Movie Comics: Page To Screen/Screen To Page by Blair Davis (book review).

To many people, the first SF comicstrip that went on film was ‘Flash Gordon’ in 1936. However, I was surprised to discover that it wasn’t the first comicstrip. Back in the silent movies era, the ‘Katzenjammer Kids’ appeared in 1898 followed by a dozen shorts of ‘Happy Hooligan’ from 1900-1903. When it comes to the talkies, the first was in 1931, with ‘Skippy’, nothing to do with kangaroos but a doctor’s son who has Sooky, a friend from the shantytown on an A-film budget. As newspaper strips are read by adults and kids alike, it wasn’t a surprise both would watch it. All this and this is only the introduction to Blair Davis’ book, ‘Movie Comics: Page To Screen/Screen To Page’.

For the record, ‘Popeye The Sailor Man’ from ‘Thimble Theatre’ has the distinction for being the first animated cartoon from comicstrip in 1933. If you’re of a particular age, I have a feeling you might have seen them in repeats in the 60s.

It’s hardly surprising that films to comicstrip or comicbook happened as well, nor that the first was Mickey Mouse. Disney wrote the first few months of the comicstrip and green-lit a story where Mickey, seeing Minnie kissing another mouse, attempts to commit suicide in different ways. I agree with Davis and he shows one day’s strip with Mickey picking a shotgun off the wall as being particularly disturbing.

A lot of films, including those based on the classics, had adaptations to comicbooks, often using the likenesses of the cast. All of this led to star names getting their own stories. Something I didn’t know was Action Comics # 1 actually had a page devoted to the stars and shown here. I like how Davis presents the evidence than simply telling you about it.

If you thought photonovels or fumettis was something from the 1970s, this goes back to the 1930s as well. However, unlike those, the originals were more cut and paste photographs to get the pictures they wanted to tell a story.

It’s interesting to discover how the comicstrip based film material quickly got a B-rate status as it was not deemed intellectual. Thing is, though, everyone who read a newspaper read the ‘funnies’ and had at least one favourite strip. I should point out that unlike UK newspaper strips where you got a single row of panels a day, the US version had two or three rows each, allowing more story a day. It does make me wonder what would have happened had this snobbery hadn’t gotten to the budgets.

Davis points out the key problem with the early super-hero shows. There simply wasn’t the budget to do flight and strength convincingly at their costs. Even so, some of the changes like with Captain America does illustrate that it was more like them buying the name and ignoring the comicbooks. I can understand Milton Caniff being upset with what happened to his ‘Terry And The Pirates’ as he was fearful as to people watching the film and damage or reduce the number of people reading his strip. After all, it was putting his job on the line, if they disliked both as a result.

This isn’t to say that no adherence to the source material isn’t kept as witnessed by ‘Tillie The Toiler’ where typist Kay Harris was put in the part because she looked the part. Casting unknowns in such films is something that still gets done to this day as it avoids any preconceptions about the actors. Hands up any of you who might remember your reaction when Robert Redford was in the running for ‘Superman’ before Chris Reeve got the role. You know some things aren’t going to work.

It was interesting reading how the original cut of ‘Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs’ actually appeared in the comicbook version giving the prince more scenes but these were cut because he was difficult to animate. Makes you wonder what happened to the footage, doesn’t it?

With the advent of TV and the loss of B movies, ‘Prince Valiant’ (1954) was the first comicstrip based film to get an A movie budget. Something to bear in mind when you catch it on TV. The more cheaply made ‘The Sad Sack’ (1957) did make a more money but it was a vehicle for actor Jerry Lewis.

If you thought the Marvel Comics limited animation series in the 1960s was the first with that approach, there were several in the 1950s, including Will Eisner’s ‘The Spirit’.

About the only point Davis gets wrong and this might be down to American syndication in that ‘Thunderbirds’ (1965) led the British puppet shows but that could mean he just missed ‘Stingray’ (1964) made in colour for the US market.

The 1950s was fraught with censorship but comicbook adaptation of films got off lightly because the source material had already been censored. I was more surprised by some musicals getting the treatment sans the dancing which just made them dramas. Hardly surprising with super-heroes out of favour, that westerns and romance were big with girls reading the latter, showing there was an audience for the fairer sex once upon a time.

I was surprised how Davis kept the 1960s to the present down to 7 pages. Surely it deserved more space than that. I hope he considers doing a companion volume looking at our era in more depth.

There is a lot to learn from this book, both for the history of comicstrip and comicbook characters and the way they were depicted in the movies and TV. I think I was more surprised by how many adaptations were made overall. As a research book into the subject, this is a must.

GF Willmetts

February 2017

(pub: Rutgers University Press. 294 page indexed illustrated enlarged paperback. Price: $27.95 (US), £23.50 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-81357-225-3)

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