movie. Just never tell me the odds!

(As for Longshot, he went on to join the X-Men in the late 80’s and become a cult favorite character, but a lot of the magic was gone; he was most memorable for serving as a template for later character Gambit. He continues to pop up as a guest star every few years, but nothing has ever come close to the creativity and emotional impact of his initial miniseries. More’s the pity.)

And that’s just for starters… I’m leaving out a lot of great titles (Liberty Meadows, Bone, etc.), as well as some that might work better as television shows — like Wildguard, an American Idol sendup with superheroes auditioning to join a new team. The point is, though, there’s tons of great alternative, edgy comics out there that would make for terrific films, ones that would probably appeal to lots of cult movie fans. Hellboy proved it could be done, if only Hollywood is willing to make the effort to do things right. They might not all make the transition gracefully — for every Sin City, there’s a Tank Girl — but given how many indie comics have become either financial successes (Men in Black, Road to Perdition) or critical darlings (Ghost World, American Splendor), they certainly seem worth taking a chance on… because you never know when you’ll win big on a long shot.

7 comments

  1. Wow, this one’s a blast from the past. 😉

    As an update on some fronts, since I wrote this back in ’03 or ’04:

    -Sadly, Chynna Clugston has done very little with Blue Monday since; the first issue of a miniseries that was never completed, and that’s it. Bummer.

    -In happier news, Rob Schrab finally did come back and finish Scud’s story in a final four issues, so a movie is theoretically possible.

    -The Y: The Last Man series finished its story a few years back, but the film is stalled in development hell.

    -Barry Ween hasn’t seen any new material since ’02, but Judd Winick recently claimed that he’s working on a new miniseries.

    -And Longshot joined the cast of ongoing title X-Factor and recently bankrupted Las Vegas.

  2. Not sure you can call Y: the last man indie, since it’s published by DC under vertigo. My list would be:

    Grendel, by Matt Wagner
    Usagi Yojimbo, by Stan Sakai (why has no one done this yet?)
    Top Ten, by Alan Moore
    Hepcats, by Martin Wagner
    Bone, by Jeff Smith (come on, they do junk like Guardians of Gahoole and Animorphs but not this?)
    Boneyard, by Richard Moore.

    • It’s debatable, I suppose, but while Vertigo is an imprint of DC, it’s basically their indie branch… none of it is superhero or mainstream. The “dark fantasy” purview went by the wayside long ago.

      I did cover Bone in the second installment of this series, which you can find here. Hepcats… was creative and definitely had talent behind it, but it was also slow and ended right in the middle of its first real arc. (If you don’t count the preceding daily strip, that is.) Not really enough to make a movie out of. Plus, not that this is relevant, but its creator ripped off a bunch of people who paid for “lifetime subscriptions” right before it stopped being published.

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