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