Neumann on Davis, 'Movie Comics: Page to Screen/Screen to Page'
Blair Davis. Movie Comics: Page to Screen/Screen to Page. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2017. Illustrations. 256 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8135-7225-3; $99.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8135-7226-0.
Reviewed by Caryn E. Neumann (Miami University of Ohio) Published on Jhistory (October, 2018) Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe
Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51826
As Batwoman, Venom, and Black Panther pop up alongside their comic-born peers on big and small screens, it seems as if we are living in a golden age for film and television comics. This is not the first golden age. In Movie Comics: Page to Screen/Screen to Page, media historian Blair Davis explains that adaptations of comics trace back to the silent films and flourished in the mid-twentieth century. Comic books helped shape film and television, and these mediums also influenced the content of comics.
In the silent era, numerous comic strips became short films. Some of these early films focused on the wonder of film, rather than a narrative. Fans could see a beloved character up close, such as a live-action Happy Hooligan eating soup in Hooligan in Jail (1903). As film became less of a novelty, animated shorts flourished in the 1910s. The most popular comic strips of the 1910s and 1920s, such as the Katzenjammer Kids, Harold Teen, and Tillie the Toiler, were also translated into live-action shorts and feature films.
Meanwhile, silent film comedians showed up in print comics. Great Britain led in film-related comic strips, with Charlie Chaplin appearing weekly in The Funny Wonder from 1915 to 1944. Movie comedians, including Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, recognized that the crossover helped advance their popularity on screen. Davis’s discussion of the international connections between comics is one of the more interesting sections of his well-written book.
When audiences demanded sound filmmaking at the start of the 1930s, the market for long-running silent shorts, like Mutt and Jeff, Krazy Kat, and their peers, dried up. As sound filmmaking changed the art of adapting comics, die-hard fans feared that beloved comic characters would be ruined in the process. The link with modern-day fans complaining about Ben Affleck ruining Batman are evident. Paramount somewhat addressed these fears in promoting a 1931 live-action film of Percy Crosby’s Skippy by touting a more active and resonating experience than reading comics as viewers could see a living, whistling, talking child.
Although most comic-based films were popular, science fiction serials dominated in the 1930s. Buck Rogers, Tailspin Tommy, and Ace Drummond all drew large audiences. They offered film audiences action sequences relying on motion—high-flying planes, speedy car chases, exciting fistfights. As Davis notes, film allows viewers to vicariously experience motion in ways that most people will never get to do. Motion to readers of comic panels is an entirely different experience and not as thrilling. Most serials were made by so-called Poverty Row studios, which emphasized action rather than acting skills. By 1939, comics had become the biggest source of material for Hollywood adaptations. They were profitable and reviewed positively.
In the 1940s, comic adaptations continued although there were different approaches among the studios with respect to fidelity to narrative elements, characterization, and visual design. Many fans of serials were unfamiliar with the print versions of their heroes, while comic fans were often just happy to see Dick Tracy on screen. Serials had a presold fan base from the comic strip but could also be marketed to general audiences. Davis notes that the Batman newspaper strip developed after the release of the Columbia serial in 1943. The print comic owes both the Bat Cave name and design to the film. Butler Alfred Pennyworth, short and bumbling in comic books, eventually resembled tall and distinguished actor William Austin.
In the 1950s, comic book publishers increasingly adapted movies, partly in response to the censorship of the Comics Code Authority. Movies aimed at children were a safe source of inspiration. National Comics continued Batman and Superman, but most of their comics focused on film and television stars like Bob Hope and Phil Silvers. Motion Picture Comics focused on B-movie Westerns, while Movie Love included a wider range of genres. It rather beggars belief that a comic could be based on a musical, but Movie Love attempted this feat with several films. Movie Love #14 (April 1952) covered Singin’ in the Rain (1952) without Gene Kelly singing and dancing in rain puddles. Davis does not report how well the issue sold, though the reader clearly wonders.
As Davis successfully argues, movies and comics have a history that goes back to the dawn of film. The golden age of comic books also served as the golden age of movie adaptations from comics. This is a well-researched, delightful book to read. It will appeal to general audiences as well as upper-division classes in media history.
Citation: Caryn E. Neumann. Review of Davis, Blair, Movie Comics: Page to Screen/Screen to Page. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. October, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51826This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.