No Capes Nor Cowls Need Apply: The 10 Best Non-Superhero Comic Book Movies

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Sure, we all love superheroes. Whether you want to believe it or not, it’s inherent in our DNA – but we are not here today to talk about our constant need for heroic figures in our subconscious. Yeah, I just laid some psychological mumbo jumbo on your butts. Deal with it. But I digress. What we are here for today, is to take a look at those comic books without the capes and cowls. Or more specifically, the filmed adaptations of said non-superhero comic books. Yeah, I still love me some Batman and some Captain America (and when the hell is Wonder Woman getting a proper movie adaptation!?) but today is not the day for such things. Today is the day without super powers. Today is the day without the costumes and crime fighting (though there still might be a bit of the latter). Today is the day to discuss, or countdown and discuss, if you will, all those comic book adaptations where there isn’t a superhero in sight.

Actually, even though superheroes are the bread and butter of the big two (Marvel and DC) and therefore the most visible aspect of the comic book industry, there are many more non-superhero comics being made than superhero ones. And some of these (though not nearly enough) have been made into motion picture adaptations. Yeah, they may not have the budgets given to Chris Nolan and Joss Whedon, for them to pull off their comic book adaptations (though a few of these are Hollywood productions) but that shouldn’t mean they are of lesser importance. More often than not, smaller budgeted films are better than the big blockbustery stuff of box office legend. Any good cinephile knows that. But enough of this rambling and meandering and such, let’s get going with our countdown. Oh, and for a few runners-up, why not Daniel Clowes’ Art School Confidential being turned into a Terry Zwigoff movie; or Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta (the book was a whole lot better than the film); or even the animated Heavy Metal, which is sort of based on a comic book. And, before you ask, no, I am not that big a fan of Zack Snyder’s 300 adaptation. So there. Anyway, let’s get this countdown started.

And awaaaaaaay we go…

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Special Mention: Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb

Technically, I suppose this documentary on the great underground comix mad genius known as Robert Crumb, isn’t actually based on any one particular comic book. But still, it’s close enough to get a special mention. Being the artist who created both Fritz the Cat AND Mr. Natural, as well as that Keep on Truckin’ guy, Crumb needs to be included here somewhere. And oh yeah, you should really check out this film, as Crumb is not only an extremely talented artist, but also an immensely fascinating human (or possibly alien) specimen.[divider]

10. Road to Perdition

 Written by Max Allen Collins, and published by Paradox Press (a DC imprint), and later released by DC’s Vertigo line, this crime noir graphic novel, was adapted into a film by Sam Mendes, the guy who gave us American Beauty, a film that is half great and half grating. Starring Tom Hanks in an against type role of villain (or at least villainesque), Mendes’ film is a dark, slick neo-noir, that may not hold all that true to the original novel (though Collins said he liked more than he disliked about the adaptation), but still keeps the original idea of how violence can destroy a man’s soul, quite intact.[divider]

9. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

Written and directed by the man who actually did the original graphic novel, Joann Sfar’s 2010 French comic book and film, is a surreal biopic of the late great Serge Gainsbourg, husband to Jane Birkin, lover to Bridget Bardot, and father (and possibly more) to Charlotte Gainsbourg. Since the film is directed by the author, there is no real problem with the adaptation. Actually it’s quite a fun film, using puppetry as well as live action. And it’s about Serge Fucking Gainsbourg!! How can that not be cool as all get out!?[divider]

8. Blue is the Warmest Color

This is actually a comic book I was unfamiliar with before hearing of the film. Yeah, there are a few things I am unaware of…but just a few. Anywho, after reading about the film (a three-hour French lesbian movie!? How could I not be on board!?) I sought out a copy of the book, and read it the night before seeing the film on a visit to Washington DC (it never hit my hometown of Harrisburg Pa, of course). I must say that the film verges a bit away from the book, especially in one major plot point, but both versions are still quite fun…if not a bit harrowing.[divider]

7. From Hell

The great, and batshit crazy, Alan Moore (my favourite comic book writer) has written some of the best comic books of all time. Several of these have been made into movies. Watchmen, the best Moore book and the best comic book movie adaptation is one of these, but that is a superhero movie, and therefore ineligible for our lovely list here. V For Vendetta is another, but as has already been alluded to in the intro, that was a great book that was made into a rather mediocre movie. And don’t even get me started on that horrible adaptation of Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. So, that brings us to the one Alan Moore non-superhero adaptation on the list…From Hell. Directed by the Hughes Brothers, the film does change a lot of what Moore had written in the novel (though not as much as the aforementioned Un-Extraordinary Gentlemen adaptation) but even so, it is a fun film. Moore, of course, hated the film, and had nothing but bad things to say about it. But what else is new? And yeah, no one, not even Zack Snyder, has managed to do Moore the proper way.[divider]

6. Persepolis

This 2007 French/American animated film is based on the wonderfully harrowing autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. Based on the author’s childhood in Iran, during the 1979 Islamist revolution, the film was a huge critical hit (tons of top ten lists, a Cannes Jury Prize, and even an Oscar nomination) and was also a huge political powder keg in many Islamic nations, as well as in some Middle American communities. A beautiful and quite haunting tale, in both comic book and movie form.[divider]

5. American Splendor

A life long autobiographical comic book written by Cleveland’s very own Harvey Pekar, with revolving artwork from the likes of Drew Friedman, Spain Rodriguez, Robert Crumb, and even Alan Moore, American Splendor is one of the finest series of comic books ever produced. The film, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, is good mostly because of the casting of Paul Giamatti as Pekar. Perfect casting has never been so…um, perfect.[divider]

4. Ghost World

Out of the ten comic books on this list, this one is actually my favourite. Obviously, in movie form it is only my fourth favourite. Written and drawn by Daniel Clowes, my hardbound special edition of Ghost World sits proudly on my comic book shelf. Esoteric and quaintly hilarious, Clowes’ ability to deliver such subtly subversive and quite funny fare, is kind of the guy’s trademark. This is the author’s best work (though one should definitely check out the rest of his oeuvre) and director Terry Zwigoff, though changing some things, does a swell job in turning it into a film. Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson, as Enid and Rebecca, respectively, give surprisingly droll performances. [divider]

3. Frank Miller’s Sin City

Much like Alan Moore, though not as crazy-eyed about it, Frank Miller is another one of those creators upset about his work being twisted around in adaptations. So why not co-direct the film adaptation yourself. Which Miller did here, with Robert Rodriguez (and a guest scene helmed by Quentin Tarantino). Miller is the guy often credited with giving Batman his balls back (although really, Denny O’Neil had already done so. more than a, decade before Miller’s Dark Knight returned) and his neo noir style (in both words and art) is a staple of his style. With Sin City, this gritty style comes to brilliant life, and the film adaptation manages to equal Miller’s powerfully drawn style. [divider]

2. A History of Violence

Adapted from the 1997 graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, this 2005 film from the great David Cronenberg, featured Viggo Mortensen in what may very well be the actor’s greatest performance ever – and that is saying quite a lot. Granted, Cronenberg’s film is very loosely based on the original comic (the opening scene is near identical, but the film goes further and further away from the comic as it progresses) but the basic themes of violence and how it affects people, is still quite intact. Oh and those sex scenes between Viggo and Maria Bello (including a cheerleader outfit at one point) are hot hot hot.[divider]

1. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Based on a series of comics by Bryan Lee O’Malley, this Edgar Wright directed film tells the story of a young man who must battle the seven evil exes, in order to win the hand of his dream girl, the lovely Ramona Flowers. Wright cast the usually insufferable Michael Cera as the film’s hero, and he does a surprisingly damn fine job with the role. And of course Mary Elizabeth Winstead is pitch perfect as Ramona. Wright manages to make his film actually appear like a comic, and therefore is one of the best page-to-screen comic book adaptations ever put to film. And I’m including all those superhero adaptations as well.

That’s it gang. See ya ’round the web.

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About Author

Kevyn Knox

Kevyn Knox is a Blogger, Film Historian + Critic, a Comicbook Nerd from waaay back, a lapsed Cartoonist, a wouldbe Novelist, and the Writer of All Things Kevyn. Born and raised in an amusement park (really, he was, we're not lying about that) Kevyn has spent time as a post-beat poet, a film critic, and that guy in the corner of the party, wearing an argyle sweater vest and a fedora with a Daredevil pin on it, and not talking to anybody. These days he can be found at his renowned blog, appropriately titled All Things Kevyn, a catch-all of pop cultural reference, tackling subjects from cinema to comics to TV to music to video games to pretty much everything and anything else that happens to pop into his head. Oh yeah, and he's just kookoo for top ten lists.