Monday, 20 August 2012

One Episode at a Time: The Secret Origins of the Comic Book Film

[Check it out: The following is a revised version of a paper I gave at the 2011 Carleton Communication Graduate Caucus on Neglected Media.]

Given the resounding critical and financial success of 2012's superhero films - The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Night Rises - it's safe to say that films based on comic books have reached the point of ubiquity, and have firmly solidified the genre as a staple of contemporary American cinema. However, in the exploration of the comic book film, scholars and critics all but ignore one of the most important developments in not only the genre, but film history itself: the motion picture serial. These serials, immensely popular during their time, have not been adequately explored in critical or academic discourse. Likewise, comic book serials are at best relegated to simply a footnote, but are more often ignored or dismissed. Nevertheless, these film serial adaptations of comics have heavily influenced groundbreaking television shows like Adventures of Superman (1952-1958) and Batman (1966-1968), as well as on the modern incarnation of the comic book film. Though the 1941 serial Adventures of Captain Marvel marks the true origin of the comic book film, my focus primarily on arguably the two of the most popular comic book characters and recognizable cultural icons: Superman and Batman.

Since their infancy, comic books and strips have been derided a lesser media, yet a source mined by Hollywood; during the peak of the film serial, studios as diverse as the “poverty row” Republic, and “mini-majors” Columbia and Universal, produced a significant number of serials based on comic books and strips - not just exceedingly popular superheroes such as Superman and Batman, but also ones based on police detective Dick Tracy and female investigative reporter Brenda Starr. Furthermore, the film serial has been often derided as merely children’s entertainment and yet, it is a frequently overlooked and important part of the American movie-going experience. Serials were often shown as part of a cinema’s block of entertainment, along with newsreels, animated shorts, and feature films. However, Ben Singer observes, “[a]lmost never screened in large first-run theatres, serials were a staple of small neighbourhood theatres and cheap second-run downtown houses” [1]. Never treated with the prestige of feature films, serials were in most cases relegated to second-tier productions, or “B” pictures, from the studios that produced them.

A staple in Hollywood film since the early Teens, film serials (another derided format) typically consisted of 12 to 15 weekly “chapters” of 20 to 30 minutes each (which also earned them the nickname “chapterplays”). The format dealt almost exclusively in melodrama, with an emphasis on sensationalism. In his book-length study, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and its Contexts, Singer defines the sensational melodrama, noting it places “an emphasis on action, violence, thrills, awesome sights, and spectacles of peril,” something that would remain a fundamental element in serials, and indeed, is still vital to action films today. However, the serials of the Teens were markedly different than those of the 1930s and 40s. These serials typically centred on women protagonists, such as The Perils of Pauline (1914) and The Exploits of Elaine (1914), whereas serials of the 30s and 40s were typically aimed at children and moved primarily into adventure-based genres such as Westerns, police stories, science fiction, and finally - with adaptations of comics - into superheroes.

These serials of the silent era developed a meticulous narrative structure to draw in repeat viewers. Singer notes that, “[l]ike the stage melodramas they replaced, American serials were an extraordinarily formulaic product. With few exceptions, the conflict between the heroine-hero team and the villain expressed itself in a back-and-forth struggle for the physical possession [...] of some highly prized object.” For the serials in question, this Hitchcockian MacGuffan object is typically a precious material, radium, plutonium, or some fictitious element needed by the villain to complete his or her evil weapon of mass destruction that would lead to their victory. Singer continues: “The serial’s bare-bones narrative structure – the repeated capture and recapture of the weenie [Singer’s preferred term for the ‘highly prized object’], along with the entrapment and liberation of the heroine – afforded sufficiently simple, predictable, and extensible framework on which to hang a series of thrills over fifteen weeks.” Again, Singer suggests that “[w]ith this design, serials encouraged a steady volume of return customers, tantalized and eager for the fix of narrative closure withheld in the previous instalment.” Typically, the ending of each chapter would find the hero involved a predicament in one way or another, whether it was Batman being faced with certain doom or Superman needing to rescue tenacious reporter Lois Lane. For instance, the climax of an episode might show someone in danger or seemingly killed – in chapter 10 of Batman, we see our hero plummet off of a cliff in a car which proceeds to explode. Yet, the beginning of the subsequent chapter would recap the previous episode's climax, now with additional material showing the hero’s narrow escape from harm. During the recap at the beginning of Batman's chapter 11, the audience is given information withheld from chapter 10 – before the car goes over the cliff and explodes, there is now a shot of Batman jumping out and rolling to safety.

Like Superman, Batman became a sensation soon after his debut in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939, and it seemed inevitable that he would soon make the transition from comic panels to film frame. The first big screen adaptation of Batman appeared in cinemas in April 1943 in Columbia Pictures’ serial simply titled Batman. The 15 chapter serial, starring Lewis Wilson as Batman/Bruce Wayne and Douglas Croft as Robin/Dick Grayson, sees the dynamic duo fighting the forces of evil Japanese spy Dr. Daka, played by Irish character actor J. Carrol Naish. Perhaps because Batman was only four years old at the time of the serial’s release, and not the cultural icon he is today, less attention was paid to remaining faithful to the source material. To appease censors and, likely, to boost American morale during World War II, Batman undergoes a fundamental change in character: In the adaptation to the screen, Batman is no longer a rogue vigilante, but rather an agent for the government.

In the serial, Dr. Daka’s nefarious plot involves turning citizens of Gotham City into zombies and perfecting a radium ray, to help defeat the allies in the war. Will Brooker notes that this incorporation of the war is “an imposition, by Columbia’s writers and director, of patriotic ideology onto [creators Bob] Kane and [Bill] Finger’s relatively neutral framework, using Batman as a mere ‘vehicle’ for contemporary propaganda.” [2]. He continues: “the choice of a Japanese scientist called Dr. Daka as the serial’s arch-villain added unprecedented overtones of militaristic racism to Batman’s agenda.” The serial’s flagrant racism leaves a proverbial bad taste in the viewer’s mouth, and becomes an unabashed piece of propaganda. Unlike the Captain Marvel and Superman serials, no time is allotted to the telling of Batman’s origins, giving the audience no motivation for Bruce Wayne to don the cape and cowl to fight crime, which further emphasizes the thinly-veiled intentions of the producers.

In 1945 producer Sam Katzman took a contract with Columbia Pictures to oversee serial production. Katzman has since received the dubious reputation sacrificing artistry for coming in under budget. Roy Kinnard suggests that Katzman turned out films and serials “as cheaply as possible for the sole purpose of reaping the greatest possible profit” [3]. After a couple of failed attempts to bring Superman to the big screen (initially by Republic in 1941 – a screenplay was commissioned, but DC Comics, then National Publications, pulled out at the last minute. The script was quickly reworked to become The Mysterious Doctor Satan, by the way), a serial finally materialize in 1948. Superman remains remarkably faithful to its source material, despite Katzman’s cost-cutting techniques. The majority of the first chapter is dedicated to the hero’s origin and his departure from the doomed planet Krypton; an origin that has been retold with almost every adaptation of the character. Where the serial departs most from its source was the creation of a new villain, The Spider Lady (played by Carol Forman). Kinnard observes that “Columbia’s serial formula involved light-hearted, gentle spoofing of the subject matter,” and indeed, The Spider Lady almost becomes a caricature of what critics would later term the femme fatale of the film noir: As The Spider Lady, Forman bears more than just a passing resemblance to Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in the 1944 Billy Wilder film Double Indemnity.

Perhaps the most remembered aspect of Superman is not Kirk Alyn’s winning portrayal of the eponymous hero and alter ego Clark Kent, nor is it Noel Neill’s tenacious Lois Lane, but rather the creative and unique way producer Katzman and director Spencer Gordon Bennett solved the problem of making Superman fly. The Captain Marvel serial, just seven years prior, convincingly had actor Tom Tyler fly through the air via the use of wire harnesses and rear-screen projection (and in some cases, what appears to be a costumed
papier-mâché model), yet the production team of Superman found a simpler answer. Instead of putting Kirk Alyn through all of these expensive and time consuming special effects, whenever Superman took flight, he changed not only from Clark Kent, but also into a cartoon. Katzman and company were not entirely off-base with this bold move; Paramount Pictures and Fleischer Studios enjoyed success (and an Academy Award win) a few years earlier with a string of animated shorts. However, those gorgeously animated shorts were done with care and precision, two things left behind for the 1948 serial. Kinnard notes that the “technique was so brazen, so audacious, that it almost worked.” Indeed, watching the serial some 60 years later, the use of animation for the flying sequences has a quaint nostalgia to it, though it is easy to see audiences being disappointed upon its initial release. Kinnard interestingly notes that since the character was “derived from a comic strip, and the animation might have unintentionally provided a link, however tenuous, with the character’s gaudy pulp-paper origins.” However, the animation is rather rudimentary, especially compared to the meticulously detailed Fleischer animated shorts, and much of it reused too often to be effective. Though, it is important to note that replacing a live actor with animation is a practice continued in today’s comic book films. In Raimi’s Spider-Man films and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (among many others), when the heroes take to swinging through Manhattan or flying above Metropolis, the actors tend to be replaced with CGI; it is just the technology that has advanced and the budgets that have increased.

Despite its short-comings, Superman became the most successful serial of its time, playing evening shows at “A” cinemas. Inevitably, the success of both Batman and Superman gave way to sequels. 1949 saw the release of Batman and Robin, in which original actors Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft are replaced by Robert Lowry and Johnny Ducan as the titular heroes respectively. And while it does not exert the overt jingoism of its predecessor, it lacks that serial’s sense of style and atmosphere. 1950 saw the release of Atom Man vs. Superman, which is in many ways superior to its predecessor. The principle cast returns, but it is the addition of Lyle Talbot as Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor that elevates this serial (Talbot also played Commissioner Gordon in Batman and Robin). Though plagued with the same problems as the first, and most serials – low budget, cut-rate special effects, rapid-fire shooting schedules – it is noteworthy for a variety of reasons, particularly with respect to the Superman mythology. First, the film introduces what Luthor calls “The Empty Doom,” a sort of prison that appears to exist on an alternate plane of reality, which bears a striking resemblance to the Phantom Zone, which made its debut in the comic book in the early-1960s, and again plays a crucial role in the Christopher Reeve Superman films of the 1970s and 80s. As well, one of Luthor’s ploys to eliminate Superman involves creating a synthetic Kryptonite, a plan rehashed for 1983’s Superman III.

Atom Man vs. Superman recaptured much of the financial success of its predecessor, though in spite of it, it would prove to be one of the last serials to adapt comic books. Just over a year later, Lippert Pictures released Superman and the Mole Men, the first feature length comic book film (although it can barely be called feature length given its scant 58 minute running time). The film, starring George Reeves, served as a test-run for what would become the incredibly popular television series Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1952-1958.

Once television had firmly established itself in the early 1950s, studios began selling their old serials for broadcast, weakening the box office draw for new serials. By the middle of the decade, the production of serials had ceased from all studios. Though in 1965, just before producer William Dozier’s Batman television series debuted, the original serial was re-released in cinemas as the marathon event An Evening with Batman and Robin, with all 15 chapters playing back-to-back. A generation removed, this re-release was popular among college students who would watch the serial ironically, enjoying the campy aspects of it all, similar to revival screenings of so-called “good bad” films such as Plan 9 from Outer Space or Troll 2. Indeed, it was the serial that was the biggest target for parody of the astoundingly popular television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward which ran from 1966-1968. That series played intentionally into the camp aspects of the comic book character at the time and spoofed many conventions of the serial, from the booming narration to the preposterous cliffhanger situations that would end many of the episodes.

In his book “May Contain Graphic Material”: Comic Books, Graphic Novels, and Film, M. Keith Booker suggests Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman “was an entirely new type of film, with no direct predecessors” [4], yet he neglects to consider the character’s long and rich screen history, from the serials to the television series. Indeed, Donner does pay tribute to Superman’s past by casting Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill in a cameo as the parents of the young Lois Lane (Neill also has a brief, but key role in Superman Returns).

Despite playing a vital role in the development of the genre, these comic book serials have already been mostly forgotten, and relegated to footnotes in academic writing; they remain largely unseen and ignored by today’s audiences. William C. Cline suggests that the serial has not received adequate acknowledgement due to its status as “the movie counterpart of the ‘funnies’ [...] entertainment for kids” [5]. True, children may have been the intended audience, yet to neglect serials is to neglect not only one of the most crucial aspects in the development of the comic book film - one of the most successful and important genres in cinema of the last decade - but also a crucial part of film history itself in need of reclamation.

Works Cited
  1. Singer, Ben. Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and its Contexts. New York: Columbia UP, 2001.
  2. Brooker, Will. Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon. New York, Continuum, 2000.
  3. Kinnard, Roy. Fifty Years of Serial Thrills. Metuchen, N.J. and London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1983.
  4. Booker, M. Keith. “May Contain Graphic Material”: Comic Books, Graphic Novels, and Film. Westport, CT: Praeger Publisher, 2007.
  5. Cline, William C. In the Nick of Time: Motion Picture Sound Serials. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., 1984.

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