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.