2009: The Year of the Comic Book Movie (Again)?

2009: The Year of the Comic Book Movie?

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine

With last year's box office success of The Dark Knight and Iron Man, 2008 was labeled by many as the year of the comic book movie. But 2009 may turn out to be just as influenced by the world of comics, only this time, it won't be dominated by well-known superheroes.

"I would argue that 'comic book movies' is its own genre now. And I'm not just talking about superheroes," said Jeff Katz, the former 20th Century Fox executive and comics writer who was a producer on this year's X-Men Origins: Wolverine . "For a decade, we had to educate the audience and Hollywood about the difference. They get the difference now. 300 was a comic book movie, but it wasn't a superhero movie. Men in Black, Ghost World, Sin City -- comic book movies, but not superhero movies. Look where we are versus where we were 15 years ago in terms of respect and even lip service. There's an applied respect for this medium and this form now. People get it."

Although in the past, many film-goers didn't realize non-superhero movies like Road to Perdition and A History of Violence (famously, on the latter, director David Cronenberg didn’t even know it was a graphic novel first) were based on comic books, that's starting to change as studios are more willing to use the comic connection in their marketing, as Universal did with Wanted last year.

"I think that used to be the case, but 300 seemed to be a watershed moment where studios realized that tying a film in with its source material is a good marketing idea, even if the source material isn't one of the more recognizable Marvel or DC properties," said Robert Venditti, the author of Surrogates, the graphic novel on which this year's Surrogates movie starring Bruce Willis is based. "So I think, generally speaking, moviegoers are now much more aware of the alternative comics and graphic novels that find their way to the screen."

As audiences are educated on the comic book origin behind their favorite films, the hope of publishers is that they'll seek out the source material.

"Hopefully once there are enough non-superhero movies out there, and they've been promoted as being based on comics/graphic novels, it will help educate the public at large that there is a wider variety of stories and characters available in our medium," said Oni Press Publisher Joe Nozemack, whose Greg Rucka-penned graphic novel Whiteout is being released as a crime thriller film later this year. "The challenge then becomes to be sure they're introduced to books that meet their interests and tastes, instead of forcing superheroes or sci-fi/fantasy books on them."

In 2009, the variety of stories and genres in film that originated in comic book form are many, including the following comic-related movies set to hit theaters this year:

Astro Boy: With a voice cast that includes superhero fan favorites like Ghost Rider star Nicolas Cage and Heroes villain Kristen Bell, Astro Boy will bring the star of manga and anime television to modern audiences through CGI animation. Originating as a manga comic book in 1952 by Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy became a popular television show that first found success in Japan and later other countries. The film version, set to be released in October, stars Spiderwick Chronicles actor Freddie Highmore as the voice of Astro Boy, the young robot with amazing powers whose adventures require him to save his futuristic hometown of Metro City.


Coraline: While the story was first a novella, Coraline makes our list because it's written by comics scribe Neil Gaiman and was just adapted by artist P. Craig Russell as a graphic novel last year. With a February 6th release, Coraline tells the story of a young girl who moves to a new home and unlocks a mysterious door that leads to a parallel reality. Shot as stop-motion animation, the movie will have Dakota Fanning voicing the lead role and Lois and Clark/Desperate Housewives star Teri Hatcher as her mother.

Kick-Ass: Tentatively slated for late 2009, Kick-Ass is the comic book movie that was being filmed before the comic series was even finished by writer Mark Millar (Wanted) and artist John Romita Jr. With on-set photos hitting Newsarama in November, the movie looks to be sticking close to the comic book, which tells a modern and brutally realistic story of what would really happen to a teen who wants to fight crime like the superheroes in his beloved comic books. With young actor Aaron Johnson in the lead role and the aforementioned Nick Cage as an ex-cop, the story centers on a high school nerd who decides to try his hand at fighting crime in spandex, despite the fact he has no powers nor any of the basic physical attributes necessary to live up to the label crowds give him, "Kick-Ass."

Sherlock Holmes: This one shows up on our list of comic book films only because of how the film was developed in the first place. Yes, the books and the character are legendary without the help of comic books. But Lionel Wigram's still-unpublished comic book was the spec script for the film, meaning that graphic novels are not only rumored to be effective in lieu of a speculative script, but are now proven as having worked.

"I think when you put illustrations on paper -- essentially storyboards, for people who think in movie terms -- and they can envision how this will look on the screen, it does help sell the product," writer B. Clay Moore told Newsarama last year. "In fact, I know there are more and more people in Hollywood that are putting together sort of graphic novels in an attempt to elevate the pitch so the people can see it visually, which I don't think is a bad idea at all."

With movies based on comics producing more than $1 billion last year, it's not surprising that studios are wooed by the medium even when the source was never published. Besides, Sherlock Holmes has Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr. taking on the lead role in the film, further linking it to the comic book movie genre when it comes out in November.

The Surrogates: Starring Bruce Willis, the September 25 film The Surrogates is based on the comic series by writer Robert Venditti and artist Brett Weldele and published by Top Shelf. The sci-fi story takes place in 2054, when advancements in virtual reality and cybernetics have led to an era where "surrogates" let people interact with the real world without leaving their own homes. When someone starts to "kill" surrogates, a copy played by Willis is forced to leave his home to investigate.

The Surrogates, which is being brought to theaters by the filmmaking trio behind Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, is one of those non-superhero movies that has the potential to further educate a mainstream audience on the wide variety of fiction genres available in comics. And publisher Top Shelf Productions is preparing for the kind of interest in the source material that publishers saw after the release of other comic book movies like Sin City and Wanted.

"Top Shelf will be ready by summer to support the frenzy of interest with not only a large run of the new edition of The Surrogates graphic novel, but also the brand new prequel, The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone -- another amazing graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele," said Chris Staros, Top Shelf publisher.

The Surrogates

JACKIE EARLE HALEY as Rorschach in Warner Bros. Pictures
JACKIE EARLE HALEY as Rorschach in Warner Bros. Pictures

Watchmen: Probably the most anticipated by comics fans, the March release of Watchmen will bring the acclaimed graphic novel to the screen now that its legal problems have been settled by Warner Bros. and Fox. Originally published as a 12-issue comic series by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons in 1986/87, Watchmen is still among the best-selling graphic novels for DC Comics even 20 years later.

The story's premise -- the deconstruction of the superhero -- is what made it such a pivotal work for the comic book industry, but it's also behind the film taking two decades to hit the screen. "I'm not sure that a deconstruction of the genre like the Watchmen would have been possible without all these other archetypical superhero origin movies out in the marketplace providing the right language first, so the audience could get the shorthand down," Katz said.

Although Watchmen may not generate the box office numbers of The Dark Knight, the benefit for the publishing industry is potentially more significant because this film leads movie fans back to the source material more readily than a movie about iconic characters like Batman or Superman. Because Watchmen is about characters unfamiliar to mainstream audiences, and because the film is based on a self-contained story that can be purchased in one volume, interest in the Watchmen book is already skyrocketing, just from the word-of-mouth caused by the trailer.

"Clearly, it’s worked beyond any recognition in history," DC Publisher and Presidnet Paul Levitz told Newsarama last year just before it was announced that 1 million copies of Watchmen had been sold in 2008. "We had a dinner of the buying teams from all the major bookstore franchises, and no one there or on our Random House sales side could remember a trailer from any film having the kind of mathematical effect on book sales that we’re experiencing with Watchmen."

Whiteout: Starring genre movie favorite Kate Beckinsale (Underworld/Van Helsing), Whiteout is based on the graphic novel by writer Greg Rucka and artist Steve Lieber. A crime thriller with Beckinsale playing a U.S. Marshal, Whiteout is about murder and intrigue in Antarctica, where the brutal white landscape plays as much of a role in the story as the characters.

Nozemack said the film, which is set to come out on September 11, has already generated an interest in the Whiteout book and its sequel, Whiteout: Melt.

"We've already seen an increase in sales and interest in the books just from the publicity that's been done up to this point," the publisher said. "We expect to see two more surges, one when the trailer is officially released and then when the full marketing campaign is in effect just before the film's release."

Whiteout is another film that promises to further break the stereotype of comics being all about superheroes, as the parkas and real-world investigating tools used by the characters in this movie are about as far removed from superheroes as possible.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine: With a May 1st release, X-Men Origins: Wolverine will have Hugh Jackman back as the lead character in a story set 20 years before the original X-Men movie. Focusing on Wolverine's origins as part of the Weapon X program and his vendetta against arch-enemy Victor Creed, the film has generated a lot of buzz, particularly when Jackman publicly thanked Wolverine creator Len Wein at San Diego Comic-Con. While the film has recently been reported as needing reshoots, the number of X-Men guest stars -- including Gambit, Deadpool and the Blob -- gives this movie a lot of cred with comics fans, and with People's "Sexist Man Alive" in the lead role, it's got a built-in attraction for mainstream fans as well.

With such a wide array of movies based on stories from comic books, 2009 could again claim the title of the year of the comic book movie. But with dozens more comic book movies in production and optioned for film, Hollywood's love affair with comics doesn't look to be ending anytime soon.


9 to Watch in 2009: The Movies

9 to Watch in 2009: The Comics  

P. Craig Russell: Catching up - Coraline and More  

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