Comic books translate into big money once they hit the silver screen

By Mike Antonucci Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT) It would be easy to dismiss the new wave of big-budget superhero films, starting with this week’s “Daredevil,” as evidence that copycats are the most powerful people in Hollywood. But despite the impetus from hits such as last year’s “Spider-Man,” a string of upcoming movies may have less to do with a box-office fad than the intense grip that comic books now exert on the American imagination. Heavyweight authors, including Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, have woven comic-book themes into acclaimed novels. Writers from the book, television and film worlds have become enamored with scripting monthly comics. TV producers are as busy as movie executives in developing comics-based projects, including a 13-episode, Spider-Man computer-animated series that MTV expects to unveil this summer. Hollywood may simply be raiding comics for ideas, but the material it’s exploiting seems to have broader cultural clout than ever before. “There does seem to be an increased visibility, and perhaps, although I hesitate a bit to say so, even an increased degree of respect given to comic books,” says Chabon, who landed the script assignment for the second “Spider-Man” film. “There seems to be more regard for comics on their own, as well as a basis for other works of art.” Visual storytelling gives comic books much of their appeal and personality. It can also heighten the sense of relevance. “Comic book stories have big good-vs.-evil aspects. They make strong tales of morality when we live in such a cynical world,” says Rafael Navarro, a Los Angeles comic book creator and storyboard artist for TV animation. Novelist Brad Meltzer (“The Millionaires”) recently finished a writing stint on DC Comics’ “Green Arrow” series. He’s on the same wavelength as Navarro but puts extra emphasis on the attraction comics hold for the contemporary American psyche. “If you look at the popular notion of what this country is about, that has also been turned into a simple battle of good vs. evil,” Meltzer says. “Daredevil,” which opens Friday with Ben Affleck as the title character, serves up one of comics’ most valiant characters _ “The Man Without Fear.” It’s the first of three films this year featuring A-list stars as Marvel Comics icons. The supporting cast includes Jennifer Garner of TV’s “Alias” and Michael Clarke Duncan as one of the arch-villains. In May, the second X-Men movie rolls in with all the marquee names from the original summer 2000 blockbuster, including Patrick Stewart, Halle Berry and Ian McKellen. In June, “The Hulk” will arrive. Expect enormous buzz, partly because of director Ang Lee’s decision to make the Hulk _ a transformed scientist who becomes a confused, mega-powerful green creature _ an entirely computer-generated character. The real actors include Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte and Sam Elliott. These flicks are promotional dreams, capturing major magazine covers, generating constant Internet buzz and tapping into the multi-generational nostalgia for the way these Marvel heroes redefined comics in the 1960s. But there’s a further comics phenomenon that stretches to lesser known and “alternative” material. A movie based on a comic called “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” _ about the fantastic exploits of such late 19th-century characters as Captain Nemo and Allan Quatermain _ is headed for release this summer. Sean Connery is the marquee name, playing Quatermain. There also will be a theatrical release for “American Splendor,” an HBO-financed film based on the underground, autobiographical comics of Harvey Pekar. It was the grand jury prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival last month. Part of the bandwagon effect is a continual swirl of information about film projects that are in every stage, from merely being pitched as an idea to starting production. It was hot news recently when Chris Nolan (“Memento” and “Insomnia”) was identified as the director for the next “Batman” film that Warner Bros. is planning. Meltzer, who says comics writing gave him more status in a pitch meeting with Warner Bros. than his bestselling novels, thinks the big discovery for TV and movie producers is that there’s money in secondary characters such as Daredevil, instead of just universally recognized figures such as Superman. “Hollywood will suck any good idea dry,” says Meltzer. “This is the year of the comic book. If they thought the next big thing was going to be comics strips, we’d see the `Family Circus’ next year.” Even so, the breadth of comic-book material getting serious movie and TV treatment has been building steadily. Non-superhero material over the last few years has included “Ghost World” _ which was based on the independent comics of Dan Clowes and earned him an Oscar nomination for the screenplay _ and “Road to Perdition.” The superhero genre since the late `90s has included two “Blade” movies, a variety of TV animation that now includes the “Justice League” series on the Cartoon Network and a growing hit for the WB Network, “Smallville.” Comics material also flourishes in the most trendy corners of pop culture, from video games to eBay auctions, even though readership of comics is relatively stagnant. More intriguingly, its range of influence shows up in creative efforts such as the new 700-page Jay Cantor novel “Great Neck.” A main character creates comics that cast his friends as superheroes. The sensibility that connects all this comic-book overflow may seem elusive. The inspirational power is not. “These kinds of stories have been in every culture since agrarian times, in mythology, in religion, in drama,” says longtime DC comics writer and editor Denny O’Neill. “These are largely stories about characters who are recognizably human, yet bigger and grander and more magnificent. That’s really deep in the human psyche.” ___ ‘copy 2003, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Visit Mercury Center, the World Wide Web site of the Mercury News, at Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.