Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Marvel's Marvelous Movie Adaptations #1: An overview of those colorful Marvel Super Specials!

Before they started putting out their graphic novels and Epic Illustrated magazine, the Super Special series was Marvel’s most visually arresting product.  Their black and white magazines usually featured attractively lurid covers by Bob Larkin, Earl Norem and, occasionally, guys like Neal Adams and Grey Morrow.  But face it—the interiors varied wildly in quality from the knock-out gorgeous or even thrillingly bizarre (John Buscema, Alfredo Alcala, Rudy Nebres, Mike Ploog, Tom Sutton) to the serviceable and even the slap-dash (I won’t name names, but I have my suspects). 

The Super Specials, on the other hand, featured fully-painted color jobs, at least on many of the earlier issues.  Regular monthly comics came printed cheaply on grayish newsprint.  But a Super Special came on slick, white paper.  A Super Special was more than a comic.  It was an event unto itself.  It was super.  And special.  There'd be a painted cover, or one featuring photos or artwork from whatever movie the comic was adapted from.  It would have a full-length comic book story and then a few breathlessly informative articles or interviews related to the magazine's subject matter.  All this... and a higher price tag! 

The very first Marvel Super Special, which was officially a Marvel Comics Super Special, stars rock group Kiss and word on the street is the group contributed some of their blood to be mixed in with the ink.  It's hard to get more super or special than actual rock star bodily fluids inside your comic!  But no thanks.  The second issue features tried-and-true fan favorite Conan in adventures too epic for his regular monthly.

Then Marvel adapted Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the first of many Marvel Super Special film adaptations.  A Wiki check shows Close Encounters penciller Walt Simonson complaining about working on that book.  Worst experience of his career.  If so, I sympathize, but you can’t tell he was unhappy by looking at the finished product.  He and Klaus Janson turned in a spectacular effort, making the story work in a Marvelized format even though the conflict is largely internal—Roy Neary thinks he’s going crazy for most of the movie before he figures it all out and goes UFO-hunting—and co-stars every lightbulb in California.  They invented so many ways of depicting lighting effects I’m surprised they didn’t go blind from staring at them too long.  This was the first Marvel Super Special I bought, and it came to me via mail order.  It would not be the last, as these magazines quickly became one of my favorite Marvel purchases.

And this is where we come in.  Marvel’s other movie adaptations.  Jaws 2 swam up next, accompanied by a musical motif ripped off from Stravinsky.  This one was the first Super Special drawn by Tomb of Dracula team supreme Gene Colan and Tom Palmer.  They’d do a few more, each time absolutely rocking the results.  Colan had already done underwater horror in black and white for Warren Publications, but here Palmer adds vivid colors that make the book both gorier than you might expect in a comic and, strangely enough, also more attractive.  Jaws 2 is one of those shitty movies that are actually pretty fun, eschewing the Steven Spielberg original’s emphasis on characterization and suspense for schlocky, unintentionally hilarious setpieces (the shark eats a helicopter!) that do nothing to help its ludicrous premise—essentially shark-shaped lightning striking twice.  While not nearly as dire as subsequent films in the series, the movie suffers from diminishing returns.  The comic book holds things together by simply giving the material a more lavish treatment than it deserves.  I would have loved to see the same team go back and re-tell the first film.  That’s a real missed opportunity for a matched set.

While the Super Specials had already given us a bowdlerized Beatles biography, their adaptation of the infamous BeeGees-starring musical flop Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band never saw print.  This meant Marvel’s next offering was actually of a TV movie that similarly cribbed from a superior source and suffered from comparisons.  We knew it as Battlestar Galactica.  I had the Marvel Treasury Edition because it was huge and therefore caught my notice.  This one has art by Ernie Colon of Richie Rich and Jackie Jokers fame, and while his linework is looser than the Colan/Palmer stuff, and the colors flat rather than richly painted, it’s an energetic retelling.  It differs from the televised movie in some respects.  A villain gets a bloody comeuppance here, which would make his reappearance a bit… er… unlikely.  And yet there he was, on our TV screens every Sunday evening until ABC punched not only his ticket but everyone’s via cancellation.  And broke my heart.

The next film adaptation to see print?  Crappy sci-fi disaster film Meteor, a major flop with Sean Connery as an astronomer fighting an oncoming… well, you know.  A meteor.  What else?  The movie, which co-stars an unhappy Natalie Wood, forces Brian Keith to speak with a fake Russian accent (a few years after playing a small-town cop comedically contending with “invading” commie submariners in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, and not long before using this accent again for one of those WWIII TV movies the kids used to love so much back in the 1980s), with Henry Fonda as the President, putting it kindly, is complete dogshit.  On your shoe, after you stepped in it.  The comic, with Colan/Palmer art, is not.  In fact, it’s quite a visual treat.  There’s even a double-page spread of a massive tidal wave destroying Hong Kong.  Palmer not only handpainted the colors, but there’s also what appear to be Craft-Tint tones involved as well.  I’m not sure what their lead-time was for the artwork, but nothing looks rushed, especially towards the end when the meteor unleashes hell on New York.  Once again the Marvel comic proves better than the film on which it’s based.

From here out the Super Specials would consist almost entirely of movie material, with one exception-- Tarzan of the Apes.  Because they generally went for blockbusters and had to prepare the comics in advance of the films’ release dates, Marvel took on hits and misses alike. 
The adaptations of misses are a lot more fun than the ones of hits as far as I’m concerned.  How could you not love mondo-strange-o comics like Xanadu (#17, Summer 1980), Annie (#23, Summer 1982, with Win Mortimer pencils and lots of crossed eyes courtesy the Vinnie Colletta inks, no less), Rock & Rule (#25, 1983 with art consisting of stills from the movie itself)?  And sometimes the results would be miracles both major and minor, like Marvel’s lovely Dragonslayer (#20 , 1981), the storybook-like Santa Claus: The Movie (#39, 1985, richly drawn by Frank Springer and adapting one of the lousiest movies ever made) and the beautiful Labyrinth (#40, October 1986, with breakdowns by John Buscema and finishes by Romeo Tanghal, an unlikely pairing on this fairy tale material and killing on it). 
And then there’s Bill Sienkiewicz’s Dune (#36, 1984), the perfect meshing of artist and subject matter.  Space princesses, screaming magical messiahs, bloated barons with skin diseases and desert warriors dressed in skin-tight black rubber are visuals tailor made for Sienkiewicz’s “Neal Adams drops acid and hangs out with Ralph Steadman too much” artwork with its heavy blacks.  And giant penis monsters.  I mean worms.  Yeah.  Shai-hulud.  Those spice worms look nothing like a bunch of dicks springing up out of the sand.  Sure.  Seinkiewicz brilliantly translates into two dimensions the general weirdness of David Lynch’s fever-dream take on Frank Herbert’s novel.  And you get the added benefit of not suffering through the pacing problems created by trying to chop a huge novel down into a manageable running time, from not being able to tell all the spaceships are obviously teeny-tiny miniatures and not having to endure the repetitive, whispered voiceovers.  And dumb additions like the “weirding modules.”

Occasonally, though, Marvel would adapt a hit and blow it.  Raiders of the Lost Ark (#18, 1981).  What the hell happened there?  John Buscema and Klaus Janson provide curiously unfinished-looing and flat artwork, with none of the film’s retro-romance.  Dull, off-model colors add nothing to the art and the final product is lackluster at best.

That’s not to say the rest of the hits aren’t pretty sweet.  There are three Al Williamson/Carlos Garzon jobs—The Empire Strikes Back (#16, Spring 1980 and my personal choice for best movie adaptation of all time), Blade Runner (#22, September 1982) and Return of the Jedi (#27, 1983).  Much like with Seinkiewicz and Dune, Williamson was the perfect choice to adapt the second and third Star Wars films.  He seems an odd choice for Ridley Scott’s downbeat sci-fi noir, but he, Garzon, Dan Green and Ralph Reese generate all the film-accurate rainy cityscapes you could hope for, even if a number of panels seem a bit too photo reference-heavy and static.  They reproduce the film’s atmosphere to a startling degree, sort of making up for that lack in the Raiders book.  Should have put them on that one, too. 
Buscema pencils and inks himself on the two Conan movie adaptations, too, both for John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (#21, 1982) and the lighter, less boob-filled Conan the Destroyer (#35, 1984).  He doesn’t try to make his barbarian look anything like Arnold Schwarzeneggar, which is a good thing.  Although the Destroyer Conan sports Arnold’s headband.  You can never go wrong with Buscema inking himself on a Conan story, whether or not you appreciate Milius’ heavy-handed philosophizing and libertarian politics (I actually kinda dig it, even if I don’t agree with it) or director Richard Fleischer’s duller, less edgy and politicized take.

I’ve skipped around a lot.  What about the rest?  Well, there are two crappy and then crappier Roger Moore-era James Bond flicks (For Your Eyes Only achieves mediocrity by pairing otherwise appropriate Howard Chaykin with a disinterested Vince Colletta and then dumping a dull, standard monthly-comic-type color job on the results, totally wasting the format’s color possibilities); the tragically doomed Dark Crystal; another Indiana Jones flick with improved art but a sillier story; a nicely cartooned version of The Muppets Take Manhattan; desultory passes at clunkers like Krull, The Last Starfighter and 2010; the ahead-of-its-time Buckaroo Banzai (#33, 1984), all hip and tongue-in-cheek, makes a bow and turns immediately into a cult film; and Marvel even attempted both Sheena (#34, 1984, decent artwork by great Gray Morrow wasted on dreck) and Red Sonja (#38, 1985, a worthy effort by Louise Simonson and Mary Wilshire, with surprisingly deft Colletta inks, doomed from the start by its source material but finally sunk by the decision to go the cheap route yet again with a standard color palette).

The best, however, they saved for last.  The final Marvel Super Special, lucky #41 (November 1986) adapts George Lucas’ long-neglected masterwork Howard the Duck.  No knock on writer Danny Fingeroth or artist Kyle Baker, but this comic fairly cried out for some Gene Colan or Val Mayerik artwork.  Only they could have possibly salvaged this one. 
It has an appropriate cover date, though, doesn’t it?  November, towards the end of fall.  An inbetween time, a neither-nor time, a waiting time.  The happy Halloween graveyard ghost-dance past, the joys of Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa and New Year’s yet to come.  Despite Thanksgiving, which I really conflate with the Christmas holidays, November is a dull, gray month.  Too bleak to be tedious, too tedious to be fun.  The first cold rains come, and we’re given our initial glimpse of the dying of the year and the bleak winter that comes after our holiday revelry.  That’s all that November means to me.  The promise that, after the gifts and pretty lights, winter will be hard.  Long and hard and dead.  And with this, with the arrival of Howard, our symbol of the death of everything summer-bright in the world, Marvel Super Special was no more.
What I'm hoping to do with this series is take on each of these books, probably in order, and try to find some nice things to say about them.  We've already looked at two of these in detail, so we don't have to worry about them again!  Whew!  Some of the rest will be easy, even if the movies they're based on were complete stinkers.  Some won't be so easy.  But therein lies what I hope will be the fun.

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