Oct 5 2011 3:00pm

Saladin’s Sundrarium: Four Fantastically Filmable Indie Comic Books from the 1980s

In recent years, science fiction, fantasy, and superhero movies seem to have shifted definitively from nerd fare that spawns the occasional blockbuster to Hollywood’s big-budget bread and butter. Before our current Age of the Geek, A-list productions in speculative genres were relatively few and far between. “Back in my day” my friends and I jumped up and down in anticipation of Tim Burton’s Batman movie, but even half-goofy fare like George Lucas’s Willow or Sam Raimi’s Darkman represented a rare enough scratching of an itch that we swallowed it uncritically, grateful for almost any swords, spaceships or supers that showed up in theaters.

Obviously, things have changed. Every summer more and more Marvel and DC properties come to life in multiplexes across the country. Massively popular young adult novels starring vampires and sorcerers spawn immensely successful film franchises. And franchises get rebooted and rebooted. By some estimations (including, to a degree, my own) this has led to a glut. Read the comments thread of any given sequel/reboot announcement and you’ll find geeks bemoaning the loss of a chimerical “originality.”

I wouldn’t dream of offering a formula for originality here. But I will dare to suggest that one answer to this perceived creative drought in the summer blockbuster might lie in adapting less famous material. If and when, not too far down the road now, audiences decide they don’t want to pay $20 to see Spider-Man v3.2, maybe they’ll be ready for these should-be projects:



Jim Starlin’s sprawling Dreadstar saga — part gritty space opera, part cosmic superhuman beat-em-up, part sociopolitical parable — spanned several graphic novels and regular series over the course of the 1980s.

The storyline followed the sometimes melancholic, sometimes swashbuckling adventures of the awesomely named Vanth Dreadstar and his crew of superheroic spacefarers. Vanth and co. battled the coolest cast of quirky villains this side of COBRA, culminating in the Lord High Papal — a cross between Darth Vader, the Pope, and the Hulk.

Attached Big Name who would make this awesome: Hugo Weaving as the cybernetic mystic Syzygy Darklock.



These days Bill Willingham is best known for his inventive series Fables, which mashes up an array of world myths with contemporary society. But, almost thirty years ago now, he was indie-famous for another amazing series that spliced dark fantasy with superheroes in an unprecedented fashion. One of the central premises of Elementals was that spectacularly grisly deaths attracted arcane energies that sometimes resurrected those killed. The heroes of the title — a female homicide cop, a Vietnam vet pilot, a philosophically brainy teenage boy, and a rich young Seattle woman — meet gruesome deaths via fire, air, earth, and water, respectively, drawing the governing spirits of those ancient elements, who resurrect them as supernatural superheroes.

As he does in Fables, Willingham mixes and matches myths and supernatural traditions and folds them together with R-rated contemporary concerns. But here he did it all with spot-on superhero trappings. Plus there just weren’t many comics where a Jimmy Swaggart clone creates a team of supervillains.

Attached Big Name who would make this awesome: M. Night Shyamalan. Yeah, I said it. Unbreakable is maybe the best dark superhero movie ever made. Go on and tell me how wrong I am in the comments.



There are things some fanboys might poke fun at in Richard and Wendy Pini’s beloved fantasy comic. It wears its hippie-dippy treehugging ethos on its sleeve. Heroes with names like Dewshine and Skywise, half-man-sized elves, get tipsy on dreamberry wine, and commune with nature as they face persecution from The Humans. I personally love this stuff, but not everyone does.

Yet ElfQuest is also a striated book, with veins of compelling dark and epic fantasy running through it. And every issue’s art showed a loving care that, back in the day, often seemed absent at the big two. The savage fury of the Wolfriders’ leader Cutter, the still more savage, hulking humans, the gorgeous way the linework shifts the first time we see the Sun Elves village, or the first time the elves put on armor… It’s all top-notch stuff, and it could be a blast onscreen.

Attached Big Name who would make this awesome: An all-star array of voice actors? I’d actually love to see ElfQuest as a big-budget, PG-13 animated feature. Hand-drawn if possible.

Hey, a nerd can dream, right?


Mage: The Hero Discovered

Mage was another myth/supers hybrid, a kind of urban fantasy epic by Matt Wagner. (Wagner also created Grendel, which I’d call a runner-up for this list.) It’s the story of average dude Kevin Matchstick, who develops super powers and, eventually, finds a set of super-companions on the streets of Philly, including a wizard, a ghost, and a teen girl with a magic baseball bat. Over the course of fifteen issues, Wagner unveiled a saga of truly Arthurian proportions while somehow maintaining an intense intimacy of setting and character. And he did it all in one of the most gorgeously colored, cleanly-drawn books of the 80s

Attached Big Name who would make this awesome: Josh Brolin as Kevin Matchstick.


While a couple of these projects (most notably Mage and ElfQuest) have gone a couple of blocks down pothole-strewn Development Road, none seems to have yet achieved quite enough momentum that we’ll be seeing them onscreen anytime terribly soon. More’s the pity.

These are, of course, just a few of the titles that saw successful runs in the 1980s via the direct market. Which of your favorites would you like to see onscreen, presuming Hollywood didn’t screw it up?

Saladin Ahmed was born in Detroit. He has been a finalist for the Nebula and Campbell awards, and his short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and podcasts. His debut fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon is forthcoming from DAW Books.

Paul Riddell
1. Paul Riddell
Most old-timers would suggest First Comics's "Starslayer", but the one I want to see was a supporting feature in both "Starslayer" and "Mars" in the mid-Eighties: "The Black Flame". Even with its superhero tropes, this was still the first actual _horror_ comic I'd read up to that point. (Of course, I'd still love to see a DC adaptation of "'mazing Man," so what the hell do I know?)
Paul Riddell
2. rich!
And why not Cerebus? Entire books of that *are* storyboards! Jaka's Story, f'r'instance?
Paul Riddell
3. outsidecounsel
I was just re-reading some old Elementals comics a week or so ago. They were quite well done, and a half-bubble off the usual and expected. I'd go to that movie.
Saladin Ahmed
4. saladinahmed
I only ever thumbed through Starslayer. IIRC the art was cool but I couldn't get into the story. Of course I was in something like 8th grade...

Cerebus could work, but again, I think it would need to be animated. I'm not a fan of computer animation generally, but I could see Pixar doing a good Cerebus movie.
James Felling
5. Maltheos
One that I would seriously love and that indirectly ties in with Dreadstar is Grimjack. I have often wondered why no one has decided to make it -- its a swords and sorcery/scifi mix that has to be seen to be believed.
Saladin Ahmed
8. saladinahmed
Maltheos: I only recently read Grimjack, though the character designs always looked badass to me. It was great fun. They could pull 'cameos' in the bar from other popular franchises!

egriffith: Oh, yeah, I dropped the ball on that one. Nexus didn't even cross my mind. Great book - esp. loved Steve Rude's art.
Ian Johnson
9. IanPJohnson
I know this one is from the 90s, but…

Bone would be incredibly excellent as an animated movie (or a series of movies!).
Drew Holton
10. Dholton
Okay, I have about Zot!, by Scott McCloud? I loved that series, combining it as it did humor, retro SF, youthful idealism etc. (Or as an alternative his Treasury Edition sized one shot Destroy!)
Saladin Ahmed
11. saladinahmed
I loved DESTROY!

At the very least, McCloud's UNDERSTANDING COMICS should be a documentary...
Saladin Ahmed
12. saladinahmed
Ian, I've never read BONE, though I've heard good things from smart people.
Paul Riddell
13. Doug M.
I'm one of those few strange sad people who don't like "Bone". The art is decent, but I don't think it works that well either as a dramatic fantasy or a funny story.

Yes, I'm reconciled to dying alone.

Doug M.
Paul Riddell
14. Doug M.
Bill Willingham sold the rights to "Elementals" to someone for a few thousand dollars back in the 1980s. (There's a backstory there, the details of which I don't remember.)

AFAIK the person in question has basically sat on the rights ever since, showing no interest in either doing anything with them or selling them to someone who might.

Doug M.
Paul Riddell
15. Doug M.
Mage Book One was a terrific high-speed monorail of a story; it grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and pulled you along for a wild, intense ride.

So it could maybe make a great miniseries or movie. But let's keep in mind that the whole urban fantasy thing was a lot more fresh and new c. 1985 than it is today. Creatures of Celtic fantasy erupting into a modern urban landscape... Buffy and Lost Girl and many others have already tapped that vein. To make it work, I think you'd need to emphasize the whole "Kevin refuses to believe that this is happening thing" that dominates the first half of the series.

Doug M.
Paul Riddell
16. Harry Connolly
Mage: The Hero Discovered was a pretty fantastic comic. It was the first indie comic I ever bought, and I loved it.

Mage: The Hero Defined was disappointing in contrast.
Saladin Ahmed
17. saladinahmed
If that's true about Willingham selling those rights cheap, that's too bad - though as a working writer I could totally see needing to go there in a personal economic pinch...

Doug & Harry: I think an HBO miniseries of the Hero Discovered sequence would be ideal. In terms of urban fantasy now being passe, I think Mage would need to a) emphasize the slow, inexorable arthurian destiny thing in a Game of Thrones-ian manner *and* b) do a good job of rendering a noir-gritty Philly the way the comics did. Less TRUE BLOOD, more THE WIRE.
Michelle Morrell
18. Vylotte
I love Unbreakable, it's one of my favorite movies and definitely one of the best superhero movies ever made!
Chris Palmer
19. cmpalmer
I've always wanted to see a Grimjack movie (or, given the nature of the books, Cynosure itself, and the Munden's Bar back stories - a TV series).

I'd forgotten about D'Arc Tangent and it's kinda sad to read why it never got past the first issue.
Paul Riddell
20. Eugene R.
Paul Chadwick's Concrete would work for me, probably as a CGI/live-action combination. Very little sf other than the title character, but the working out of the premise was as rigorous as any hard sf fan could ask.

As for a PG-13 ElfQuest ... what? No orgy scene?? C'mon! A little dreamberry wine and we're good to go.
Paul Riddell
21. Victor Von Dave
Hey Larry!
Badger was awesome! It was the first non-Marvel title that I seriously collected. Ron Lim really knew how to draw some martial arts action.
Saladin Ahmed
22. saladinahmed
Maybe Ron Perlman in Concrete, or is that typecasting?

@ Eugene: Yeah, I guess there were some R-rated touches...
Paul Riddell
23. Eugene R.
Hmm, the voice actor for Concrete? Talk about your need for a "gravelly" voice! Ron Perlman would be a good choice. I might go for John Goodman, too. Or maybe, to mix it up, Paul Giamatti, who can really catch a "frustrated" note and has some sf film cred (Cold Souls, and an upcoming performance as Philip K. Dick in a self-produced "semi"-biopic, The Owl in Daylight).
Paul Riddell
24. Kai in NYC
re Elfquest did you ever see this? Something to tide you over until the movie...

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