Skip to main content

Comics and Comic Books

Comics and Comic Books


Both comics and cinema had important forebears in the mid-nineteenth century, but they emerged roughly contemporaneously in the 1890s. Each medium was quickly adopted as a mode of popular visual narrative, sharing a common history of being perceived as inferior aspects of early-twentieth-century mass culture. While many film-makers sought to cast off these low associations through the construction of middle-class movie palaces and adaptations of classic works of literature, for the most part comics maintained their association with children's media. Thus, film underwent a thorough modernizing process, but comics, for the most part, did not. The history of these popular forms in the twentieth century can be read as film's rise from suspect technology to prominence as the most important art form of the age while comics retained their original degraded status and have rarely, albeit increasingly, been accorded the status of art.


The forerunners of comic books in the United States were newspaper comic strips, and filmmakers were quick to capitalize on many of their successes. Appearing nationally in the pages of hundreds of daily newspapers, the best-known comic strips were an integral part of the everyday culture of millions of Americans. Moving the antics of these characters to the screen was an obvious way to launch successful film franchises. Starting in 1902, for example, Biograph created a series of film versions of Frederick Burr Opper's Alphonse and Gaston comic strip. In 1904, Edwin S. Porter (1870–1941) directed an adaptation of Richard F. Outcault's Buster Brown, and in 1915 Larry Semon (1889–1928) directed a version of George McManus's popular strip about Irish immigrants, Bringing Up Father. Based on the comic strip by Chic Young, Columbia released twenty-eight Blondie films starring Penny Singleton (1908–2003) and Arthur Lake (1905–1987) between 1938 and 1950, making it the most successful film series that originated from golden-age comic strips. These films demonstrated the extent to which popular comic strips could be successfully adapted to the screen in the studio era.

Not all strips, however, were the subject of their own features. The ongoing nature of many newspaper comic strips, particularly action-adventure strips, were strongly suggestive of weekly film serials. Among the most notable strip that was adapted to the screen in this way was Ace Drummond, which became a thirteen-part Columbia live-action serial (1935–1940) based on the strip by Eddie Rickenbacker. Chester Gould's extremely popular strip, Dick Tracy, was the source for three Republic serials in the 1930s and 1940s, as Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon was for five Universal serials starring Buster Crabbe.

Serials also drew on the newly emergent comic book format. The first popular comic book characters, Superman and Batman, were created in 1938 and 1939 respectively, in the midst of the serial era. Batman was the subject of a relatively unsuccessful Columbia serial in 1943 and remained neglected until the 1966 television show and its spin-off feature. Superman, portrayed by Kirk Alyn (1910–1999) in a 1948 serial, was a larger transmedia success after the comic book had already spun off a newspaper comic strip, a radio show, and a series of animated short films. These Fleischer Studios Superman shorts were not the only animated films based on popular comic strips of the period. Beginning in 1913, Bud Fisher's strip Mutt and Jeff became the subject of more than three hundred animated shorts, some of which were directed by the cartoonist himself. A similarly enduring series of animated films was derived from the Popeye characters created by Elzie C. Segar. Fleischer Studios created 234 Popeye shorts between 1933 and 1957, making Popeye one of the most enduring characters in animation history. It is likely that the animated versions of the Popeye characters are now far better known than the original source material.

The adaptation of comic strip characters has continued despite the demise of the serial form and the cinematic animated short. Since the 1990s, many adaptations have sought to expand the typical three-panel daily gag into a full-length feature. This is often accomplished by filmmakers who attempt to capture the spirit of the source material without being faithful to the short's formal structure. Dennis the Menace (Nick Castle, 1993) strings together a plot from a variety of stock situations featured in Hank Ketcham's long-running single-panel daily strip. Similarly, Garfield (Peter Hewitt, 2004) expands on the primary themes of Jim Davis's extremely popular gag strip. Arguably, the most successful films of this type were the Addams Family films (1991 and 1993) directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (b. 1953), which were based on The New Yorker cartoons of Charles Addams. The success of these films, however, may be more dependent on the sensibility of the television show (1964–1967) that was also derived from Addams's work.

Strips with stronger continuities have also been the subject of feature films, often with palpable nostalgic feelings about them that are derived not only from the strips themselves but also from the derivative media. It is striking, for example, that three golden-age comic strips that were adapted as serials or shorts later became features. In 1980, Mike Hodges (b. 1932) directed Flash Gordon, an homage to both the Alex Raymond strip and the famous serials that it had inspired. That same year Robert Altman (b. 1925) directed an adaptation of Popeye using a screenplay by Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer (b. 1929) that stayed closer to the sensibility of the Segar comic strip than to the better-known Fleischer cartoons. In 1990, Warren Beatty (b. 1937) directed and starred in a hyperstylized version of Dick Tracy that paid close attention to the unique visual styling of Gould's comic strip.


The relationship between comics and film has been explored further by filmmakers inspired not by newspaper strips but by comic books. Since the end of World War II, American comic books have been dominated by the superhero genre, and the last decades of the twentieth century saw an explosion of superhero-related movies as major summer releases, beginning in 1978 with the version of Superman by Richard Donner (b. 1930), starring Christoper Reeve, and its assorted sequels. The superhero blockbuster was elevated to another level in 1989 with the version of Batman by Tim Burton and its three sequels in the 1990s and a fourth in 2005. Both film series were financed by Warner Bros., a division of TimeWarner, and based on characters published by DC Comics, another division of TimeWarner. These synergistic films set the standards for future superhero movies and were followed by a host of imitators, many of which were inspired by lesser-known characters published by smaller comic book companies. These included The Crow (1994), Tank Girl (1995), Judge Dredd (1995), Barb Wire (1996), Men in Black (1997), Spawn (1997), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), and Hellboy (2004).

During the superhero film explosion of the 1990s, the rights to many popular characters published by Marvel Comics were tied up with small, independent film companies that were unable to bring the characters to the screen. By the end of the decade, however, Marvel had regained these rights and began to license its characters in a wide array of films. The most popular of these were X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000 and 2003) and Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002 and 2004). Less successful were Daredevil (2003), The Punisher (2004), and the adaptation of Hulk (2003) directed by Ang Lee (b. 1954).

Despite the centrality of the superhero in postwar American comic book production, a number of other genres have been fruitfully explored, and many nonsuperhero comic books have been adapted to film. Children's comics, for example, have been the basis of several works, often nostalgically reviving classic comic book characters long after they had ceased to be published. Harvey Comics published the long-running Richie Rich, which was the source for a 1994 film by the same name, and in 2001 Archie Comics's Josie and the Pussycats was adapted to the screen.

In a very different tradition, the underground comics revolution of the 1960s resulted in a spate of adult-themed films rooted in their subversive style. Among the best-known of these works is Fritz the Cat (1972) and its sequel, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat (1974), by Ralph Bakshi (b. 1938). These were based on the character created by the cartoonist Robert Crumb (b. 1943), who was so appalled by Bakshi's films that he killed off the comic book form of the character in an attempt to distance himself from Bakshi's version. Post-underground comics were also the source material for films, including Altman's O. C. and Stiggs (1987), based on the National Lampoon–published comic strip, and American Splendor (2003), based on Harvey Pekar's autobiographical comic book series. Other adult-targeted works based on comics in nontraditional genres include the Jack the Ripper story, From Hell (Hughes Brothers, 2001), based on the comic book by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, and Ghost World (2000), adapted for the screen by Daniel Clowes (b. 1961) from his own graphic novel.


While the United States is a global leader in the production of films based on comic strips and books, it is hardly the only player on the field. In Europe, for example, while not as widely respected as cinema, comics are more widely celebrated than they are in America. Despite this fact, fewer comic book series have been adapted to film. In the 1960s, Belgium's most celebrated comic book hero, Tintin, became the star of two live-action films starring Jean-Pierre Talbot (b. 1943) as the intrepid boy reporter. Tintin was later the subject of a series of animated films. Neither series was particularly successful, especially in relation to the overwhelming global popularity of the comic books. Perhaps the most famous comic-book-to-film transformation in Europe is Barbarella (Roger Vadim, 1968), with Jane Fonda (b. 1937) as Jean-Claude Forest's queen of the galaxy, now celebrated as a camp classic. At the turn of the century, the highly popular Astérix comic books by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo were made into three French blockbusters: Astérix et Obélix contre César (Asterix and Obelix vs. Caesar, 1999), Astérix et Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre (Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra, 2002, and Astérix et les Vikings (Asterix and the Vikings, 2006). Similarly, Jean-Michel Charlier and Jean Giraud's revisionist western comic series, Blueberry, became a big-budget international coproduction starring Vincent Cassel (b. 1966) in 2004.

Another nation whose film culture is inextricably linked to its comics culture is Japan. The relationship between manga (Japanese comic books) and anime (Japanese animation) is very close, with popular comic books regularly transformed into animated series made for film and television, and popular films often re-created as comic book series. Exemplary in this area is the work of Osamu Tezuka, the most celebrated cartoonist in Japan, whose many works to have been adapted to film include Hi No Tori (The Phoenix, 1978), Shin Tetsuwan Atom (Astroboy, 1980), and Kimba the White Lion (1966). Among the most popular of Japanese transmedia hits are Akira (1988) and the Crying Freeman, Dragon Ball Z, Maison Ikkoku, and Silent Möbius films of the 1980s and 1990s, among hundreds of other examples. Hayao Miyazaki (b. 1941) is one of the most famous filmmakers whose works, including Kaze no tani no Naushika (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds, 1984), are available as both comics and films. Manga series are also produced as live-action adaptations, though less often. One example is Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's 9,000 page samurai epic, Kozure Ô kami (Lone Wolf and Cub), which was partially adapted as a series of six films between 1972 and 1974.


Artists like Miyazaki highlight the considerable overlap that exists between the realms of cinema and comics. A number of cartoonists have moved from the production of comic books to the creation of films in various capacities. As early as 1911, for example, Winsor McCay (1871–1934), creator of the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, was experimenting with animation in films like Little Nemo and then Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). Other artists have taken on specialized roles in film production. One obvious example of overlap is the area of storyboarding, a specialization pursued by comic book artists like Paul Chadwick and Howard Chaykin at various points in their careers. A large number of cartoonists and comic book writers have written screenplays, including Jules Feiffer and Frank Miller (b. 1957). Cartoonists have also become film directors, though less frequently. The celebrated Yugoslavian cartoonist Enki Bilal (b. 1951), for example, wrote and directed three feature films: Bunker Palace Hôtel (1989), Tykho Moon (1996), and Immortel (ad vitam) (2004), based on his comics La Foire aux Immortels (The Carnival of Immortals) and La Femme Piège (The Woman Trap). Similarly, Sylvain Chomet (b. 1963) moved from comics to directing animated films, including the Academy Award®–nominated short La Vieille Dame et les Pigeons (The Old Lady and the Pigeons, 1998) and Les Triplettes de Belleville (The Triplets of Belleville, 2003).

While it is less common for filmmakers to move from film to comics, it is not unheard of. Significantly, Kevin Smith (b. 1970) used his fame as an independent filmmaker to establish a side career as the writer of the superhero comic book series Daredevil and The Green Arrow, and Joss Whedon (b. 1964) created his own comic book, Fray, based on his Buffy the Vampire Slayer film and television series. Perhaps the best-known filmmaker to work in comics was Federico Fellini (1920–1993), who authored two graphic novels with the artist Milo Manara (b. 1945): Viaggio a Tulum (1989) and Il Viaggio di G. Mastorna (1992).

The extent of the exchange between film and comics suggests the shared ancestry of the two media and the elements that bind them as visual narrative forms. While film has greatly outpaced comics in terms of developing material for audiences beyond children, recent comics-to-film adaptations, particularly in the superhero genre, indicate that much of the appeal for filmmakers in comics is precisely this affiliation with children's culture. At the same time, it is clear that the stage is only now set technologically for a vast explosion of films based on comic books. Advances in computer-generated animation and special effects since the mid-1990s have allowed filmmakers to capture the sense of the fantastic that is a hallmark of many successful comic book series. New developments such as the digital backlot promise to push this ability even further. Interestingly, two of the first four films created entirely on digital backlots were based on comic books and directed by the creators of those comics: Immortel (ad vitam) and Sin City (2005), which was directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez (b. 1968) and based on Miller's comic book series by the same name. As film technology changes, the distinctions between comics and film will continue to decrease.

SEE ALSO Adaptation;Animation;Cartoons;Children's Films


Daniels, Les. Comix: A History of Comic Books in America. New York: Outerbridge and Dienstfrey, 1971.

Fell, John L. Film and the Narrative Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Gravett, Paul. Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics. London: Collins Design, 2004.

Jones, Gerard. Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

Sabin, Roger. Adult Comics: An Introduction. London/New York: Routledge, 1993.

Bart Beaty

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Comics and Comic Books." Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film. . 20 May. 2019 <>.

"Comics and Comic Books." Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film. . (May 20, 2019).

"Comics and Comic Books." Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film. . Retrieved May 20, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.