Think about this. While Manga collections are found in almost every bookstore in the nation, there are very few comics from across the pond that get the same treatment. Sure, Tintin and Asterix collections are pretty easy to find, but they’re just a drop in the bucket – Europe has just as rich a comics culture as that of Japan, with a plethora of excellent adventure stories and some truly jaw-dropping sci-fi and fantasy. And yet somehow they remain largely untranslated and undistributed in the US, despite the fact that most of them were written in languages that used to be standard courses in high school. What’s the story, people?
Well, part of the story, I would imagine, involves manga’s connection to anime. In an era where people are spending more and more time in front of the goggle-box, it’s no wonder that fans of them wacky Japanese cartoons are going to be equally enamored of comics that are directly involved with them. So in order for European comics to gain a similar foothold in the Land of the Free, they are going to need their own screen adaptations, which, to be fair, a number of them have gotten – in their own countries. However, they also remain largely unknown over here (why?! Arrrgh!), so it looks like it’s up to Hollywood to get the ball rolling. And given the success of the recent Tintin film, there’ll never be a better time for it.
So without further ado, I present to you my Top Five European Comics That Deserve US Movie Adaptations!
Now, this really should be a Top Ten, since there are oodles and oodles of great comics that deserve a mention. However, I can only in good conscience recommend ones that A: I’m personally familiar with and B: are suitable for adaptation – and due to the paucity of translation over here, those criteria only apply to a few of ‘em at the moment. As always, these are in no particular order. (And before you ask, no, I’m not including Asterix for the simple reason that it already has several adaptations, some of which made it over here and others of which cast Gerard Depardieu as Obelix. I mean, really, can we top that? I don’t think so. Moving on.)
What it is: John Blacksad is a private investigator, a fairly typical example of his breed in many ways. He’s one tough cookie with a mean right hook who nonetheless believes in justice for the little guy.
So what makes him special? He’s a cat.
Yes, a cat – and in a society made up entirely of anthropomorphic animals, that doesn’t make him particularly unusual. Along with his off-and-on sidekick Weekly, Blacksad does his best to walk the right path and bring evildoers to justice.
Why it’s cool: OK, in many ways Blacksad is just a typical neo-Noir set in ‘50’s America, dealing with issues such as racism, communism and the Red Scare. It’s well-written and all, but we’ve seen all these issues confronted before.
What sets it apart, what makes it truly worth reading, are two things. First, there’s the everyone’s-an-animal aspect. This kinda sounds like a silly gimmick, I know, but it really works surprisingly well. To paraphrase Jim Steranko (who wrote the introduction for the collected edition), these are not animals that act like people, they’re people that happen to look like animals – something that is used as a sort of visual shorthand to quickly delineate their basic nature. So basically, we’re dealing with the same sort of Noir character types we’re all familiar with – the corrupt businessman, the gruff-but-honest cop, the world-weary P.I – except they’re animals. It really gives new life to an old genre, and makes us look at things in a different way.
The second is the artwork. Oh, holy crap, the artwork.
If that doesn’t rock you back on your heels just a little bit, then you have become too jaded, my friend.
The combination of those two factors makes the world of Blacksad a fascinating place, and one that is just begging to be explored in a movie. In fact, a few years ago it was reported that exactly this was going to take place – but for some reason it didn’t.
Well, it should. Blacksad needs to be a movie. Specifically, it needs to be an animated movie with Guarnido on board to help with the visuals. There haven’t been enough stories yet for the audience to expect a particular one, so I’d go with an original – one that sought to be the ‘definitive’ Blacksad tale. If done right, it could be a spectacular feast for the eyes and brain, an experimental Noir that would inject new life into an old genre. Buy the comic, write your congressman – do something to help this thing get made into a movie. It needs to happen, like now-ish.
(Oh, and because this is the Internet, I’m sure as sure can be that someone is reading this and snickering about Furries. These people need to shut up. Sure, Guarnido’s female animal characters do on the whole tend to be disturbingly attractive, but who cares? If some people get a little something extra out of it, so what? It’s still great stuff.)
What it is: Somewhere in the badlands of Arizona there lies a small western town by the name of Calton Creek. As is the case with just about every small western town, it has a sheriff – Lobey Dosser, the Creek’s intrepid bewhiskered lawman. Along with his faithful two-legged steed El Fideldo (affectionately known as “Elfie”), he defends it against all manner of baddies, mainly and particularly his arch-nemesis Rank Bajin.
Why it’s cool: While Scotland is not the first place that comes to mind when most people think of Europe, it is technically part of it, so I feel no guilt at including an obscure 1950’s Scottish comic strip on the list. And really, I would be remiss if I didn’t, because Lobey Dosser is frickin’ awesome, not to mention gloriously insane.
To start with, Calton Creek may be located in Wild-West Arizona, but for all intents and purposes it’s actually the furthest-afield suburb that Glasgow is ever likely to get – its residents speak in thick Scottish accents and pepper their sentences with regional slang (“Lobey’s the wee boy!”). And that’s the normal part – I mean, what do you expect from a Scottish strip? I’m guessing you don’t expect supporting characters like Rid Skwerr (“Red Square” in dialect), a miniature ghost who defected from the Russians (oh yes, there are anachronisms – are there ever), or Fairy Nuff, a… well, fairy who speaks in rhyme. Or, for that matter, the fact that the title character rides a two-legged horse – don’t see that every day, now do you?
The vast majority of the storylines are focused on the battle of wills between Lobey and the constantly be-hooded Rank Bajin, who is quite literally the town’s resident villain – he even has an office with ‘Rank Bajin, Villain’ written on the door. I love Rank Bajin. How can you help but enjoy a character so devoted to being evil that on the rare occasion when someone else gets arrested for a crime in the strip, he takes it as a professional insult? (Not to mention that he’s got one heck of a command of the English language.)
Admittedly, there are a few elements to the strip that could be taken as a tad un-PC these days – the secondary villain of Chief Toffy Teeth, for instance, might raise a few eyebrows amongst the Native American community. But there’s nothing actively malicious, and it’s all playing off the typical cowboys-and-indians set-up anyway, so I doubt that it would really do more than ruffle a few feathers.
While Lobey Dosser might be a tad tricky to adapt into movie form, I’d say it would definitely be worth it. You would have to cast a mostly-Scottish bunch of actors, of course, to get that authentic Scottish-Western flavor, and cast a great big ham as Bajin. Actually, what I’d do is pull off a Darth Vader and cast two great big hams as Bajin – you never see his face anyway (except for his teeth), so I’d get someone like Andy Serkis to skulk around under the hood and give a really animated physical performance, then dub him over with bombastic vocals from someone else, thus maximizing the character’s villainous possibilities. It is a plan that CAN’T FAIL! Lobey himself would require a diminutive straight-man type who could pull off that majestic wild-and-wooly beard of his. Elfie, of course (or at least the bottom half of her) would have to be done through CGI, as would Rid and the fairy.
Obscure? Yes. Might have trouble finding an audience? Possibly. But doggone it, Lobey Dosser is an oft-forgotten classic, and it deserves a movie.
What it is: McConey (Lapinot in the original French) is a rabbit. Along with a cast of his similarly-anthropomorphic friends, he has adventures both mundane and fantastic.
Why it’s cool: The McConey/Lapinot series is a bit of an odd duck – er, rabbit. There’s only two volumes that have been translated into English, so I can’t really judge it as a whole, but a little research shows that the volumes more or less alternate between a continuing storyline set in modern France and a variety of historical settings where McConey and his friends are cast as different characters each time, while remaining recognizably themselves. Each story has a very different feel, with some later ones getting surprisingly dark for what is basically a “funny animal” series.
And unlike Blacksad, it really is a “funny animal” series. Created by legendary French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim (whose graphic novel Mr. O, by the way, would so have gotten on here if it had been a little more filmable), the series is peppered with slapstick, wordplay and running gags, with McConey himself filling the role of straight man. It’s not generally laugh-out-loud hilarious, but it has a sort of wit to it that makes one want to reread certain pages to appreciate the comic timing.
This is not to say that the humor is the whole point. The two volumes I’ve read feature such fantastic elements as mad science, ancient curses and gruesome monsters, and manage to integrate them very well. You’re genuinely wondering just how McConey and friends will get out of this latest jam, even while you’re chuckling at the latest comic tangent.
Really, it’s comics like this that inspired me to write this article in the first place. I would really like to give you a more informed opinion on the series, but I can’t, because there’s only two volumes to be had in English. It’s frustrating – you want more, but more is not to be had, unless you happen to know French, which, as it happens, I do not. Perhaps if a movie was made to drum up further interest, they’d release the rest of the volumes in a format I could read, yes?
Anyway. Going by what I have read, I’d adapt the Harum Scarum volume, which is the one with the monsters and mad science, and generally considered by fans of the series to be one of the best (even if it does happen to share a name with an Elvis movie). Stan Sakai (the guy who does Usagi Yojimbo) describes it as “[what would happen] if Alfred Hitchcock ever did a funny-animal story”, and I don’t know about you, but that sure makes me want to see what it’d look like on the screen. Naturally, the first choice would be an animated version, but I could also see it working as live-action if something interesting were done with it – heck, given its overall absurdist nature, I could see it working if a cast of live actors were given really intentionally amateurish funny-animal makeup. It’s that sort of story.
What it is: A girl with a mysterious past, Modesty raised herself up from the life of a wandering nomad to ultimately become the head of “the Network”, a worldwide criminal organization specializing in theft and smuggling. Retiring at the top of her game, she settled in England, where her services were sought out by Sir Gerald Tarrant of the Secret Service. Since then, she and her former right-hand man Willie Garvin have carried out missions on behalf of the British government. The terror of evildoers, she is Modesty Blaise!
Why it’s cool: OK, admittedly this is cheating just a little bit, because technically there already is a Modesty Blaise movie in existence – from way back in the ‘60’s, even. However, it really is only a technicality, because the flick was really more of a parody of the character than an actual adaptation, and while Monica Vitti made for an especially toothsome Modesty, she also couldn’t speak English and had to sound out her lines phonetically. So, yeah. An amusing trifle for those who already know the character, but a genuine no-kidding adaptation? Not so much.
And that is something that needs to be rectified, because Modesty Blaise needs a good film adaptation. Modesty Blaise is desperately crying out for a good film adaptation. I mean this literally. Somewhere, in some dark limbo of the unadapted, a tiny little Modesty Blaise is waving her arms frantically and crying out ‘Film me! Fiiilm meeeee!’ in a little high-pitched voice. But few people listen. Sad. So sad.
Why? Simple – Modesty Blaise is a recognized classic. Indeed, if you’ve heard of any of the titles on this list, it’s probably this one. If nothing else, the name has sufficient punch to get butts into seats.
And they would be butts well-placed, because the strip has earned its reputation. Let’s put it this way – you know James Bond? Picture a female James Bond. A compelling image, no?
Now strip away all the over-the-top gadgetry (not that I’ve got anything against the gadgets, mind you) and replace it with deadly fighting skills and a lifetime of surviving by her wits. In place of Bond’s endless array of replaceable beauties, give her a deep platonic friendship with a man who is just as skilled at kicking ass as she is. Finally, replace Bond’s employment by MI6 with a position as a freelance independent who gets into all sorts of fixes that have nothing to do with her job. Mix in a trace of mysterious exoticism, a dry sense of humor and an all-around competence in just about every regard, and you’ve got Modesty Blaise.
Moreover, while I don’t like to moralize when it comes to my adventure heroes, Modesty is different from Mr. Bond in a rather important way – she’s a good role model. Never mind the fact that she’s an ex-criminal, an occasional killer, and (at least in her older adventures) smokes like a chimney – the point is that she comes across as a real person, and moreover, an admirable one. Ol’ James is the king of cool, but speaking personally, I never really related to him. I mean, take away the suaveness and the quips and the pathological womanizing, and what do you really have? Modesty, on the other hand, seems like someone you might actually meet, if you traveled in her circles – we get to see her hanging out with her friends and enjoying herself, we get a good idea of her moral limits and just how far past them she’s willing to go, and we generally get an idea of just how gutsy this woman is. She is, in short, one of those rarest of things, a genuinely strong female role model, while remaining a beautiful woman who could kick your posterior – therefore appealing to both fangirls and fanboys. Willie Garvin makes for an interesting character, too – he’s a bit more traditionally Bond-ish, if Bond were a cockney bloke wot ‘appened to be best mates wiv a gorgeous gel. (Any actual cockneys reading this, please forgive me.) Basically, picture Bond as played by a young Michael Caine with martial arts and throwing knives instead of guns, and minus the love-‘em-and-leave-‘em mentality.
Now, of all the entries on this list, Modesty Blaise probably stands the best chance of being made into a movie. Quentin Tarantino, in fact, has repeatedly expressed interest in directing same. I’m not sure if he’s really the best man for the job, but I hope someone does, because Modesty’s brand of sexy-awesome deserves to be brought to the big screen. Hey, it might even convince the Hollywood bigwigs that female comics heroes aren’t a risky investment, which would open things up for those film projects that so many of us have been waiting for, like Wonder Woman, or Blonde Phantom (although that last one may just be me).
What they are: Starting his career as a bellhop, Spirou is now an investigative reporter, along with his best pal Fantasio and his pet squirrel Spip. Together, the three get into one adventure after another, often coming to blows with such adversaries as the mad scientist Zorglub and Fantasio’s evil cousin Zantafio.
Why it’s cool: You know, finishing this list was a difficult task for me. There weren’t enough comics out there that fit my personal criteria to make it a top ten, so I had to make it a top five – anything else would have been terribly inelegant.
But what to put in and what to leave out? For the longest time, I was going to finish it off with Diabolik, the Italian anti-hero. It would have been cheating, of course, since he already has quite a good movie that I reviewed not too long ago (and if y’all haven’t read that, you should), but I do think he deserves another one, so right up ‘til the last minute I was going to say the heck with it and put the big D right here.
Ultimately, though, I decided that it was just too much of a stretch – especially since I still haven’t read a single Diabolik fumetti, which are apparently fairly different from the movie. So I decided to put these guys here instead.
Why? Well, two reasons. One, while I haven’t actually read any of their stories all the way through, I have read bits and pieces of them, so that gives them that little bit of an edge.
As for #2, it’s pretty simple – they deserve it.
Basically, Spirou and Fantasio are the main rivals to Tintin in terms of worldwide Euro-comics supremacy. They’ve got well over fifty albums and counting, dating back to the late ‘30’s, which make them (or, more accurately, Spirou himself; his pals came later) a little younger than Tintin, but not by much. They’ve been through multiple creative teams, had spin-offs aplenty, and they’re still going even as we speak. They are the current torch-bearers of the European comics tradition, and have been for decades. Sure, in the States they’re pretty much nobodies, but if any characters on this list have earned the right to get a damn movie, it’s them.
So what are their adventures like? From what little I’ve read of them, think Tintin, only with more of a slapstick, humorous approach, and with considerably more of an emphasis on crazy sci-fi – and considering that the former comic features at one point a size-changing alien metal that grows exploding mushrooms, that’s saying something. There’s lots of mad science, both on the part of their antagonist Zorglub and their friend the Count of Champignac; lots of globe-trotting, lots of facing off against robots and monsters and the like. Never a dull moment with these guys.
As for Spirou and company themselves, they fall roughly into the same roles as Tintin and Captain Haddock – but only roughly. As with the better-known duo, Spirou is sort of a blank-slate heroic type while Fantasio is the somewhat older, irritable, more accident-prone guy, but that’s really as far as it goes. For one thing, the two are much closer in age than their predecessors, so it’s more of a conventional ‘best pals’ sort of scenario than Haddock’s loyalty towards his young comrade. For another, Spirou may be your traditional hero in most respects, but he’s just that little bit more complex – from what I’ve read of him, I get the impression that he’s slightly less idealistic and a bit more pragmatic than his be-quiffed fellow adventurer. Fantasio, too, is different in important ways, being far more disaster-prone than even the good Captain ever was, with a vivid imagination, a hot temper, and a tendency to get into really spectacular amounts of trouble. As for Spip, he’s no mere Snowy clone – he’s a cynical, sarcastic grump whose internal monologues are often the best part of the comics.
So what would make for the definitive Spiroumovie? I’m not really in a position to say, since like I said I’ve only read bits and pieces of it, and there are so many more out there that have yet to be translated. Still, that it deserves a movie adaptation there is no doubt – and hey, if Tintin and its upcoming sequels continue to prove moneymakers, then who knows what could happen? We might be seeing all kinds of cinematic wonderment on the horizon.
Honorable mentions: Diabolik, Valerian and Laureline, Franka, Thorgal